October 27, 2014

Commentary | February 10, 2014
The ghetto that isn’t
Toward a new relationship between students and Milton-Parc
Written by and | Visual by Tamim Sujat | The McGill Daily

Many students at McGill reside in an area immediately east of campus which is commonly referred to as the ‘McGill Ghetto’ – a place where, as the belief goes, the students represent an overwhelming majority of the population. The fact that the area is actually a rich and storied neighbourhood called Milton-Parc, where long-term residents actually comprise the demographic majority, contradicts long-held myths about the ‘Ghetto’ as a place where students can do whatever they want because they own the place. Calling Milton-Parc the ‘Ghetto’ is not just problematic – it’s also very inaccurate.

The word ‘ghetto’ has a long historical significance. First used to describe Jewish enclaves in Venice, it later became a place where Jews were forced to live during the Nazi regime. In North America, ghettos arose in the post-World War I period after African American migration from the Southern U.S., and then later in the post-World War II era with the ‘white flight’ phenomenon, when the white population started migrating from inner city to suburbia.

Neighbourhoods like Harlem in New York City are a prime example of this process. For many, certain images and ideas come to mind when using the word ‘ghetto’ due to both historical and contemporary uses of the term. Even after major reductions in crime and poverty, in Harlem for example, the word ‘ghetto’ still has a powerful effect on people’s perceptions.

Calling Milton-Parc the ‘Ghetto’ is not just problematic – it’s also very inaccurate.

It seems obvious that the Milton-Parc area stands in stark contrast to ethnic ghettos. It is neither economically deprived, nor does it experience structural disadvantage. In appropriating the term ‘ghetto,’ students dilute the history of racial politics associated with the word.

The Milton-Parc neighbourhood has a history that points to both wealthy and working class roots throughout the years. The area is roughly bounded by Sherbrooke and Pine from north to south, and University and Ste. Famille from west to east (The ‘McGill Ghetto,’ on the other hand, usually refers to the area west of Parc, but is flexible depending on where students live.) At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the dwellings consisted mainly of Victorian row houses, and in some cases, large mansions.

Beginning in 1930, wealthy families began moving to other areas, like Westmount and Outremont, and an era of greater class diversification began, with students actually representing a poorer class than the residents who had lived there before them. In the 1960s and 1970s, the area became a battleground when Montreal’s Jean Drapeau administration worked with developers to conceive of the La Cité Concordia Project.

As it is one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Montreal, tensions have arisen between university students and permanent residents over the last decade, often leading to unnecessarily hostile confrontations.

The vision of the La Cité project was to purchase the majority of the residential land in the Milton-Parc area with the intention of demolition and redevelopment, which would have hampered the affordability of the neighbourhood and destroyed architectural landmarks. With the help of McGill students, major strikes and occupations were organized by the then-nascent Milton Parc Citizens Committee. These were largely successful, limiting the project to the current La Cité buildings and Place du Parc, and resulting in the creation of the largest set of co-operatively owned housing in North America.

As it is one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Montreal, tensions have arisen between university students and permanent residents over the last decade, often leading to unnecessarily hostile confrontations. In response to this growing problem, in 2010, the McGill administration, SSMU, and the Milton Parc Citizens Committee decided to set up the Community Action and Relations Endeavour to improve their relations. While efforts have since been made to fulfill this mandate – such as Street Teams and the Community Ambassador Program for example – the results have been limited.

Much of the tension created in Milton-Parc is easily avoidable. For example, one of the most common complaints by residents is of people yelling across the street to one another. This is something that could easily be prevented and make a big difference in lessening disturbance and frustrations. Getting to know your neighbours is another small step that can go a long way in appeasing residents and improving relations.

Careless use of the word ‘ghetto’ reveals a misunderstanding about how it is a shared space, as well as ignoring the complex history of the term. A simple shift in vocabulary is a start in resolving these problems.

Most importantly, Milton-Parc is a shared space that students and long-term residents have a stake in maintaining. While we cannot control how thin the walls in apartment buildings are, we can work together to try to minimize the harm we cause one another in the neighbourhood. Recognizing that the neighbourhood is complex and diverse is an important and simple first step.

As long as it is mistakenly called the ‘McGill Ghetto,’ it is easy for everyone to disregard their responsibilities and ignore the history of the area. Ongoing tensions between students and long-term residents will take time to resolve, and careless use of the word ‘ghetto’ reveals a misunderstanding about how it is a shared space, as well as ignoring the complex history of the term. A simple shift in vocabulary is a start in resolving these problems.


Sam Harris is the SSMU VP External, and can be reached at external@ssmu.mcgill.ca. Enbal Singer is the SSMU Community Affairs Coordinator, and can be reached at enbal.singer@mail.mcgill.ca.

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