Hess Village is a bit of a bag of mixed nuts. The style of establishments varies as much as the people who visit. There are late-night clubs, rock n’ roll stages, a wine bar, a classy Italian eatery, poutine, burritos, and Irish beer just to name a few.
The history of Hess Village is just as mixed. In the 1970s the street level was mostly boarded up, and stood silent as a neighbourhood of small office buildings. But from the 80’s and into the 90’s Hess became a live music hotspot in Hamilton, where young artists would gather and play their tunes to a crowd every weekend. Also, in the early 90’s there emerged an annual jazz festival—a big hit.
But slowing around the turn of the millennium moods started to change on the small cross streets that the City had deemed to be the first focus point on downtown revival (as this was before the James Street times). The music got carried away, some argued. For more than a decade, food and tunes had coexisted peacefully in the area; you would grab some dinner, then see a show or go dancing. But sensitive ears lost patience, and circa 2002 the city was urged to crack down on noise complaints.
It was this beginning of bad press for the area that would lead to a 10-year downfall in the district’s public reputation.
Before I moved to Hamilton in 2011, I had heard about Hess Village. I had come a couple times with friends who were already living in the area, and, before moving here, my father had jested that it was a place to avoid if I didn’t want any trouble. By that time, the Village’s reputation had already escaped itself.
A popular district not known for live music anymore, but for DJs and dancing, Hess Village continued to attract a young crowd, while slowly losing the 30-plus demographic that used to frequent to enjoy a live band or some good food. They didn’t want to put up with the shenanigans of the drunk students who had invaded.
Headlines of fights, and weapons, and reckless behaviour became common, to the point that in 2003, the city felt the need to put boots on the street during weekends when the area got particularly rowdy. It didn’t stop the rowdiness by any means, though. According to the Spectator, a city report showed that between 2009 and 2011, assault calls to police went from 19 to 44.
More recently, bar owners on the street have expressed concern that the policing bills, which reached $150,000 divided up between the owners in 2012, have gotten out of hand. These bills have been blamed for seeing the flight of bar owners, and even the end to a couple businesses.
So what is the hope?
Will Howden is the operator of Tavern on George, a popular wine and cocktail bar in Hess Village that doesn’t usually attract the bouncy crowd that most of the other bars do. “We haven’t had a DJ since we first started,” said Howden.
However, he will admit that one of the Tavern’s more memorable nights was when a dance party broke out to a Billy Joel album of all things, on a Friday Night. But that’s mostly what the Tavern on George plays, classic vinyl and internet playlists.
“We tend to draw from the folk that don’t frequent the rest of the village,” said Howden. “People that are looking to go dancing stop in for a drink before of after.”
Howden argues that the violence and belligerence have been overblown by the media. He says Hess Village doesn’t see any more violence than any other entertainment district the world over.
As a man who is running an establishment that doesn’t quite fit into the stereotype of Hess Village, it’s curious how he still seems to be doing very well without having to bend to the will of the young crowd. His attitude is that if people want to come in for a drink or a shot before hitting the dance floor, they’re more than welcome; but the Tavern isn’t going to get a DJ and change the atmosphere just to get you to stay, that’s not what they’re about.
Scott McDonald, the owner and operator of Che has the same attitude. McDonald has lived in Hamilton since the 90’s and has seen the ups and downs of the street which he has frequented almost since he arrived.
The reputation that has been painted on the neighbourhood has “put nails in the coffin” of the street, said McDonald. Five to ten years ago, he says the district would see 6000 people on a given weekend, and now it’s more like 1200.
But McDonald is understanding of the City’s position, and he can see that public safety needs to be a consideration in an area where a lot of people are drinking. “I don’t think we need that much,” he added.
McDonald is currently working on plans to start a bike and music festival in the street, kind of like a show n’ shine, but a little more marketable to the common crowd of Hess Village. “I finally sat down with all the bar owners and got them to agree.”
Whatever the future of the village may be McDonald is sure that one thing needs to happen more, and that’s community building—more events, promotions, good press, and working together towards that common goal.
He says of course live music will be a part of it, the market dictates that, but “you’re not too old to come here and eat.”
“There’s always room for improvement. “I don’t imagine there is anyone who is happy with the way it is,” said Howden. “There’s no one saying ‘Yep, this is what I want.’”
So the alternative is to move forward, keep improving, and try new things in Hess Village. “The street will grow from its diversity,” said Howden.