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Montreal’s lost and found

Victoria Lessard visits the ghosts of neighbourhoods past

Stepping into the air-conditioned Centre d’histoire de Montréal on a shockingly hot afternoon –  for which I was totally overdressed, having a deep mistrust of weather predictions ever since the snow-in-July incident in my hometown of Calgary  in 2000– I was looking forward to cooling off and learning about Montreal’s urban history. I attended the “Lost Neighbourhoods” exhibition expecting to leave the exhibition knowing more about three neighbourhoods that live on only in the memories of their former residents. What I did not expect, however, was to be presented with a very apt metaphor for the tumultuous and politically charged atmosphere currently hanging over our city’s streets.

“Lost Neighbourhoods” is an interactive multimedia exhibition about three distinct districts in Montreal that were razed between 1950 to 1970 in order to make room for various public projects. Fifty-four former residents of Faubourg à m’lasse (now Maison-Radio Canada, near the Jacques Cartier Bridge), the Red Light district (lower Saint Laurent above Rene Levesque), and Goose Village (now a parking lot near Griffintown) were interviewed about their experiences growing up in these communities. The exhibition also included the voices of numerous historians, urban planners, architecture experts, and academics. The question of whether modernity should trump cultural heritage runs throughout the show, asking the viewer to carefully consider whether a government is justified in steam-rolling over its citizens in the name of “progress” or “the common good”.

The very first room you walk into introduces the disappearance of these three neighbourhoods through an emotionally-compelling video of former residents recalling the trauma of seeing their homes and communities destroyed. Robert Petrelli, recalling the experience of going back to the area after the houses had been torn down, described the sight as “a city after a nuclear attack… [The] only sound was stray dogs howling.” This chilling image is enhanced by the set and backdrop where the video is played – a wall looks as though it has been destroyed by a wrecking ball, and the film is playing on an ancient television surrounded by worn chairs of all different shapes and sizes.

The latter half of the exhibition debates the questions surrounding this sensitive time period in Montreal’s history. Should these districts have been sacrificed to make way for the vision Jean Drapeau, the mayor of the city from around 1954 to 1986, held for the “city of the future”? One can’t argue with the fact that Drapeau helped to shape today’s bustling downtown metropolis – part of his legacy is the inauguration of the metro in 1966. However, he destroyed areas without a thought for the residents living within them, or for the cultural heritage they contained.

Drapeau viewed these areas as “slums,” and, while a former resident agrees that “it was poverty in all its glory,” urban planning experts feel Drapeau’s use of the term “slums” has to be questioned. The derogatory word carries heavy connotations, and stands in the way of improvements to the affected areas.

After walking through the rest of the exhibit – which included entertaining and touching reconstructions of Faubourg à m’lasse, the Red Light District, and Goose Village – I entered the final area of the show, which drove home the relevance of this historical exhibition to Montreal’s current political climate. There were life-size cut-outs of shadow figures holding protest signs, with slogans such as “We remember, We still fight”, “My neighbourhood, My life”, and, most appropriately, “We have duties.”

While the exhibition encourages people to become more involved and active in campaigning for their community rights and cultural heritage, it also speaks to a larger metaphor that is engulfing Montreal – the growing importance of speaking up for your community, and your rights as an active member of that community.