Creative class struggle

Gentrification and sex work in Hamilton’s downtown core

The Mixed Media gallery.

Two downtown neighbourhoods in Hamilton, Ontario – James St. North and Landsdale – have recently been the site of several skirmishes in a gentrification war waged in the media, art galleries and on the streets themselves.

James St. North is the vibrant hub of a burgeoning arts community. Busy cafés and bars owned by Portuguese and Italian immigrants who have called the neighbourhood home for decades sit next to swanky new art galleries showcasing the work of local artists. Just east lies the Landsdale neighbourhood, home to some of Hamilton’s poorest residents, including sex workers and other people living or working on the streets. These two neighbourhoods have become focal points of a fiery debate on surveillance, gentrification and the division of public space within Hamilton’s downtown core.

Exemplified by two art exhibits and the media coverage that surrounds them, the debate over the right to space in Hamilton reflects similar gentrification struggles being waged in cities across the country in pursuit of sanitized downtown cores pandering to a “creative class” of young urban professionals (for more info on the creative class, click here).

In May 2008, creative class theorist Richard Florida was the keynote speaker at Hamilton’s day-long economic summit. The Hamilton Spectator reported his proclamation that “you can’t help but be part of a boom, you can’t really miss,” given Hamilton’s location in the cross-border “mega-region” that Florida described as stretching from Waterloo, through Montreal and Toronto, and into New York state. It was the city’s first economic summit, with more than 125 of “Hamilton’s most powerful voices in business, the arts, government, social services, health and education” in attendance, who called for a reinvention of Hamilton’s image within three to five years, according to the Spectator. The city of Hamilton began full-force promotion of the Hamilton Creative City Initiative to support the creative economy in 2009.

James Street North

Gentrification in Hamilton’s core

To support the business of art, Hamilton’s downtown core has been subject to various efforts to “clean up” the streets, including the introduction of 24-hour video surveillance, increased police foot patrols, and legal and illegal evictions from heritage buildings to make way for businesses serving young, hip consumers. As developers work to re-create space for the incoming creative class, people living in poverty, who have long resided in the downtown core, are being forced out. The neighbourhoods of James St. North and Gore Park, the heart of downtown Hamilton, have borne the brunt of these changes – both neighbourhoods feature a special police foot patrol, 24-7 video surveillance and more assigned police presence than any other area of the city.

Public discussion around the cleansing of the downtown core has been especially disdainful towards sex workers. Articles in the Hamilton Spectator have cited sex workers, along with other perceived evils like high crime rates, panhandling, unsightly businesses and loiterers, as barriers to a thriving downtown economy. One Spectator article, describing the eviction of tenants from the historic Hotel Hamilton to make room for creative entrepreneurs and a trendy coffee shop, noted that the building “had ended up as a rundown boarding house that spawned numerous complaints from nearby merchants and residents about prostitution and hardcore drugs.” Similar articles, notable for the consistent exclusion of the voices of the people implicated, have suggested more policing, a ban on social services and the creation of a pedestrian mall as possible solutions.

In nearby Landsdale, prostitution and drugs have been cited as problems of “epidemic” proportion, and blame for everything from low property values to building abandonment and demolition has been attributed to the “decay” of the downtown core. In an article for H Mag in May 2010, landlord Julie Gordon expressed her sense of urgency in pursuing efforts to cleanse the downtown: “the status quo in Hamilton is unacceptable… if we do nothing the social climate in Hamilton will not stay the same. It will deteriorate.” Gordon went on to express her desire for “a safe home, good neighbours and pleasant surroundings” in the inner city. Like many of downtown’s wealthier and more powerful citizens, she cited the threats to this ideal as “prostitutes, drug-users and the homeless.”

Amber Dean, a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University and resident of the Landsdale neighbourhood, described her experiences with the neighbourhood association as alienating. “It felt like to voice an opinion that differed from the majority there was just too risky, and that my input wouldn’t be valued,” Dean said. She recalls her impression that their goal was “to clean up the neighbourhood, and that this meant getting rid of anyone the association deemed ‘undesirable.’ There seemed to be little understanding of the effects of poverty or injustice, and little willingness to consider the bigger issues that were at stake.” After a few meetings, Dean stopped attending. “Their law-and-order agenda seemed unshakable,” she explained.

It’s an all-too-common case of gentrification, where class divisions determine the division and use of public space. Gentrification displaces poor and marginalized populations from physical and cultural spaces, and transforms them into spaces used exclusively by the more affluent. In a city where class divisions between white and racialized groups, men and women, able and disabled persons and cisgendered and transgendered persons are magnified, the wealthier class that moves into a gentrified space is inevitably predominantly white, male, able and cisgendered. While it is difficult to count the number of people displaced by gentrification – they are necessarily not around to be counted – it can be helpful to examine the ways that space and the discourses around space have been transformed to meet the needs of the wealthy.

The Pearl Company

The creative crass: Moral outrage as art

The transformation of space by and for a wealthier class in Hamilton is exemplified by the recent work of local “poverty porn” artists, most notably Gary Santucci, whose surveillance and slide show project “The Hood, The Bad and The Ugly” was exhibited at You Me Gallery in September 2009, and Larry Strung, whose April 2010 exhibition at a nearby gallery was called “A Child of God.” Both exhibits consisted largely of photos of women presumed to be doing sex work. Both were collections of images of women in the Landsdale neighbourhood, exhibited in the James St. North neighbourhood. And both shed light on the invasive, forceful and colonizing nature of gentrification in the city.

Santucci’s exhibit was a slide show presented on several TV screens which displayed photos of several different women – some whose faces could be identified – who were photographed standing alone on the corner near his Landsdale gallery and performance space, The Pearl Company. One photo showed a partially nude woman seeking privacy to urinate behind a building. The photos were taken from surveillance cameras mounted on the walls and roof of the gallery and from Santucci’s personal camera, shot from the third-story window of the gallery. “Something must be done,” exclaimed a caption on one screen.

Strung’s exhibit included a series of framed portrait-style photographs of a woman whom he met on the same corner outside The Pearl Company, using drugs in her apartment. The accompanying narrative described the woman as a prostitute and addict who could be saved from her destructive lifestyle by faith and prayer. It included her home address and described Strung’s disappointment in her reluctance to model for him after he offered her $20. The narrative accompanying the photos struck a familiar chord with one local sex worker I spoke to, who likened Strung’s description of the photo shoot – watching the woman so she wouldn’t “run off,” and being unwilling to leave after an hour because he didn’t get the photo he wanted – to the disrespectful ways clients talk about street workers on Internet message boards.

It was a stunning juxtaposition of the experiences of women who do sex work and the experience of a privileged male artist who saw a sex worker as a blank slate for his artistic and ideological expression. What for sex workers is an issue of labour and human rights – negotiating with clients, maintaining privacy, adequate pay for their work, the right to refuse service – was transformed by the exhibit into an attitude of ownership and occupation. Given the dynamics of a white man photographing a black woman in the context of gentrification and the criminalization of sex work, the colonization of sex workers’ cultural space is palpable in these images and the spectacle of their display.

In both cases, the demeaning portrayal of women doing sex work in the Landsdale neighbourhood was presented for viewing by people frequenting the James St. North neighbourhood, where the ownership of public and private space by the affluent has been more or less secured. The surveillance style of the art in both exhibits juxtaposes the privileged position of the artists as entitled to the space with the sex worker subjects as persons whose right to privacy in public space and even their own living quarters has been usurped. This invasion was coupled with a lack of consent. In the case of Santucci’s exhibit, the sex workers he photographed were unaware of his surveillance. Those who found out were very distressed, whether they were featured in the exhibit, or just familiar with the corner as one of their workplaces. The woman in Strung’s exhibit consented to be photographed after what his own narrative described as months of pressure: he asked her to model for him every time he saw her, and eventually she agreed to do so for a paltry $20 payment. Activists contested the ethics of displaying Santucci’s images without the models’ consent, and in the case of the “Child of God” exhibit, were successful in convincing the artist and the gallery to remove the photos.

The controversy surrounding these two exhibits brings to light the politics of space, location and displacement at play in the surrounding communities. Keeping in mind that “space” is often as cultural and emotional as it is physical, we see gentrification at work in these images. From the streets where sex workers and other unvalued or criminalized labourers work to the cultural dialogue about the display of images of sex workers’ bodies, space is made over to attract wealthier and more powerful classes.

Young men pose beneath the video surveillance warning sign on James St. N. They spoke about resistance to, and white privilege within, surveillance culture, acknowledging the systems of classism and racism that criminalize their assembly in this space.

Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act

“The Hood, the Bad and the Ugly” remained in the gallery for its full run of about a month. As it was an exhibit intended to open dialogue about crime in the Landsdale neighbourhood, it generated discussion – and publicity – in the media. There was also reaction within the community. While sex workers were horrified by their representation in art, the Landsdale Area Neighbourhood Association was teaming up with nearby neighbourhoods for a community meeting at Wentworth Baptist Church.

The meeting followed hot on the heels of Santucci’s September exhibit, and provided a forum for the scapegoating of sex workers and drug users as the causes of the community’s perceived crime problems. Posters and a petition were circulated to advertise the meeting. “Drug dealers and Prostitution,” read the bold lettering. “Working together to get them off our streets and out of our neighbourhood!” Community members at the meeting were visibly hostile, describing sex workers as predators of children, dangerous and violent criminals, and insane drug users who, if you talk to one, will “stab you with an AIDS needle.”

In many communities, propaganda campaigns against sex workers and other “illegitimate” users of public space culminate in legislative solutions to the perceived threat of urban decay. These can take the form of anti-loitering bylaws, building code crackdowns, police sweeps against sex workers and panhandlers, or a piece of legislation that has recently become popular called a “SCAN” Act. Safer Communities And Neighbourhoods Acts have been enacted in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Yukon, and a SCAN was recently proposed and defeated in Ontario. The legislation allows “problem” properties to be emptied via municipal and provincial court authorities. Targets are crack houses and common bawdy houses, many of which are rental properties used as living and working spaces, and evictions can be completed in as little as two weeks.

SCANs take different forms in different provinces, but the system for identifying “problem” properties is usually complaints-driven, and community members are encouraged to observe and report their neighbours. The acts of surveillance and social control become a cycle: surveillance makes some people more visible than others, amplifies perceptions of danger and threat, and the method of eliminating that threat incorporates more surveillance. The spaces occupied by outsiders in the community are continually squeezed by scrutiny and displacement efforts.

Gore Park

Sex workers are people in your neighbourhood

Recognizing sex workers as legitimate members of communities with the right to earn a living in public spaces may expand their opportunities for support and self-protection. In New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized – prostitution is not a violation of the criminal code and is subject to the same labour and business laws as other forms of employment – a five-year review of sex work’s new legal status revealed that the number of people doing sex work stayed about the same, while opportunities for coercion and exploitation were reduced and most sex workers reported being better off.

According to Crystal, a former outdoor sex worker in Hamilton’s Landsdale neighbourhood, sex workers are “safer when we’re together [on the streets].” When sex workers are displaced through imprisonment or rehabilitation programs, they are often scattered across the city, which breaks down their system of mutual support. Decriminalization is an important goal, but defence of basic rights cannot wait until “after the revolution.” The needs of street labourers can be met now within the existing political, economic and social frameworks that protect other workers’ human, civil and labour rights. The work of activists and concerned community members should be first and foremost to promote the rights of sex workers and other street labourers to the spaces they occupy, and then to tear down the walls that prevent illegitimate labourers from accessing that right.

Sarah Mann is an anti-poverty activist and community educator who lives and works in downtown Hamilton. She is active in anti-gentrification advocacy, and local feminist, queer and labour movements.

Tags:   activism capitalism labour poverty sexuality

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