The Uniqueness of Cities

June 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

For some odd reason, I find myself reading a lot about London these days.  I’m really not sure why, I have no real love for the city, to me, as represented in pop culture, it’s a megalopolis of bad architecture.  Nonetheless, I am fascinated by authors’ attempts to tease out what it is that makes London a unique location.  For the most part, I am reading cultural histories, so the focus is less on the built landscape of London (though that certainly frames the action) than on the people who live(d) there.  For the most part, Londoners tend to be praised for their resourcefulness.  And their stolidity.  And the city itself for the ways in which it constantly re-invents itself.

I live in Montréal, a city that claims to be a unique location itself: a French-speaking metropolis in the Anglo sea of North America (conveniently, the Hispanic fact of the southern part of the continent always gets overlooked).  Montréal is a bit of Europe in North America, I am constantly told by both the natives and the tourists who come here.  When I lived in Vancouver, it was the outdoorsiness of the people that made the city unique (nevermind the fact that most Vancouverites AREN’T the outdoorsy types at all).  And Doug Coupland argued it was the glass architecture.

I could go on, taking a trip around the world, laying out urban stereotypes as to what makes each unique.  But in reading all this ephemera about London, I am continually struck by the fact that the things that apparently make London unique in the eyes of erudite and knowledgeable authors really just make London another generic big city.  I would think that ALL urbanites are resourceful and stolid.  And ALL cities constantly reinvent themselves. (As a running series on this blog about my neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles makes clear).

So what then?  Cities are indeed generic.  They all contain the same basics, which vary according to size.  When it comes to the built environment, you’ve got a downtown core, inner-city residential neighbourhoods, some industrial (or post-industrial) inner city neighbourhoods, and these patterns repeat themselves out to and through the suburbs, residential/industrial, until you get to the city limits and the countryside takes over.  Urbanites are a shifty breed, skilled at not noticing the homeless dude begging for change, but very skilled at noticing the various challenges along the sidewalk, including how to carefully avoid the homeless guy.  Neighbourhoods in cities all follow similar patterns, there are points of convergence for the residents, there are amenities, parks, and so on.

And, of course, there is the anonymity of city life.  I live in a city of around 4 million people, but I can go days, weeks, even months without running into someone I know on the streets of Montréal.  I seriously doubt that is any different in Dublin, Boston, San Francisco, Nairobi, Tokyo, or Beijing.

So what is it that makes cities unique?  What is it that makes London or Montréal unique?  Does it come down to how we, the urbanites ourselves, choose to build our cities, and reinvent our cities, and carry out our lives in them?  Certainly Pittsburgh has different things to offer than, say, Winnipeg.  But either way, trying to boil down the lived experience of millions of people, and their millions upon millions of ancestors in any one urban location, whether it has existed for over 2000 years like London or for just over 200 years like Vancouver, is a pointless exercise.  London is no more unique for its constant reinventions and the resourcefulness and stolidity of its people than is, I don’t know, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Part 3

March 3, 2012 § 11 Comments

There is an SAQ outlet at the corner of Centre and Charlevoix here in Pointe-Saint-Charles. For those of you non-Quebecers reading this, SAQ is the Société des Alcools du Québec, the state monopoly, the liquor store.  The SAQ here in the Pointe is a tiny one, a little boutique, but very busy and the staff there are friendly, helpful, and very knowledgeable.  But the SAQ is closing it down as of 30 March this year because, it alleges, the outlet is unprofitable.  If that outlet is unprofitable, I am the King of Siam.  What is at work here is the SAQ forgetting its mandate as a state monopoly, which is not just to make money hand-over-fist, but to provide a service.

So the people of the Pointe, as mobilised as ever, are protesting the closure of our SAQ outlet. There was a march to our MNA’s office on rue Saint-Jacques yesterday to protest.  Why are people protesting? That should seem to be obvious, quite frankly. But the SAQ at the corner of Centre and Charlevoix is in many ways an anchor of the commercial outlets along the next few blocks of Centre. Kitty corner from the SAQ is Restaurant Machiavelli, a relatively upscale eatery. Next door over is Cari Mela, one of the handful of Indian restaurants in the Pointe, and probably the best. Cari Mela, Machiavelli, and the other Indian restaurants along Centre are all bring your own wine.  This makes sense, given the SAQ down the block.

Centre has seen some rough times, but in the past few years there has been a slow regeneration and revival. There have been these new Indian restaurants opening.  There is a mosque acros the street and up a block.  A series of Bengal dépanneurs have popped up. And a series of coffee shops/casse croutes have opened up or have maintained.  More recently, a trendy boutique restaurant, Ma Tante Quiche has opened its doors next to a laundromat, and there are rumours a boulangerie is opening up where the old video store was.

Losing an anchor like the SAQ will have serious ramifications for Centre as a commercial zone.

The CBC had a short story on its website yesterday about the protest, which will no doubt come to naught. The story itself is innocuous, but the comments on it are quite simply, jaw-droppingly stupid. Michael59 says the protest was a stupid joke because the next store is a few blocks away. mikeysm notes that the Pointe is a poor neighbourhood. HughNugent reports that most of his family grew up here and their response would be for us to get up off our fat arses and walk to the Atwater Market, where there’s a big SAQ outlet.

These comments reflect the general idea of the Pointe of a neighbourhood of poor folk, collecting welfare, and spending their banlieue money on lottery tickets.  But there is obviously more than that.  The Pointe is a diverse neighbourhood these days, and the clientele of the SAQ reflects this.  There are people of all ethnicities and socio-economic classes at the outlet buying their alcohol, primarily wine, as that’s what dominates the shelves.  Atwater Market is a good 15 minute walk from the corner of Centre and Charlevoix. It’s a lot farther away if you live further into the Pointe.

But beyond that, the general gist of these comments is that the people of the Pointe are fat and lazy and because they are such, they shouldn’t be wasting their money on alcohol to start with.  I am very curious what the comments would be in response to a story about the closing of a busy SAQ outlet on, say, the Plateau, or the Mile End, or Outremont, or NDG or Westmount.  I’d bet they would be asinine comments such as these.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Part 2

February 24, 2012 § 5 Comments

It is interesting looking at the search terms that have led people to my blog here in the past few days: “car theft pt. st. charles” “murder pt. st. charles” “housing projects pt. st. charles” “crime pointe-saint-charles” “low income housing pointe-saint-charles.”

All negative, all reflecting an old stereotype of the Pointe.  When I first moved down here, from the Mile End way back in 2002, my great uncle, a man who has been around some, said to me, “That’s a good place to get your nose punched in. Or worse.”  I kept trying to tell him it’s not like that, at least not anymore.  He never believed me.  I just shook my head.  But it seems that old visions of the Pointe die hard.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, part 1

February 20, 2012 § 11 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.

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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