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.

UPDATE: The Griffintown Horse Palace

September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has met and exceeded its goal, and with three days to spare!  As of right now, the Indiegogo page has raised $49,335!  The goal was $45,000.

The Foundation is also hosting a fundraising soirée at the Horse Palace, 1226, rue Ottawa, in Griffintown, on Thursday night, 2 October, from 5pm.  Tickets are $75, and can be purchased here.  More details on the soirée can be found on the Foundation’s Facebook page here.

A huge thank you to all who have contributed.  Even though I am no longer involved with the Foundation, I strongly believe in its mission and want to see Leo’s Horse Palace saved!

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.

On the Radio: Boston College’s Belfast Project

June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here is the podcast (you want to click on the 29 May show) of my appearance on CKUT’s O Stories show last Thursday.  The show is an hour long, the first half of the show is en français and is, in part, a discussion about the Québécois chanteur Fred Pellerin.  The Anglo half of the show begins, well, half-way through.  The second half hour is myself and my good friend, film-maker G. Scott MacLeod.  For the first bit, we talk about his excellent work on Griffintown.  And then I discuss Boston College’s Belfast Project with host (and friend) Elena Razlagova.  Happy listening.

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.

Griffintown and the Importance of Urban Planning

May 12, 2014 § 6 Comments

This will be the first of a series of posts on Griffintown this week.  I was in Montréal last week, mostly to finish up a bit of research on the Griffintown book, which, at least has a title, ‘The House of the Irish’: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013.  The last chapter of the manuscript deals with what I call the post-memory of Griffintown, the period of the past half-decade or so of redevelopment and gentrification of the neighbourhood.  Griffintown was in desperate need of redevelopment, so let’s get that out of the way first and foremost.  A large swath of near-vacant city blocks next to the Old Port, along the North Bank of the Lachine Canal, and down the hill from downtown, it was inevitable that it would attract attention.

My problem was never with redevelopment per se, then.  My problem was with unsustainable development, willful neglect of the environment, of the landscape of the neighbourhood, and with blatant cash grabs by condo developers, and tax grabs on the part of the Ville de Montréal.  And so that’s what we now have in Griffintown, for the most part.

In between conducting oral history interviews with my former allies in the fight for sustainable redevelopment, I wandered around Griffintown, Pointe-Saint-Charles, and Saint-Henri a fair bit.  This was both professional interest and because I lived in the Pointe and Saint-Henri.  I also had an interesting discussion with a clerk at Paragraphe Books on McGill College.  Then there were the interviews.

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Housing development, Copenhagen.

My friend Scott MacLeod says that many of the condos going up in Griffintown look like “Scandinavian social housing.”  I think he’s onto something.  This is a picture from a housing development in Copenhagen.  It is quite similar to what’s going up in Griffintown, with one key difference.  In Copenhagen, there is green space.  In Griffintown, there is none.

Part of the genius of Montreal is an almost utter lack of urban planning on

Griffintown condos.

Griffintown condos.

the grand scale.  And in the case of Griffintown, the city has been almost negligent in its approach.  During its overzealous attempt to approve any and all projects proposed by developers in Griffintown from about 2006 to 2010, the Ville de Montréal overlooked a few key components for the new neighbourhood: parks and schools.  It was only after 2010 that the city thought that maybe it should earmark some land for, you know, parks.  Schools? Who needs them?

 

Griffintown: Keegan House Saved. Really?

April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Montreal is a strange place.  The city basically works in completely counter-intuitive ways.  Last week, the Comité consultatif d’urbanisme (CCU) of the arrondissement sud-ouest of the Ville de Montréal denied permission to developer, Maitre-Carré, to tear down the oldest building in Griffintown, a grotty old house that stands at 175, rue de la Montagne.  The Keegan House, as it is now known, was built sometime between 1825 and 1835, on Murray Street, a block over from its present state.  It was moved to what was then McCord Street in 1865, around the same time that the handsome row of townhouses was constructed up the block.

When Maitre Carré’s plans were first made public, I was apprehensive, but also thought that perhaps the developer deserved our benefit of the doubt, insofar as it had, at least, made some nod to heritage in Griff when Hugo Girard-Beauchamp, the company’s president, bought the Horse Palace and has at least nodded to the idea of maintaining the Palace as a working stable going forward (whether this will happen in practice is a whole different kettle of fish).  Indeed, as my friend, G. Scott MacLeod, a film-maker interested in Griff, said, Maitre-Carré is the only developer that has at least acknowledged the history and heritage of the neighbourhood.  Indeed, other condo developers, most notably Devimco and Préval have been more interested in stuffing ugly, neo-brutalist blocks of condos down on the Griffintown landscape, completely destroying the streetscape (such as it existed) and dwarfing the original buildings.

Having said all that, at this point anyway (because one never knows in Montreal), this is an optimistic sign.  Anne-Marie Sigouin, the city councillor for Saint-Paul/Émard, and the chair of the CCU, said (according to The Gazette) “We have sent the architects back to the drawing board.  We want to send a clear message on heritage protection.”  This is rather surprising, since the CCU and the Ville de Montréal as a whole have not demonstrated much in the way of leadership up to now in Griff.

Montréal’s Griffintown Redevelopment #FAIL

February 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

The Gazette this morning reports news that the Keegan House just around the corner on rue de la Montagne from Wellington, and across from where St. Ann’s Church once stood, is under threat of demolition from Maitre-Carré, the developer responsible for the condo tower at the corner of de la Montagne and Ottawa.  The Keegan House was built sometime between 1825 and 1835 on Murray Street, a block over.  In 1865, it was moved to its current site.

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The house was moved because of the development around Griff.  Unlike many other urban neighbourhoods, and unlike the current redevelopment, Griffintown was developed on a lot-by-lot basis.  There were not block long, or multi-lot developments as a rule.  So as Murray Street was developed, Andrew Keegan, a school teacher, moved his house to a  more prestigious locale, across the street from St. Ann’s Church.  As David Hanna, an urban studies professor at UQÀM, notes, the block across the street from St. Ann’s was where the nicest housing in Griff was.  But that is still a relative statement.  Even the nicest homes in Griffintown could not compare with even the swankier locales across the canal in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

In recent years, the Keegan House has fallen into disrepair.  I was in the building 7 or 8 years ago, and it was in rough shape.   Maitre-Carré have bought the lots from 161-75 de la Montagne for redevelopment.  Also slated to be demolished is the building that housed what used to be the Coffee Pot, a hangout for Griffintowners across the street from the Church.  After the Coffee Pot closed in the early 1960s, the building was split in two, with a dépanneur and a tavern operating there.  The tavern limped to its death about a decade ago.  Both the Coffee Pot building and the Keegan House were given an unfortunate renovation in the 1950s or 60s, with their outer walls encased in concrete, which greatly diminished their aesthetic appeal.

Now what makes this story interesting and oh-so Montréal is that Hugo Girard-Beauchamp, the president of Maitre-Carré, claims that his company has no intention of destroying the Keegan House and, in fact, wishes to incorporate it into the new development.  You know what? I believe him.  Maitre-Carré and Girard-Beauchamp are the ones were worked with through the Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation.  And while he remains a businessman, Girard-Beauchamp was also more than willing to listen to us and even help us preserve the Horse Palace.  In fact, I would go so far as to say, at least when I was on the Board of the GHPF, that we would not have succeeded without his help.

However.  This is Montréal.  The borough isn’t sharing the plans for this development.  Julie Nadon, the chief of planning for the borough, says they’re “confidential.”  They shouldn’t be.  Too much of the redevelopment of Griffintown has been done this way.  The Ville de Montréal has operated in Star Chamber secrecy, refusing to divulge its plans to anyone other than the developers until it’s too late.  A couple of years ago, the Ville de Montréal held a public session at the ÉTS to show off its plans for Griff.  It’s plans had already been made with 0 public input.  None.  At all.

Montréal’s Star Chamber secrecy violates the very principles of democracy and the things that Montréal likes to pride itself on, which is an open city, with a creative class proud of its civic engagement.  In Griffintown, the Ville de Montréal stonewalls civic engagement at each and every turn.  It’s embarrassing and it’s no way to run a city.  #fail

Changes in Griffintown, 2011-2014

February 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

I got an email from Dave Flavell the other day.  I’ve known Dave for a few years; he contacted me awhile back for some help on a project he was doing on Griffintown.  He was collecting oral histories of the community and its diaspora, with a view towards publishing a book.  Last time we talked about it, he said the book was on its way to publication.  This email contained photos of Griff, in particular of the Horse Palace on Ottawa street, taken in 2011, 2013, and 2014.  The changes are stunning.

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2011. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2011. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

In the first photo, we look down Eleanor street at the Horse Palace, built in 1862, standing at the end of the block on Ottawa, surrounded by huge trees.  Time was these were amongst the only trees in Griffintown a hundred years ago.  The old St. Ann’s Kindergarten is on the left, now the headquarters of King’s Transfer, a moving company that’s been based in the neighbourhood for almost a century.  It’s also where I conducted the majority of the oral history interviews for House of the Irish, thanks to the generosity of Bill O’Donell, the president of King’s.  In this picture, the Horse Palace looks much as it has for the past thirty-forty years.  But a closer look shows that it’s already under transformation.  Leo Leonard, the legendary proprietor of the Horse Palace, and his wife Hugeuette, had already sold and moved to a retirement home.  Leo, though, did not get much of an opportunity to enjoy retirement, he died in in July 2012 at the age of 87. Already, the building is under renovation, new windows have been put in on the second floor.  But the actual stable, which is just out of sight, behind those moving trucks, was still in full working order.

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2013. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2013. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

The next picture was taken last year.  From the exact same spot.  Now the Horse Palace residence is dwarfed by an 8-story condo built next door and behind it, fronting on rue de la Montagne.  This building was under construction in 2011, but had not yet risen to dwarf the Horse Palace.  The Horse Palace building looks tiny and insignificant in the shadow of the condo, which stretches across at least three lots on de la Montagne.

New condo tower and the Griffintown Horse Palace, January 2014. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

New condo tower and the Griffintown Horse Palace, January 2014. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

The final picture was taken a couple of weeks ago, from the corner of Ottawa and de la Montagne, looking east. The shop fronts on Ottawa in the new building remain empty, but looking down the block, after the Horse Palace residence is the old paddock of the stable, which was bought last year by the Ville de Montréal for purposes of turning it into a park to provide access to the actual stables, which the Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has done yeoman’s work to preserve and save. (Full disclosure: I was a board member of the GHPF from 2008 until I left Montréal in 2012).  Continuing on past the paddock, another mid-19th century residence still stands.  And then, at the corner of Ottawa and Murray, another, shorter, 4-story condo stands.  It was built in 2011.  The crane is on the site of Devimco’s massive “District Griffin” development on Peel street.

Even though I have seen this view down Ottawa from de la Montagne, I was still shocked by Dave’s photo.  The entire landscape of Griffintown is massively changed.  The condo at the corner of de la Montagne and Ottawa is representative of the redevelopment.  The streets of Griffintown are narrow, the buildings have always been hard up against the sidewalk. This has contributed to a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere, at least on those blocks where enough buildings still remain.  But these old buildings were 2 floors, at most 3.  The stacking of 4, 6, 8, 10-story condos, lining these narrow streets only enhances this claustrophobia.  It devastates the urban environment.

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