I was tempted to touch this topic last year but decided against it. Anarchists in Hamilton are a relatively small problem. They usually pester the city with graffiti and anti-gentrification stickers but have remained mostly moderate and quiet. This past weekend the group crossed a line and put action to their ideas. On Saturday night upwards to 30 masked individuals marched down Locke Street. They carried a flag with the slogan “We Are The Ungoverned”, shouted and blocked traffic, and then damaged over $100k in vehicles and property. This small group has escalated into a more serious issue for the city. Welcome anarchists, you’ve entered the news cycle and caught our attention. Let’s talk.
I want to give the anarchists a fair chance. I’m going to first describe the situation from how I imagine that they perceive it. If any anarchists are reading this and think that I get something fundamentally wrong about their view point or about gentrification send me an email to the address that I link at the bottom, or comment on this post. I will do my best to correct it.
There are two main types of “anarchists” in Hamilton. The first is simply a criminal and trouble maker. They hate the government and the rest of society for their own personal reasons and they don’t really base their motives on ideology. These people we can ignore for the purpose of this article. The second type of anarchist is politically or ideologically motivated. They base their understandings in a framework that is typically anti-capitalist and anti-government. They think that the power structures in place are designed to suppress the working class and the poor of society. They see upward mobility as a sham and view their own position in the class structure as alienated and illegitimate.
More nuanced anarchists in Hamilton protest against capitalism and power but more specifically they are against the gentrification of the city. Gentrification is complicated. Its critics argue that it alienates and dislocates the poor. They argue that when you do something, like renovate an apartment complex, that this will attract the middle and upper classes to move into that neighbourhood. When people with more money move into a neighbourhood this attracts new businesses, restaurants, and further developments. This process continues which then causes rent, as well as the price of goods and services, to go up in an area. This pushes the poor away and potentially uproots locals who have lived there for many years. This chart below outlines some of the positives and negatives of gentrification.
Source: Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, Gentrification Reader, p. 196. © 2008 Routledge.; Rowland Atkinson and Gary Bridge, eds., Gentrification in a Global Context: the New Urban Colonialism, p. 5. © 2005 Routledge.
Gentrification is real. Many cities, face this problem. By shifting or growing wealth within communities this can have potentially negative side effects on the poorest residents in those areas. Hamilton is in a period of growth and revitalization. After years of almost abandonment the downtown core is renovating, building new condo towers, getting new bars and coffee shops, and attracting more small businesses. Hamiltonians are moving in and new residents are coming from across Ontario to these exciting new living spaces. For most in the city this is seen as a huge victory. For the anarchists this is interpreted as a period of harmful gentrification. One in which the capitalist system excludes and dislodges the working class of the city in favour of the middle and upper classes. The anarchists might not be wrong. It is theoretically plausible that gentrification leaves some of the poorest residents worse off.
So then we must ask ourselves three questions:
- How big of a problem is gentrification?
- What can be done to help the poor?
- Are the anarchists helping?
Gentrification is not the boogeyman.
Hamilton, as all cities do, is constantly evolving. It has had waves of immigration, industry, and economic cycles, which has shifted and altered the layout of wealth and class within the city. Businesses grow, neighbourhoods rise and fall, ethnic groups move locations, and new developments change the structure of the region. Hamilton is not static. Some change, shift, or cycle over time is bound to move populations in different directions, at different speeds, and with various salience.
Right now Hamilton is growing. Infrastructure is being rebuilt. New communities are emerging. Older neighborhoods are reimagining themselves. More restaurants are opening up. Art is everywhere. Transit is getting better. Life in the city is improving, modernizing, and opening doors for the overwhelming majority of the population.
In this process some neighbourhoods will become gentrified. However the actual harm caused by gentrification is questionable. In multiple studies over the years researchers have found that consequences of gentrification are often exaggerated and managable.
In their 2010 paper, Ingrid Gould Ellen and Katherine M. O’Regan, two researchers at the Furman Center, found that “The picture our analyses paint of gentrification is one in which original residents are much less harmed than is typically assumed. They do not appear to be displaced in the course of change; they experience modest gains in income during the process, and they are more satisfied with these neighbourhoods in the wake of the change.” (1)
Describing a comprehensive 2015 report based in Philadelphia, Michael Lewin, assistant professor at Touro Law Center, said that “In sum, it appears that at least in Philadelphia, many gentrification-related stereotypes are not consistently true. Low-credit score residents of gentrifying tracts were not especially mobile, nor did they always move to poorer areas when they did move.” (2) The report itself also found that “gentrification is associated with some positive changes in residents’ financial health…”(3)
Many studies conclude with similar findings. Yes gentrification is real, and yes some of the most vulernable residents are at times negatively affected, but over all the consequences and risks associated with gentrification seem to be exaggerated. Most people are not harmed and many people actually benefit from the changes.
Some suggest that it’s not necessarily the economic realities that instill resentment, but rather it’s the change in environment. Jarrett Murphy from City Limits argues that “A change in the feel of the neighbourhood is often at the heart of the anxiety that accompanies development: beloved businesses close, the culture of a neighbourhood shifts.” (4) People hate to see their hometown change. Especially if their favourite coffee shop is replaced by another Starbucks. But the reality of the research is suggesting that often the good of gentrification outweighs the bad. People are generally better off when their communities gentrify.
We still need to help the poor.
Even though the danger of gentrification is not as serious of a problem as is often assumed or suggested, it is still present. Some of the poorer residents will be affected. There are really only two options. Either never improve and renovate aging neighbourhoods, or do so in ways that account for the consequences by proactively helping those most vulernable. It should be obvious why never renovating is not a wise or sustainable model but maybe a few words are warranted.
Cities evolve, and hopefully, improve. People want to create new businesses, advance infrastructure, create more sustainable housing, develop more eco-friendly technologies, and build healthy and modern spaces to live in and flourish. A neighbourhood that is falling apart should not be abandoned or left outdated simply because some of its residents don’t feel like seeing it change. Sustainable and ethical economic progress is healthy and should be encouraged.
Development is generally good but gentrification can still cause some problems therefor cities must plan accordingly for any consequences and ripple effects. At UC Berkeley researchers found that the right policy, planning, and organization can have significant effects in stabilizing the consequences of change. They found that “Many of the cases have shown remarkable stability, largely due to strengths of local housing policy, community organizing, tenant protections and planning techniques.”(5)
One key factor that helped was access to income-restricted and/or low-income housing. If a city is aware that gentrification is happening, especially if it is happening quickly, it is important to have housing opportunities available for the most financially vulnerable residents. Another important factor is zoning. Building height or business restrictions in certain areas can reduce the amount of low level residences that are demolished for larger structures. (6) The important variable here is planning. Cities need to be aware of changes and organize accordingly. The poor must be factored into the policy making for any areas experiencing gentrification. When cities plan ahead the consequences are greatly reduced.
The anarchists aren’t helping.
I drove down Locke Street on Sunday night and saw windows boarded up and some debris still scattered. The anarchists were right to notice that gentrification is happening in Hamilton. Their solution was to destroy vehicles, attack small businesses, and vandalize public property. One of them appears to have posted anonymously online explaining why they did it. They wrote, “Locke St was downtown’s first gentrified street, its “success story” as Mayor Fred might say, the surrounding neighbourhoods the first to see the rent hikes that have since come to dominate so many of our lives. Turning the tables and finally counterattacking Saturday night helped me to shake off some of the fear and frustration that build up when you’re trapped in a hopeless situation. May the rich remember that they are still within the reach of all the people they fuck over.”(7)
I interviewed an anonymous source who witnessed the vandalism. She decribed a mass of people, likely aged 20-30, that attacked stores and vehicles as they marched. They had a shopping cart to hold items, a large flag, fireworks, eggs to throw, and faces covered. “It was like a storm came through the area, everyone hunkered down in restraurants where we felt safest and just watched from the windows until the ‘storm’ passed.” After they dispersed the police and journalists arrived. “It started to sink in for my friends and I that what just happened was pretty unique and a big deal and no matter what we would never be able to retell the story well enough to convey the intensity of what just happened.” I can’t speak for the anarchists. I can’t know their personal experiences. But I can make some general comments and hopefully connect with them.
First I am sorry that it has come to this. I am sorry that you feel this disillusioned with the city and your community that you think violent rebellion and vandalism is the only answer. I am sorry if your life experiences have alienated you and if the changes in Hamilton have left you worse off. If gentrification has harmed your well-being then that honestly really sucks. I genuinely hope your situation and luck improves. No one should be stifled by progress. Growth and development in the city should help and lift all, not leave people behind.
Second. The solution to the consequences of gentrification is not throwing eggs and attacking local cafes. This helps no one. Planning, better organization, and proper policy will help the poor. Not breaking the windows of a small Hamilton buisness. If your real protest is about the problems inherent within capitalism then hey I get it. I could write for days about the downsides of globalised neoliberal capitalism ranging from the exploitation of the poor to its complete failure to protect the environment. But what is your plan? Is vandalism on Locke going to throw off the chains of capitalist oppression? Is it going to lead to the proletariat revolution? What actual policy do you recommend moving forward? What actual plan do you have for Hamilton? Do you think all of Locke, John, or Barton is just going to pack up and leave because you scared them out? And if so, then what?
Maybe you have some legitimate well researched recommendations to back up your ideas that we all just don’t know about. But to me it’s rather obvious that you don’t have any tangible plans. Again I can’t speak for you, I can only speculate. But to me it seems obvious that you’re angry, that you feel hopeless, and that you don’t know how to express it. You blame cafes, restaurants, and people more successful than you for your own problems. You are stuck, confused, disillusioned, and you are blaming the World for it. I can only recommend that you take this moment in your life to reflect and create some real change in yourself. Life isn’t fair and sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand. But the enemy is not Locke Street, it’s not the people going to restaurants, it’s not the new condos, it’s not the renovations and developments in the city.
Real problems do exist. Our system is nowhere near perfect. Our society has much room to improve. But what happened on Locke Street is not the solution. Violence and vandalism is not the answer. You’ve made your noise. You’ve let out some anger. Now it’s time to grow up.
(Written by Daniel Govedar, March 2018)
- Ellen, Ingrid Gould and O’Regan, Katherine M., How Low Income Neighborhoods Change: Entry, Exit and Enhancement (September 1, 2010). US Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies Paper No. CES-WP- 10-19.
- Ding, Lei and Hwang, Jackelyn and Divringi, Eileen, Gentrification and Residential Mobility in Philadelphia (2015-10-15). FRB of Philadelphia Working Paper No. 15-36.