A Microcosm of the City’s Μissed Οpportunities
From the Nest, Issue 14
by Daniela Giulietti
My grandmother has a canvas tote bag left over from when they were given out at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market’s 150th anniversary. I’d been coveting it for years – it’s old! Not old for an heirloom but very old for a grocery bag.
It’s special to me primarily because my grandparents owned a small cheese stall that they ran out of the market for almost 35 years.
It’s a familiar story. They were near penniless immigrants, illiterate all their lives. My grandfather was injured as a bricklayer and took a chance on his Workers’ Compensation Board (now WSIB) settlement to start a small business.
Using that settlement, my grandparents built a bit of intergenerational wealth to help their children buy homes and most of their grandchildren to pay for some school.
It was modest, but it was a success, something that’s much more difficult to achieve now.
The market is, of course, not what I remember as a kid – bustling and noisy with familiar faces everywhere. It was a community. Grocery chains and their extended shopping hours hurt market stallholders and the pandemic seems to be finishing it off. There has been little support from our leaders to modernize it effectively and a serious lack of vision to innovate it and make it the community resource it should be.
This too is a familiar story. An aging public institution, defunded instead of innovated, private investors courted as a sort of soft, or covert privatization: divest, diminish, render ineffective and leave for decay.
Members of Council have said that the reason for exploring private sector involvement is “to make it better, stronger and more sustainable over the long run”.
In 2019, Meridian Bank & the Hamilton Farmers Market started a partnership valued at $150K per year. That sponsorship is now lost, at great expense to the market’s vendors and shoppers.
Private sector investment can’t solve such problems. It’s never a sustainable solution.
As of now, the four options the city has given for the market are –
- the current not-for-profit model;
- complete city operation supported by an advisory board;
- partial privatization under city contract; or
- full privatization with the corporation sold to another entity and the market space leased out.
The value of a green grocer, specialty & artisan one-stop shop in the heart of the city is immeasurable, right next to the largest library, arguably the last institution in North America where you can sit indoors without expectation of spending money.
We need more of these spaces, and we need them to be deliberately and firmly held for public benefit.
We stand to gain so much by strengthening local farmers’ and makers’ markets and building relationships, understanding and solidarity between rural and urban residents of an amalgamated city like ours.
If Council wants the market to be a “beacon – a reason for people to go downtown”, they need to devote bus routes, accessible spaces and creativity to make it something truly unique that serves the community.
What kind of creativity?
I imagine the City actively recruiting from the incredible farms, distilleries, wineries, orchards, bakeries & horticulturalists across Hamilton to hold stalls at the market.
The market could build the biggest community fridge and pantry in the core, encouraging zero waste efforts from vendors who know where their day-old items end up – a mutual aid effort and a weather-proof place where people can come to pick up groceries with dignity.
Residents & patrons could reimagine the rooftop promenade as an urban garden, an event space and a place to gather more safely – through a public process.
Such efforts could make the market the hub of a strong local food network, accessible to all through public transit, and built on the values that support local, sustainable farming; encouraging producers and makers to start small businesses.
Instead of bringing in more private, large-scale interests, we could invest in the infrastructure we already have, adapt what’s already here, and create something the whole city can be proud of.
In a rapidly worsening climate crisis, food sovereignty is a critical task and securing the urban boundary for generations to come will depend largely on farmers making a living off the land.
This is another avenue in protecting our agricultural lands. Transit-accessible farm fresh produce means these treasures are available to everyone in an environmentally friendly way – not just those with disposable time and income and vehicle access.
My grandmother gave me that Farmer’s Market tote recently. She got another for herself from an old friend and former stallholder.
This is a network of local makers spanning nearly two centuries and it isn’t the kind of community we can recreate in a grocery chain.
Daniela Giulietti does community and policy work; she is a proud Ward 3 resident and lifelong Hamiltonian (fight her about it)