By Dylan Powell
It is the beginning of the Winter of 2015. We have new arts buildings, we have “things to do downtown.” There is a buzz. There is even a handout from the Walker Cultural Leader series, with a schedule, that exclaims “Art Is in the City.” This years theme? “Imagining the City,” will “examine how the arts are a vehicle for cultural vitality – especially at this transitional moment in the revival of the downtown.”
We have a new Mayor, a new MP, we even have a Canadian National Basketball League Team (The Niagara River Lions) and delicious vegan doughnuts. “Revival” is starting to feel genuine. Things can change, things are changing. What kind of idiot would argue caution against this? Has St. Catharines not had it bad long enough?
The process is real, but if anyone feels a pit in their stomach, or even the slightest bit of doubt, that should be considered a good thing. What St. Catharines is currently undergoing is a late stage of gentrification, known as regentrification, wherein a city attempts to push wealth back into downtown cores and push poor people back out to the margins. With the help of Government funding, we have brought in at least three new condo projects, “rehabilitated” St. Paul St. and brought new exciting venues to the downtown. If successful, the plan will grow our tax base alongside a thriving downtown business core. There will be lots of art.
It is hard to fault people for wanting to believe in the process as we don’t have a lot of options in an area with a stagnant tax base, youth retention issues, and a disappearing manufacturing sector. Something had to be done. The negative effects of this process are already being felt though as the remainder of these buildings come online and construction finishes; Queenston looks like an abandoned disaster area, we made a housing crisis worse, and we are already struggling to cover the costs associated with these new efforts and cutting other services. Our shelter and social services are underfunded and our policing costs are among the highest per capita in the entire country. Our process of “revival” seems to also be growing inequity.
It is also hard to fault the arts community in St. Catharines for any of this as none of them are getting rich. As reported by this paper last week, in regards to Strutt and the Scene Festival, the City has managed to leverage the arts community for this process without ever actually funding or supporting large sections of it. Since many artists are left to fight over scraps, they have been forced to beg for funding from private enterprise in the City in order to survive. This relationship has been lucrative for some projects, but has also seriously undercut the value of that art. It makes me sad to think of the roots of Strutt, a comment on consumerism and wastefulness, to its present day relationship with the notoriously exploitative wine industry. Heck, former Conservative MP Rick Dykstra used to sit in the front rows and sip wine made from the labour of migrant workers that he helped rig the system against. When this becomes the art the City produces – what is the point? Art should not be making people with power feel that comfortable.
Not only should we question the value of the art “in the City” but also the places where it is and is not happening. With this process of regentrification art will happen in a few square blocks and in our green spaces – there will be no art in the housing projects on Manchester or Rykert, and certainly no art in the blown out areas of Queenston and Western Hill aside from graffiti. We seem to be building a tighter, more exclusive bubble instead of focusing on trying to make art more accessible, more present to the most marginalized in our communities. If anyone conceives of art as a public good which everyone should have access to – the fact that access and the geography of art are being restricted at a time we exclaim “Art Is in the City” should be troubling.
Aside from pissing off all of my artists friends, I do hope that people investigate this language of “revival.” It seemed important to me that with the introduction and return of an alternative weekly like the Sound that some print should also go to questioning just where we are at. Even if you don’t believe that art should be a force for positive social change, it is clear that the arts community in St. Catharines is no longer a neutral player in this larger plan.
There are promising projects in the City which have countered some of this – I personally love the Humans of St. Catharines facebook page and its focus on the Muslim community and non traditional/non-privileged people in the City as well as the Craft Arts Market and the focus on workshops and a community based approach. I don’t share an enthusiasm for slam poetry, and Mahtay is more of a good real estate decision then some mom and pop hold out – but the space people have been carving out to speak to and challenge power has been notable there as well. However there has been little work done to even name this process, let alone resist against it. I am not the first person to question, “artists as the shock troops of gentrification” (Rosalyn Deustche) and what we are living through is just a fraction of what cites like Hamilton have experienced in recent year. Still, there should be space to question and also space for people to challenge and hold each other accountable against it. I hope The Sound becomes one of those spaces.