Features | Funeral for a faubourg

Aditi Ohri turns to Griffintown’s artists for new perspectives on the neighbourhood’s fate

Walk south on Peel, turn left on Ottawa, and you’ll find nine streets with anglophone names that span south towards the Lachine Canal and east toward the expressway. Sandwiched between the Old Port and St. Henri is the crumbling charm of Griffintown, Montreal’s first and largest faubourg. Once home to a proud community of working-class Irish immigrants and their descendents from the 1840s onwards, Griffintown is considered by many to have been the first of Canada’s industrial slums. Today Griffintown is somewhat of a rough jewel in the city’s landscape, largely forgotten due to years of negligent planning policy and harmful zoning bylaws following the area’s de-industrialization. Now, this ex-village tucked into Montreal’s southwest borough is finally being remembered and respected – at last, it is being mourned.

This past weekend’s three-day event, “Remember Griffintown”, was planned in an attempt to educate and inform Montrealers about Griffintown’s rich past, fruitful present, and uncertain future. Many attendees were unaware of the issues confronting Griffintown before showing up to the event. Even coordinators Elizabeth Bono and Paul Alecko confessed they had been unfamiliar with the area’s history until news of its plight reached their ears six months ago. The pair shot a film together in Griffintown and were floored by the experience. “We fell in love with the presence of the place, the feeling of being in a place detached from downtown but still so much a part of Montreal,” said Bono.

Like the “Remember Griffintown” organizers and attendees, most Montrealers don’t know much, if anything, about Griffintown – but you might know more than you think.

You may have heard of the Friendship Cove on Murray street, an artists’ loft and venue, and you have most definitely seen the letters of the Farine Five Roses sign glowing from Montreal’s southwest tip. If you take the train in and out of this city, you have departed from and been received by Griffintown’s grungy exterior, a passageway that is not without its beauty, crumbling and grimy though it is. Leo’s Horse Palace on Ottawa street is where Old Montreal’s horses are kept when they’re not trotting for tourists; The Darling Foundry, a thriving art gallery perched on the edge of Griffintown, is a testament to the potential for revitalized industrial structures.

Despite these indications of Griffintown’s burgeoning culture, Montreal’s powers-that-be have made plans that will permanently alter the neighbourhood. On April 24, 2008, the City of Montreal released a PPU (Plan Particulier d’Urbanisme) for Griffintown. Devimco, a private developer that specializes in the construction of large scale, consumer-driven shopping centres in suburban areas – like the Quartier Dix30 on the south shore – will invest $1.3-billion to radically transform Montreal’s Peel basin. The company plans to fill the area with luxury condominiums and what is expected to be the largest shopping center in the city, obliterating the historic structures and street grids – the first to be built in North America – that make up the unique landscape of this Montreal community.

But the development planned for Griffintown is not only an architectural and historical concern. Residents will be forced to relocate or sell their property to Devimco. This is troubling for Griffintown’s artists: rather than fostering the growth of a creative community, the city is forcing it to disband. According to Jack Dylan, a Montreal poster artist who has lived in Griffintown since 2005, “Montreal is running out of artist-friendly neighbourhoods and spaces.”

Creative resistance

Many artists have gone beyond the studio in their efforts to shape Griffintown’s past and future – and their place within it. Caroline Andrieux, the founder of Quartier Éphémère – an artists’ collective that exhibits their work in the Darling Foundry – was hoping to turn the New City Gas company, a converted gas production facility, into an artists’ community centre prior to the city’s recent project announcement. Andrieux has been pushing the city’s developers to alter their plans, to at least leave space for artists in its new buildings.

Even the Darling Foundry’s guest residents, German multimedia artists Stephan Koeperl and Sylvia Winkler, took up the “Save Griffintown” cause before the Devimco plans were approved. A few days after their arrival in Montreal this April, the pair accidentally stumbled onto a protest march just outside the Darling Foundry loft. The “Funeral for Griffintown” was a mock procession held on April 27, three days after the city’s project was announced. The two were amazed by the passion and commitment of all those involved in the demonstration, and immediately offered their support. They participated in last weekend’s event not only by performing a protest song, but by donating $1,000 to a Montreal curator with plans to create an installation of alternative, sustainable design possibilities for Griffintown.

Last Saturday’s highlights included a walking tour of the neighbourhood guided by Dennis Delaney, an Irish-Canadian who grew up in Griffintown, a presentation by Irish-Canadian urban planner Stephen Peck, and an art show at the New City Gas Company.

The art show featured paintings and photographs by artists based in southwest Montreal. Harvey Lev’s canvasses depicted Griffintown’s transformation as he had witnessed it over the decades: images of the Bonaventure expressway in its early construction; backgrounds of fire engulfing Irish tenements; the site of St. Ann’s church before and after its demolition. Lev, having lived in Griffintown since 1963, boasts his status as its longest-standing resident and has been an eyewitness to its de-industrialization.

“Remember Griffintown” offered important insight into a part of the city that drew little to no media attention until this past year. The evidence of such thriving artistic activity provided a glimpse into the diverse community that makes up Griffintown, despite the visible decay of its physical milieu.

There goes the neighbourhood

Griffintown’s Irish community fell into decline during the 1960s. At this time Mayor Jean Drapeau imposed a zoning bylaw restricting all newly-built structures in the area to industrial purposes. Subsequently, the Bonaventure was constructed and many parking lots were paved. This forced out most of the area’s remaining residents, since they could not build new residential structures and were denied the opportunity to improve their existing homes. At this point, the Irish community had achieved upward mobility: No longer impoverished, many residents migrated to wealthier neighbourhoods. In 1970, St. Ann’s church – the heart of Griffintown’s Irish Catholic community – was demolished due to the gradually diminishing size of its parish. Until now, investment in Griffintown has been minimal. Five years ago, the population of Griffintown was 87; today it is estimated to be around 50. Despite the area’s dwindling population and 0 infrastructure, many see nothing but potential for the faubourg.

Griffintown: the next Plateau?

Griffintown has been called an “up-and-coming” neighbourhood in the last year, although neither the municipality nor the enlisted developers have recognized its potential to develop as an urban community. At a city council meeting in April, Devimco co-president Serge Goulet referred to Griffintown as a “decimated neighbourhood that [Montrealers] have to pass through on their way to the South Shore via the Victoria Bridge.” In response to his critics, “we have listened to the people of the Southwest and we’ve accepted the challenges the city of Montreal demanded that we meet. Our new project will be of an international scope and Montrealers will be proud of it.”

Chris Gobeil, a community activist from the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown (CSR Griffintown), believes that with small-scale reinvestments the area could be transformed into a neighbourhood similar to the Plateau. The Plateau is appealing for many reasons: the streets are lined with small-scale mixed-use businesses; the demographic ranges from starving artists and sloppy students to young middle-income families; most necessities are at biking if not walking distances; and it is a short commute to downtown. The Plateau is dotted with public parks and recreational spaces, and unlike vertical high-rise landscapes that restrict one’s capacity to physically interact with one’s surroundings, the Plateau’s mid-range density and horizontal layout foster familiarization with the neighbourhood’s social and physical geography. CSR Griffintown has made suggestions to urge development in such a direction: the inclusion of mixed-income housing; building height restrictions as well as the enforcement of a human density cap; a horizontal building configuration with smatters of green space as opposed to the placement of condos in stacks and blocks; sidewalk space taking precedence over parking lots; and the dispersal of small shops throughout various streets as opposed to a concentrated mega-mall. While a few of these suggestions have been incorporated into Devimco’s latest plan, such as the inclusion of lower-income housing, these concessions have been insufficient in the eyes of commentators and activists.

The current project proposed for Griffintown is a large-scale investment over ten years; however, Gobeil believes that in the same amount of time, positive changes in the direction of a “modern Plateau Mont-Royal” could easily be made. Like-minded activists see this urban crisis as an opportunity to set a precedent in sustainable urban development. “Our city has to welcome young families,” Gobeil urges, “not just single people in 400-square-foot condos like the kind they want to build here. We need to have an urban redevelopment that isn’t just for consumers, but for citizens and residents. We need a community where people can go down to the street and find something to do other than shop.”

Montreal’s governing powers have been criticized by Montrealers for tuning out public opinion and ignoring the desires of Griffintown residents. The municipality maintains that this development is in the city’s best financial interest, a claim that has been hotly contested. Southwest Montreal borders the shops of Ste. Catherine and Atwater market; a mega shopping-centre poses the threat of detracting business from these smaller, independently-run businesses. Mayor Gerald Tremblay and Devimco have failed to heed the advice of expert urban planning institutions in the city, such as the Commission d’Urbanisme and the Conseil de Patrimoine de Montréal. Both panels have assessed the plans and have strongly advised against the project. Even the Ordre des urbanistes du Québec have sent a petition to the municipality urging them to reconsider the decision.

For years, the city of Montreal has adhered to outdated planning practices that have angered its citizens. An obvious example is the destruction of countless historically unique and architecturally important Montreal mansions during the 1970s. The demolition of these buildings opened up space for skyscrapers in the city’s financial district, as well as various commercial endeavours that could likely have been accommodated inside the formerly existing structures.

Activists with CSR Griffintown believe that, after years of negligence, it is finally time for responsible urban planning to be prioritized in Montreal politics.

“It’s a historic opportunity here,” Gobeil claims, “in a 50-acre site in downtown Montreal to create a vision for the future. What do we want? Do we want towers of shopping centres or do we want a community?”

Devimco plans to begin its construction of the Griffintown project in the summer of 2009.