The Hammer: Joel Stevenett’s poetic revisiting of Steeltown

  • Photography  Joel Stevenett
  • Text  Anna Sanders

Photography and short story: Joel Stevenett
Text: Anna Sanders

“It’s a document of a place during a major change in the city’s history, and I thought it was important enough to photograph what it looks like. At least my version”

Cracked asphalt and peeling paint betray a city in a state of abandon; the residents wait, ash turns grey skies greyer. Hamilton – a city that lies within Canada’s industrial centre, on the aptly named ‘rust belt’ – was once defined by its thriving business of steel, an industry that has been in steady decline since the 1980s. Following the closure of US Steel (formally Stelco) toward the end of 2015, Joel Stevenett returned to Hamilton to document a community on the cusp of change and preserve its shifting landscape in his series poetically named The Hammer – “for me it evokes early images of a place that was built by forging metal with metal. It’s not unusual to walk down one of Hamilton’s quieter streets and hear the familiar echo of banging metal as it ricochets off factory walls”

Born forty-five minutes away in the Niagara Region, this outline of industry etched into the sky formed the backdrop to Stevenett’s memories growing up. Never fully appreciating the uniqueness of Hamilton and its people until he revisited the city after six years absence and heard the announcement that one of the US’s largest steel mills would soon be closing, The Hammer is his quiet paean to those caught in the maelstrom of change. “I think being in the middle of a transformation can be very isolating; clinging onto a way of life that is quickly disappearing and not knowing in which direction you should move”.

There is a sense of being passed by, of being forgotten in his images: a stop sign gives directions on an empty road; a stone lion looks out from its plastic bindings; a graffitied wall stands in memoriam to a closed down store, it’s tributes scrawled onto aging concrete – ‘Kenesky’s, ur the best’.

“I haven’t actively sought out isolation as a theme. The close proximity of Hamilton to Toronto means that the majority of people have passed the city by for, what most people believe, is a brighter future in Canada’s biggest city. And although there seems to be concentrated efforts to rejuvenate [Hamilton’s] downtown, there are still very large areas where people just aren’t found.” This sense of segregation colours Stevenett’s wistful images; residents look out from behind glass in quiet reverie, pollution paints Northern Lights onto the sky, yet there is always an indelible sense of intimacy with the residents, an unbreakable community spirit. “Hamiltonians are lovely people who are proud of where they come from – I’d like the viewer to have a sense of that”.

Stevenett, informed by his experiences during the project and his, at times, indifferent childhood memories, has written short stories about the city. The narrative of which are at once unsentimental and disarmingly emotive; below we share the previously unpublished Ripper, alongside a selection of work from The Hammer.

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The wind cuts my face with a million invisible knives as I pray for numbness to settle in. “You can’t go two blocks without hitting a Tim Hortons in this city. When are they gonna get a fucking Starbucks?”

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At the mercy of the wind, a thin layer of snow hovers quickly above the street making tiny hurricane-like movements that appear and disappear as cars pass. We’re walking fast – almost running – down Jackson Street East, mid-morning, with our hands shoved deep in our pockets when without warning my friend yells, “Ripper!” It’s Ray, an old high school friend neither of us has seen in over 10 years.

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Wrapped up against the elements, only his head is visible, with pockmarked skin and awkward, long, red, shoulder length hair that penetrates the white of the snow covered city. He walks towards us, a large coffee cup in hand, and with his whole mouth, slurps it back while greeting us enthusiastically.

We attempt the requisite small talk but he’s distracted and slightly manic, shuffling his feet while he speaks with us and misremembering most details of our high school years. The bizarre conversation is made too brief at Ray’s abrupt farewell.

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We awkwardly part ways with him and try to find the nearest lunch spot to warm our bones. An hour later we’re immersed in a cloud of exhaust and slush as we exit the restaurant. A car roars, spinning its wheels next to us and shotguns itself into oncoming traffic revealing Ray in the opposite alley fixedly pouring a mickey of vodka into his Tim Hortons cup.

We keep our eyes focused on him for a moment and as we pass he lifts his cup up in a grand salute and waves. We wait for him to call our names but after we hear nothing we continue down the street, enveloped in a sudden blizzard.

Two men stand outside the Italo-Canadian Social Club watching the city churn and sputter.

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Photography © Joel Stevenett
To see more of Joel Stevenett’s work click here