Reflecting on the Loss of Our Downtown Spaces
From the Nest, Issue 5
by Steacy Easton
I have been in Hamilton for about 6 years, and I used to love the town; well I still love the town, but it’s gotten a little complicated in the last few years. I think about the center of Beasley Park, and how it used to be that walking ten minutes or so would provide much of what someone would want from a city — culture, music, community meeting spaces.
Walking from my new place in the North End, to Beasley Park, where some of the first friends I met in Hamilton live, I note how much has changed. None of it seems good.
I have included eight spaces where I walk by, on that trip from the North End to Beasley, 8 places I miss daily, and which I still mourn.
1. Cheapies Records & Tapes
Cheapies lasted for 40 years in their space at King Street East and John Street South, though the owner, Brian Jasson, worked for record stores elsewhere in Hamilton and Burlington before that. It was a double-wide storefront, central to downtown, right beside the Mills Hardware event space. The store seemed to be a historical relic, and a miracle that it survived. The depth of knowledge of the store staff, the quality of the merchandise, and the care to sustain a scene made it necessary for years. Dr. Disc’s building has been sold, Sonic Unyon is moving to Barton, and the other record stores in town are smaller, and more focused. The ramble of Cheapies was necessary.
2. Greek Palace
Further down on John Street, and to be honest, near Lulu’s and Nabil’s, two other great shawarma joints, this little hole in the wall has been under renovation for almost all of COVID times. I have always been of the perspective that more shawarma joints are better than fewer, and that the Greek Palace’s menus are deeper than the other nearby Middle Eastern joints. Though it claims to be ready to open soon, I suspect the anticipation will lead to disappointment.
Cities that work well rest on cheap, small spaces where people can find a seat and some time to be away from a home which may be overcrowded — it’s been that way since the Romans. WORK, with its quiet booths and small tables, provided excellent coffee, good cheap eats, and decent beer. It was a space where musicians would work the cash, so the arts community would take a kind of ownership — it felt like ours rather than theirs. It’s a high-end Italian bistro now.
There are still some galleries on James Street North, but within the last few years there have been many fewer. B contemporary was in its space for nearly a decade, working with the larger community to show mostly local artists, developing a canon of Hamilton aesthetics. It also showed work that wouldn’t be shown in the private universities here. The gallery moved to Barton Street East, in a gorgeous space made for them. A year of COVID meant that it was too expensive to maintain, and has been shut down, quietly.
A place for young musicians, noise artists, visual artists, and the emerging avant garde, HAVN functioned as a collective. Losing it is not only missing another venue, but a melancholy notice that other ways of gathering are also under threat.
A venue in the tradition of European Bohemia, it was a space that allowed for theatre, readings, and avant garde music, including festivals like Zula and reading series like Sad Boys, it was a place whose purpose was less to drink or eat and more to gather together, working out the edges of our collective experience. It’s now an architectural design firm.
7. This Ain’t Hollywood
A place that has existed for decades as a punk dive, growing along with the local scene, that included such seminal Hamilton bands as Teenage Head. The building has been sold and has now gone silent. The depth of loss here is difficult to overstate, the cornerstone of a nationally-renowned music scene. Without venues, there is nowhere for bands to play.
8. Hammer City Records
Tucked behind James Street North, where you had to go through an alley and down a set of stairs, Hammer City Records was almost the exact opposite of Cheapies. Though slightly claustrophobic, it was central to the local punk scene. Like WORK, it had musicians at the counters — the customer and the employee flowing together. This togetherness included live gigs, art shows, zines and other ephemera. Its closure was like shutting down a local ecosystem.
As a writer and an artist in Hamilton, it feels like small venues, small galleries, and experimental spaces have gone away. Post-COVID, I cannot imagine what will replace them. There is hope in the level of quality, and the hunger, that artists, musicians and writers have in Hamilton.
I think that public spaces require a kind of ambition. Some of this I mean literally. I am thinking of how much work is small or intimate, not because of aesthetic concerns, but because drawing takes up less space than painting, and not everyone can set up a full printing rig or pottery shed in their backyard. Where will we find the next great band? If the rehearsal spaces go away, the places to play what they’ve rehearsed go away — eventually the bands will go away, sooner rather than later.
But, I also think that this can mean the loss of many kinds of spaces. Talking to writer friends of mine, who are trying to work and live in the same space, we speak longingly of the places which used to be ours; the places where we met friends, where we ran into strangers, where we saw work which fueled our own.
The anxiety of this list is one centered on the death of a scene, the death of a town. Hamilton is a resilient town, but eventually the resources dry up.
There is an idea that the internet will save us. The internet can make communities grow larger, can make things less lonely, and can provide community, but it’s only one strategy, one resource. It’s not enough to ameliorate the losses we have suffered, and the losses that will come.
Steacy Easton is a writer and artist, who finally feels at home in a city