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 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.

Constructing Landscapes

February 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

[note: I originally wrote this article nearly 4 years ago for a site that no longer exists; as the ideas contained in this piece are still of interest to me, I am re-publishing it now, mostly for my own purposes going forward.  I have updated parts of this article that were dated.]

I read a fascinating post at Geoff Manaugh’s BLDG Blog about a new video game from LucasArts that allows the player to modify the game’s battlespace through various (fictive?) technologies. And while that in an of itself is interesting, what struck me most was Manaugh’s reference to historian David Blackbourn’s book, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany.

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, 1740-86

Blackbourn argues that modern Prussia (a pre-cursor state to today’s Germany) was literally “made,” or at least its coastline was, during the reign of the Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740-86. During this period, dykes were built, bogs and marshes were drained, land along the shoreline was created, moulded, and so on. Vegetation was imported and shifted from one locale to another along Prussia’s coastline. Frederick’s imperial projects in Prussia were not, in fact, unlike the works the Dutch did along their coastline to make the Netherlands both more productive and more liveable.

Blackbourn’s argument is an interesting one, to be sure: that modern Prussia (and therefore, today’s Germany) was literally made in the shape that Frederick desired; the land was sculpted. This was done not to give him more land to rule over, as Manaugh suggests, but to increase Prussia’s wealth. In the pre-Adam Smith era, the wealth of nations was measured in agricultural production. Indeed, this was a pretty common Enlightenment argument, popularised by François Quesnay and his colleagues in France, the Physiocrats.

Frederick was keenly interested in Enlightenment theories, and corresponded with many leading thinkers of the era. He even hosted the idiosyncratic French thinker Voltaire at his palace at Sans Souci for a while, until their particular personalities led to conflict. Adam Smith, for his part, was a colleague and correspondent of Quesnay and the Physiocrats, and developed his own theories on the wealth of nations, in part from this correspondence.

What’s of interest here is Blackbourn’s argument. Germany isn’t the only nation to be literally made from the ground up. All modern, industrialised, militarised Western nations are so-made. Many former colonial territories, such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, also fall into this category. Our landscape is, all around us, “made”, both in the physical and intellectual sense. Our landscape is only as it is because we – as a culture, a society, as individuals – see it in a certain way.

More than this, the landscapes of these industrialised, Western nations (and their former colonies) are man-made in many ways. Germany and the Netherlands are but two examples. England, also, is crisscrossed by canals, constructed by re-shaping the landscape of the nation to transport goods and commodities during its Industrial Revolution. Indeed, England is a good example of the forging, or of a landscape, as it has been largely deforested in order to create the fuel for industrialisation, and the landscape for industrialisation.

There’s more. All countries are made, or manufactured, in the sense Blackbourn means. In some cases, this is a natural phenomenon, such as the erosion of sea shores and river banks and coastlinesIn others, it’s man-made. Take, for example, the Gulf Coast of the United States and, in particular, New Orleans. We saw how much of that coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  While the hurricane was devastating enough, what failed in the case of New Orleans were man-made defences around the city, located as it is on the delta of the Mississippi River, and on the shores of Lac Pontchartrain.

New Orleans after Katrina

New Orleans after Katrina

Close to 49% of the New Orleans’s geographic footprint is below sea level, and large parts of the city are sinking. New Orleans averages out at 0.5 metres below sea level, with some parts reaching 5 metres below sea level; but the city has been made a viable location for settlement, industrialisation, and economic activity due to mitigating works being built on the Mississippi and Lac Pontchartrain. All of this economic and industrial activity in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast has also meant the destruction of nearly 5,000 square kilometres of coastline in Louisiana alone in the twentieth century, including many off-shore islands, all of which used to protect New Orleans and the Mississippi delta.

Thus, when Katrina hit 6 ½ years ago, on 28 August 2005, there were few natural defences left to protect New Orleans. The man-made “improvements” to New Orleans and the surrounding area were simply insufficient to deal with a hurricane the force of Katrina, which was classified as a Class 1 or 2 storm. The result was nearly 80 per cent of the city was flooded out, as well as massive social and economic dislocation. Today, New Orleans’s population is still only 60 per cent what it was prior to Katrina.

Getting back to Blackbourn’s argument: his arguments vis-à-vis the creation of modern Prussia can be transported across and around the industrialised Western world. Montréal (the population of Montréal’s metropolitan area is nearly four times the size of that of New Orleans), is the beneficiary of similar modern landscape engineering. The city is located on an island in the middle of the Saint-Lawrence River, and in a cold, northern climate. In the nineteenth century, each spring, during the spring run-off and thawing of the river, the low-lying portions of the city, located near the river bank on the flood plain, were swamped with water.

1886 Flood, Chaboillez Square, Griffintown, Montréal

In 1886, flood waters were over 3 metres deep. The flood led to mitigating works being constructed along the river, the bank was re-landscaped and engineered, dyking was constructed, and so on, all in order to prevent further flooding. This allowed Montréal’s industrial development to continue throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century . This allowed it go through an unprecedented growth cycle that only ended with the Depression of the 1930s, and enabled Montréal to solidify its position as Canada’s metropole (a role it has since lost to Toronto).

This re-shaping of the environment, however, is not limited to the West. More recently, the insta-city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has followed suit.  Dubai itself is a manufactured landscape, as all cities are to a degree, but in the case of Dubai, the landscape has been purposely re-appropriated for the construction of the city.  A more specific example can be seen in the city’s golf courses, for example, the Tiger Woods Dubai golf resort and residences. Golf courses are, in fact, a perfect example of the re-engineering of the landscape, as grass and various other features such as sand traps and water hazards – to say nothing of surrounding vegetation – are imported and planted into foreign

The construction and maintenance (such as irrigation and pesticides) of Dubai’s golf courses, situated as they are in the desert, present us with a massive redevelopment of the landscape, the environmental consequences of which appear to be lost on Woods and his partners in the project. Dubai City itself is an example of environmental re-landscaping for human needs and settlement. Without the sorts of technologies created by the Dutch and the Prussians (to say nothing of the English, Americans, and Canadians), Dubai itself would not exist in its present, insta-city form.

Phoenix, British Columbia: Ghost Town Reclaimed by Nature

February 5, 2012 § 14 Comments

Continuing in the vein of the Hawley Town Commons in Western Massachusetts and the changing rural landscape of Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, I present now to you the ghost town of Phoenix, British Columbia.  Phoenix is located in the Kootenay Mountains of eastern BC, not far north of the American border.

Phoenix, BC, 1912

About a century ago, Phoenix was a thriving copper mining town. It boasted modern amenities such as electricity and phone lines, there was a ballroom and an opera house. it had a stop on the stage lines that ran through the Boundary Region of the Kootenays, there was a post office and around 1900, both the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Great Northern Railway arrived in Phoenix.  In short, the town had made it. It was thriving.  But as was often the case in the mining regions of the North American west, the boom years were short.  At the end of the First World War, the price of copper dropped dramatically and the Phoenix Mine was shut down.  And the town of Phoenix died.


Phoenix Cenotaph, 1937

Phoenix First World War Cenotaph, 1937

In the 1920s, the homes and buildings were torn down or buried and there was nothing left of Phoenix, except for its First World War cenotaph, which is still there today.  Otherwise, nature has reclaimed the old town site of Phoenix, despite the operation of an open-pit mine in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  When I visited Phoenix about 15 years ago, I was floored by the site.  I had seen other ghost towns in BC, most notably Barkerville, a tourist site.  But many other sites I had seen were maintained to at least some degree.  Phoenix was a smallish clearing in the dense forest, and the forest was rapidly moving back in, re-claiming its territory.  The grave yard was the most fascinating location on the old Phoenix townsite.  Most of the head stones were long gone.  Many of the graves no doubt never had a proper head stone in the first place, graves marked by wooden crosses, wooden heads, or whatever was handy.  One grave, otherwise unmarked, had a furniture cabinet as a marker.

But otherwise, the grave yard had 80 year old pine trees reclaiming their territory, encouraged by the heavy fertiliser in the soil in the form of decomposing human bodies.  (Since my visit, residents of nearby towns have sought to restore the graveyard some, restoring the headstones that do exist).  What struck me the most about standing in the Phoenix cemetery, though, was not so much the dilapidated headstones, the cenotaph in the distance, or the trees.  It was the black bear about 500 metres away, happily munching away on some berries.  It was also the bear that convinced us to get back in the car, slowly and quietly, and get the hell out of there.


Rural Palimpsests; Or, the Changing Rural Landscape

February 3, 2012 § 9 Comments

Drawing of the Old Hawley Town Commons

About 18 months ago, I wrote this piece about the old Town Commons in Hawley, Massachusetts. I was struck by the history of what could no longer be seen in Hawley at the Town Commons where, in the mid-19th century, there was a vibrant townsite.  Hawley also stirred up my own memories of having lived in a ghost town as a teenager, on the old town site of Ioco, British Columbia, now a part of Port Moody, BC.  But Ioco, which will eventually become condos, I’m sure, was a (sub)urban townsite.  Hawley is a town a few miles west of the Middle of Nowhere.

In urban centres, we see the ruins of past civilisations all around us, whether they are palimpsests of old advertisements on the sides of buildings, or the ruins of buildings, still dotting the landscape.  Indeed, I wrote my doctoral dissertation and a book on a neighbourhood that was, at least when I started writing, a ruin: Griffintown, Montréal.  A decade ago, the landscape of Griffintown was an urban ruin, the foundations of the old Irish-Catholic Church, St. Ann’s, poking through the grass of Parc St. Ann/Griffintown; the rectory of the French Catholic Church, Ste-Hélène still stands, but the church is long gone, just a few corner stones and the remains of an iron fence are left.  But this is a city, and cities, we are constantly reminded by scholars, poets, novelists, film-makers, etc., are living organisms, built to be rebuilt, constantly evolving and changing. By definition, then, the rural landscape is unchanging and constant.

Don’t believe me? Spend a bit of time reading literature set in the countryside.  Or watch movies. Read poems.  The landscape of the country side is eternal and unchanging.  Entire nations have been built on the mythology of the countryside (I’m looking at you, Ireland!).  Here in Québec, Maria Chapdelaine, a major novel of the early 20th century nationalist school explicitly tied the virtue of the nation to the land. The anti-modernists of a century ago celebrated the unchanging “natural” landscape of the countryside as a tonic for the frayed nerves of modern man.  In Canada, the Group of Seven built their entire careers/legends on representing Ontario’s mid-North back to us as the nation.  Watch a Molson Canadian ad these days, and you’ll learn that Canada has more square miles of “awesomeness” than any other country on Earth.  And all that awesomeness is somewhere in the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. But the rural landscape DOES change and evolve, as the Old Hawley Town Commons will tell you.

This is where Robert Corrigan was fatally beaten on 17 October 1855

This was brought all the closer to me in late November, when I travelled out to Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, which is located about 70km south of Québec City, in the Appalachian foothills.  I was there because a long time ago, I wrote my MA thesis on the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Saint-Sylvestre on 17 October 1855 when Robert Corrigan, an Irish-Protestant bully, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours.  The mid-1850s saw the height of sectarianism in Canada and a murder case involving the two groups of Irish proved to be too much for many Anglo-Protestant Canadians to take and a national crisis broke out.  By the time the Affair was over in 1858, not only had Corrigan’s murderers been acquitted of all charges, the McNab-Taché coalition government had fallen. All these years later, I had it in my mind that it was time to do something with the Corrigan Affair.  I had done my best to avoid it after I finished my MA, I did attempt to write an academic article, but it seemed to me to be too good a story to be wasted in a journal article that no one would ever read.  So I have decided to write a book that no one will ever read, but at least a book is a physical thing, something to offer tribute to this rather amazing story that erupted onto the front pages of newspapers across British North America from a rural backwater. So it was out to Saint-Sylvestre to meet Steve Cameron, a local man who has a deep interest in the Corrigan Affair and the history of the Saint-Sylvestre region in general.

Corrigan's homestead, Saint-Sylvestre, Québec

Hugh Russell's farm

Steve offered to give me the grand tour of the landscape, where the Corrigan Affair took place.  I don’t really know what I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect what I saw: the entire landscape of Saint-Sylvestre and the landscape of the Corrigan Affair is gone, completely changed in the 155 years since Corrigan’s death. He was beaten on the county fair grounds; the site where he was beaten is completely non-descript today, just a corner of a farmer’s field.  Corrigan’s homestead is covered with scrub and a random cross someone threw up sometime in the past century.  Where the farm of Corrigan’s friend, Hugh Russell was once located there is nothing but high tension electrical wires, forest, and a dirt road passing by in front.  There is no evidence of human habitation ever having stood there.  Where the Protestants had their burial ground here in the backwoods of Saint-Sylvestre/Saint-Gilles, there is nothing left but a stone wall, though the grave yard has been carefully and lovingly restored by Steve’s organisation, Coirneal Cealteach.

Old Anglican grave yard in the backwoods of Saint-Sylvestre

In short, the rural landscape is just as dynamic of that of the city. In Saint-Sylvestre, the mostly Irish-Catholic farmers were settled on poor farming land in a harsh and unforgiving landscape; their descendants left.  And in their stead, nature reclaimed its place. When I first began studying Griffintown a decade ago, Talking Heads’ song “Nothing But Flowers” kept creeping into my head as I pondered the ruins of the churches, the trees growing in vacant lots and the vegetation in the cracks of the concrete.  But “Nothing But Flowers” applies just as much to Hawley or Saint-Sylvestre or countless other rural landscapes once settled by humans who have long since moved on.

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.

Planet of Slums or Arrival Cities?

April 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

It was with great anticipation that I opened Douglas Saunders‘ recent book, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. The reviews I’d read of the book praised its brilliance and Saunders’ regular column for The Globe & Mail suggested this was a book anyone who thinks and writes about cities themselves had to read. It is rare I have been so disappointed in a book.

I will write in greater detail about Arrival City on my blog at Current Intelligence in the next month or so, but for now, let me just say that this book is a massive disappointment. Saunders does little more than re-hash neo-liberal, whiggish arguments about progress and the city and how the city is the panacea to all that threatens humanity and the environment.  The problems begin with what Saunders calls an “arrival city,” which is never properly defined. Could be a city, could be a neighbourhood, could be a slum, could be all kinds of things. But the rest of the book more or less dismisses the problem of the slum in the developing world. Saunders acknowledges that they exist, but then goes on to suggest they are just temporary dwellings for people on the rise into the middle-classes.  He picks up Hernando de Soto’s argument that all slum-dwellers in the developing world need is security of tenure, to own their own homes and property. This is the solution to poverty in slums. To prove his point, Saunders, a journalist, puts a human face on the residents of the slums, but he tends to pick people who are successful, who do get out of the slums. He champions the spread of middle-class North American culture (and its attendant free-trade) around the globe as the solution to urban poverty. Of course, this proves his point, about how these arrival cities are just that, a sort of purgatory for migrants from the countryside, a way-station on their way to respectability and security in the city.

I read Arrival City in conjunction with Mike DavisPlanet of Slums. The contrast between the two studies could not be more shocking. Whereas Davis has often been criticised as being too harsh in his arguments about the problem of slums and development globally, the problem with Saunders is the exact opposite: he’s far too wide-eyed to the point where he seems to be ignoring the harsh realities of life in slums of cities in the developing world.

John Lorinc, Cities: A Groundwork Guide

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

[Eds. note: Over the next few weeks, I will be re-publishing some of the articles I wrote for the Complex Terrain Laboratory, a precursor to Current Intelligence magazine. For the most part, these are articles I don’t want to lose, so re-posting them here is my way of creating an archive of them. Some are book reviews, a series of articles on cities and the slum, and some on landscape, memory, and archaeology.]

John Lorinc, Cities: A Groundwork Guide.  Toronto & Berkeley, CA: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2009.  140pp + index, $11.00 (CAN) $10.00 (USA)

2009 was a watershed for humanity.  It was the first time that a majority of people, worldwide, lived in urban areas.  This was fuelled by a process of urbanisation in the developing world; in western Europe and Canada, the majority of people lived in cities by the First World War.  The United States reached this milestone shortly thereafter.  But in the developing world, people remained primarily rural until the past couple of decades when industrialisation reached this part of the world, in large part because North American and European companies began to outsource and move production off-shore.  This, in turn, had massive consequences for cities in this part of the world, as jobs dried up and industrial areas were abandoned.  This has led to a paradoxical situation in terms of urbanism in the world.  For example, Manila has grown by some 10.5 million people since 1951 to its present population of 12 million.  Meanwhile, Detroit and other cities in the North American rustbelt have experienced depopulation in the past few decades.

Throughout all of this, cities, especially in the industrialised world, gain more power and influence, not just on the national scale (such as London, the British metropole), but on the global scale (London remains the financial capital of the world, a position it has held for centuries).[1]  And in the process, cities, worldwide, continue to grow, becoming larger than some nations.  For example, there are more people in Tokyo than in all of Canada.  That is a mind-boggling thought, given the size of Canada’s geographic footprint (the 2nd largest nation in terms of landmass in the world) compared to that of Tokyo.

It is in this context that Canadian journalist John Lorinc has written a primer on cities for the 21st century, the appropriately titled Cities.  Lorinc is a specialist on urban affairs, his work having appeared in several Canadian publications; he also currently contributes to the New York Times’ eco-business blog, “Green Inc.: Energy, the Environment, and the Bottom Line.”  His last book, 2006’ The New City: How the Crisis in Canada’s Large Urban Centres is Re-Shaping the Nation (Penguin) was especially well-received and serves as somewhat of a basis for his argument in Cities, insofar as he notes the power of cities.  In Canada, a full one-third of the nation’s population lives in the three largest cities: Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver.  In this sense, then, Lorinc is very well-positioned to ponder the plight, role, and impact of global cities in the 21st century.

Cities is the latest edition to a series from revered Canadian independent publisher, House of Anansi Press, the Groundwork Guides.  Previous volumes have examined topics as diverse as oil, empire, genocide, slavery, and sex.  The series is meant to provide an overview of cultural and political issues, offering “both a lively introduction and a strong point of view.” [back cover].  Lorinc accomplishes both, this volume is a lively discussion of the role and plight of cities, and though his “strong point of view” is somewhat muted in his prose, it is very clear.  Lorinc argues that we must be conscious and aware of the impact of cities on our wider culture, their economic, cultural, and political power, to say nothing of their environmental impact, and the plight of the poor in the megacities of the developing world.  In making this argument, though, Lorinc isn’t really saying anything new, nor anything controversial.  He covers the expected, and says the expected.

Rather than focus on the benefits and upside of city life, like other urbanists like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida, Lorinc is more interested in problematising the city.  And this is beneficial tact to take.  Whereas as Jacobs and Florida focus on how the city is a creative force, a site of community, and so on, this is limiting argument and only deals with a minority of cities and a minority of people in cities worldwide.  Lorinc’s more comprehensive approach to the city allows for a wider analysis, both in the developed and developing worlds.  Indeed, the problem with Florida, in particular, is that he is not all that interested in slums and the poor in North American’s cities, which is troubling.

Nevertheless, while Lorinc travels down a road already well-travelled in Cities, his gift lies in the quick and coherent synthesis of the urban condition in the new century.  Broken up into 7 simple chapters, he gives us an overview of the issues facing cities the world over today.  He also moves easily from the developed to the developing worlds, between the historical and the contemporary.  Each chapter covers a central concept of urbanism: the city in the 21st century, urban forms and functions, sprawl, the environment and energy, transportation, poverty, and crimes, epidemics, and terrorism.  In addition to this division, the book is unofficially split so that the first half more or less focuses on the developed world, whilst the second half deals with the developing world.  The division isn’t absolute, of course, as both halves of the globe fit into the discussion throughout.

Central to the analysis is the environment, and the city’s impact upon it, in both the developed and developing world.  Each chapter serves as an introduction to the topic and hand, and whilst it is impossible for Lorinc to be comprehensive and exhaustive in the roughly 20 pages devoted to each chapter, he excels in introducing the problems and challenges facing cities to his readers.

Cities are incredibly complex and complicated socio-political structures.  They require careful- and micro- management; problems arise from dense population structures, complicated landscapes, environmental degradation, communications and transportation, amongst other things.  And Lorinc is best at pointing out that the problems that the megacities of the developing world face are problems that cities in the developed world are perpetually struggling with.

Most obvious here is the question of the environment.  Cities are cesspools of pollution and toxicity.  As noted, Lorinc’s discussion of the environmental impact of cities dominates this book; no fewer than 3 chapters (3: Sprawl Happens; 4: Environment and Energy; 5: Cities and Transportation) are dominated by environmental questions.  Chapter 3 examines the environmental (and socio-cultural) consequences of urban sprawl, primarily in Europe and North America.  Here, Lorinc touts cities that have managed to tout responsible development, vertical rather than horizontal.  Manhattan and the west end of Vancouver are two such examples, as they provide high-density urban settlement of high-rise condo development.  His argument is hurt, however, in a table that accompanies this discussion, a “selected” listing of the population density of the worlds 250 largest cities.  The table, however, is ultimately meaningless, in part because we don’t know the overall population of the cities, and the neighbourhoods/boroughs that he points to in his text aren’t in the table.  Manhattan is grouped in with the rest of New York City, which sees its density rating fall to 16th on the table (though whether that is 16th in the world or not is another matter entirely) and Vancouver isn’t listed at all.  In short, this table is rendered ultimately useless, as it offers us no real basis of comparison.  For example, while it is clear that Atlanta is much less dense than, say, London, this nugget means nothing to me without information on overall population size and geographic footprint of the two cities.

Lorinc also focuses on the degradation of the air we breathe in urban centres, offering a quick discussion of air-borne pollution in western cities during the industrial revolution.  Here he notes that by the 1880s, London’s air was close to being a toxic soup.  Oddly, though, he doesn’t mention the most obvious and famous example of air-borne toxicity in the developed world: Los Angeles.  That being said, he notes the lack of political will in battling air-borne pollution, politicians were not all that keen on dealing with the problem because of the damage it would to do the local economy and business.  Whilst London is his example, nearly every industrial city in Western Europe and North America has faced this problem.  Indeed, this seems to still be the crux of the question of global warming and environmental degradation today, as politicians remain unwilling to show leadership and make hard decisions, out of fear of upsetting the populace and damaging the economy (despite the fact that many studies note that implementing the Kyoto Accord would not harm the economy in the way that its alarmist opponents suggest), to say nothing of their chances at re-election.

Lorinc then nicely segues into a discussion of “Environmental Degradation in the South’s Megacities.”  Here, he deftly explores the problems facing these cities.  For example, he points to Lagos, the largest city and capital of Nigeria, which is a bustling metropolis of around 8 million (Lorinc uses the metropolitan population of 15 million [ed.: see my post on the difficulty in using Metropolitan population statistics here]).  Here he cites journalist George Packer, who has noted that the inner-city urban slums of Lagos are, in part, built on and around a heavily-polluted lagoon.  (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Lagos’ entry on Wikipedia makes absolutely no mention of the city’s slums).[2]  The polluted water of Lagos Lagoon is where the poor draw their water from, and where fishermen catch food.  The consequences of this for the health of these slum residences are obvious.  In discussing Lagos’ problems, however, it is interesting to note that Lorinc doesn’t point to the obvious source of the problem of pollution and a lack of regulation: there is no central urban government for the Lagos metropolitan area, the municipal government that does exist only serves a small core at the centre of the city.

Emissions are also a problem in these megacities of the developing world.  Even smaller cities are moving towards an environmental apocalypse.  Recently, China eclipsed the United States as the world’s emissions leader; of the top 20 cities in terms of emissions worldwide, 16 are Chinese.  The problem, in part, is due to the fact that the Chinese tend to incinerate their garbage, which causes serious emissions problems.  But Lorinc misses the other side of the equation here: automobiles.  And China’s streets and roads teem with automobiles belching emissions into the environment.  Indeed, the picture of China Lorinc paints in Cities reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ iconic Lorax, who speaks for the trees.  But the Chinese experience also points to another question of emissions and global warming, as the developing world is unwilling to be held to standards designed to ease the problems, arguing that such regulations would be handicaps to their own development.  They quickly point to the fact that North American and European nations were not subjected to such regulation during their period of industrialisation.

The discussion about trash is important because garbage dumps are quickly emerging not just as environmental disasters waiting to happen, but because slums are developing in and around them in various cities, such as Lagos, Buenos Aires, and Manila, amongst others.  In these cities, garbage is just piled up on top of itself in dumps (not that the developed world has a great record here, New York City has garbage barges floating in its harbour, and Toronto is engaged in an on-going battle with Michigan about where to put its garbage).  Dumps in these developing world cities have become the site of labour-intensive recycling businesses.  Scavengers, many of them children, dig through the dumps earning their keep, usually a few dollars a day, which they earn by selling what they find to scrap companies.  The scrap companies themselves turn around and make a handsome profit by selling the goods to recycling companies.  Not surprisingly, work conditions are brutal and dangerous, not to mention unsanitary.  It doesn’t take much of imagination to visualise these scrap-pickers climbing over the mountains of garbage, trying to avoid cesspools of toxic runoff, lethal smoke, bulldozers, garbage trucks, birds of prey, and insects.  Accidents can be fatal, Lorinc reports, such as in 2000 when the 20-hectare Pyatas dump in Manila capsized.  The garbage has been piled up to 13-storeys high when it fell over, smothering several hundred trash-pickers who lived in shanties at the foot of the garbage.

But it’s not just these megacities in the global South that are leading us to environmental danger, writes Lorinc.  Cities in the developed world are also intimately connected to our long-term survival in terms of climate change: “The reason is that wealthy nations are heavily urbanized, so the way these cities grow has a direct bearing on the pace of global warming, which in turn is already causing havoc in populous low-lying cities.” [p. 56].  Here, he points to Tokyo as a model.  Tokyo’s housing requires less energy than is the case in Europe and North America; the city is more tightly-packed and the transit system is both cost-effective and efficient, making the city easier to navigate.

Lorinc spends some time discussing environmentally-responsible architecture, as well as the reclamation of brownfields for housing and other purposes.  Brownfields are former industrial areas, located all over cities in the developed world, the consequence of the de-industrialisation of the developed world in the mid-20th century.  Lorinc correctly points to the redevelopment of brownfields in city cores as a means of increasing density, as well as developing better transit systems.  But he misses a prime opportunity to discuss the legacy of industrialisation in North American and Western European cities.  For example, I live in a former industrial neighbourhood in Montréal, surrounded by former factories and other sorts of industrial concerns.  My neighbourhood is like many around Europe and North America; cities like Pittsburgh have been left with massive brownfields that they have tried to redevelop to recover from deindustrialisation.  Some of the factories in my neighbourhood have been reclaimed as condos and office space.  Others, like the former metalshop that forms the backwall of my back garden, stand derelict and abandoned.  Nearby is the Lachine Canal, on the banks of which the Canadian industrial revolution began back in the 1840s.  In other words, I live in a neighbourhood that has been the site of almost continual industrial activity for the past 160 years (a few factories and railyards still exist).  To this day, the leisure craft that ply the canal today (it has been reclaimed as a recreation site) cannot travel at speeds in excess of 15 km/h, otherwise they run the risk of stirring up the toxic silt on the floor of the canal.  Redevelopment in my neighbourhood usually means cleaning the soil, but either way, there are serious environmental issues in neighbourhoods such as mine, ones that Lorinc doesn’t explore.

One way in which North American cities, in particular, can contribute to reversing climate change is through the implementation of viable public transit systems.  Most of the major cities in Canada and the US have good public transit: New York City, Chicago, Boston, Montréal, Toronto, for example.  Others, however, do not, such as Houston, or Calgary, or Atlanta.  These three cities are also home to considerable urban sprawl.   And Lorinc notes that this sprawl isn’t conducive to public transit:

there’s a powerful economic relationship between transit, population density and land-use planning.  Transit agencies must make substantial investments in vehicles and other equipment, like signalling systems.  They have hefty operating expenses, such as drivers’ salaries, vehicle maintenance and fuel costs…without a critical mass of riders, transit service becomes unaffordable and inefficient.  In general, transit riders want convenience, reliable and efficient service, and value for their money.  When a transit service doesn’t generate enough revenue, it often cuts back on service – for example, by reducing the number of vehicles running on any given route.  And when that happens, commuters…are much more likely to rely on their vehicles. [pp. 72-3]

And whilst this is certainly true, what Lorinc overlooks is that two of his examples of sprawl cities, Houston and Calgary, are the centres of the oil industry in the United States and Canada.  Another city with a shoddy public transportation system is Detroit, home of the domestic car industry in the United States.  In the case of Detroit, the car companies made sure that the city didn’t have a viable and efficient public transit system; what would it say if the home of the car companies had efficient transit?  It would hurt their bottom lines.  Certainly, the fact that public transit in Calgary and Houston is a dodgy proposition is not all that surprising.

The discussion of epidemics and the city in the final chapter is quite timely, given the recent worldwide paranoia about H1N1.  Our concentration in cities will make the transmission of H1N1 faster and more intense (though, of course, H1N1 remains less potent than common influenza, at least in Canada and the United States).  Indeed, cities in the industrialised world used to be cesspools of disease and epidemics, even as recently as the late 19th century.  Montréal was the site of the last smallpox epidemic in the industrialised west, in 1885.  Epidemiology in 1885 was only starting to develop, but its successive advancement throughout the 20th century has meant that epidemics like the Spanish influenza in the wake of World War I have become increasingly a thing of the past.  Governments, at all levels, have recognised their responsibility to protect the health and lives of their citizens. To that end, massive public health bureaucracies have grown in the industrialised north to protect us from disease.  However, this doesn’t mean that we are no longer vulnerable.  Lorinc reminds us of this when he points to the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto.  SARS originated in the Guangdong region of China before spreading, primarily to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Toronto.  Why an outbreak occurred in Toronto, rather than Vancouver, itself a major city of the Chinese diaspora, is instructive.  In Ontario, the province of which Toronto is the capital, a right-wing, anti-big government administration came to power 8 years earlier, and proceeded to radically slash government spending in all areas, including public health.  The consequences were disastrous, as hundreds were infected and quarantined, and 43 people died in Toronto from SARS, as hospitals lacked the resources to deal with the infection (in Walkerton, Ontario, a small city, government cutbacks led to a fatal outbreak of e.coli in the water supply in 2000).  Meanwhile, in Vancouver, writes Lorinc,

provincial labor officials had trained health care workers in the proper use of special masks and other safety systems designed to protect them from catching contagious diseases while administering emergency procedures to ill patients.[p. 121].

All in all, Lorinc provides us with an instructive and lively introduction to the problems facing cities and, as a result, humanity in the urban century.  That being said, however, his conclusion remains rather trite and does a disservice to the discussion throughout the book:

The twenty-first metropolis will be a concentrated place of nearly unfathomable diversity – ethnic, social, economic, environmental, religious.  Large cities have become a microcosm of everything that’s taking place in this complex world.  For good or ill, they are our future. [p. 128].

Old Hawley Town Commons Redux

April 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Last October, I wrote a piece on the Old Hawley Town Commons in Massachusetts.  Hawley is a tiny and sparsely populated township in the hills of Western Massachusetts. There isn’t more than 350 people in Hawley and there is no actual centre to the town, residents rely on neighbouring Charlemont for services.

The hills of Western Massachusetts are fascinating from an historical perspective, the landscape is dotted with abandoned homes and farmsteads. Up the hill from our home there, there is an ancient stone fence, designed to demarcate one farm from the next. Surrounding this fence is nothing but trees, there is no clearance, no evidence of there ever having been any agricultural, or for that matter, any human, activity there. At the bottom of our hill, there is an abandoned farmhouse, said to be haunted by the ghost of an old farmwife who lost her mind.

As I noted in October, when we think historically about the landscape, we tend to think of cities, of the archaeology of settlement and industry in urban centres. But the Old Hawley Town Commons reminds us that the wilderness also has stories to tell us. I am revisiting the Old Hawley Town Commons because of a comment I received on the October post from John Sears, the historian of the site. You can visit the website here, and you can take a virtual tour.

John also reports in his comment that:

Recently, the Sons & Daughters of Hawley received a new grant from MassHumanities to carry out an archeological dig at the site of the Sanford Tavern at Hawley’s Old Town Common in collaboration with Mohawk Trail Regional High School. Students from the school will participate in the dig under the supervision of an archeologist and a teacher. We hope to learn something new about life in Hawley 180 years ago!

On Diasporas and Protests

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

As unrest unfolds in the Middle East, one thing I’ve enjoyed here in Montréal have been the protests of the various diasporas. A few weeks ago, as I ran errands downtown on a Saturday, I got caught up in a large group of Tunisians protesting against Ben Ali, calling for his removal. Since then, the Tunisians have protested against his brother-in-law, who has attempted to seek shelter in Montréal and claiming refugee status in Canada. Other Arab diasporas have joined in the protests. The Tunisian one I got caught up in had people not only draped in the Tunisian flag, but the Algerian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian flag.

Yesterday, the Egyptian diaspora in Montréal was out in the streets downtown protesting against Hosni Mubarak, part of an international day of protests, calling for his ouster. As with the Tunisian protests, they were joined by other Arabs. But what makes these protests special for me is that it’s not just the Arabs, not just the Tunisians and Egyptians, out in the streets in Montréal. They are quickly joined by everyone else in the city: québécois, Anglos, Spanish, Italians, Greeks, Jews, and so on.

The Tunisian protest was a multicultural sea of faces, all united in celebrating Tunisian freedom and Ben Ali’s ouster. Video I’ve seen of yesterday’s anti-Mubarak protests were similar. It’s simply nice to see the coming together of all of these diasporas in Montréal, including ones that don’t historically get along, to protest against injustice on the other side of the world.

UPDATED: Check out this article on the Egyptian diaspora in general and their hopes for reform.

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