Culture  Bursting the Bubble: Of Vietnamese grocers and African discos

When I was 14, I began commuting from the small town in upstate New York where I lived to Montreal, to study dance at a conservatory on the corner of Jean-Talon and Alexandra. Unused to navigating public transportation and naively unaware that taking the metro to de Castelnau would get me closer to the school, I stepped off the train twice a week at Jean-Talon station and walked the ten or so blocks west. I soon realized that waiting for the blue line would save me the trek, but I kept walking anyway, not wanting to miss the bright colours and bizarre sights I passed on my way to class. They were the exact opposite of everything familiar to me from small-town life.

Though a Baptist Church now occupies the building where I used to study dance, I find it comforting that when I return to the neighbourhood, few of my old landmarks have changed. The Vietnamese grocery with the bright yellow exterior is still there, as is the fish importer that marked the halfway point of my walk, and the “African Disco” with blacked-out windows that my younger self found exceptionally creepy. In a neighbourhood where, subtly but increasingly, old buildings and the shops they house are being forced out in favour of the shiny uniformity of condos and Pharmaprix stores, I know that my relatively untouched stretch of Jean-Talon may not retain its individuality for long.

Jean-Talon station lies at the corner of Jean-Talon and St. Denis, in the southeastern corner of Villeray. The neighbourhood is a subset of Montreal’s Villeray—Saint-Michel—Parc Extension borough, and borders on nearby Rosemont—La Petit Patrie. Originally a stretch of industrial buildings and factories, the neighbourhood really took off around the time the orange-line metro stop was constructed in the sixties: a post-WWII boom created an abundance of new jobs, and workers followed. In the 20 years following the war, Villeray’s population skyrocketed. Duplexes went up as far as the eye could see. Today, the neighbourhood’s population density remains high, and it’s those same buildings that are the subject of heated debates over whether to protect vintage architecture or to tear down old, shabby buildings in an attempt to revitalize the district.

But while revitalization of a dilapidated area is in theory a good thing, the gentrification that often accompanies it can spell disaster for a neighbourhood’s residents. Without those residents, Villeray—Saint-Michel—Parc Ex would hardly be the vibrant, quirky community it is. Though the area began as a solidly French neighbourhood, waves of immigrants – first Italians, and then Vietnamese, Portugese, and Haitians – began to take up residence in Villeray. Combined with the Indian population that has become nearly synonymous with Parc Ex, nobody can argue with the fact that the area is a multicultural one.

The question is what will happen to that pluralism in the future. The proposed construction of a huge new UdeM campus in Parc Ex has residents worried about what’s ahead, and the degree to which construction of the campus might change the surrounding area is unclear. While it’s true that there are stretches of the borough that could use a breath of fresh air, its character is well worth preserving. As for me, I’m going to keep heading back for the cheap Vietnamese food and trips to the market. I hope they’ll be around for a long time to come.