Hamilton's Art Crawl is indeed super!

For the past 20+ years art galleries across North America have been creating annual art walks, First (or Last or Second) Thursday (or Friday) events as a means of encouraging the public to come out and experience the local visual art scene.  I have experienced dozens of them across North America, but nothing had prepared me for what I would experience on Friday May 13.

May 13, 2016 was a lucky day for me - I got to experience Hamilton’s Art Crawl and event that takes place the second Friday of every month along James Street North (JSN).  I have visited JSN for several years, watching it evolve from a street stuck in the ‘40s and’50s to a quirky street of quirky, cool street of eclectic galleries, restaurants and boutiques, void of the usual revitalization gentrification. 

It is indeed a crawl along the James Street South's sidewalks during Art Crawl. 

James Street North's Art Crawl Maker's Market is located in front yard of Christ's Church Cathedral.  I was surprised that there was a service going on during the Art Crawl.  

Jane Jacobs would love James Street North with all of its tiny shops offering a diversity of things to see and do. 

No Gentrification 

There is no Starbucks, no Tim Hortons, no Shoppers Drug Mart, no boutique hotel or new condos. Instead, the former “Little Portugal” is being repopulated by new “mom and pop” businesses.

The tipping point for JSN’s comeback was in 2005 or 2006 (nobody is quite sure the exact date), when a couple of the new art galleries that had opened up decided to stay open late on the second Friday of every month.  The experiment was popular and it has just built from there.

Facebook: James Street South Art Crawl

Hamilton Jewellers has been on James Street South for over 70 years.

Colourful storefronts and street adornment create a funky hip pedestrian experience along James Street North. 

Morgenstern's department store is a walk back in time to the '40s and '50s. 

Mulberry's Coffeehouse is JSS's signature cafe and patio. 

Ghost town to Extravaganza

Earlier that day, my Mom and I wandered JSN, which was pretty much deserted, but as we left late in the afternoon, we could saw people starting to arrive with tables and artwork.  My Mom said, “Oh, I forgot. Tonight is Art Crawl.”  Lucky my Mom lives just a few blocks away so later that evening (9 pm to be exact), I headed down to check it out. 

As soon as I crossed Main Street (two blocks away) I heard the urban buzz of people chattering and street music. Quickly, I was engulfed in one of the best sidewalk ballets I have experienced anywhere.  I estimate 15,000+ people were wandering up and down the sidewalks, checking out the street vendors, going in and out of shops and stopping to listen to some of the busker music and dancing. It was like I was back on the streets of Mexico City. There was a fun festival spirit that isn’t usually associated with art walks which usually attracts the reserved, wine-sipping sophisticates.

I couldn’t believe how the sleepy street had been transformed from an afternoon ghost town to evening extravaganza.

This fun chair created a fun urban playground during Art Crawl. 

One of the many art galleries along James Street South. 

Art Crawl offers a wonderful diversity of art. 

The art ranges from contemporary to decorative. 

SuperCrawl 

In September, JSN is closed to traffic for the annual SuperCrawl which attracts over 100,000 people to a weekend festival of visual art and music that is a smash-up of local and international artists.

The transformation of JSS from Little Portugal to a hip arts district has not gone unnoticed. It has captured the attention of New York City-based Projects For Public Spaces (founded in 1975 by William Whyte, author of the seminal public spaces book “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”) as one of best examples of how artists and art can transform a neglected space into something special. 

These ladies just had to dance to the music. 

The proud owner of a new painting just had to have his picture taken with his new acquisition. 

Last Word

If you are in the Hamilton area on a second Friday, I strongly encourage you to take in JSN Art Crawl.  And if you are into the visual arts, music and fun festivals, mark your calendar to be in Hamilton September 9 to 11, 2016. 

Indeed, Hamilton is more than Tim Hortons and the Ti-cats!

Street art adds another dimension to JSS's reputation as one of Canada's best art districts. 

Nations Fresh Foods: Where East Meets West!

While Whole Foods Market (often called Whole Paycheck) is the darling of most urbanists across North America (me included) I might have just found a better option. 

Back in 2013, my Mom spoke of a new grocery store opening up in Hamilton’s downtown Jackson Square shopping centre.  She checked it out for me, but wasn’t impressed when the customer service people didn’t speak English.  She was so disgusted she didn’t even remember the name of the store. Since then I have never heard anything about an innovative new flagship grocery store in Hamilton.

Hamilton has had a downtown Farmers’ Market since 1837 and is where I like to go whenever I am in town.  However, on my recent visit, my Mom suggested I also check it the now not so new Jackson Square grocery store, which is on the same mega block as the Famers’ Market, Central Library and First Ontario Arena.

WOW

I was immediately blown away by its size and vibe - even on a Monday morning there was a great mix of people shopping in the huge (55,000 square feet) store.

I had to look to find the name of the store as the entrance is from the middle of a ‘70s indoor mall, so there is no big box signage.  Eventually, I figured out it was Nations Fresh Foods.  I had never heard of it. Where have I been? Later I checked with some other urban retail colleagues and they hadn’t heard of it either. 

Turns out the parent company is Brampton based Ocean Fresh Foods Market and Nations is their upscale grocery store concept with two stores, with a third opening in Toronto later in 2016.  The motto for their stores is “Where East meets West” which means they offer food and produce as well as take-home cooked meals from around the world. While the stores have an European design the aisles are filled with products from around the world to serve southern Ontario market one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world.

Both Quality AND Affordability!

At the entrance was a lovely coffee station with pastries and gelato – I immediately thought my love of evening walks for gelato in Florence.  

The more I wandered, the more impressed I became with the selection. I loved the wall of teas, the seafood market full of live fish, the huge in store bakery, large sushi station and very fresh-looking fruits and vegetables.

I am told Nations carries lots of exotic foods like mungosteen, rambutan and dragonfruit; this is definitely not your average grocery store.

And the prices were good - three chocolate croissants for $1.99, artisan breads for $2.69.  Reviews of the store on the Internet were overwhelmingly positive - many saying they preferred it to Whole Foods.   Several people commented that Nations offers good quality at affordable prices; this almost never happens for other grocery stores.

While Nations’ by-line is “Where East Meets West,” I think I would use “Where old world meets new world.” 

Last Word

While I doubt Nations is looking at expanding to Western Canada anytime soon, a Nations’ grocery store would be a welcome addition in Calgary.  Perhaps as part a new development planned on the old Calgary Co-op site in the Beltline.  It would be perfect for the proposed mega development in Chinatown.  Eau Claire Market, University District or Currie would also be ideal locations.

I can’t help but think if Nations’ flagship store was in downtown Vancouver or Toronto, the urban planning world would be all over it as “god’s gift to urban villages,” but because it is in downtown Hamilton, it has been effectively ignored.

Oh, and after our visit, even my Mom was impressed enough to say maybe she would give Nations a second chance.

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