Culture  Halfway between punk and prosperity

Bursting the Bubble

At the foot of Westmount, tucked inside the borough of Montreal Sud-Ouest and settled atop the Lachine Canal, sits St Henri: a history of francophone struggle, an echo of Montreal’s industrial past. As the “For Rent” signs accumulate and its crumbling factories are rebuilt as condominiums, St Henri stands at a crossroad.

Before I knew anything at all about St Henri, I knew that it was “up-and-coming.” It is a phrase heard tirelessly in reference to the area: St Henri seems to be interminably on the verge of raising its property value. This friendly neighbourhood euphemism is a subtle nod towards the ominous pressures of the gentrification process. Walking westward on Notre-Dame from St. Ferdinand, one can see the forces of young-people-with-money at work. The street is peppered with new cafes, shops, and art galleries; surrounding them are older businesses that have withstood the test of time, while frequent “À Louer” signs sit atop the facades of untouched, aged, ornate architecture. A Marché aux Puces, Eglise St. Zotique’s church bazaar, and several antique furniture stores can all be found on Notre Dame alongside stylized resto-lounge-exteriors with names like Dragon Kitchen and Sushi Goo Goo.

“Industrial chic” is what we can call this attraction to the habitation of deindustrialized spaces. Even McGill’s into it: Solin Hall, one of the university’s apartment-style residences, is a converted chocolate factory straddling the border between Atwater and St Henri. Atwater Market, historically a local farmer’s market serving St Henri and Sud-Ouest residents, has in Montreal’s more recent history been revived as an expensive hub of upper-class consumer activity. The upscale developments around the market have displaced low-income housing projects and attracted a higher tax bracket to a relatively working-class area. Closer to the canal, west of the market, lives a creative community, drawn to St Henri by its cheap rent and large spaces. Pirates of the Lachine Canal are weird punk party planners with their headquarters in the Sud-Ouest. Centre St. Ambroise, just northwest of the canal, doubles as a music venue and a brewery.

The anglophone prestige of Westmount remains divided from St Henri’s rough francophone roots by the path of the Falaise Saint-Jacques, but a new and wealthy anglophone presence is trickling into St Henri from all sides. Today, an increasing number of students and young renters are infiltrating the area’s nationalist francophone identity. However the interests of the area’s long-standing residents are preserved; in this month’s Canadian election, St Henri voted overwhelmingly for the Bloc Quebecois.

The most impressive testaments to the deindustrialization of St Henri can be found in the abandoned factories that litter the area – there is one on Rue St Remi and another at Richelieu and St Marguerite. Minimal security and wretched maintenance make it easy to hop a fence and do what you wish – the city doesn’t make it very difficult. These huge lots sprawl and loom, teeming with decay and disregard. I am inclined to romanticize these ruins as structures with potential and limitless possibilities for creative endeavors and productive ventures, but land development is not as straightforward as many naïve hopefuls – such as myself – would imagine it to be. Who will inherit these spaces? Small businesses? Condominium developers? Artists? Batman? Only time and incentive will tell.

– Aditi Ohri