Canadian History: A Live Grenade

June 10, 2013 § 2 Comments

All History is both political and public in nature.  I tend to describe myself as a public historian.  As such, I am interested in how history is viewed by the general public and I’m interested in the intersection of public memory and history.  But that should be obvious to anyone reading this blog or what I’ve written on the NCPH’s history@work blog.  But, sometimes I tend to forget about the inherent politicisation of any act of history or memory.

To wit, I got drawn into an argument on Twitter yesterday, my foils were both Canadian Army soldiers.  One retired, one active.  One I have never come across before, the other is a guy I follow and who follows me.  The discussion was about Stephen Harper’s new paint job on his plane, one that makes it look like a Conservative Party of Canada Airbus, rather than an RCAF plane.  We argued about the colours of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and whether red, white, or blue belong there (we all agree they do), and in what proportion.

The outcome of the argument is irrelevant.  What is interesting was the very fact that we were having it in the first place.  In Anglo Canada, history has long been a dead subject, it wasn’t usually the topic of public discussion or debate, and when it was, it was something we could all generally agree on, like hockey.  Even when Jack Granatstein published his deliberately provocative (and generally quite stupidly offensive) Who Killed Canadian History? in the mid-90s, Canadians generally yawned and looked the other way.

But, in the past few years, largely I would argue as a result of Stephen Harper’s Prime Ministership, Canadian history has become a live grenade.  Anglo Canadians argue about the role of the monarchy in our history, we argue about the role of the military in our history, and so on.  Canadians are having real arguments about their history for the first time in my life.  And, as much as I despise Stephen Harper and his government, I suppose we have him and they to thank for this.

Wither the Working Classes?

April 7, 2013 § 3 Comments

South Boston is undergoing massive redevelopment these days, something I’ve already noted on this blog.  Every North American city has a Southie, a former industrial working-class neighbourhood that is undergoing redevelopment in the wake of deindustrialisation and the gentrification of inner cities across the continent.  In Montréal, the sud-ouest is ground zero of this process, something I got to watch from front-row seats.  In Vancouver, it was Yaletown.  Cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have done brilliant jobs in re-claiming these post-industrial sites.  In Boston, however, Southie’s redevelopment has attracted the usual controversy and digging in by those working-class folk who remain there.  It’s even the locale of a “reality” TV show that is more like working-class porn than anything else.

The same discourse always emerges around these post-industrial neighbourhoods under redevelopment, something I first noticed in my work on Griffintown in Montréal.  Today, in the Boston Globe there is a big spread ostensibly about a sweet deal given to a Boston developer by City Hall, but is really more an examination of the redevelopment of Southie’s waterfront.  In in, James Doolin, the chief development officer of the Port Authority of Massachusetts, one of the players in this redevelopment, reflects on the ‘new buzz’ surrounding the area, going to to talk about how this ‘speaks to a demographic that is young, employed, and looking for social spaces.”  

Right. Because the Irish who lived and worked in Southie during its life as an industrial neighbourhood were really just bums, always unemployed and so on.  And, of course, those unemployed yobs would never look for social spaces, all those little cretins hung out in back alleys and under expressways.  This attitude is unfortunate and is part and parcel when it comes to the redevelopment of these neighbourhoods: the belief that the working classes never had jobs, had no social lives and were just drones.  I’ve seen it in literature from developers in Griffintown and other parts of Montréal’s sud-ouest, so it’s no surprise to find this attitude in Boston.  But it doesn’t make it right.  In one sweeping, gross over-generalisation, Doolin (and the Boston Globe) sweep away centuries of history, of life in Southie, and the day-to-day struggles of the working classes in the neighbourhood to survive and live their lives on their terms.

Getting Redevelopment and Community Right

March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Yaletown in Vancouver has undergone massive redevelopment in the past two decades.  It was once the site of Expo 86 along False Creek, and before that, an urban wasteland (actually, after Expo, too).  But today, it is a sea of glass towers; one statistic I’ve seen said the population just in Yaletown approaches 30,000, though I find that hard to believe.  All along False Creek is a string of residential condo towers; all along Pacific Boulevard, from Granville to Cambie streets there are towers and pied-à-terre condos.  Some of them even look nice.

IMG_1128As I went out for my morning run today (I’m staying with my sister here), I noticed something: this is actually a well-thought out urban redevelopment.  There’s a billboard on Pacific Blvd that says that Concord, one of the developers is building community here.  It’s easy to scoff at that claim.  But it’s not a ridiculous claim. My sister knows her neighbours.  More than that, she has friends amongst them.  Dog owners around here have claimed a patch of Cooperage Park on False Creek as a dog run.  They police each other, making sure nobody leaves their dog doo behind.  They also police each other’s dogs, making sure they behave.  There’s a bunch of cafés and restaurants along Marinaside Drive (I know, what a horrible name), and they’re populated with regulars, the neighbours around here.  People nod and say hello to each other on the streets and along the path that goes along the bank of the water.


There’s more, though. There’s actual, real parks here.  Cooperage stretches almost from the Plaza of Nations at the head of False Creek towards and under the Cambie Bridge.  A few blocks on is David Lam Park, which lies between Pacific, Drake, and Homer streets.  But it’s more than that.  These parks are actually used.  There’s basketball and tennis courts at David Lam, and a playground. An elementary school is on David Lam and the children can be seen playing in the park at recess and lunch and after school.  The path along the water is almost always busy with joggers and cyclists, as well as roller-bladers and walkers (Vancouver was experiencing one of its trademark torrential downpours when I was out taking pictures today, thus, aside from one intrepid jogger, there was no one out playing).

When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the redevelopment of the old Expo site. The city was determined to increase density, to follow the model of the West End, which is apparently the densest neighbourhood of North America that’s not Manhattan.  So the old Expo lands saw these condo towers grow out of the ground.  The major difference between the West End, which lies on the other side of the Burrard and Granville Street bridges and this area, which is part of the larger Yaletown neighbourhood, is that Yaletown tends to be resident owners, whereas the West End is largely rental units (there are, of course, many exceptions to both).

IMG_1111At the end of the day, however, Vancouver got it right.  There is community here, the public spaces are widely used.  The cafés and restaurants are, with the exception of one Starbucks (this IS Vancouver, after all) independent operators (this isn’t as true as Pacific Blvd., the main east/west thoroughfare, which has plenty of chains in between and around the indie stores).  This also contributes to community, as the small business owners connect to their local community in a way that Starbucks and Quiznos can’t.  And studies show that locals are more likely to patronise these small businesses than the chains.  Indeed, this morning, Bojangles, the local indie café was busy, filled with both commuters on their way to work and those with more time to sit and enjoy their coffee.  Whereas the Starbucks, while it got a fair amount of foot traffic from commuters, it doesn’t have the same community feel.

I fear, however, that Montréal is getting it wrong with Griffintown.  The early plans for the massive redevelopment of Griff by Devimco called for massive shopping areas and big box stores.  The commercial developments were supposed to pay for the residential developments.  As for anything else that urban residents might need, well, “Whatever,” Devimco seemed to say.  Of course, Devimco’s bold plans were thwarted somewhat by the recession.  The redevelopment is now a mixture of Devimco’s big District Griffin (how tragic it would be to have that old English name on the neighbourhood, eh, OQLF?) and a smattering of smaller developments, with the massive redevelopment of the old Canada Post Lands at the other end of Griff at the foot of rue Guy.

Missing, though, from all these redevelopment plans in Griff was any idea of what residents were supposed to do.  There still are no plans for schools in the neighbourhood.  It wasn’t until early 2012 that the Ville de Montréal announced that it had earmarked some money to create public parks.  It’s still not entirely clear where they’ll be, other than the already extant Parc St. Ann/Griffintown at the bottom of rue de la Montagne at Wellington.  And given Montréal’s history of development and redevelopment, and the fact that the mayor, first Gérald Tremblay and now Michael Applebaum, just has dollar signs in his eyes when talking about Griffintown, I have zero hope of Griffintown being redeveloped right.  In fact, I am almost positive it will be a disaster.

It’s tragic, as Montréal has a chance to redevelop a huge swath of valuable land at the foot of downtown, to emulate what Vancouver did with Yaletown in the 90s and 00s.  But it has done nothing to suggest that it will get it right.  And that’s trafic.


Ten Thousand Saints and the Nostalgia of the Record Store

March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Last week I read Eleanor Henderson‘s excellent début novel, Ten Thousand Saints.  This was a book I randomly came across, and, like most books I randomly come across, I was lucky.  Ten Thousand Saints tells the story of Jude, a disaffected teenager in Burlington, Vermont (disguised as Lintonburg, for reasons I don’t quite understand since the rest of Vermont gets to keep its names), a sad sack little city about two hours from Montréal on Lake Champlain.  Jude, I should also point out, is about a year older than I am.  His best friend, Teddy, dies of an overdose on New Year’s Eve 1987, after he and Jude huff pretty much everything, including freon from an air conditioner, but Teddy also did coke for the first time, introduced to him by Eliza, Jude’s step-sister, who’s in town for a few hours from NYC.  Teddy’s older brother, Johnny, also lives in NYC.

The novel then follows Jude, Johnny, and Eliza through the hardcore scene in the NYC underground in the late 80s (looking at Henderson’s picture on her website, she does not look the sort who would).  Jude transforms from a pothead huffing high school dropout in Burlington to a straight-edge hardcore punk in NYC, frontman of his own band, the Green Mountain Boys (a clever play on their Vermont roots and Ethan Allen during the War of Independence).  Henderson does a great job of illuminating the culture of the hardcore scene of the late 80s, both in NYC and around the rest of the East Coast, as well as issues of gentrification on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, especially around Tompkins Park in Alphabet City, where Johnny lives, and around St. Mark’s Place, where Jude sometimes lives with his father.

Ten Thousand Saints made me nostalgic.  At the other end of the continent, in Vancouver, I was starting to get into some of this music, if not yet the scene.  Many of the bands Henderson references were in my cassette collection by 1989-90, a couple of years after Jude and Johnny were rocking out in the Green Mountain Boys. Though I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the standard bearers of the straight edge scene in the late 80s, Fugazi, are not mentioned, though Ian McKaye’s earlier band, Minor Threat, are the gods of Jude, Johnny, and their crowd.  What made me nostalgic was record stores.  This is how Jude got into the scene in NYC in the first place, hanging around the record stores of the Lower East Side.

As I mentioned in my last piece here, on the Minutemen, Track Records in Vancouver was where I began to discover all these punk and hardcore bands in my late teens.  Track stood on Seymour Street, between Pender and Dunsmuir, and as you went up the block, there was an A&A Records and Tapes, then Track, then A&B Sound, and then Sam the Record Man.  Two indies and two corporate stores.  And between the four of them, you could find anything you wanted and at a reasonable price.  Zulu Records also stood on West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, a short bus ride from downtown on the Number 4 bus.  Of those stores, only Zulu remains.  I’m in Vancouver right now, and I think I’m going to make my way over there today.

But it was in record stores that kids like me learned about this entire universe of punk and alternative music in the late 80s.  In places like Track and Zulu, we heard the likes of Fugazi and the Minutemen, as well as the Wonderstuff and Pop Will Eat Itself and the Stone Roses playing on the hi-fi.  This is where we could find the alternative press and zines, I found out about all these British bands from the NME and Melody Maker.  You’d talk to the guys working in the stores (and it was almost always guys, rarely were there women working in these stores), you’d talk to the older guys browsing the record collections about what was good.  Some of these guys were assholes and too cool to impart their wisdom, but most of them weren’t.  And then you’d rush home to the suburbs and listen to the new music, reading the liner notes and the lyrics as you did.

For the longest time, I held out against digital music.  I liked the physical artefact of music.  I liked the sleeve, the liner notes and the record/cassette/cd.  In part, I liked it because of the act of buying it, of going into the record store, even the corporate ones, listening to what was playing in the store, looking around and finding something.  There’s not many record stores left.  The big Canadian chains are all dead and gone.  Same with the big American ones.  In Boston, the great indie chain, Newbury Comics, isn’t really a record store anymore.  The flagship store on Newbury St. has more clothes, books, movies, and just general knick knacks than music.  Montréal had a bunch of underground stores up rues Saint-Denis and Mont-Royal, but they’re slowly dying, too.  And here in Vancouver, the only one I know of is Zulu (though I’m sure there’s more on the east side, on Main, Broadway or Commercial).

I miss the community of music, it just doesn’t exist anymore.  I suppose if I wanted to, I could find it online, discussion groups and the like.  But it’s not the same.  There’s no physical artefact to compare and share.  There’s just iTunes or Amazon.

Boston’s Architectural Behemothology — UPDATED

February 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

800px-CityHallPlaza_Boston_2009_908Government Center, downtown Boston.  It is rare to see such a massive, overwhelming failure of this sort anywhere.  Standing outside the T station last fall, I looked across the windswept brick City Hall Plaza, amazed that anyone ever thought this kind of brutalist behemethology was a good idea.  Especially in a city like Boston that generally boasts beautiful architecture from the colonial era forward.  Indeed, from Government Center, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, or Beacon Hill, or the Common and Public Gardens.  Boston’s public spaces are always full of people, tourists and Bostonians taking in the sights and the vibe.  The city has even done a great job rehabilitating the old waterfront around Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park.  Hell, even the park space over what was the Big Dig and the buried I-93 is used.  But City Hall Plaza?  There wasn’t a single soul on that desert of hideousness.  Not a one.  And, looking at this image, you can see why.


Government Center is, well, the centre of government in Boston, this perfect amalgam of city, county, and state government on one location.  Government Center looms over downtown Boston like some horrible spaceship from the nightmares you have as a child.  The New England Holocaust Memorial is just across Congress St. from Government Center.  As I walked through the memorial, which is one of the most effective I’ve seen, I couldn’t help but feel the spectre of Government Center on me.  Even as we walked on to Faneuil Hall, Government Center loomed above.  It reminded me of that strange ball that followed No. 6 around in The Prisoner, keeping him from ever finding happiness or freedom.

Yes, Government Center is that bad.  It sucks joy from the air around it.  It stands as an insult against everything that surrounds it.  It is, as a friend (an architect) would call it, an aesthetic insult.  City Hall Plaza is bad, no doubt, but as that name indicates, there is a City Hall that comes with it.  Boston’s City Hall is, not surprisingly, a horrible piece of brutalism, designed to intimidate the poor citizen standing outside of it.  Every time I pass it, I imagine a cartoon of some poor, downtrodden sod standing in front of a faceless bureaucracy.  Brutalist architecture is designed to be imposing and intimidating.  And Boston is certainly not the only city to be marred by this abomination.  University campuses are particularly good examples of brutalism, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog.

479px-City_Hall_and_Volunteer_Monument,_Winnipeg,_MB,_1887Winnipeg is a fine example of this.  Its glorious initial City Hall, constructed in the late 19th century when Winnipeg was a boomtown, the laying of its cornerstone was a momentous occasion and a public holiday.  Looking at the old building, it’s easy to see why Winnipeggers were so proud of it.  It was a striking Victorian presence over the city.  But, by the 1960s, it was antiquated and, like Boston, the ‘Peg choose to replace its City Hall with a new brutalist design.

However, unlike Boston, Winnipeg’s brutalist City Hall at least has greenspace around it.  Interestingly, the introduction of greenery and foliage around brutalist architecture can go a long way to normalising it and reducing its imposition on the landscape.  This is, I would think, why brutalist architecture on university campuses, as ugly as it is, doesn’t impose in the same way that Government Center does. Government Center is devoid of green space, there isn’t a single one anywhere on the massive, sprawling development.  WpgCityhall

What Government Center replaced is Scollay Square, which was created officially in 1838, though the name dates back to the end of the 18th century; it was named for William Scollay, a local businessman.  Scollay Square was the centre of downtown Boston throughout its existence.  The problem was that by the Second World War, Scollay Square was getting seedy.  One of its centrepieces was the Howard Theatre, and by this point, it was starting to slide downscale and attract a sleezy clientèle, mostly sailors on shore leave and, oh heavens!, students.  Scollay Square was on the decline.  And when the Howard was raided by the city’s vice squad in 1953 and shutdown due to a burlesque show, the writing was on the wall.  The Howard eventually burned down in 1961.  By the 1950s, Boston city officials were looking around for excuses to tear apart Scollay Square.  The area was becoming home to too many flophouses and Boston’s rough waterfront had migrated too far inland.  The Howard’s destruction by fire became the excuse to step into action, and it was torn down.  Over 1,000 buildings were torn down and over 20,000 residents, most of whom were low income, were displaced.


In many ways, Boston is no different than any other North American (or, for that matter, European) city in the 1960s, undergoing urban redevelopment.  Montréal also underwent massive redevelopment in the 1960s and 70s, as a trip through the downtown core shows today.  Place-des-Arts, Place Desjardins, Place Ville-Marie, the Palais de Justice and the Palais de Congrès all date from this period.  It’s not even the scale of Government Center that sets it apart from other redevelopment.  No, it’s simply the massive failure of it, and its horrid imposition on the landscape of downtown Boston.  Certainly, breaking up the monotony of concrete and red brick with trees, grass, and other such things would help.  But, at the end of the day, as ugly as brutalist architecture is elsewhere, nothing can quite touch the size and grandeur of the buildings in Government Center.  Walking up Staniford Street, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed (or maybe the proper term is underwhelmed) by the Government Service Center.

Boston’s mayor, Thomas Mennino, has mused several times in recent years about doing away with at least City Hall and re-locating to South Boston.  Not surprisingly, this was met with controversy, as a group called “Citizens for City Hall,” professing to love the building, threatened all kinds of hellfire and damnation should Mennino think about destroying it.  Fortunately for them, the recession got in the mayor’s plans.  Citizens City Hall sought to have the location designated as a landmark, and also noted that re-locating the seat of city government to Southie, as Mennino planned, would also lead to the dislocation of thousands of residents (again, just as when Government Center was built).  At any rate, by 2011, cooler heads prevailed and a new group, “Friends of City Hall” sought to improve the present location and do something to make both City Hall and the Plaza more user friendly.  Part of this work will begin this summer, when the MBTA shuts down the Government Center T station to remodel it.  Hopefully something can be done to improve Government Center as a whole, not just City Hall and its Plaza, to make this abomination more user-friendly and more aesthetically appealing.

coliseumUPDATE: From personal friend and Tweep, John P. Fahey. who grew up in New Haven, CT: Agreed, Government Center suffers in comparison with the architecture in the surrounding area.  Urban Renewal was a hot button topic in the 1960s.  The idea was to sweep out the old neighborhoods and replace them with new buildings.   New Haven did the exact same thing in the 1960s as part of the Model Cities initiative.  It knocked down a narrow swathe of a neighborhood that ran from where I-91 starts about 3 miles to Route 34.  The City put up an ugly Coliseum that has since been knocked down.  When I was a kid I used to ask my mother when they were going to finish it because it never looked complete. New Haven ran out of Urban Renewal money and thus there is this long narrow strip of land extending from the center of New Haven that resembles Dresden after the fire bombing.  There was enough Model Cities money to knock down the old neighborhood but not enough to put up the new buildings.  If the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum was an example of the  type of the architecture that the Elm City would have received, then maybe it was lucky.

The Working-Class and Community, Griffintown and Beyond

February 1, 2013 § 6 Comments

Almost to a person, every former Griffintowner I talked to over a decade of working on the neighbourhood commented on the sense of community they felt in living there, how it was a place where people took care of their neighbours.  David O’Neill, who helped me extensively during the research and who put in me in contact with many former Griffintowners, commented that when he was growing up there in the 1940s and 50s, it was like having a community of parents, everyone watched out for each other’s children on the streets.  And if O’Neill and his friends got up to something they shouldn’t have, by the time they returned home, their parents would be waiting for them with the intelligence, ready to punish the kids.

But Griffintown was never unique for this characteristic, this is a commonality to nearly all former working-class neighbourhoods I’ve ever read about, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  It is also a way that is lost today.  People who grew up in close-knit working-class communities are almost always nostalgic for what has been lost.  They miss the community and comaraderie they experienced in those communities.  They miss what kept them in line, be it the Church or work, or just the simple existence of real and authentic community.

The universality of this mindset hit home the other day in Salem, MA, at the National Park Service’s Custom House site.  When the Park Service created the site, they removed a set of derelict buildings that had popped up in an alleyway behind the old Customs House on Derby Street.  In the early 20th century, an entire working-class immigrant community existed along Derby Street, and in the alleys behind the Customs House.  Here there were tenement houses of varying quality and shops and services that served, first, Irish immigrants, and then, in the 20th century, Poles and Russians and Ukrainians.  Taking aside the question of the authenticity of the Customs House site given the destruction of the homes of this long-gone working-class community, what struck me the most was the description of what was once there, including a quotation from a former resident, Dorothy Philip, as seen in the photo

The “Curation” of Southie and the General Over Use of the Term

December 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

We were in Southie yesterday, the former Irish-Catholic working-class neighbourhood of Boston.  Southie is undergoing massive yuppification these days.  The working classes are being squeezed out, and the yuppies are moving in.  This was clear as we took the #9 Broadway bus from Copley Square into Southie.  The bus is the great equaliser of Boston society; in some parts of the city, it’s the only time one sees large numbers of minorities.  We got off the bus at the corner of West Broadway and A Street, on our way to a yuppified Christmas foodie craft fair at Artists for Humanity on West 2nd Street.  In a lot of ways, Southie looked to me like a combination of parts of the Plateau Mont-Royal and Pointe-Saint-Charles back home in Montréal.  The architecture was Plateau-like in terms of post-industrial spaces and housing, but the people looked like they could be in the Pointe.  There was a curious mixture of the down and out, the working-classes, hipsters, and yuppies of every skin colour.

Gentrification is a creeping problem in pretty much every North American and European city, and much has been written about this, including on this very blog (like, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).  But what struck me the most was Social Wines, a wine and beer emporium in a spanking new building on West Broadway at A Street.  Social Wines offers its clientele “Curated Craft Beer and Spirits.”  Now, I must confess, this is my kind of store: it focuses on smaller, indie breweries and vineyards.  I like giving my money to these kinds of companies, rather than the Molsons, Budweisers, and massive vineyard conglomerates of the world.  But curated?  What the hell does that mean?

According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary on-line, a “curator” is “one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.  To “curate” is: “to act as curator of a museum or exhibit curated by the museum’s director.”

Of late, hipsters and academics have abused the term “curate” like it’s nobody’s business.  It is one thing, in the field of Public History and its corollaries, to write of the ways in which museums and the like have “curated” items.  That is the proper use of the term.  But when editors of edited collections of academic papers start referring to themselves as “curators” and not “editors,” well, then we have a problem.  Meanwhile.  Hipsters.  On any given day, one can go to PitchforkMedia and see articles about this or that music festival that has been “curated” by someone.  The most egregious example of this is the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which takes place in merry olde England, with branches occurring in the US, too.  Each year, ATP is “curated” by a guest musician, one of stature and great fame.  What that means is that someone is in charge of deciding who should play, and the list of artists reflects the curator’s tastes.  Yup, deciding who should play a music festival is curation.

And so now we have a hipster beer and wine store in Southie that offers us “curated” booze.  What, exactly is curated?  The collection of booze on sale.  See, the old ma and pop liquor store down the street just orders in booze that they figure their clientele will enjoy.  But, not hipsters, they lovingly and carefully “curate” the collection of booze on sale at Social Wines.  I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better knowing that rather than having some old geezer just randomly order wines and beers that may or may not be any good, we have the fine folk at Social Wines to very carefully curate their collection.

My problem with the use of this term?  It’s very simple.  It’s pretentious.  And nothing quite says “I’m a wanker” like declaring that you curated your liquor store.  I applaud Social Wines’ mission.  Hell, next time I’m in Southie, I may even stop in and peruse their collection of wines.  But the use of this term by book editors, musicians, and liquor store owners also seriously devalues the meaning of the word in its true professional sense.

Professional curators, those who work in museums and art galleries, do not just collect stuff they like to display.  They are responsible for the content of exhibits, and they are required to carefully make decisions on what is appropriate and what is not, to carefully arrange the displays, to negotiate with sponsors, and so on and so forth.  There is a reason why curators go to school to learn how to properly curate.  Musicians and liquor store owners do not.


On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Pt. IV

June 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

Yesterday, during Bloomsday, I presented The Point a 1978 documentary on Pointe-Saint-Charles directed by Robert Duncan and produced by William Weintraub.  The film presents a very depressing picture of a very depressed neighbourhood in the late 1970s: a picture of unemployment, alcoholism, violence, and dislocation.  The graduating class of James Lyng Catholic High School faced a bleak future in 1978, unilingual and unskilled.

I then presented a bit of context to the film, both the historical time period in which the film, and by whom (Anglos in the late 1970s, between the election of the Parti québécois as the provincial government in 1976 and the First Referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1980).  In shot, a very volatile period in Montréal’s and Québec’s history.  I also pointed out that the Pointe was more than just some sad sack inner-city slum, pointing to such things as the Clinique communitaire de Pointe-Saint-Charles and other examples of neighbourhood organisation and resistance (i.e.: the very things that I love the Pointe for).  I felt it was important to demonstrate to the audience that a poor, dislocated neighbourhood with rampant unemployment during the years of deindustrialisation was more than just that, it was a community (this is something I have learned in studying Griffintown, especially from talking to former Griffintowners).

I then moved on to discuss gentrification here in the Pointe.  I am of two minds on it.  On the one hand, the Pointe is not Griffintown, the condo developers and gentrifying tenement owners do not have to start from scratch.  There is a very strong community here already. On the other hand, the community that exists here only works when those of us who are interlopers get involved, and understand what already exists here and how precious that is.

I have posted before in this series “On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood,” (here, here, and here) my experiences and impressions as I look around the Pointe, both good and bad.

But tonight, sitting on my front stoop, talking on the phone (because it’s about the only place I can get a continuous signal in my flat), the entire process of gentrification was brought home to me in blatant fashion.  A young woman, in her early 20s, and pregnant, is looking for a place to live.  The flat upstairs is for rent, so I talked to her, told her about it, how big it was, etc.  It was apparent that she is a single mother-to-be, as she used the singular in referring to her needs for a flat.  She looked sad and defeated, because the flats around here cost too much for her to afford.  As she turned to go, she said “It looks like they just want to push all the poor people out of the Pointe.”

What can you say to that?  Especially when you’re one of the guilty.  It is a simple fact that rents are going up in the Pointe, both because former rental units are being bought up and converted into single-family homes, and because landlords are realising they can make a lot more money if they renovate and gentrify their flats.  And so where does that leave this woman?  A quick search of Craigslist for flats in the Pointe reveals the same thing, they’re getting expensive.  And so where do those who can’t afford to live here go?

I don’t have the answer for that one.

Filming Griffintown

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two months ago, I posted this about film-maker Scott MacLeod‘s fundraising attempts for a documentary on Griffintown.  I’m happy to report he raised enough money and all systems are go.  Today, I will be meeting up with Scott and his crew for a bit of filming before Ireland takes on Croatia in its first match of Euro 2012.  I am slated to discuss the destruction of Griffintown in the 20th century, due to both bureaucratic inertia on the part of Hôtel de Ville, and depopulation due to deindustrialisation in Griffintown.  Of course, all the Lachine Canal-side neighbourhoods of Montréal experienced deindustrialisation, but Pointe-Saint-Charles, Little Burgundy, Saint-Henri, Côte-Saint-Paul and the like didn’t become ghost towns like the Griff.  The difference?  A combination of local populations resisting deindustrialisation and depopulation (the Pointe, in particular, was home to a radical, populist resistance), as well as political support.  Griffintown got none of that.  The city abandoned Griffintown, left it to die.

Fast-forward 50 years and now there is nothing the Ville de Montréal loves more than Griffintown.  You can practically see the dollar signs in Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s eyes whenever someone mentions the word “Griffintown.”  All the city can see is the tax dollars that will come in from all the condo dwellers there once Devimco and a handful of other developers are done with the neighbourhood.  Did I say neighbourhood?  Oops, sorry.  To me, neighbourhood means a form of community, there is common cause amongst neighbours.  In some cases, this is organic, in other cases, communities can be planned to encourage neighbourliness.  The re-jigged Griffintown, however, is not one of those.  No parks, no schools.  None of that.  Can’t have that, that’d steal space from condos!

So we are going to get a district of high rise condominiums, populated by harried, busy urban dwellers with no real, organic chances for community living, unless they seize the chances themselves.  Maybe they’ll become the condo dwellers here in the Pointe, many of whom have joined the casseroles protests, such as they exist in the Pointe, and have joined the community gardens, and have joined the old populist community organisations of the Pointe?  Or maybe they won’t.  I’m not optimistic, because the Pointe already had this community-based model when the condos went up and when we gentrifiers moved into remodelled tenements.  The Griff has none of that.

But don’t tell Gerald Tremblay.  Actually, go ahead, he’s not listening anyway.

Community in Pointe-Saint-Charles

April 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

Pointe-Saint-Charles has historically been an inner-city working-class neighbourhood. And a forgotten one, hemmed in by the industrial nature of the Lachine Canal and the Canadian National Railway tracks and train yards. The inhabitants toiled away for long hours for low wages, often without security of tenure at work. And then deindustrialisation hit the Pointe hard in the 70s and 80s. Suddenly, all the people who worked long hours for low wages couldn’t work anymore for any wages. And the Pointe’s unemployment rate shot up, reaching something like 33% by 1990.  Even today, with creeping gentrification, the Pointe still has shocking pockets of poverty, high unemployment, and high reliance on social services.  Each week, the food bank at St. Gabriel’s Church across the street from my flat has a long line outside it. The Mission du Grand Berger on rue Centre and the charity shop in the back of the towering Église Saint-Charles are going concerns. As is the pawn shop and the dollar stores on Centre. Wellington, the former commercial hub of the Pointe, looks like a ghost town.

In short, the Pointe is a classic, inner-city, downtrodden neighbourhood. And yet, it has one of the strongest senses of community I have ever seen in a city. And it is an inclusive community, one that welcomes all: French, English, working class, yuppies, immigrants. The lingering tension that hangs over the sud-ouest of Montréal between French and English doesn’t exist here. The tensions surrounding gentrification is also more or less absent. The block I live on is a dividing line between the yuppies and the working classes. I live on the north side, the yuppified side. And yet, everyone is friendly.  This is seriously a place where you go into the dépanneur and end up having a 20-minute conversation with the shopkeeper and customers about the Habs. Where you know your neighbours.

The sense of community is deeply-rooted in the Pointe. One of the focal points is the Clinique communitaire de Pointe-Saint-Charles on rue Ash in the southern end of the neighbourhood.  The Clinic was founded back in 1968 when a bunch of radical medical students from McGill came down here and were appalled by what they saw in terms of public health. My favourite story involved a young girl who said that when she went to the bathroom at home, she had to pound the floor with her shoes so that the rats didn’t bite her. So they did something. They weren’t entirely welcomed by the people of the Pointe, it must be noted. Instead of picking up their marbles and going home, instead they invited the community to get involved. The Clinic was a radical organisation, grassroots in nature, and the medical staff there made the connection between poverty, ill health, and mental health. The Clinic has had a psychiatrist on staff since 1970.

The Pointe Clinic predates Québec’s innovative CLSC (Centre local des services communitaire) system, a sort of front-line centre for health and other social services in the communities of the province. In fact, the Pointe Clinic was a model for Robert Bourassa’s Liberals when they created the CLSC system in 1974. The Pointe Clinic demanded that it’s autonomy be respected and the government left it outside of the CLSC system. Five years later, the Parti Québécois of René Lévesque was in power, and the government attempted to bring the Pointe Clinic into the CLSC system. Bad move, as the community mobilised and protested against the government’s decision. The government had no choice but to back down. Indeed, the Health Minister said: “Compte tenu de votre existence antérieure à l’implantation des CLSC, le ministère des affaires sociales a confirmé son intention de ne pas vous assimiler à ce type d’établissement mais bien de respecter la spécificité de votre organisme.”

And so the Clinic survived and thrived, as it continued to grow in terms of staff and importance in the community. Indeed, the Clinic is still run by members of the community, not the medical staff and certainly not the government. But this autonomy has not been easy to protect. Perhaps the greatest battle came in 1992, when Robert Bourassa and the Liberals were back in power. That year, the government proposed the Loi sur la santé et les services sociaux. As the Clinic explains on its website:

Le projet de loi C-120 menace la survie de la Clinique en la plaçant devant un choix qui n’en est pas un : soit la Clinique conserve sa charte d’organisme communautaire ‘privé’ et perd alors son permis de CLSC ainsi que le financement qui lui ai rattaché, soit elle devient un CLSC ‘public’ et renonce à sa charte et à son mode de fonctionnement communautaire.

Bad move, government. The community of Pointe-Saint-Charles mobilised on the streets. 600 people marched to protest the government’s plan. There was street theatre and delegations to the local and provincial politicians. Half of the adult population of the Pointe signed a petition protesting the government’s plans. The government had no choice but to back down.

A final battle in the middle of the last decade saw the Clinic brought within the larger system, but at the same time maintaining its autonomy.  No one calls it the CLSC here in the Pointe. Instead, we all know it as the Clinique Communautaire de Pointe-Saint-Charles, or the Clinic.

A second branch was opened on rue Centre. One of the deepest ironies of a protest against the condofication of the neighbourhood came a couple of years ago when a condo development on Centre, next door to the CLSC went up in flames when it was still under construction. The developers returned, and rebuilt the condos. But those who suffered: the small drycleaner next door and the CLSC, which was closed for nearly a year as it attempted to recover.

The Clinic is a community centre in the Pointe, something for which the people here have every right to be proud. And because the people of the Pointe have been so successful in creating and protecting their clinic, the community here has been able to successfully protect itself from some forms of gentrification. I had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time at the Clinic this winter due to some freaky health issues, and I was always blown away by the ways in which this community has mobilised to protect itself.

These days, the big issue is what is to become of the CNR yards at the southern end of the neighbourhood, the point for which Pointe-Saint-Charles is named. Rather than allow a bunch of condos be thrown up on the old rail yards , the Comité Action CN formed out of the Carrefour d’éducation populaire de Pointe-Saint-Charles on rue Centre to protect the community and to propose an alternative for the development of those lands. Last autumn, the Comité created a glossy publication, “Les terrains du CN de Pointe-Saint-Charles: Des proposition citoyennes.” Not wishing to be subject to expensive condos that will further alienate the residents of the neighbourhood and continue to put affordable housing out of reach, to say nothing of the pollution and noise caused by the construction condos on the site, the Comité proposes community gardens and a market, and to use the old buildings as a new community centre, as well as a housing co-operative. But before any of this happens, the Comité insists that the CN lands need to be decontaminated.

Too often I read of laments for community, or worse yet, the argument that community can only be forged by yuppies in their soul-less condos.  Clearly, the Pointe says otherwise.

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