The condo cure?

How glitzy lofts left St. Henri behind

The blue house of Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occassion still stands near the train tracks, in the southern part of Montreal’s St. Henri neighborhood. In Quebec, the book is a literary classic, and its depiction of poverty in St. Henri in the 1940s still resonates with many Quebecers. But the steel mills that once surrounded the blue house – it’s surreal-looking, toothpick thin and the colour of a robin’s egg – are long gone.  Condominiums have taken over, and its proximity to the Lachine Canal now makes it prime real estate. In this new and gentrified St. Henri, the Lacasse family of Bonheur d’occasion has no place. They wouldn’t be able to afford the rent.

In the 1960s, the closing of the Lachine Canal and the decline of the manufacturing and industrial sectors had a profound impact on the neighborhood. By the early 1980’s, the area’s industrial base had been hollowed out. In 1951, manufacturing jobs in St. Henri peaked at 29,000. Today, that figure is 4,795, or about one sixth of the number of jobs during neighbourhood’s manufacturing heyday. Desperate for additional revenue, the city began to convert the old industrial structures into condominiums. In 1980, the city launched “Opération 20,000 logements” to attract newcomers.

So while about 43 per cent of the population lives in low-income households, parts of St. Henri have been moving steadily upscale for years. It’s now home to Solin Hall – the McGill residence – and the McGill University Health Centre is being built in nearby Westmount, which will certainly prompt hospital employees to move to St. Henri.

Virtually all of the red brick buildings that once housed Montreal’s biggest factories have been turned into expensive condos. The iconic names are still etched on their walls: “Steel Company of Canada”, “Bowater Paper Company Limited,” “Williams Sewing Machines.”

The Château St-Ambroise, a new loft development, once housed the Merchant Cotton Company. The building, which takes up a city block and is four stories high, sits right next to some of the poorest sections of St. Henri. Now the Chateau contains units that rent at $1,375 per month, about twice what an average St. Henri resident pays.

The contrast in lifestyles this produces can be shocking. Next to a row of parked BMWs, I spoke to residents who struggle to pay their bills. Chantale, a local, earns $9.65 per hour, the minimum wage. Her rent has soared ever since the old Merchant Cotton Company building was refurbished into the St-Ambroise. “I know people here who used to pay around $400 a month,” she told me. “Now they’re paying $700.” Those who can’t afford to pay move out. Needless to say, this has bred some resentment. On the side of a free health clinic on Notre-Dame someone has scrawled “Fight Gentrification!”

Whole swaths of the neighborhood are now slowly being emptied out. According to Solidarité St-Henri, an anti-poverty coalition, the neighborhood has only in the last decade started seeing a small bump in population, after a decades-long exodus. But higher rents aren’t the only issue. In St. Henri, gentrification also erodes locals’ sense of community. It almost goes without saying that those who live at the St-Ambroise don’t frequent the same establishments as the locals. One fancy French restaurant next to the Lachine Canal had an imposingly pricey menu: $25 for an Espadon Grillé, $28 for a Carré d’agneau, $26 for a Bavette au fromage.

The bistro’s polar opposite, The Greenspot, is the most famous restaurant in the neighborhood, and it has a near-legendary reputation among locals. It’s been serving greasy foods since the 1940s. For $7 I had a large plate of poutine and a Coke, which they served in a commemorative glass from the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics. Down the street from the Greenspot, there’s now an eco fashion boutique.

The lifestyle disparity extends to where people shop. By and large, those who buy condos in the area – les gens des condos as the residents call them – do their shopping at the Atwater Market, an upscale farmer’s market. Meanwhile, the people in the apartments, or the poor, buy their groceries in convenience stores.  But these stores aren’t just places to shop. It’s also there that a great deal of socializing takes place.

In St. Henri, there’s a convenience store on virtually every corner, and many have been open for decades. The Dépanneur Rose De Lima, barely a block from the Atwater Market, is well-known among residents. The owner, Mr. Lasenne (he refused to tell me the spelling of his name, but that’s how it sounded), knows all of his clients by name. He isn’t like most residents. He and his wife both attended university, and they used to travel frequently. He doesn’t see the changes occurring in St. Henri in such a grim light. “The neighbourhood is becoming nicer,” he told me. “St. Henri is the next Plateau.”

Lasenne claimed that condos in the area now go for as much as $300,000. (Most of them seem to cost closer to $200,000). This was  unthinkable 12 years ago, when Lasenne first moved to St. Henri. His convenience store sits right next to the Lachine Canal, and the land there is some of the most valuable in the neighbourhood.

While that hurts renters, it’s great news for landowners like Lasenne, not all of whom are rich developers. And gentrification has brought other side effects, which few in St. Henri complain about. Incomes have slowly risen in recent years, and community organizations are confident that the newcomers will bring jobs with them. Even locals concerned over rising costs aren’t outright opposed to gentrification. The phenomenon is largely seen as inevitable.

Good or bad, it’s clearly visible, and it can be easily mapped. The area to the south, next to the Canal, is completely gentrified. Almost the entirety of the waterway is lined with expensive condominiums. Atwater, which cuts through St-Henri roughly from north to south, divides the neighborhood into two halves. Residents told me that if I crossed the street, I wouldn’t be able to eat a meal for under $10. This was certainly true on Notre-Dame, the main commercial avenue.

I spoke to Shannon Franssen of Solidarité St-Henri about these changes. The condominiums aren’t the only issue in the neighbourhood, she says. She’s also concerned about the construction of the new McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). It’s isn’t finished yet, but her group suspects that it will further affect the housing market. “The people who work at the hospital will have a higher income than the residents,” she said, “they’ll probably want to move in the neighbourhood as well, so it will likely result in more gentrification.” Still, the group isn’t opposed to its construction. It hopes that the new centre will bring in more employment. “We just want to maximize the positive outcomes,” she explained.

The MUHC isn’t the only way McGill is involved in the gentrification of St. Henri. Solin Hall, the residence near the Lionel Groulx metro station, was an abandoned chocolate factory before being renovated for students. When the University purchased the building in 1990, the change was met with strong resistance from local community groups. One of them, the Comité pour la Relance de l’Économie et de l’emploi du Sud-Ouest (CREESOM), predicted that the purchase would “destabilize” the local francophone population.

By opposing the closing of new factories and by encouraging new economic opportunities, the goal of CREESOM was to preserve the industrial character of the neighborhood. The change in zoning law in 1989 that allowed McGill to convert the industrial building into a residence dashed their hopes of attracting new businesses and revitalizing the neighborhood. A last ditch effort by the group to convert the building into affordable residential units for the entire community was subsequently ignored by the city.

Initially, locals reacted with hostility to the new, privileged arrivals from McGill. In 1995 someone wrote “go home anglo asshole” on one of Solin’s walls. Three years ago, a freshly graffitied message read “Fuck you McGill rich bitches.”

But whatever resentment may have  existed in the community seems to have largely evaporated. A report published by the McGill School of Urban Studies in 1998 shows that eight years after the construction of Solin Hall, any fear over the “destabilization” of the neighborhood had already dissipated. At the time, a majority of residents weren’t even sure if the impact of the students was positive or negative. One local thought that students “lived in their own glass bubble” and that it was as if the residence “did not exist.”

The residents I spoke to were mostly indifferent to Solin Hall. They were more interested in talking about the economic effects of the condominiums than those of McGill and its students.

McGill’s anglophone character hardly bothers anyone in St. Henri. The neighbourhood is largely bereft of the bitter language politics that fester in other parts of the city. The owner  of the Dépanneur Rose De Lima told me that his anglophone clients preferred to be spoken to in French. At the Greenspot, I spoke to the cashier in English, and the waitress, a local, did the same.

On Notre-Dame, there’s a restaurant for every culture: Japanese, Indian, Caribbean, Italian et cetera. At St. Henri, there is no shortage of diversity. After all, this is the neighborhood of Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. It isn’t pro-independence either. A majority of residents voted “no” in the 1995 referendum, and the Liberal Party has been in power for nearly a decade. Now, anglo Solin residents and St. Henri francophones play hockey together at a local rink.

But not everyone subscribes to this vision. QPRIG-McGill is one of several groups that oppose gentrification in Montreal. A few years ago, it hosted an education series on housing rights in Milton-Parc, Mile End, and St. Henri.  I spoke to Holly Nazar, a member of the Right to the City working group of QPRIG-McGill, by email. “One of the biggest causes of gentrification is the downloading of financial responsibilities from provinces and the federal government onto cities,” she explained. “Now cities must raise much more of their own revenue. The only way they have to do this is property tax. This means that they encourage the building of condos and expensive properties because it will bring in more money.”

This has certainly been the case for St. Henri. Gentrification seems inevitable, and the neighborhood will most likely be emptied out of its old residents. In ten years, property value have risen by nearly 200 per cent, and there’s no sign of any slowdown. As Lasenne told me, “in a decade or so, if I’m still alive, this whole place will be unrecognizable.” So far, there isn’t any reason to doubt him.