Beijing’s 798 Art Zone and Hamilton’s James North: Thoughts on gentrifying neighbourhoods worldwide

As self-proclaimed artists, the 798 Art Zone was the highlight of our Beijing trip.

It looks similar to other art districts around the world; a now thriving neighbourhood in a repurposed industrial area with countless galleries, boutiques shops, and artist workshops among other uses. Incredible street art, that is sure to be illegal in other parts of the city, brings colour to the grey, Bauhaus-inspired buildings.

Our pre-trip research had told us that we would only need 20-30 minutes to see the neighbourhood, but having only covered a block or two in our first hour there, we knew we would need much more time–even without visiting the galleries that charged admission (between 5 and 50 yuan). Four hours later, after a stop for craft beer at “At Café”, we hadn’t even scratched the surface of what the 798 Art Zone was about.

At Café

It was hard not to think of Hamilton, Ontario, our home town, during our visit. Hamilton has been described as “the Brooklyn of Canada” for its up-and-coming arts scene and more affordable housing for the millennials being priced out of Toronto, and the connections between Hamilton’s James Street and Beijing’s 798 District are palpable. A once accessible area where artists could afford to set up shop became the ‘it’ place for boutiques and restaurants to appeal to a hip, young crowd.

But there was one major difference that we could spot between Beijing and Hamilton’s art districts; The 798 Art Zone has kept its artists, while Hamilton’s James North has forced them to move to Barton Street.

Or at least it seemed. We’re aware that we only know a small part of the 798 Art Zone’s history, that this may only be true for certain kinds of artists, and there’s probably much more to the story as to how and why and even if it is true. Add in vastly different cultural atmospheres and timelines and yes, there are variables in the comparison.

But despite the variables, this pattern of gentrification is repeated a world apart. And no matter your position on this kind of development, surely there’s something we can learn about Hamilton by looking at 798 Art Zone.

What exactly is that? We’re not sure yet but we figure getting curious is a place to start.

As always, we’d love to hear from you! Do you see connections between arts communities around the world? And which arts districts should we look into next? Leave it in the comments below.

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