On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, part 1
February 20, 2012 § 10 Comments
A couple of weeks ago as I was coming home from work, I passed two young women on my block looking at a big, fat cat crouched underneath a pickup truck. They were concerned about the cat’s welfare and were worried it might be homeless (a tip, no cat that fat is homeless). I told them it lived in the housing project right next to us. They looked relieved and one said, “Well, you never know, you know what kind of people live in this neighbourhood.” “Yes,” I said, “I do. People like me.” This rather left them speechless, before one attempted to apologise, saying she didn’t mean…”I know exactly what you meant,” I said as I walked off, shaking my head.
So what made them think I wasn’t the sort who lives here? Could be I looked like them, wearing designer clothing, carrying a briefcase, clearly a worker commuting. Just like them. But I’m not, apparently. I’m the kind of person who lives here.
Where is here? Here is Pointe-Saint-Charles, a kind of gritty neighbourhood in Montreal’s sud-ouest borough in the throes of gentrification as we speak. Within a five minute walk out my front door, there are 8 new or on-going condo developments. And at least as many old tenement houses being renovated as single-family dwellings. But this kind of gentrification is relatively new, the past 4-5 years or so.
These two young women no doubt worked in the old NordElec building on Richardson at the corner of Shearer. The NordElec was re-jigged and fixed up years ago and is now home to a whole range of businesses, most of them of the cultural sort, producing various forms of art, there’s a yoga studio there on the ground floor, a cooking school, and a rock-climbing gym. If memory serves me, Ninja Tunes Records’ North American outpost was there once.
What amenities that exist in the Pointe are largely geared towards these workers, the various cafés and restaurants that serve them don’t think it’s worth their time to be open in the evenings or at the weekends. After all, you know the type who live here.
I grew up poor, I grew up working class. I never had security of tenure in our housing growing up, always renting, always at the whims of landlords. More importantly, we were always at the whim of the economy. The old man got laid off a lot, despite being a skilled worker (a welder). Therefore, I know what it feels like to be invisible. Not just feel it, but to be invisible. My high school guidance counsellor told me that “People like you don’t go to university.” People like me? Working class people. I keep meaning to send Ms. Samuda-Lehman a postcard.
We like to think that class doesn’t exist in Canada. It doesn’t for most Canadians. For the most part, the people who work at the NordElec building and other outposts here on the frontier of Pointe-Saint-Charles don’t see what’s around them. Or if they do, they see the housing projects and the downtrodden buying alcohol in the dep the moment it opens. And they are beneath contempt for the most part.
I see this every day in the Pointe. I see it in the yuppy and hipster workers who deem themselves to be more important than I am walking down the sidewalks, refusing to give me space to pass. Perhaps they don’t see me if I’m wearing jeans and a hoodie. Perhaps my tattoos and piercings make them think I’m just another piece of white trash. I know they don’t see me when I’m crossing a busy street, like Saint-Patrick, with my dog. I have a big dog, he weighs over 150 pounds, so maybe they just see another piece of white trash walking his overgrown, vicious dog. How do I know this? Because at least once or twice a week, the dog and I are nearly hit crossing Saint-Patrick at the intersection of Island on our way up to the Lachine Canal for a walk.
What do drivers do? They fail to stop at the stop sign, they fail to yield to the pedestrian crossing. Some look at me and then take off right in front of me, stepping on the gas as I am crossing the street but before I’m in front of them. This always scares the dog. Or perhaps they’ll just keep coming through the intersection even if I am right in front of them.
The police don’t care. I have emailed the police. I have tweeted at them. I have called them. No one returns my calls or emails. Someone is going to get seriously hurt crossing at that intersection, and given it’s on a bike path…
How do I know the drivers’ behaviour is class based? I’m not 100% certain, but it feels familiar. And also, if I walk to the train station downtown on my way to work, and I am dressed like another urban professional, they yield for me, at least most of the time.
And herein lies the crux. If I am dressed properly, if I wear the right clothes, I am given respect on the streets of my neighbourhood by the workers who come here during the day. They don’t try to push me off the sidewalk into the snow and ice. They don’t dismiss my presence in the intersections. They don’t cut in front of me in the cafés. But I’m dressed down, if I am in more comfortable clothing, this is what happens to me.
And it’s not personal. I watch it happen hundreds of times a week to the actual working classes in the Pointe. I see them squeezed off the sidewalks, cut in front of, threatened with cars. Every day.
Of course I know I am as much part of the problem in the Pointe as the solution; I am part of the crowd pushing the working classes out. But I live here, and I have lived here for most of the past decade. Certainly, there are others like me living in the Pointe. Increasingly more and more, what with all the condos, and one day, those cafés and restaurants will be open in the evenings and at the weekend, so we, too, can get a pint after work, or some decent take-away food.
In many ways, the Pointe is a fascinating place to be, as the neighbourhood both gentrifies and diversifies. The big church next to me, Saint-Charles, is an old French Canadian parish that has been rejuvenated by Africans and Haitians. There’s an African grocery store on Centre across from the Church. There are a series of Bengali grocery stores around the intersection of Centre and Charlevoix, where a bunch of Indian restaurants can also be found (interestingly, they are open in the evenings and at the weekend).
But in the meantime, the workers who come here to do just that, work, they don’t see this. They see a Pointe that existed a decade or longer ago. They see “those people” all around them, people not worth their respect or the time of day. And they act it out too.