The Art of Creating a Neighbourhood

By: Nolan Matthews

On July 8th, 2011, members of a group called Artists for Social Change put up a series of posters on Hamilton’s James Street North that had the words “Deportation Is Very Ugly” above a picture of a mother and her three children. The mother, Silvia, was a refugee claimant from Slovakia, and the posters were a way to raise awareness about her imminent deportation and the discrimination in Slovakia experienced by Roma people like herself.

“We wanted to talk about the stories in the neighborhood that weren’t being heard, just as a way of bringing the whole community together so people didn’t have the perspective of the neighbourhood that it was just all these white, middle class artists,” said Michelle Reid, one of the members of the group behind the posters. “The stories there are much richer than that and much more complex and much more diverse.”

The posters were displayed to coincide with art crawl, a monthly event on James Street North where galleries and shops stay open late. Art crawl and the poster campaign are an example of the interactions that take place during gentrification; in this case, a new group moving into an established neighbourhood and changing the area.  Gentrification involves the displacement of a lower-income group, which Reid  and the other members of Artists for Social change actively try to prevent. Reid, and others like her, are what Japonica Brown-Saracino terms “social preservationists” [i].

Both social preservationists and gentrifiers are new arrivals in a neighbourhood,  but gentrifiers view the community as something to be shaped, and social preservationists try to maintain the character and make-up of a community. Social preservation has a role in Jane Jacob’s “generators of diversity,” the first of which is that a street should be used in a variety of ways by different people at different times [ii]. A neighbourhood that is poor lacks diversity in income levels and has difficultly satisfying Jacob’s first condition for diversity, because the wealthy use a street at different times and for different purposes than the poor.

By gentrifying a neighborhood, or introducing rich people into a poor community, a street of “mixed primary uses” becomes more likely. The problem then becomes the displacement of the poor, because their uses of the street leave as they do.

The Lister Block on James Street North

“The Notre Dame House, a shelter I used to work at, has received enormous pressure over the last few years to relocate, because it’s almost seen as an eyesore along James Street North,” said Riaz Sayani-Mulji, a recent graduate of McMaster. Sayani-Mulji also said that the Jamesville Community Centre, his former workplace located a block away from James North, went into decline before being closed and relocated last May. The Spectator reported that the relocation of Jamesville had always been planned, and that it was simply because of more opportunities in the new location. But Sayani-Mulji said that the gentrification on James North also had a role.

“I think it’s just a difference in priorities,” he said. “The city has made its commitment to this creative class and revitalizing the community through art, but that comes with a sacrifice.”

This sacrifice is the loss of community centers and the rise of galleries and coffee shops. The role of the social preservationist would be to resist the loss of community centers, allowing for the rich to move into an area and add their own uses without displacing those of others.

Part of social preservation involves deciding which long-term characteristics and groups of people will be preserved. The preservationists must have something that the original residents don’t, or the residents would simply preserve themselves. Every member of a community doesn’t have the same concerns, and inevitably social preservation will not be able to maintain every aspect of a neighbourhood. Some things will slip through the cracks. Because of the selective nature of preservation, it is important to distinguish between actions done “with” a community as opposed to “for” a community.

In 2009, an art exhibit called “The Hood, the Bad and the Ugly” took place at a gallery on James Street North. The main focus of the event was a series of photographs by Gary Santucci depicting female sex workers on Hamilton streets. The photographs were taken without the consent or knowledge of the women, and the exhibit sparked controversy [iii]. Santucci’s intention was to show that female sex workers are a part of the city that shouldn’t be ignored, but Dean described that the exhibit motivated resentment towards sex workers and neighbourhood groups formed with the purpose of finding ways to push them out of the community [iv]. As a result, Dean formed a working group called Big Susie with the goal of supporting sex workers by providing information for them and for the public to reduce the stigma associated with sex work and to promote its decriminalization [v].

Some of the women that Santucci photographed felt their privacy had been violated and their safety endangered, and in response he issued a statement of apology. Some good did come out of all this, in that attention was drawn to the lack of services for sex workers in Hamilton, but Santucci’s photographs present an example of how art made for a community, without the involvement of anyone from that community, can be harmful.  He saw a group that he felt he could do something for, but he didn’t provide the women he photographed the opportunity to voice their opinion on a solution, or even if they were looking for one.

In contrast to Santucci’s photographs are the posters of Silvia, the refugee claimant from Slovakia. Silvia and her family stood beside the posters and explained their situation to people who walked by, an opportunity that wasn’t given to the women in Santucci’s photographs. While there was still the potential for public backlash, Silvia was able to determine how her experiences were presented. The selective nature of social preservation could be prevented if  events like art crawl provided the opportunity for everyone in a neighbourhood to participate. When all people have access to the same services and resources, there is no need for social preservationists to decide who should access them. It is questionable, though, if the people who felt hostility towards the sex workers would have felt any less so if the workers had been present at Santucci’s exhibit.

The mingling of art patrons and sex workers is the stuff of diversity, and according to Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, diversity brings vibrancy. Having diverse groups of people living close together, as Schoon argues, is beneficial because the rich support more local businesses, public resources and services than the poor, who should, in theory, be able to take advantage of them [vi]. In addition, the interaction between diverse people may be helpful in generating ideas that are valuable in an economic sense [vii].

Schoon’s arguments make some intuitive sense, but just because people live as neighbours does not mean that they interact. Lees (gentrification and social mixing) describes several studies that find that an increase in neighbourhood diversity does not correspond to an increase in interaction between groups, and there is little evidence of other benefits to “social mixing” as well.

Hamilton City Centre is located in an area that is rapidly gentrifying

Beginning in 1994, the US Department of Housing and Urban development sponsored the “Moving to Opportunities” program, which sorted 4,600 volunteer families from high-poverty neighbourhoods into three groups: one received a voucher to move into a low poverty, more affluent neighbourhood; one group was offered a voucher with no restrictions on where it could be used; and the remaining group was the control. The movement of families to more affluent neighbourhoods was found to have no impact on adult income, at least in the short-term [viii]. The move to wealthier neighbourhoods did have some positive effects on mental health, and there were reductions in rates of violent crime for men and women, though property-related crime increased in males [ix].

The study of the “Moving to Opportunities” program did not consider if the low-income families had greater access to public resources when relocated in more affluent neighbourhoods, which Schoon predicts is a benefit of social mixing [x]. The services in a wealthy community will be services for the wealthy, and so they may not be useful to the low-income families that are supposed to benefit from them.

The “Moving to Opportunities” program didn’t increase the income of poor families, which suggests that, in the short-term, there isn’t a transfer of wealth from rich to poor when both live in the same neighbourhood. This could be because the low-income neighbourhoods are mistaken for the cause of problems like unemployment, crime and poor health, while the neighbourhood is instead a symptom for those problems, a conclusion drawn by Bridge, Butler & Lees [xi].

The research of Kling, Ludwig and Katz and the work of Bridge, Butler and Lees shows that changing a neighborhood is not a solution for the area’s perceived problems. If the consequences of Katz’s findings can be applied in the opposite direction, which is to consider the rich going to the poor instead of the other way around, then gentrification is not a solution to poverty or any of the problems that lead to poverty.

Randalph and Wood note there has been only limited research into the causes and consequences of social mixing [xii]. What remains to be figured out is how diversity can be beneficial and not lead to displacement. Social preservation can help stop displacement, but this is true only if it is done with and not for a community. Preservation is based on the idea that a neighbourhood is best remaining the way it is, but we should remain critical of the ability of the neighbourhood to, on its own, be a solution to poverty.

If the displacement of gentrification can be prevented, a neighbourhood becomes made of both high and low-income people. The problems that cause poverty will not be resolved by developing the neighbourhood further, which will cause displacement or, if that is prevented, make the needs of the poor increasingly unclear or irrelevant. Resolving the poverty of a diverse neighbourhood starts with considering the causes, and considering the causes starts with considering who is suggesting them. The people who should be suggesting the causes of poverty are the people who are actually experiencing it, and so resolving poverty becomes a question of how those living it can best convey their experiences. Art, in its definition as a method of self-expression, is how solving poverty begins so that Jacob’s vision of a vibrant diversity can be realized.

Creativity needs to move beyond the definition given to it by Richard Florida, which he even admitted “is a little bit elitist” and which “is creating a creative elite that is leaving the masses behind” [xiii]. Art and creativity need to consider the importance of communicating human experience, rather than economic gain, to shift the focus away from the neighbourhood and back to examining the needs and experiences of all people who live in it. What is needed is true social mixing that is not based on living close together but interaction. This could take many forms: it could be a neighbourhood publication that features the work of a range of people; it could be a gallery where anyone is free to put up their work; it could also be a community radio program, with facilities made available to anyone.

Art should be used to express the full complexity of a neighbourhood rather than to simplify it. A neighbourhood should be something that every one of its members has the ability to change.
Nolan Matthews is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Arts & Science Program at McMaster University.


[i] Japonica, B-S. (2004). Social preservationists and the quest for authentic community. City and Community. 135-156.

[ii] Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York: Random House.

[iii] Antwi, P. & Dean, A. (2010). Unfixing imaginings of the city: art, gentrification, and cultures of surveillance. Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action. 17-27.

[iv] Mohoney, J. (2009, July 29). The tragic tales of Hamilton don’t just disappear. The Hamilton Spectator.

[v] Sur, S. (2010). Amber Dean on Big Susie’s sex worker advocacy group.

[vi] Schoon, N. (2001) The Chosen City. London: Spon Press.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Kling, J., Liebman, J. & Katz, L. (2007). Experimental analysis of neighborhood effects. Econometrica. 83 – 119.

[ix] Kling, J., Ludwig, J. & Katz, L. (2005). Neighborhood effects on crime for female and male youth: evidence from a randomized housing voucher experiment. Quarterly Journal of Economics. 87-130.

[x] Schoon, N. (2001) The Chosen City. London: Spon Press.

[xi] Bridge, G., Butler, T. & Lees, L. (2011). Mixed communities: gentrification by stealth? Policy Press Scholarship Online.

[xii] Randolph, B. and Wood, M. (2003) The benefits of tenure diversification. Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

[xiii] Florida, R. (2012). Why creativity is the new economy.

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