“Where is our James Street North?”
The question came up at the panel discussion on the impact of arts and culture on economic development at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery last month.
Ken Coit, program manager of public art and projects for the City of Hamilton, was one of the panellists. Naturally, his presentation touched on the rapid rise, starting about 15 years ago, of his city’s James Street North as a thriving arts district, best known for the phenomenally popular “Art Crawl” that takes place there on the second Friday of every month. (The next one happens Dec. 14.)
It was another panellist, Beisan Zubi, community relations manager at Communitech, who invited the assembly to speculate on where a vital cultural quarter might emerge in our neck of the woods.
She cited the area commonly referred to as “midtown” as a possibility. Although it is hard to imagine something interesting happening on this stretch of King Street, dominated as it is by the Grand River Hospital, Sun Life and their vast parking lots, there are adjacent areas where the artistic endeavour could flourish.
St. Jacobs has some of the characteristics of an arts district, and a number of township locations could develop the same way: Ayr, Wellesley, Baden, New Hamburg … These are not, however, urban locations.
Hespeler is a special case. Among our region’s smaller centres, it probably has the most advantageous position. But this town that promotes its downtown as a village is part of the City of Cambridge, so it belongs in another category, along with Preston, Cambridge; and Bridgeport, Kitchener.
“Emerge” is a key word: This is not something that can be simply willed into existence. A fundamental element in the James Street North story is that it unfolded organically.
The Art Crawl originated with a cluster of galleries that decided to synchronize their exhibition openings. Part of the purpose was to change negative perceptions of what had become a rundown area. On the plus side was affordable space: not only rents, but sturdy commercial buildings with heritage features for sale at a price that allowed owner-operated storefronts.
Artist-run centres like Hamilton Artists Inc., HAVN (Hamilton Audio Visual Node) and Centre for Print and Media Arts anchor the district. There’s nothing like this here.