Urban Chic and the Contempt for Poverty

It’s been a year since I started this blog, a year that has at times meandered and at others left me in its wake as it seemingly rushed by.  I’m a sucker for anniversaries and milestones, I guess, because I feel like I ought to write some kind of post to reflect a little.

A big part of this year was returning to Hamilton.  Not long ago I wrote about wanting to live deeply and thoroughly here.  Some folks aren’t fond of Hamilton – frankly, a lot of university students – and while I wouldn’t ask that everyone fall in love with the city, I find the vitriol they reserve for it rather disconcerting.

When pressed they’re usually vague and elusive, but more often than not I think the heart of the matter is a deeply ingrained contempt for the poor, the working class, the racialized, and those with mental health issues, among others.  It is further entrenched by spatial divisions in Hamilton that segment McMaster and its middle-class enclaves in the west, far from industrial east Hamilton where there is considerable poverty.

Of course, non-Hamiltonian students are not the only group to engage in this divisive practice, and not all students are contemptuous.  The oppression is alive and well in the politics of gentrification in the downtown core, but bolstered, I think, by an anti-poverty sentiment cemented by the university community.  This article by Sarah Mann in Briarpatch Magazine is a great overview of some of the issues that have emerged in the last few years.

Let me add my own example.  The T-Shirt above was sold at Metro Clothing on King Street West last fall, and according to the local company’s Facebook group, was going to sell fast (it did).  They urged customers to pick one up before a ‘cheesy rendition’ was produced somewhere on James St. N, the heart of the gentrifying project.  (The idea that Metro Clothing is entirely separate and distinct from the problems on James St. N is wishful thinking.)

This t-shirt is problematic for a number of reasons.  The Barton bus and those who take it do not exist as entertainment for anyone, and yet they are commodified at multiple levels.  Through this t-shirt the Barton bus route becomes a place of voyeurism and consumption that one can visit and leave, rather than a community where people live and work.  The suggestion that one can travel ‘out there’ and be rewarded by taking in ‘sights’ they find humorous (people with difficult lives), is profoundly othering and moreover, presumptuous about what east Hamilton is actually like.  Believe it or not, not everyone on the Barton Street route is poor, or intoxicated, or a sex worker or someone with mental health issues.  I could go on.  Perhaps the shirt could be construed as a ‘reclaiming’ of identities by those in the east Hamilton area, but that seems a stretch to me. It’s clear, with the vintage bus image and its availability in an ‘urban chic’ store, who the intended audience was.

It’s not that I’m above all this, of course.  I struggle with writing this from a formidable place of privilege while I work on my PhD.  I navigate a number of geographies, including east Hamilton (where I spend  a lot time but don’t actually live) as well as the gentrifying downtown (near where I live), and McMaster (where I work and study).  I continually need to work on my own prejudices in doing so.  Nevertheless, that shirt is appalling!

Thanks to my friend Meaghan for raising some important points about this issue over some drinks the other night.  I’m thinking about turning this into a more lengthy article for a local publication.  Thoughts are welcomed!



Filed under Academia, Dans Ontario, Politicking

4 responses to “Urban Chic and the Contempt for Poverty

  1. Andrea

    An excellent post, Hayley! Look forward to reading the extended article.

  2. The same kinda thing happens in Calgary with the buses that go through Forest Lawn, though I’ve never seen it on a T-shirt. Is it strange that I know this happens but I still think taking public transit helps with developing empathy for different groups of people in your city?

    I think the most common wake-up call I get taking the bus in Edmonton is to remember to pay attention to teenagers. Yesterday I was sitting at the back as usual and got surrounded by a group of kids talking about how Glee sucks these days. After a little while that conversation died down and one couple started talking about the election here, though. A guy was explaining to his girlfriend the nuances between the different conservative parties and what Wildrose was all about. They didn’t look old enough to vote. It was heartening.

  3. As a lifelong Hamiltonian I’ve often been fascinated by the mythology that’s come to surround the 2 Barton. Typically when mentioned it’s also accompanied by a rolling of the eyes that suggests some past harried adventure that happened to a friend of a friend. I appreciate how you’ve cut into that story and reminded me that its not simply a silly quirk of Hamilton, but a real human issue. Really looking forward to the extended article.

    There seems to be a lot of tension in this city when it comes to how to express municipal pride. I’ve noticed a huge influx of pride in Hamilton that is using the language of grime and celebrating the poverty stricken reputation of the core, something that was unthinkable when I was growing up and the core was (at least in my circles) nearly universally reviled for those very reasons. I feel people are trying to celebrate the hard working, industrial history of Hamilton, but with a tinge of cruel irony now that the industry is moving on and leaving swaths of poverty in its wake. It could be, like this shirt, another instance of people from the outside finding charm in hard lives. Or, and I’m conscious here of being on the outside economically as well, it could be a city using humour to try and break some of that tension. Tough to tell from here.

    Many people avoid all this by simply boasting about all the pretty waterfalls around the city. This is also a pleasant course.

  4. Pingback: Meanwhile | words away

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