Light Rail Transit Brings A New Wave of Gentrification to Hamilton

We are reprinting this article by King Street Tenants United supporter Taras Hemon, originally published on August 28, 2021 in the Downtown Sparrow.

Sharon Miller, a tenant who lives along the LRT corridor, on James Street North – photo by Taras Hemon

The empty and boarded up buildings along the King Street corridor have become a familiar, if not heartbreaking, sight for many Hamiltonians. But what about the people who once called them home? What of those who stayed? To explore these questions in response to Hamilton’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, I made a short documentary film called Thanks for Nothing, which takes a critical look at the LRT as a city-building project and how it affects low-income communities.

Thanks for Nothing follows the experiences of Sharon Miller, a tenant who lives along the LRT line in a building now owned by Metrolinx. With nowhere affordable to move, Sharon fights against displacement and housing instability, trying to stay in her apartment and home despite numerous maintenance issues, pest issues and eviction uncertainty.

Due to the evictions brought on by Metrolinx, there are few tenants left on Sharon’s street, making her feel as if she is living in a “ghost town,” and unable to connect with other tenants who share her experience. She feels disenfranchised, powerless, and alienated in her situation; what used to be a city she felt cared about her, now seems more interested in attracting wealthier residents.

While the content of the film may sound hopeless, what was extremely important in making this film was that I did not represent Sharon as a powerless victim, but a strong person with agency. The film shows her will to push back against a violent and oppressive system that is threatening her ability to live in the city.

Sharon Miller in front of the Hamilton sign in the City Hall forecourt – Photo by Taras Hemon

Sharon is angry and outspoken; she knows that the LRT is not a project designed with her in mind, nor other people of her socioeconomic status, and she is not afraid to share those thoughts. In representing Sharon’s battles with maintenance and pest issues, I focused on the effects Metrolinx’s negligence has had on Sharon (losing sleep, financial difficulties, loss of a “feeling of home”).

But I also displayed how Sharon was able to resist this violence, eventually eliminating a bed bug infestation, a long-standing pest issue she struggled with. Despite living through difficult conditions, Sharon is able to raise her voice against the violence she experiences, successfully pushing back against Metrolinx and improving her living situation.

Apart from supporting Sharon, the film was important to make because of the way it documents the violence that gentrification presents. In the case of the LRT, this violence is apparent in the destruction of a whole neighbourhood and the harmful effects that has on the community. With Thanks for Nothing, I was able to relate how a large-scale public work would both affect Sharon on an individual level and how it would affect the wider Hamilton community.

To me, the boarded-up and eventually demolished homes of King Street East were just as much a character of the film as Sharon was, and they provide a visual record of how the LRT is already beginning to shape the city. This film functions as a visual document over the physical changes to King Street East caused by the LRT, it provides a face to gentrification throughout Hamilton, and it reflects how this violence manifests itself in the experiences of an individual, in this case Sharon.

Boarded up housing along the LRT corridor – Photo by Taras Hemon

The film challenges the idea of the LRT project as a universal public good and shares Sharon’s perspective of how this project poses a threat to her and other lower income communities across its route.

In my view, the LRT signifies to investors and developers that Hamilton is prepared for the next phase of gentrification. Most of the train route will run through primarily low income communities, some of the poorest sections in Hamilton and, with its construction, the surrounding property will rise in value and attract housing and real estate development.

It has already displaced hundreds of tenants from affordable housing, and the LRT is projected to attract billions in investment in Hamilton, which to Sharon represents the construction of even more condos, homes and businesses that will remain prohibitively expensive for her.

Hamilton does need a major overhaul of its public transit system that is affordable and accessible for all Hamiltonians, but many of the residents who would have benefited from having a stronger transit system have been evicted or face pressures of displacement from the steady gentrification encroaching within their communities.

The lower city, with some of its industrial lands in the background, as seen from the escarpment – photo by Taras Hemon

Effectively, with this documentary I aim to criticize and attack the systems of gentrification, and inaccessible housing, while providing a framework for other affected citizens to resist against the violence of these systems.

In filming and screening Sharon’s situation, I am demonstrating the violence of these systems and how they can affect an individual, at the same time highlighting Sharon’s determination to stay in her home, revealing a strategy that could build communities or movements of resistance.

I plan on showing this film throughout the LRT corridor as a part of a series of accessible, community-oriented screenings. The goal of these screenings would be to better educate tenants and and to organize tenant unions that would help tenants protect themselves from similar violence.

One of the themes of the film, and what causes Sharon a lot of grief, is how alone she feels; there is no one left to assist her in her fight, and she was one voice fighting against a large corporation.

While it will be important to advocate and fight for affordable housing to officially be included as a part of the LRT plan, as Hamiltonians, we have seen how difficult it can be to receive any concession from City Council when it stands against business interests.

With better organization and more numbers, tenants will have a better chance of pushing back against further gentrification efforts and will have more power to fight to stay in their homes and communities.

Taras Hemon is a film and image maker based in Hamilton, Ontario; his latest film Thanks for Nothing, follows the experiences of a tenant facing eviction threats and displacement due to gentrification; Hemon has previously worked with short form fiction, and his film Grozota screened at festivals internationally; Hemon continues a promising career of documentary filmmaking, creating films that push for systemic change.

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