Culture | From hardship to hip

Joseph Goodman explores Montreal’s Griffintown Borough

As some Montreal residents know, Griffintown, the industrial area between St. Henri and the Lachine Canal, is currently experiencing a wave of gentrification and consolidation, as boutique hotels, contemporary condos, and rustic restaurants replace the relics of Victorian industrialism. Meanwhile, with projects going up by the month, the neighbouring St. Henri is already replete with furniture shops, a vibrant dining scene, and postmodern architectures. Urban planners are focusing on preserving the history of the area while adhering to au-courant aesthetics and the ecological priorities of sustainable development. In 2007, Radio-Canada released a report predicting that the redevelopment of Griffintown would cost at least $1.3 billion, cover 1.1 million square feet, and include roughly 4000 housing units, as well as additional sites for theaters, music venues, cinemas, office spaces, and hotels. Developers at Devimco (a commercial real estate developer) have been working on the Programme particulier d’urbanisme (PPU) with the City of Montreal and the Southwest borough in a continual effort to make the neighbourhood appealing for young professionals and families.

Yet despite this overwhelming emphasis on the future of Griffintown, the borough’s cultural history remains significant. Every town has legends, and Griffintown certainly has some definitive ones. Every seven years, a group of local residents convene to recount the tale of the murder of Mary Gallagher, which occurred in 1879. A folkloric presence in collective memory, Gallagher is believed to make a septennial visit in ghost form. As the story goes, Gallagher and her friend, Susan Kennedy, both prostitutes, were competing for a client one evening. Susan, upon finding out that Mary succeeded in her seduction, proceeded to take an ax and decapitate her associate. The tale lives on, and forms part of the gothic backdrop of the area.

Griffintown acquired its name from another Mary, Mary Griffin, who commissioned land surveyor Louis Charland to map out the region in the early 19th century. The land was originally supposed to belong to Thomas McCord – however, Griffin illegally obtained the lease and claimed the geographic region as her own. Griffin’s husband, Robert, who was active in the manufacturing business, went on to have a prolific career at the first Bank of Montreal (now a design studio located on Notre-Dame).

Formerly a working-class Irish neighborhood, the population of Griffintown consisted largely of labourers who worked along the Lachine Canal, the Victoria Bridge, and the Port of Montreal. While Griffintown was settled as primarily Irish, a larger number of Italian, Jewish, and French immigrants began to call the neighborhood home towards the end of the 19th century. The Irish potato famine prompted a rise in population, aggravating the already low housing security standards in the borough. Residents in the early half of the 20th century reported persistent flooding, overcrowding, and slum-like dwellings. To get a sense of the conditions of the time, consider that Montreal had one of the worst infant mortality rates in the Western world by the end of the 19th century.

The proximity of Griffintown to the Lachine Canal had economic benefits and complications. The canal provided an efficient transportation route, as well as a surplus of cheap labour, prompting manufacturing industries to set up shop in and around the area. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 facilitated coastal traffic, yet, depleted local industries. St. Gabriel’s Church in Pointe-Saint-Charles, a neighboring district, saw a decline in attendance, while Martin Kiely, one of the forerunning entrepreneurs in the tobacco industry, suffered economic losses. J.R Weir was another large employer that eventually had to cease production.

After several catastrophic events in the 19th and 20th centuries, developers had little incentive to build property in the area, since expensive projects demanded builders to pay additional seigniorial charges. Fires erupted in 1852 at a local carpenter shop that decimated local streets and businesses. The fire ended up having drastic consequences, forestalling subsequent urban planning and development. Delays continued well into the 20th century, especially during the Second World War. On April 25, 1944, an RAF Bomber crashed into a building in Griffintown, and the city took no initiative in rebuilding the surrounding domestic dwellings in light of the astronomical cost of the project. By the early 1960’s, more buildings were shut down to accommodate the construction of the Bonaventure Expressway. Since the city officially designated the zone as an “industrial area,”  developers were prohibited from building homes to accommodate individuals and families. Efforts to repeal legislation and overturn regulation succeeded, as the area is once again home to individual citizens and families.

In light of these conditions, many buildings, local areas, and businesses suffered losses and faced extinction. Le Quartier St. Ann and the St. Ann’s Church were seminal districts and institutions that simply could not survive the changing times. Le Quartier St. Ann was founded as early as 1698 and from its inception, the church castigated the St. Ann’s neighbourhood  inhabitants as a demographic prone to vice and drunkenness. To accommodate the influx of Irish settlers – by the 1850’s, over 80,000 Irish immigrants came over the St. Lawrence river onto the island of Montreal – who began to establish homes on the canal, Bishop Bourget opened the St. Ann’s Chapel in 1848. From its inception until the 1890’s, St. Ann’s remained under the direction of the Sulpician Fathers. Charlie Blixstead, a longtime resident of Griffintown, remarks in Richard Burman’s documentary “Ghosts of Griffintown,” that, after the neighbourhood’s many trials and tribulations, “the congregation [of St. Ann’s Chapel] had diminished to a point where it was not economical to keep the church.” The church was eventually torn down in 1970.

While churches were significant religious forces in Griffintown, celebratory events were essential to the social life of citizens. Until the Second World War, Griffintown was home to a large number of festivals and public gatherings. St. Patrick’s day parades involved performances by musical groups, often conducted in taverns and local pubs. Minstrels and ballets were a formative part of entertainment at the St. Ann’s parish.

Today, if you walk along Notre-Dame towards the water, modernity disguises history. Jenna Mooers, a night manager at the popular restaurant Griffintown Café, reports that there has been a massive transformation in the area since the opening of the restaurant in 2008. According to Jenna, “three years ago there was a fraction of the walking traffic. Now on a Saturday at noon it’s packed – lots of people out, about, and shopping. There are new boutiques and restaurants popping-up every month.” With consistent refurbishment, the area will continue to witness dramatic changes in demography, culture, politics, and public life. With the current tide of regeneration and gentrification, long gone are the days of Mary Gallagher, factories, and low-budget housing projects. Yet hopefully, in the face of  continual change and modernization, the community will retain its cultural heritage and unique urban mythology.


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