Commentary | Gentrification is not grand

‘Neutral’ journalism and the working class neighbourhood

When you walk through any neighbourhood, it’s easy to be impressed by all the new buildings. They’re often the biggest things around. So it’s no surprise that when Trevor Chinnick wrote a piece about St. Henri in The Daily (“The canal below the hill,” Culture, September 16, page 17), it was the “public improvement” that really drew their eye. How could it not? Expensive loft spaces and the renovation of the Lachine Canal are hard to miss.

But what struck me about their piece was the way it focused on how St. Henri’s working class past was making way for “vibrant” younger residents and “grand” expensive lofts. The Daily’s article is a very clear example of something I see all the time: writers trying to be neutral in their stories. As it turns out, this neutrality is really just silence on essential parts of a story.

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Walk through Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) now and you’ll see some old derelict theatres and warehouses, but many more new condos rising up. There’s a new sports centre and a stadium. The super-hospital – a spanking-new conglomeration of several English-language hospitals – looms over the same Turcot highway that has a reputation of shedding cubic metres of concrete onto passers-by.

It’s easy to mistake the new as progress. After all, younger and richer people are moving in, there are fewer ugly buildings, and new stores and restaurants are popping up. NDG, which also shares a working-class history, seems to be in the process of a new and exciting “revolution,” in Chinnick’s words. This assumption overlooks how this “revolution” affects people who are struggling the most. It can push them out of their homes and take their food away.

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The NDG Food Depot is a food bank-turned-community centre that got kicked out of its space last April. Most news articles covering the incident glossed over the reasons, staying clear from laying blame or politicizing the event. “NDG Food Depot forced to move by week’s end,” read one headline in the Montreal Gazette, but it went no further than mentioning disagreements with the landlord.

A friend, Adrian Turcato, and I, decided to investigate. A series of clues – condo developers making an offer the landlord couldn’t refuse, a new super-hospital moving in down the road, another community space getting kicked out two years ago – led us to one culprit: gentrification.

Like in St. Henri, gentrification happens when neighbourhoods become appealing to developers and new residents. Institutions that work hard to bring people together and serve to make neighbourhoods safer – such as the Food Depot, cheap grocery stores, Head & Hands and Action Communiterre down the street, cheap restaurants – help to make neighbourhoods more attractive. The sneaky thing about gentrification is that it’s precisely such places that are most affected when new, richer residents move in or mega-projects get built in neighbourhoods. Another effect is that long-time residents are pushed out of their homes and unable to access the things they need.

Cynthia Angrave, who works at the NDG Food Depot, already feels the effects. “It’s going to be a neighbourhood that will be pushing people like me out,” she said. “I definitely live in full knowledge that I will receive a letter from my landlord at some point that he’s sold the building […] for condos. Condos were built right next to me in what was an empty lot, and I can just see it encroaching. This is a real concern for me.”

The fact that the Depot was pushed out of its space to make way for a condo is proof that gentrification negatively affects those who are already most vulnerable. In this case, it literally takes the food out of their mouths. But that’s not the end of the story.

As the new super-hospital was being built, efforts were made to ‘consult’ the community. An open discussion was held, and Bonnie Soutar, director of development at the Depot, was in attendance. She told everyone there about the neighbourhood’s issues: new development was pushing people out, and many community groups were feeling the negative effects. “They nodded their heads but I never heard any follow-up of it,” Soutar said about the consultation. “Everyone said, ‘yes, yes, we have to help the Food Depot find a space,’ [but] we didn’t really get a result from that.”

The effect of the super-hospital, then, isn’t just that it pushes people out. By moving into a neighbourhood, bringing in new residents, and at the same time not cooperating with the essential services that already exist, the super-hospital actually helps to destroy the lives of old residents and the organizations they rely on.

Similarly, when journalists write about a new development or increased gentrification without reporting on how communities are affected, they help force people like Angrave out of their homes through not making the public aware of the flip side of the gentrification coin.

So when talking about St. Henri, why not talk about other community groups than the historical society? Why not talk about St. Henri’s vibrant churches, resident-initiated food markets in the midst of food deserts, people uniting to resist being pushed out of their homes, the plans to destroy Village des Tanneries by expanding the Turcot highway and the local movement to stop it, and cheap grocery stores that help tie the community together? These are part of culture too, and ought to be included in a newspaper Culture section.

Not including these aspects of what makes a neighbourhood thrive means, first of all, erasing the lives of many still-struggling low-income people in favour of the mostly affluent, and second, actually exacerbating the negative effects that expensive new lofts and condos can have.

“The canal below the hill,” and the coverage of the NDG Food Depot are two very clear examples of something I see quite often: in trying not to be too political, in attempting to be ‘objective,’ journalists miss a huge part of the story. In so doing, they can actually make matters worse.


The NDG Food Depot now runs out of the basement of a church. If you’re interested, you can help them out by stopping at their new address, 2146 Marlowe, or find out more at depotndg.org.

A Bite of Food Justice is a bi-weekly column discussing inequity in the food system while critiquing contemporary ideals of sustainability. Aaron Vansintjan can be reached at foodjustice@mcgilldaily.com.


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