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On a Friday night, Hamilton's old inner-city neighbourhood of Jamesville is overflowing with art lovers: Over at the Print Studio, a middle-aged woman from Etobicoke is inquiring about its workshops after viewing an exhibit by local printmaker Emily Brown. Down the street at the Blue Angel Gallery, a group of twentysomethings sits in on an improv theatre performance. Across the street, near the corner of Cannon, a crowd of moms, dads and grads gather at the Loose Canon Gallery for a group exhibition of emerging artists in the McMaster University art program. It's a scene that happens every six weeks or so, when the galleries of Jamesville synchronize their opening nights. When the night is over, 250 to 300 people will have passed through the doors of each gallery.

You might expect to see something like this in Toronto or Montreal. The fact that it's happening in Hamilton, though, may qualify as a small miracle. In the once-sleepy Jamesville district -- the area in and around James Street North from Wilson Street to an old railway station -- seven galleries have sprung up over the past two years, with more expected to open soon. Out-of-town artists have begun making inquiries. Some Toronto artists, such as Robert Carley and Andrew McPhail, have already relocated to the Steel City.

"I think this is a sign that Hamilton may very well be -- finally -- culturally maturing," says David Liss, a Hamilton expatriate and the curator of Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. "What's exciting about it is this thing sprung up organically. It didn't start at a boardroom. It has the ring of authenticity."

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It's a textbook example of how the arts can revitalize an anemic neighbourhood, but it didn't happen overnight. Most of the Steel City's current high-profile artistic alumni -- including Mr. Liss and artist Floria Sigismondi -- became known to the public after they left the confines of their hometown. Artists who choose to remain in the area are, understandably, a tenacious lot, forced by necessity to rely on self-built support mechanisms.

Hamilton Artists Inc., as one of the first artist-run co-operatives in Canada, initially opened its doors in the neighbourhood in 1975. In its 30-plus-year history, "The Inc." has moved around to several locations, but always remained in the neighbourhood.

"Artists have traditionally always established themselves in low-rent areas," the co-operative's current program director, Steve Mazza, says by way of explanation. "But we're not trying to compete with anyone, or align ourselves with whatever's currently in vogue."

The growth of the current strip of galleries really began with the May, 2003, opening of the You Me Gallery, which specializes in work by Hamilton area and Japanese-Canadian artists. The gallery is curated by one of the original members of the Inc., Bryce Kanbara.

"I began this gallery project as a way to express my disenchantment with the public art system -- which mostly supports its own infrastructure [of]directors, curators, educators, fundraisers and a small number of select artists," says Mr. Kanbara, who graduated from McMaster University in 1970.

But for most galleries on the strip, Jamesville has become the choice of locale for their new ventures for two main reasons: the cheap real estate and the combined presence of Mr. Kanbara and the Inc. Another factor that has spurred the growth of the parallel-gallery system in Hamilton was the establishment in 2004 of a gallery intern program as part of McMaster University's fine arts program. The program has effectively hooked up the university art community with the downtown scene.

The area's collective energy shows no sign of letting up. Retail outlets, such as Mixed Media, an art supply store run by H Magazine editor Dave Devries-Kuruc, are popping up. The Hamilton Media Arts, an artist-run new media collective, opens its new gallery space, The Factory, next month. And unlike most major centres, this district is solidly anchored: The majority of gallery owners own the buildings they work in -- something unheard of in today's Toronto or Vancouver.

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All of this activity looks very familiar and very encouraging to Mr. Liss, who has seen the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto begin a similar turnaround.

"In the States, you see this kind of thing happening in places like Pittsburgh or Seattle, because the major centres are getting too expensive for artists. I think the same thing is happening in Hamilton, and I'd like to see the city, for once, nurture it."

Opening soon

Superstition be damned: This Friday the 13th will feature a confluence of openings in Jamesville. The main space of Hamilton Artists Inc. (3 Colbourne St., ) presents Totem, an exhibition by emerging artist Cathy Cahill featuring a selection of her whimsical, towering faux-fur animal totem poles. Ingrid Mayrhofer, a curator at the McMaster Museum of Art, will be showing her work Rapunzel, an installation piece featuring two- and three-dimensional elements. Both exhibitions open at 8 p.m.

Half a block north, the You Me Gallery (330 James St. N., ) is kicking off a new year of programming with "Pictures of me when I was younger" or, "Ok, they're lamps", Brian Kelly's rambling suite of illuminated, found-object sculpture. Mr. Kelly forages the world for parts, but lives in Dundas, Ont. The show opens at 7 p.m.

The usual terminus for local art crawls, The Blue Angel Gallery (243 James St. N., ), is featuring its weekly Friday night combination of visual arts, music, performance, poetry and open stage.

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-- Bruce Farley Mowat

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