Why opponents of gentrification have taken to the streets of Hamilton

Vandals smashed windows on Locke Street to protest gentrification — but business owners, community workers, and residents say their actions only stifle meaningful discussions about the changing face of the city
By Chantal Braganza - Published on April 5, 2018
a donut being held up against a wall of graffiti
Donut Monster, in Hamilton, released a special lemonade donut after their Locke Street storefront was vandalized last month. (@donutmonsterhamilton/Instagram)



​Late one Saturday night last month, Reuben Vanderkwaak’s phone started lighting up with missed calls and text messages about Donut Monster, the bakery he and his wife, Heidi, had opened in downtown Hamilton in January. A few neighbours had noticed that the windows and glass-door entrance to the shop had been smashed — rock-sized holes pockmarked the panes. The night staff would be showing up there in a couple of hours to start working on the next day’s batches of donuts, so Vanderkwaak went over immediately to assess the damage. Eight windows were broken. “I thought there had been an accident,” he says. 

As Vanderkwaak headed along Locke Street, the central north-south corridor where Donut Monster is located, it immediately became clear that his shop wasn’t the only one to have been affected. The windows of a cupcake shop, a pizza parlour, a breakfast restaurant, and others had also been broken; beads of glass littered the street. 

Earlier that evening, around 10 p.m., a group of about 30 people in black clothing, hoods, and face-obscuring scarves had gathered at a nearby park and then made its way down Locke, throwing rocks at storefronts and smashing car windows. Some fired off what looked like flares; others dragged shopping carts or tipped over sandwich boards. A few held up a black fabric banner painted in white and red — “We Are the Ungovernables” — likely a reference to language associated with global anti-fascist demonstrations throughout the ’90s and early 2000s.

During the fracas, some bystanders shot photos and video clips on their phones and posted them on social media. By the time police arrived, the protestors had already stripped off their black layers and disappeared into side streets — having caused an estimated $100,000 in damages on Locke. A four-officer police unit was assigned to the case. 

Within a couple of days, people claiming to have taken part in the violence on March 3 were posting anonymously to anarchist discussion blogs, laying out their motivation for the vandalism: a deep resentment about neighbourhood development. 

“Every day — whether it’s the landlords charging ever more rent for ever shittier apartments, the boss pushing you to work harder, the business association lobbying for more cops, or just the Audi that cuts you off in rush hour — the rich make our lives worse,” one post read. “Every day we have to deal with their attacks on us, but every once in a while we can find a way to strike back.”


Gentrification, revitalization, urban renewal, displacement: these terms all mean different things in and of themselves but tend to bubble up together whenever wealth begins to flow into (or return to) a city or neighbourhood. The violence on Locke Street is an extreme form of opposition — one that, according to business owners, community workers, and residents, only succeeds in stifling more meaningful discussions about how communities can welcome development while addressing the harms that come with it.

When Kevin MacKay first moved to the city from Sarnia 25 years ago to attend art school at McMaster University, the downtown core was, as he puts it, “completely hollowed out.” Empty buildings, blank storefronts, very little foot traffic. “This was the early ’90s, the de-industrialization of Canada starting,” says MacKay, who teaches sociology at Mohawk College and currently serves as the executive director of Sky Dragon Co-operative, a community development organization in the downtown core. “Free trade was coming in. The big companies in Hamilton were packing up and leaving. The work forces at SteelCo and Dofasco were being steadily cut.” 

He’s quick to emphasize that Hamilton was by no means unique. “Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore. So many post-industrial cities had experienced similar things.” Their shared stories of local economies moving away from manufacturing — and the economic effects of such a shift — meant they were discussed and seen in certain ways by the urban centres surrounding them. 

“Hamilton’s reputation was not particularly appealing,” says Richard Harris, a professor of geography at McMaster, “and prices in Toronto at that time were such that proportionately more people could afford to buy there and commute the distance.” 

Over the past 15 years, though, circumstances — and the city’s reputation — began to change. Every person I consulted for this story has a different idea about the event that marked this shift: the proliferation of art galleries along James Street North in the mid-2000s; the opening of the lower city’s first Starbucks in 2008; the day average home prices in Hamilton Centre rose into the $300,000 range.

But most agree on the contributing factors. Escalating house prices in Toronto started to make the relatively affordable housing stock and up-to-90-minute commute seem more attractive. The post-secondary education and health-sciences sectors became big employers in the city. And on streets like James and Locke, a new wave of locally owned amenities and retail began to signal an upmarket shift: brightly lit brunch restaurants, specialty bookstores, and, yes, artisanal doughnuts. 

“We’ve certainly had this wave of economic refugees come in from Toronto,” says Bill Curran, a Hamilton-born architect who left the city for Toronto and Pittsburgh at the start of his career but returned in 2001. “Many of them are west-end creative types displaced from Toronto. What that meant was a lot of people looking for great restaurants, opening small businesses. We now have three or four animation firms in Hamilton, which didn’t exist before.”

What focusing on change at the street level can obscure, says Harris, are the larger patterns that led to them in the first place. “It’s no accident that the term Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area was coined about eight or 10 years ago,” he says. “No one talked about the GTHA when I came in in 1989.”

“Prices in Hamilton have gone up everywhere, across the city,” he says. “I’ve spoken to people who say that they’re moving to Brantford or St. Catharines and then commuting to Hamilton because they can’t afford to live here. So there is a general upscaling of Hamilton as a whole.”

Matt Thompson, a planner with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, avoids using the word gentrification when talking about the economic and social shifts happening in the neighbourhoods he works in. “It means 85 things to different people, and once you throw out that word, especially in the media, everyone gets their backs up.”

He prefers to talk about the concrete effect of those shifts that his work is centred on addressing: displacement. His organization works to address displacement among particularly vulnerable populations. “I’m seeing people who have lived in older apartment buildings or older houses and have rented there for a very long time, or are newcomers and need a four-bedroom home —Hamilton took a lot of Syrian refugees — or older adults who’ve lived in a neighbourhood for 20 years. In the last three years, prices have gone up astronomically.”

Two summers ago, Jeffrey Neven saw this happen to, he estimates, about half of the houses on his street in the city’s Crown Point area, which since the late 2000s has been classified by the city as a priority neighbourhood. “These sales were almost exclusively to families from Toronto. People who previously occupied these homes were in 100-year-old homes,” says Neven, who heads up a housing charity called Indwell, which builds and operates affordable-housing developments in Hamilton, Woodstock, Mississauga, and London. “Many were renters or single elderly women.” And although they may be homeowners, the latter can also be particularly vulnerable when property values more than double annual tax bills over the course of a few years. “If you’re a senior on a fixed income, as that escalates you can’t afford to meet it. Your income hasn’t changed.”

When his next-door neighbours — five tenants of a house split into apartment units — discovered last summer that they’d have to move after the house they’d lived in had been sold to buyers looking to convert it into a single-family residence, he tried to help out. He informed them of their eviction rights as tenants and assisted them with apartment hunting. “Most were paying $400 a month in rent because they’re been there for so long. And when you go and look for an apartment, it’s virtually impossible to find anything for under $800 to $900 today in Hamilton for a one-bedroom or bachelor.” Two tenants decided to share a one-bedroom in order to make rent. Another two, just days before their notice was up, still hadn’t found a place they could afford, and so were looking to stay with family. 

“I’m an executive director of a fairly large affordable housing charity, and I was still unable to keep these folks from becoming homeless,” says Neven.

When Krysta Boyer moved to Hamilton from Welland, she intended to make a short stopover before going to school and then relocating to Vancouver. That was 15 years ago. After volunteering with a number of public organizations, she fell in love with the city. “I felt like Hamilton was a place I could effect more change — where I needed to be.”

After earning a real-estate licence, she got involved in organizing an investment tour called Try Hamilton in 2016. “The purpose [that year] was to highlight Barton Street and Kenilworth Street,” she says. “The city, a few years back, rolled out some new incentives for that area because they wanted to encourage investment and growth, because it was plagued with a large number of covered storefronts, vacant or tenants living in poor situations with absentee landlords.”

On the day of the tour, in late June, Boyer kicked off the event at Tim Hortons Field with other organizers, real-estate investors from out of town, and members of the public. Before they were able to finish boarding the buses, they were blocked by 20 masked protestors, who were holding signs and started spraying the crowd with water guns loaded with spoiled milk. “They blocked our buses, chased the bus drivers away,” she says. “They were screaming at us.”

Police officers were called to the scene, but no arrests were made. In the two years since, both Boyer and Curran say they and other business owners along Barton and Locke streets have been targets of vandalism because of the type of development their firms represent. Frosted windows scratched with sharp-tipped items; locks glued shut with industry-grade adhesive; doors spray-painted. 

“I think there is merit to their concerns,” says Boyer of those opposed to gentrification. “I’m trying to be so careful about giving them validation so far as their actions — I don’t think these actions are meant to bring this issue to light.”

“Almost everyone who’s being negatively affected because of the housing-market changes here are not the people demonstrating,” says Neven. “They have no time to demonstrate. They’re busy looking for housing. They’re busy trying to sustain their lives.”

Nearly a month later, you can still see vestiges of the damage done on Locke Street in March. Plywood boards still cover the double-paned windows that haven’t yet been replaced; in one case, pizza boxes fill in the gaps left by makeshift window coverings. But along the street, too, are visible signs of support: chalk drawings on sandwich boards and on the sidewalk with the phrase #LoveLocke — a reference to an event community organizers held shortly after the incident to bring business to storefronts that had been affected by the previous weekend’s damage. 

The plywood boards that once covered the smashed windows at Donut Monster have since been covered with thousands of messages from customers, neighbours, and friends—“Talks, not Rocks. Love Wins. All is Forgiven.” Some of them, having been switched out for glass, now hang on the subway-tiled walls inside the store. On a recent Thursday afternoon there, maintenance workers in hard hats were lining up for sugary fried pastry; grad students in thick scarves typed away on laptops; a police officer took a coffee break; and two elderly couples, seemingly on a double date, chuckled over the idea of a ginger-and-sesame-flavoured doughnut. 

Three days after the store’s windows were smashed, the shop’s team pulled together a fundraiser for Indwell by making a special doughnut: every day for six days, it sold out by 9 a.m. In all, it raised about $5,700 for the organization. The flavour? Lemonade.