Why Hamilton’s tiny restaurant is causing a big fight over gentrification

The Heather now has just six seats, but Matt Cowan’s micro-restaurant has transformed the Barton Village neighbourhood — and become the target of anarchists
By Michele Sponagle - Published on Jul 23, 2019
a chef preparing food
Chef Matt Cowan prepares 11-course meals using primarily local ingredients. (Michele Sponagle)

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HAMILTON — “Stay out,” advised fellow restaurateurs when chef Matt Cowan was thinking of moving from Toronto in 2016 to open a fine-dining spot in Hamilton’s Barton Village neighbourhood. The area had seen better days; the street was lined with derelict buildings and shuttered businesses.

But the 37-year-old, originally from Belleville, ignored them and launched the Heather, a 12-seat, fine-dining culinary destination. But despite glowing reviews and a full dining room, Cowan and his wife of three years, Meg, were ready to call it quits after six months and leave the city.  

That’s because the Heather became the target of anarchists who were concerned that the business could cause rents to increase and residents to be pushed out of the neighbourhood. They yelled threats at him and told him to leave, smashed his front window and twice plastered it with flyers reading, “If you build it, we will burn it.” 

In May 2017, a group of men gathered in front of the restaurant yelling “Your time is up!” Cowan, crowbar in hand, chased them away in just his underwear and a T-shirt. (Some of them were among those who vandalized businesses in another downtown neighbourhood, Locke Street, last March, causing $100,000 in damage.) 

But Cowan liked the grittiness of Barton. “Meg and I kind of got lost while we were scouting for a location and ended up in Barton Village. We were like, ‘What is this? This is beautiful.’ We definitely picked up on the downtrodden vibe,” he says. “But there was an energy in this neighbourhood I connected with.”

The two-storey brick building he was hoping to transform into his dream restaurant had sat empty for more than two decades. He was able to lease the building (and also live in the apartment upstairs) at a manageable price and to later take advantage of a $50,000 grant from the city for renovations.

In its heyday, Barton Street had been full of elegant turn-of-the-century buildings, homes for blue-collar workers from local steel mills, and a wide range of businesses, from butchers to greengrocers. When the steel industry declined and residents moved away, what remained was the shell of a once-vibrant area.

Cowan knew that starting a business in a depressed environment — never mind a fine-dining establishment with a seven-course tasting menu starting at $75 a person — was a risky idea. But he’d been dreaming of operating his own restaurant since getting his first job in a kitchen, as a dishwasher at age 14. 

“I've never been okay with going with the grain,” he says. “I've never been totally comfortable with going with the norm, what everybody else is doing, or what's expected. When we were looking at this space, everyone we knew told us to stay away from Hamilton. But I've seen enough neighborhoods revitalize and come alive again all across Canada. There was an energy here that made me feel confident about opening here.” 

It’s that kind of revitalization that leads to talk about gentrification. “In the simplest terms, it means changing the character of a neighbourhood through investment,” explains Richard Harris, a geography professor at McMaster University who specializes in the study of urban residential environments. The word, he notes, means different things to different people. “It has had negative connotations almost forever. Most articles written about it are negative and focus on issues like displacement of residents and higher taxes.”

But he feels that Hamilton is a long way from the scale of gentrification seen in cities such as Toronto, where the high cost of living in revitalized neighbourhoods has pushed people out of the downtown core. 

“It’s a concern that is overblown,” Harris says. “Gentrification is an easy scapegoat for many problems. Along parts of Barton Street, you had areas that were largely vacant. No one is being displaced. Fixing up buildings that are potential fire traps and health hazards to house businesses brings new life to depressed areas. It may be gentrification, but whether it’s good or bad depends on context and an individual’s point of view. But for Hamilton, it’s been a good thing.”

In the early days of the Heather, Cowan didn’t feel as if he had the support of the community. “I think they were scared to speak up against what they saw going on in the neighbourhood,” says Cowan. “They thought they, too, would be targeted.” 

“Matt certainly bore the brunt of their attacks,” says Rachel Braithwaite, executive director of the Barton Village BIA, an association that promotes local development. 

Cowan now offers 11-course meals (starting at $105 per person). He uses primarily local ingredients, serving up roasted rutabaga mousse with hazelnuts, finely chopped Mutsu apple, a carpaccio of white shrimp (farmed in Ontario) dotted with colourful sprinkles of dulse and togarashi, a Japanese spice mixture.

“It’s my food,” he says. “It’s a melting pot of my experiences in life. It’s memories of my childhood, chefs I’ve worked under, places where I’ve travelled and eaten. I’m also a cookbook nerd. Often what I serve is ingredient-driven. I’ll write a menu just so I can use a single ingredient I want to work with.” 

In January, Cowan brought the number of seats down from 12 to just six: Meg, who had waited tables and helped him run the Heather for two years, returned to working as a dietician, and he didn’t want to replace her. He closed down briefly for renovations to create a space in which he could operate solo. Diners sit at a counter overlooking the kitchen, which is no bigger than a bus shelter. 

He spends 12 to 14 hours doing prep and sourcing ingredients on the days he is open (Wednesday to Saturday, and Sunday by request). “I just want to make good food,” he says. “And to tear down the walls that separate chef and customers in fine dining.”

He was in the black in his first year of operation. Early on, it was mainly locals who came. Now, 50 per cent of his clientele is from outside the Greater Hamilton Area.   “He took a big risk,” Brathwaite says. “But I think that he knew his product was exemplary and that it didn't matter where he was — he would be successful. And he is, so kudos to him.” 

Barton Street is changing. New businesses have popped up — 10 in 2018 alone. There’s a casual restaurant, an upscale bakery, and a coffee shop, and more are coming. The historic Playhouse Cinema reopened in March, and new commercial space is now available in the restored former head office of Westinghouse Canada, which had been vacant for more than 30 years.  

“It’s not so bad,” one of the new business owners said to Cowan about the area. Cowan just laughed: “No one has any idea what I’ve gone through to be here and to stay here.”

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