Hamilton’s SuperCrawl has evolved over the past 10 years into one of Canada’s biggest and best music/street festivals. It is a great success story.
It all started when a group of fledgling art galleries along James Street North (aka Little Portugal) decided to host an Art Crawl the second Friday of every month. This was not a particularly novel idea - most cities across North America had such event in the ‘90s and ‘00s. In Hamilton’s case, it started as an experiment to attract more people to downtown’s new arts district. However, soon new restaurants, cafes and boutiques were popping up along James Street North and wanted to join in the fun.
Each month, the Art Crawl grew in popularity.
Then in 2009, as an experiment, the James Street North merchants convinced the City to close the street for their September Art Crawl so they could add stages for music and create a real street festival - hence the name “SuperCrawl!” The first year attracted 3,000 visitors; today SuperCrawl is an annual 3-day festival the second weekend in September that attracts over 200,000 visitors from across southern Ontario and beyond (i.e. more than the Tiger-Cats attract all season).
In many ways, SuperCrawl has put Hamilton on the art scene map!
After attending a regular Art Crawl a few years back and being impressed, I added the Super Crawl to my list of things to see. This was the year.
In 2018, this eight-block festival, had two major stages (75+ music and theatre performances), hundreds of artists’/makers’ tents, 15 fashion shows, a block of food trucks, several art installations and a family fun zone.
The music program is very eclectic. This year’s program ranged from Broken Social Scene to Ian Thomas with the Hamilton All-Star Blues Band in the middle. Over the years, the festival has featured groups like Hamilton’s own Arkells (in 2014), to Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings (the late Jones being called the “female, James Brown” (in 2015). Other notables over the years - Sheepdog, Sam Roberts, Tanya Tagaq and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
One of the festival’s hidden gems is the fashion shows that showcase local designers. I discovered this stage late on Saturday night. I loved the Cosplay Masquerade and was sorry to miss the Hamilton Vintage Community and The Thrifty Designer shows. Other interesting shows included Madjita: Indigenous Stories and Design and TroyBoy Drag Show.
I was surprised at the number of tents that filled up not only the street but every nook and cranny, creating a fun, flea market-like atmosphere. From the usual artisans to people selling used records and books – there were treasures to be found.
In addition to the many restaurants along James St. North, there were 35+ food trucks.
The food trucks ranged from Hamilton’s famous Gorilla Cheese to one called The Flyin’ G’Nosh.
I was intrigued by Buster’s Bloomin Onion Company’s truck with its huge multi-level trays each holding hundreds of whole peeled onions waiting to be battered, fried and served with Buster’s own chipotle mayo, peppercorn ranch dipping sauce or nacho cheese drizzle.
I didn’t try them (I hate long lines) but given the long line-up, I bet they were good.
SuperCrawl also showcases how downtown Hamilton’s King William Street (one of the adjacent side streets) has evolved into a restaurant row with lovely patios.
In the evenings, it was like being on Calgary’s Stephen Avenue or perhaps in Montreal’s Plateau on a warm summer evening.
And of course, there was candy floss (it wouldn’t be a street festival without it) and Tim Horton’s Coffee. Kudos to Timmy’s for sponsoring the entire block that hosted the family fun activities.
The art installations this year were a big disappointment. I had seen photos of some of the past installations and was ready to be wowed. Perhaps my expectation’s “bar” was set too high. However, I was not alone in thinking the art installations looked junky - I overheard many people saying “this just looks like a pile of junk,” and in several cases, that literally is what they were.
For the past four years, SuperCrawl has showcased Circus Orange, a local performance group that combines acrobatics and pyrotechnics into a fun family evening event. Think Cirque du Soleil up close and personal. I was able to stand by the fence next to the performers on both nights with great views of the behind the stage warm-up and set-up, as well as watching the performance ringside. A “front row seat” for FREE!
“It is not every company that can say they have a forensic gun expert working alongside a clown. Or, dancers who are also licensed pyrotechnicians and actors who happily dangle 80 feet in the air from industrial cranes. It is this kind of diversity that is our greatest asset and truly represents the Circus Orange company culture.” (Circus Orange website)
Urban Renewal Spark
SuperCrawl is a good example of how festivals can serve as the catalyst for change - helping transform a tired and forgotten street and neighbourhood, to a trendy, vibrant urban playground.
And, while James St N still has a long way to go, there is evidence of revitalization. New condos are being built; new shops and restaurants are joining the traditional Portuguese ones that have been there for many years.
There is a new fully leased WilliamThomas luxury student residence that will add 350+ students to the neighbourhood. This 21-storey, 169-unit residence is named after the 1850s WilliamThomas building that was on the site until it had to be demolished in 2010 as it was falling down. The four-storey façade of the original building along James St N was saved and reconstructed as part of the new student tower to enhance the pedestrian-friendliness of street. At present, it is looking for a couple of new retail or restaurant tenants.
If you are in the Hamilton area on the second Friday of any month, check out Art Crawl. And if you love music/art festivals, I highly recommend you plan a weekend vacation in Hamilton and take in the entire festival. And did I mention it is FREE!
While there you can also check out the Hamilton Art Gallery and the Cotton Factory two other fun art adventures.