For many McGill students, as you stumble into the depths of Mile End, onto Rue de Gaspe, things become a little less familiar. Especially at such a bleak time of the year, the lines of furniture shops and windows with nothing but a “louer” sign slapped on them may seem quite discouraging. It took some digging before I saw that this neighborhood harboured a different kind of excitement, one that will most likely appeal to those looking for creative inspiration in its purest form. I was happy enough to see past the cluster of deserted factories and into the rich culture of this neighborhood, step-by-step, with the help of a barista, an artistic entrepreneur, and an artist.
First stop, Le Falco, a curious looking cafe sitting snugly along the graffiti-ed walls of Rue de Gaspe. The cafe is a balance between minimalist and vintage aesthetics, with huge wooden tables, photographs, and welcoming leather couches – an ideal place to spend a lazy afternoon. Its unique concept however, stood out the most. Barista Yuji Okada told The Daily, “my boss studied at L’École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode (ESMOD) in Paris for 10 years before coming here. She liked Japanese interior design and her husband is a photographer, so they designed the cafe this way.”
As one might expect, it is a popular hangout for artists in the neighborhood. Local singer Ariane Moffatt, local actors, and the planners of POP Montreal are regulars. Besides the stellar cup of coffee that the cafe offers, I was given a perspective on the recent artistic development of the neighborhood. “This place has changed a lot. It was really different three years ago,” Okada claimed, “sadly, it has a pretentious vibe and the artists do not work with each other a lot. They stay in separated groups.”
But the beauty of the neighborhood, according to him, lies in its compelling nature, “it is hard to reach, but once you know about this place, there is so much to see and know about,” he continued. Amongst the many artistic endeavors worth noting in this area is the POP Montreal International Music Festival.
Located just a few doors away, in a factory dominated by textile companies and studios, are the coordinators of this annual five-day festival, which boasts more than 600 artists yearly as well as film and visual art components. Co-founder and McGill graduate Dan Seligman was able to make this happen through years of experience as the tour manager for his brother’s band Stars, as well as his serendipitous encounter with the originator of Halifax Pop Explosion ten years ago. Seligman demonstrated an adamant dedication to his work. “We continuously want to make the events better and we always try to push the boundaries of artistic programming,” he said. However, Seligman’s keenness does not come without occasional troublesome consequences, “I got punched by the bouncer at Bifteck for ‘flyering’, but really I was just sitting there at 3 a.m. with a stack of my flyers sitting next to me,” he chuckled.
According to Seligman, Rue de Gaspe and its surroundings form a place for artists and musicians who are always looking for more. Despite the unavoidable effects of gentrification and a recent drug bust, the area is still “high density, and vibrant,” he claimed. Billy Maurease, an artist and one of the many vintage shop owners of the street, has a similar view.
“Gentrification always follows artists,” he stated, “this is how it goes: first there is this community, artists come and stylize it, they create art for the scene, then comes this issue that everyone has to face.” Though this process is clearly not a desirable one for the artists, or for previous and current residents, Maurease believes that as long as the place remains “accessible, charming, and not being too overridden by landlords in their Ferraris,” then all is well.
After all, as he pointed out, “a ‘true artist’, if I dare say, should be expansive in nature. Artists should not stay in Mile End the whole time.” As for his own work and the whimsical items in his store, Maurease has but one steadfast belief.
“What I’m doing here is not like BabyGap, or whatever you see downtown on Ste. Catherine; it is not for consumption. What I do is art and I am an artist. What’s here is my labour of love,” he stated.
Though the area may seem secretive and out of reach to those who have not ventured far enough, it sure is an art scene worth exploring if you’re hoping to find something beyond the galleries on Sherbrooke or the Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal. See past the bombardment of factories and trucks as you get off bus 55, and you will find cafes and independent businesses, workshops and galleries, all with their own artistic deeds. A barista, an entrepreneur, and a local artist may not have much in common, but as the daily observers of the progress of Rue de Gaspe, they seem to have faith in the direction in which it may be going.