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Hamilton weekend vandalism incident highlights concerns over gentrification

Last Updated Mar 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm EDT

A recent rampage by a group of masked vandals describing themselves as "the ungovernables" has turned up the volume on long-simmering conversations around gentrification in one southern Ontario city. Steel mills are seen in Hamilton, Ont., on March 4, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

A recent rampage by a group of masked vandals describing themselves as “the ungovernables” has turned up the volume on long-simmering conversations around gentrification in one southern Ontario city.

Residents of Hamilton are openly theorizing that the weekend march by a group of roughly 30 people is the latest in a long list of attacks against the sorts of small businesses popping up with increasing regularity in the city previously decimated by the erosion of manufacturing jobs.

People who claim affiliation with or who openly support Saturday’s march point to gentrification and income inequality as a key reason behind the weekend activities.

Police did not respond to request for comment on Wednesday and have remained tight-lipped about links between the march and gentrification, but acknowledge there have been a rash of attacks in rapidly developing neighbourhoods in recent months.

No arrests have yet been made in Saturday’s incident, which saw marchers hurl rocks through windows while carrying a large banner that read “we are the ungovernables.” The incident caused about $100,000 in damage primarily to independent shops and cafes on a trendy city street.

Local architect Bill Curran said the vandalism on Hamilton’s Locke St. is the most extreme in a series of recent attacks on small businesses.

In a letter sent to the city’s mayor and members of the police force, Curran blasts police for allegedly turning a blind eye to the activity, saying small business owners had been predicting events like Saturday’s vandalism “for months.”

He characterizes the vandals as rebels fighting back against a tide of positive economic change.

“Hamilton is finally returning to prosperity after 30 years of poverty and low economic standards that followed the loss of the steel industry,” he said. “We’ve been all desperately craving this return to prosperity. But with that, some people are now taking the word ‘prosperity’ and twisting it around.”

What Curran sees as a boon strikes others as a blight.

A local anarchist group called The Tower issued a Facebook post Wednesday saying that it had no association with Saturday’s march but supported the actions.

“Class war is happening every day in this city, with constant attacks on poor and working people,” the group said. “The ongoing effects of gentrification in this city are heartbreaking – waves of displacement, growing violence, and intensifying poverty. You cannot expect for all of this to just be swept under the proverbial rug.”

An anonymous blogger purporting to have taken part in Saturday’s events expressed a similar sentiment on the website Northshore Counter-Info, saying the burgeoning number of small businesses has serious consequences for less affluent people pushed aside by the new wave of development.

“When prices go up and rich people move in, it means a chance to sell luxury goods (while we work for minimum wage),” the post said. “When more police and surveillance come in, it secures (the business’s) investment (while we get harassed and pushed out). They are getting rich because our lives are getting worse.”

Richard Harris, an urban geography professor at McMaster University who has lived in Hamilton for the past 30 years, said the wave of gentrification in some pockets of the city is undeniable.

He said the decline of Hamilton’s manufacturing sector, which began in the 1970’s and lasted well into the 90’s, chipped away at the kind of well-paying factory jobs that had long formed the backbone of the community. The situation got so bad that money lenders ultimately stopped funding development projects in the downtown core because they were deemed too risky, he said.

The city’s economy now looks radically different, he said, adding the primary employers are found in education and health care sectors. That shift inevitably changes the type of residents calling Hamilton home and the sorts of businesses in demand there, he said.

The latest census figures reflect some of that change. Statistics Canada found the median income level in Hamilton and surrounding cities surged 5.3 per cent between 2005 and 2015 to just over $75,000. That growth rate, while about half the national average, was the highest growth rate in the province of Ontario.

The city’s ongoing gentrification has also moved “in lock-step” with a similar trend in nearby Toronto, he said, adding residents of the bigger metropolis have been moving to Hamilton seeking relief from soaring living costs.

Harris decried the tactics used by the Locke St. marchers, calling them “misdirected” at small businesses who are not necessarily themselves run by rich people. But he said at least some of the concerns raised need to be addressed more constructively, adding the issue is found in gentrifying cities the world over.

“(Income inequality) is a very destructive force,” he said. “There’s a wide spectrum of people who would agree with that.”