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.

IMG_0092

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.

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.

deserted

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?

 

Urban Redevelopment: Getting it Wrong, Springfield, MA

October 27, 2013 § 3 Comments

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

As regular readers of this blog know, I am interested in urban redevelopment, especially when it comes to questions of doing it right and doing it wrong (and chances at redemption).  For the most part, the wave of urban redevelopment that hit North American cities in the 70s and 80s was the wrong way, in that it left us with neo-brutalist architecture in the midst of our cities that is cold, uninviting and intimidating.  A case in point of this would be City Hall Plaza in Boston.  It’s a desolate, soulless urban square that people use for one of three purposes: 1) official events, because they have no choice; 2) to sit on the fringes of to eat lunch; 3) to get to the Government Center T station.  Many cities have this problem today, these horrid, horrid neo-brutalist buildings.  In some places, like Boston, it doesn’t so much matter, because the downtown core of the city is bustling, Government Center lies between Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market and the stately Boston Common.  Government Center is the site of, well, government in Boston and so this site is full of civil servants, but also tourists and Bostonians crossing between the tourist centres, the North End, and the downtown core of the city.  In other places, like nearby Worcester, this 70s/80s wave of urban redevelopment led to a massive #fail.

But, the legacy of deindustrialisation is also very real, especially in small formerly urban centres, like Worcester, but also Springfield, Mass.  Springfield is about 100 miles west of Boston and it feels about as faraway from Boston as one can get.  Springfield is a depressed, sad little city.  It has a high crime rate, nearly double that for the rest of the Commonwealth, including Boston.  It’s murder rate, .13 per thousand, is almost triple the national average (perhaps unironically, Smith & Wesson’s corporate headquarters are in Springfield). The same is true for robbery and assault.  Its property crime rates are also well above the national average.

It wasn’t always like this for Springfield.  Until the 1960s, it was a bucolic industrial city, surrounded by natural beauty.  It had a low crime and unemployment.  It was the very first Springfield in the USA, and was the birthplace of basketball.  Indian Motorcycles were from Springfield.  So was Charles Goodyear.  Merriam-Webster’s first dictionary was published there in 1805.

I-91, downtown Springfield and the Basketball Hall of Fame

Springfield experienced decline due to a combination of deindustrialisation, the closing of the Springfield Armory in 1969 (the target of Daniel Shays and his rebels in 1786), and poor urban development decisions (most notably the running of I-91 through the downtown core and cutting off downtown from the waterfront of the Connecticut River.  Various attempts to redevelop the city have failed miserably (like the basketball Hall of Fame).  And recently, the city decided that it was going to open a massive urban casino to flag the failing fortunes of Springfield.  Why they thought this would work is beyond me.  Certainly, people will now come to Springfield to shop and gamble.  But, the casino will also siphon off jobs and hurt what business still exists in the downtown core.  And now, even that appears to be at risk.

The Failure of Urban Redevelopment and the Chance at Redemption: Worcester

October 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

Worcester, Massachusetts, is like pretty much every city in New England not named Boston or Providence, and kinda like those Easter Bunnies I used to get when I was a kid: hollow centre.  The downtowns of Hartford, New Haven, Springfield, Worcester, etc. were done in by deindustrialisation and horrid, horrid urban redevelopment schemes.  The urban redevelopments schemes of the 70s, in hindsight, look as though they were especially created to destroy urban centres, not save them.  Boston’s Government Center, for example, is one of the most hideous examples of neo-brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen.

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Government Center, Boston

Government Center, Boston

Worcester’s other problem is that it’s near Boston, less than an hour away.  In fact, before I moved to Massachusetts, I thought Worcester was just a suburb of Boston.  Boston is by far the biggest city in New England, over 5 times as big as the number 2 city, which just so happens to be Worcester (in fact, Worcester is the western boundary of the ridiculous Boston-Worcester-Manchester Combined Statistical Area).  Worcester gets by, it is the home to several universities, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School, plus hospitals.  But the downtown is a disaster.

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

Worcester attempted and failed miserably to redesign its downtown in the 70s.  It made sense at the time, as Paul McMorrow points out in today’s Boston Globe, the city erected a shopping mall downtown to counter the growth of suburban shopping malls.  This was a common tactic.  In some places, usually Canadian cities, this worked.  Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Ottawa all have shopping malls downtown.  And in those cities, the malls are successful.  Those are also very large cities, Ottawa is the smallest and its urban centre is still over 1 million people.  It is worth noting, however, that I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a large American city with a successful shopping mall at its core.  Boston has a small shopping concourse in the Prudential Center, but that’s it.

Nevertheless, the Worcester Center Galleria was a valiant effort.  But it failed.  Twice.

Worcester Center Galleria

The mall, when it was constructed, obliterated the street grid and landscape of downtown Worcester.  But now, it’s been town down and the old street grid is being restored.  The new CitySquare development is designed to do what most new urban redevelopments do: provide shopping, office space, and urban condos.  All to convince a new, wealthy, demographic to move downtown, and stay downtown.  McMorrow is hopeful for Worcester, as am I.  And as Providence shows, urban redevelopment can be done and can be successful.  But Worcester has the same problems as the rest of Massachusetts outside of Boston: the economy.

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