Gentrification: Plus ça change

September 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’m reading a book that is, for the lack of a better term, a biography of the Kremlin.  I am at the part where the Kremlin, and Moscow itself, gets rebuilt after Napoléon’s attempt at conquering Russia.  Moscow had been, until it was torched during the French occupation, a haphazard city; visitors complained it was Medieval and dirty. And it smelled.  And not just visitors from Paris and Florence, but from St. Petersburg, too.

In the aftermath, Moscow was rebuilt along Western European lines, in a rational manner.  And the city gentrified, the Kremlin especially:

This was definitely a landscape that belonged to the rich and the educated, to noblemen and ladies of the better sort.  It is through the artists’ eyes that we glimpse the well-dressed crowds: the gentlemen with their top hats and shiny canes, the ladies in their bonnets, gloves, and crinolines.  They could be leading citizens of any European state, and there is little sense of Russia (let alone romantic Muscovy) in their world.

Leaving aside the fact that there were no citizens of any European state in 1814, this sounds remarkably familiar.  This is the same critique I have written many times about Griffintown and Montreal: as Montreal gentrifies, it is becoming much like any other major North American city.

But it is also true of gentrification in general.  There is a part on the North Shore of Chattanooga, Tennessee, I really like.  It finally dawned on me that it is because it reminds of me Vancouver architecturally, culturally, aesthetically, and in the ways in which the water (in this case the Tennessee River, not False Creek) is used by the redevelopment of this historically downtrodden neighbourhood.  But.  I could also be dropped into pretty much any North American city and see similarities: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville.  These are all cities (amongst others) where I have seen the same tendencies.

And, obviously, one aspect of gentrification is the cleansing of the city of danger and vice.  Just like Moscow was cleaned up in the aftermath of 1812.

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The Death and Life of Griffintown

July 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

I was back in Montreal a couple of weeks ago to finish up shooting for the documentary my good friend, G. Scott MacLeod, and I have been working on for the past few years.  We travelled around Griffintown, doing some B shots, and re-doing some other shots.  And then we found ourselves at Parc Faubourg Sainte-Anne, on the site of the former St. Ann’s Church at the corner of de la Montagne and Basin.  Across the street is one of the last remaining stands of 19th century rowhouses in Griff.  And right behind and beside it is yet another condo development (because there never can be enough, right?).

Part of these rowhouses were part of a co-op. One Friday afternoon in April, a bunch of men in suits and hardhats showed up, milled around, pointed at things, and then disappeared.  Later that night, the residents of the co-op were forced out of their homes.  Their homes were quickly condemned and they weren’t even allowed to go back in to get their personal belongings (the fire department had to go back in to get the ashes of one woman’s husband).  Why did this happen?  Well, it seems that a water line had been opened and that had compromised the foundation of the 1867 building.

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(photo courtesy of G. Scott MacLeod).

That Sunday night, around 10.30pm, a huge backhoe showed up and tore down the end unit of the co-op, the one with the leaky foundation.  The residents were “temporarily” re-housed.

Today, the co-op units are empty, only three of them still stand. And they all have a notice of eviction on their front doors.

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As we were filming, we were approached by a Griffintown old-timer.  He doesn’t want his name used, so he will go unnamed.  He showed us a bunch of photos on his cellphone of the suits and the backhoe.  And he told us what he saw happen.  He said that a retaining wall had been built behind the co-op units when excavation work began on the condos around it.  But, interestingly, the wall behind the fourth unit of the co-op had somehow disappeared the week before the water leak.  And, just as amazingly, it suddenly re-appeared after the fourth unit was torn down.  As to who turned on the water, well, he left that to our imagination.

Whether or not his version of events is true or not, to me, this is symptomatic of the new Griffintown, one that is beholden to condo developers and the accumulation of tax money for the Ville de Montréal.  We all know Montreal is a historically corrupt city, and the recent Charbonneau Commission detailed corruption in the Montreal construction industry.

And whether or not something fishy happened with respect to the co-op or not, the events of April do not pass the smell test.  That no one seems to care is even more worrisome.  Montreal is a wonderfully progressive city in so many ways, but Griffintown is a fine example of what happens when greed takes over.  The city had this wonderful opportunity to remake an entire inner-city neighbourhood.  And rather than engage in sustainable development, or even, for that matter, a liveable area, the Ville de Montréal took the money and ran.  And this is to the city’s detriment.

Oh, and the residents of this co-op? Call me cynical, but I’ll be shocked if they end up back in their co-op.  See, the developer’s office is right next door to the co-op and my guess is that these buildings will either also mysteriously fall down or become condos as part of this larger development.

Research Note: Playing hockey against priests in Griffintown

June 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I noted in yesterday’s post on Frank Hanley, we really do live in a different era today.  In one of the chapters of The House of the Irish, I talk about hockey in Griffintown in the 1950s and 60s.  I interviewed Gordie Bernier, an old Griffintowner, a few summers ago about his life and growing up in Griff and his thoughts on it today.  The previous weekend, he was playing in an old-timers hockey tournament in Pointe-Claire, so clearly it was a major part of his life.  I can relate.

Bernier recalled playing with the Christian Brothers who ran the School for Boys in Griff and who liked to play hockey against the young men:

Keep your head up. But the league we had, we were only young…I was only, I think 17 or so, and we were playing against men, so some of the guys were older. It was a good experience….You keep your head up [laughs]. We used to go there, I think 8 in the morning to the rink on Basin, I lived other on Duke, we used to walk with our skates on, by the time we get over there if there was snow, give us the shovels, we had to clear off all the snow, and we’d play from 8 in the morning ‘til closing time, 10 at night. We were still there, play hockey all day at the weekend. Walk back, your ankles [were all swollen and sore].

Don Pidgeon, a man who has done more than anyone to create the memory of Griff as an Irish neighbourhood, also remembers playing the Brothers, and smashing one over the boards of the outdoor rink on Basin Street Park in Griffintown, with a hip check.

The Brothers, obviously, played hard, and they played to win.  And the lads of Griffintown were not about to give any quarter, as David O’Neill recalls, the Brothers were

great athletes, and a lot of them liked the rough stuff just as much as the boys, and the older boys used to try to establish themselves among their own friends, and there were a few of the priests who used to give and take as good, or better. That generated the respect from the local community towards the priests, and a lot of people respected the priests for their ability to give and take without any complaining. No punishment, except that you got decked back when you weren’t looking.

Certainly, then, this was a different era, when decking a priest, or getting hit back as hard, if not harder, was a means by which the young men and priests earned each others respect, and that of their friends and colleagues, and the wider community.

Research Note: The Legend of “Banjo” Frank Hanley

June 5, 2014 § 1 Comment

Frank Hanley, 1909-2006, in 1942

Frank Hanley, 1909-2006, in 1942

I met Frank Hanley a couple of times back in the early aughts, including one afternoon in Grumpy’s on lower Crescent St.  He was holding court, drinking, I think, a club soda.  He was, at this point, already in his 90s.  But he was irrepressible.  Even though he was 96 or 97 when he died in 2006, I was still surprised to hear the news.  He got the nickname sometime back in the 1920s or 30s when he was a minstrel player in Montreal, or so he told me.  He didn’t know how to play the instrument.  Hanley is the kind of guy that doesn’t exist anymore, which is kind of sad.  He was the city councillor for St. Ann’s Ward from 1940 until 1970.  He was also the MNA for St. Ann’s from 1948-70.  He didn’t belong to any parties, he was always an independent.  He tended to side with ‘Le Chef’, Maurice Duplessis, in the National Assembly during the 1950s.  But I just never could hold that against him.  He also despised Jean Drapeau, Mayor of Montreal from 1954-7 and from 1960-86.

Griffintown was left to die in the 1960s whilst the other neighbourhoods of the sud-ouest were given makeovers, mostly in the form of slum clearances and the building of housing projects in the Pointe, Burgundy, and Saint-Henri.  Griff got the rénovations urbaines part, but that was it. Nothing was built to replace what was torn down.  And it was not because of the 1963 re-zoning of the area as ‘light industrial.’  All of St. Ann’s Ward was, as were other parts of the sud-ouest.  Griffintown, quite simply, did not attract the attention of hôtel de ville and Drapeau’s team of rénovationistes as a site of investment.  The only voice demanding Griff get some love was its councillor: Hanley.  Local legend has it that Griff was left to die to hurt Hanley’s re-election chances, such was Drapeau’s enmity for him.

Anyway.  Hanley was an old school populist politicians, his first real concern was his constituents.  And his constituents tended to be poor in Griffintown and the Pointe.  He raised money for an emergency fund to help out his constituents when they ran into trouble.  Most of this money was raised from other constituents.  Occasionally, of course, a few dollars would fall into his own pocket.  While today we would shake our heads at this or perhaps bring Hanley up on charges of corruption, in his era, no one had any problem with that.

In the summer of 1967, Hanley ran into trouble with Revenue Canada.  He had been handing out over $150 per week to his constituents in trouble for much of the past decade, maybe longer.  And, of course, he took a bit for himself.  So Revenue Canada threatened to take his house at 500 Dublin St. in Pointe-Saint-Charles.  His constituents from Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles had other ideas, and they showed up one morning in Hanley’s yard and proclaimed the ‘Republic of Hanley’ in his front yard.

In the end, Hanley and Revenue Canada reached a settlement.

Research Note: The Pont Champlain

June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Pont_Champlain_(6)Nearly every time I drive over the Pont Champlain, I turn my brain off, and don’t think about the crumbling infrastructure of the bridge, I don’t think about how far it is down to the St. Lawrence.  I don’t think about how deep the river is.  I don’t think about the litres of ink spilled in the Montreal newspapers, in both official languages, about the bridge.  I don’t think about the fact that god-knows-how-many billion dollars are being spent to fix a bridge that needs replacing whilst the politicians in Ottawa and Quebec City continue to argue about how best to replace the bridge.  I don’t really think the bridge is going to fall down, of course.  But.

So it was a nice change of pace to be finishing off a chapter of The House of the Irish on the dissolution of Griffntown in the 1960s, and to come across documents I’ve collected from the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, as well as newspaper articles from The Star, The Gazette and La Presse from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Pont Champlain was first opened, and it was a marvel of engineering, and then the city and federal government built the Autoroute Bonaventure into the city in preparation for Expo ’67.

The optimism! The excitement about a new bridge connecting Montreal to the South Shore! The excitement about the Bonaventure, which “sweeps majestically into the city, the river on one side, the skyline in front,” to quote one article from The Star.  Next time I cross the Champlain, I’ll try to think of that.

Is Gentrification Inevitable?

June 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

Yesterday, in response to this post, I was accosted on Twitter and accused of many things, most of which were untrue, but most notably of standing by and watching gentrification from the sidelines and not offering any solutions. In and around that accusation, repeated in many different ways, I was also told that ‘gentrification is inevitable.’  Since then, I have been wondering if it is.

Now, I must point out that my critic, who ultimately dismissed me as “just a guy in Boston making false judgements about my hometown,” is also a real estate agent and is of the opinion that her neighbourhood, Verdun, is the next up and coming neighbourhood in Montreal.  So she has a vested interest in gentrification and rising property values.  Not that I don’t, of course, both when I lived in Montreal and now.  And it also doesn’t matter which city I visit, gentrification benefits me.  I’m a middle-class white guy.  But is gentrification inevitable?

Mulberry Bend, by Jacob Riis

Mulberry Bend, by Jacob Riis

I was in New York City a couple of weeks ago, on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.  We eventually had dinner on Mulberry Street, on the terrasse of an overpriced, but delicious, Italian restaurant.  As I looked up the block, I could see the formerly notorious Mulberry Bend.  The Mulberry Bend, when the Five Points still existed, was perhaps the worst bit of real estate in the Western world for poverty and crime.  It was central to Jacob Riis’ 1896 classic, How the Other Half Lives.  Today, however, Mulberry Street is beautiful and on this sunny Sunday the street was blocked off to cars and a street fair was going on.  Even twenty years ago, this wasn’t really all that nice a part of town. But today, it’s all smoothed over and gentrified.

But is the kind of gentrification that has occurred on Mulberry Street inevitable?

I think it might be relative, it might be locational.  Take, for example, New Haven, CT.  New Haven is a smallish city and has been dealing with a variety of social problems, from high crime,  to drug use, since deindustrialisation in the 1960s and 70s.  It has also experienced ‘white flight’ and the people who ended up being stuck in inner-city New Haven had no hope, no option for a better life.  And so, New Haven, despite being the home of Yale University, has struggled.  On the train into New York City last weekend, I saw its newest solution, called Re:New Haven.  The city is offering people up to $80,000 in incentives to purchase a home and live in New Haven.  It seems to be working, at least according to the couple sitting next to us on the terrasse on Mulberry Street, who were from New Haven (as is the friend I was with that night, though he no longer lives in his hometown), who reported a boom in new restaurants and other hangouts. On that front, Re:New Haven sounds like a brilliant idea.  But there is always a cost for gentrification.  In the case of New Haven, African Americans who already live in these gentrifying neighbourhoods pay the cost.

New Haven has decided that gentrification is inevitable.  And it certainly looks that way on the ground in New York City and Montreal.  But there’s also a question of neighbourhood, especially in big cities.  If you look at New York City, it’s interesting to note that Queen’s and Staten Island are not getting as much love from the gentrifiers.  No doubt because they are rather inconveniently located vis-à-vis Manhattan. Similarly, in Montral, gentrification is in neighbourhoods that are conveniently located in relation to the downtown core of the city.  Thus, Saint-Henri, Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles make sense in their gentrification.  Even Verdun is no more than 15 minutes from downtown on the métro.  But, other neighbourhoods, are more or less free of gentrification, or at least have not been overly affected.  Take, for example, Hochelaha-Maisonneuve, or HOMA, a chronically depressed neighbourhood in the east end.  Despite attempts over the past decade to gentrify, the neighbourhood remains largely immune.  Similarly, neighbourhoods north of the Métropolitaine in the north end of the city are also seemingly gentrification-proof.

Collective action against gentrification tends not to work.  It happens either way, whether residents welcome or resist it. However, my interlocutor yesterday also had interesting ideas about practical, boots-on-the-ground ways to ameliorate the effects of gentrification for the working classes of Verdun.  Pointe-Saint-Charles has long had similar ideas, but, each time I’m back home in Montreal and go through the Pointe, I see fewer and fewer of the old school working classes and the stores and restaurants that served them and more gentrified homes and hipster coffee shops and the like.

But what makes gentrification inevitable?  A search for cheap(er) housing?  A search for The Next Big Thing?  Recently, Richard Florida’s thesis about the Creative Class in cities is getting some static, because in many places it hasn’t worked out how he predicted.  And yet gentrification carries on.

Expensive Bikes and the sud-ouest of Montreal

June 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

I was in Montreal for a nano-second last week, in and out in 22 hours.  As I sat Friday morning sipping a proper café au lait and a croissant amande at Pain D’Oré at Atwater Market, a woman kitted out in cycling gear pulled up outside the boulangerie.  She took off her gloves and helmet, and then leaned her very expensive bike up against the shop’s window and came in to get her coffee and croissant.  I thought to myself that things had changed in the sud-ouest of Montreal.

Not too long ago, in response to a post on this blog about gentrification, my friend Max, who is a gentrifier, and has bought a place in a gentrifying neighbourhood, chided me for being so dead-set against gentrification.  I am not necessarily.  But I think we need to problematise the process, to recognise what we’ve lost, and so on, to not simply jump into the future unquestioningly.  But.  He pointed out some benefits about gentrification in his neighbourhood: he could find a decent cup of coffee and he said hipsters, as annoying as they generally are, are safe.  He doesn’t have to worry about his wife walking home at night.

I thought about that as I watched this woman leave her expensive bike outside the boulangerie, unlocked.  When she came back out with coffee and croissant, she moved her bike to her table on the terrasse.  I lived in the sud-ouest for the majority of my time in Montreal, mostly in Pointe-Saint-Charles, but also in Saint-Henri on the Last Ungentrified Block in Saint-Henri ™.  The rue Saint-Ferdinand, north of Saint-Antoine remains ungentrified.  I drove up it last week just to make sure.  But the streets on either side of Saint-Ferdinand ARE gentrified, so, too, is the block on Saint-Ferdinand below my old one.  So are large swaths of Saint-Antoine.  And so on.  The first place I lived in the Pointe wasn’t.  There are housing projects on the block, and my place backed onto the asphalt back lot of a project (Montreal’s projects, I might note, at least in the sud-ouest are not great towering cinderblock apartments, they are usually no more than 3-4 story apartment blocks.  They usually fit into their neighbourhoods).  My second place was definitely gentrified, as, by that point in my life, I was no longer a struggling student, but a tenured CÉGEP professor.

And still.  There is no way in hell I would ever leave an expensive bike outside a boulangerie at Atwater Market.  I never left my car unlocked.  Or my front door.  I keep a close eye on my computer bag.  Do I just trust people less?  Or had I just lived in the Pointe longer than this woman?  But, yet, her bike was completely safe, and not because I was sitting in the window.  About 15 people passed it as she got her coffee and croissant.  And no one even gave the unlocked, very expensive bike a second look.

Has the sud-ouest changed that much? Or was her bike simply in a high traffic area and safe?  I can’t decide.

I should also point out, for American readers, that gentrification in Canada tends not to get caught up in questions of race like it does here in the US.   Most gentrifying and gentrified neighbourhoods of Canadian cities are places where inner-city working-class white people lived.  So while class is still a very prevalent issue, race tends not to be.  There are exceptions. of course, such as in the traditional Anglo Black neighbourhood of Montreal, Little Burgundy, which is undergoing a massive shift right now.  But, on the whole, discussions surrounding gentrification don’t centre around notions of race.  Then again, few things in Canada do, at least publicly.  But that doesn’t mean that race and skin colour aren’t central components to Canadian life.

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