Culture | The little village beneath the freeway

“Give me your worst,” said the Village des Tanneries to the City of Montreal. The City shrugged its shoulders and said, “Okay.” And so the residents of the tiny neighbourhood were bombarded with railroads, abandoned lots, factories, and a massive highway junction – the Turcot interchange. It has seen the ugliest side of industrialization, witnessed the dirty underbelly of the modern metropolis. But its residents resist hopelessness and make the best of it.

The route to the neighbourhood is fraught with dangers for a cyclist. Sectioned off from the rest of St. Henri by a railroad and the crumbling interchange, it can only be accessed by two umbilical cords: Cazelais and Desnoyers. To get there, I made my way through a dystopia dominated by fast cars and dust-filled factories. I had to meander through a slew of potholes, brave a river of heedless vehicles, and cross a harrowing highway ramp.

When I found the neighbourhood, I realized that it’s just four townhouse-lined blocks and dead ends. At first sight, the Village des Tanneries is the dead end of St. Henri. Defined by the structures that surround it, it’s a neighbourhood that seems to be an island, segregated from the city, in the shadow of a massive highway interchange.

The residents have an interesting relationship with that interchange. The Turcot, built in the late ’60s, has been deteriorating for several years, with large slabs of concrete occasionally crumbling off. Quebec’s ministry of transport planned to rebuild the interchange to increase its traffic capacity, but those plans included the demolition of a row of houses in the Village des Tanneries – a proposal that led residents to challenge the province’s plan.

The dispute over the Turcot has consequently placed the residents of the Village de Tanneries squarely at the centre of a province-wide dispute over the future of transportation. Local groups have argued that, instead of sticking to an outmoded 20th-century mindset, city planners should focus on the future with environmental problems in mind, and plan for improved public transport instead of increased car flow. Recently, community members stormed the Montreal office of the Ministère des transports du Quebec, and residents demanded more transparency at a demonstration last week. Two weeks ago, urban planners Pierre Gauthier and Pierre Brisset unveiled a new proposal that will involve more public transport and a smaller highway structure. Right now, though, Montreal seems to be in a deadlock with the province, and the small community is patiently awaiting new developments. 
It took me about 20 seconds to bike through the neighbourhood. The only food source I came across was “Dépanneur M. Lee.” I saw splattered graffiti, flaking paint, and children playing street hockey next to a towering factory. The Village des Tanneries is clearly a poor neighbourhood, but there is something charming about it. There are community gardens; cement blocks were painted with the word “LOVE” in bright yellow and pink; and residents talked and chatted to each other while barbequing and drinking beer, enjoying the spring sun. What makes the neighbourhood appealing is precisely what separates it from the rest of St. Henri – it is like an island, but that makes it so much more of a community. 
The neighbourhood is certainly affected by the gentrification overtaking St. Henri, but not in the ways you might expect. A huge condominium is being built on a nearby empty lot. A factory building on the other side of the neighbourhood has been turned into loft spaces. But the residents of the loft building seem to be active in the community, and one of them even helps out at the community garden. 
I ran into Derek Robertson while he was working on the garden. He clearly had a hand in many of the community events: he organizes block parties, community dinners, and some of the protests against the expansion of the Turcot. He told me that, while it was definitely a poor community, it’s “a great place to live,” since many of the inhabitants know each other and work together to improve the neighbourhood.  
It’s strange how the large structures surrounding the Village des Tanneries can define it. But this doesn’t mean that the definition is a bad one – as a bike tourist, I felt like an outsider, but immediately wanted to be on the inside. Even though the province seems to have forced the area to bear the brunt of its transportation mistakes, it has become a true village – instead of relying on the state to improve conditions, the residents are actively figuring things out by themselves.


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