Shift Change: A book review

Do artists and their art contribute to the displacement of poor and working-class Hamiltonians?

That’s the question explored by Stephen Dale and his book, “SHIFT CHANGE: SCENES FROM POST-INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.” He takes a look back at Hamilton’s rise and decline as an industrial city, but his main focus is Hamilton’s post-industrial re-emergence as a cultural hub for art, music and food.

An engaging writer, Dale brings together divergent, even diametrically opposing, voices through a series of interviews with people engaged in shaping Hamilton’s next chapter. He talks to anarchists, artists, activists, property owners, city planners, concert promoters and affordable housing developers. Hamilton readers will likely recognize all or most of the interview subjects and should have some strong opinions on the matters under discussion.

The topics in Shift Change — Pride, racism, vandalism, LRT, the housing crisis, the Locke Street riot — are all recent, ongoing and with raw nerves often exposed, especially around housing. While reading this book, downtown tenants are fighting a renoviction that activists say target “Black people and racialized people”. None of the issues Dale explores are settled.

Shift Change Book Cover
Available at  City and City Books on Ottawa Street North, at King W. Books in Westdale and at Epic Books on Locke Street.

The author comes across as sympathetic to artists and the small business owners who took risks to rejuvenate James Street North. He contrasts the local artist, often working and living in the same conditions as those displaced by gentrification, with Richard Florida’s Creative Class. Published in 2002, “The Rise of the Creative Class” argues that cities that embrace talent, tolerance, and technology are economically successful. He maintains that by attracting creatives, cities also attract investment. What Dale demonstrates is that the Creative Class caters to a more homogenous professional workforce in high-tech and finance (who may or may not be tolerant) and displaces poorer residents from their homes, workers and artists alike.

Dale doesn’t really answer the central question of art and artists preceding gentrification. Rather, he takes his readers for a journey through Hamilton’s industrial past to show how businesses and unions once offered support and aid to those who fell on hard times. He presents the loss of the steel industry and the large union workforce that went with it in the same vein as Robert D. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” which details the decline of “social capital” among American workers. In Hamilton though, Dale sees positive new developments in LRT and grassroots action even if he is less confident in the “magic ingredient” of political will.

If I have any reservations about the book, it’s that I think Dale romanticizes the characterization of Hamilton as a shirt-off-your-back city. There is no doubt that Hamilton is a place where neighbours help one another, but is Hamilton unique that way? I’m not sure.

The generosity of neighbours, co-workers, and the many institutions and organizations that assist those in need cannot substitute for jobs, opportunities and housing. Writing in late November, police have dismantled another encampment in a public park (following a fire) leaving houseless individuals with nowhere to go and their belongings destroyed. To be fair, Dale doesn’t suggest charity is sufficient, but to this reader there is the implication that the generosity of gritty Hamilton workers does ease the burden. Outside of some individual cases, I don’t believe that’s true.

Reservations aside, Shift Change is a valuable addition to discourse taking place in and around Hamilton as the city shifts and changes from post-industrial decay to whatever future those of us who live here can make for ourselves. Dale may help us get there by presenting the voices of artists and anarchists respectfully and without demonizing either of them. Not everyone will be pleased by this book, but for those who have been in the trenches fighting for or against the changes convulsing Hamilton, Dale provides an opportunity to take stock and reassess where we’re headed.

SHIFT CHANGE: SCENES FROM POST-INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION is available at  City and City Books on Ottawa Street North, at King W. Books in Westdale and at Epic Books on Locke Street.

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