News | Gentrification, Moreau Lofts, and a changing urban landscape

A landlord and city’s reinterpretation of artistic space

“There wasn’t, ‘oh, you have to pay this,’” said Isabelle Charlebois, reminiscing about the Moreau Lofts community that resided in the building at the corner of Ontario and Moreau in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood.

Charlebois, a professional seamstress and student at Université du Québec à Montréal, was one of around 100 residents who were removed from their homes following an eviction notice that was doled out on June 5 of this year. The artists who were residing in 34 of the 38 loft spaces, who did not have a certificate for occupancy in the commercial building, were told to leave their homes behind before September, on the premise that the building was breaking various fire code regulations.

Although a registered commercial building, artists have been calling the Moreau Lofts their home for over two decades. “Over there I’ve seen the worse trash things I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve seen the best things of my life,” said Charlebois.

“As you were entering, it was dark, and they would light up candles all around you. And they would play a song and blow out candles one by one,” Charlebois  said, recalling one of the building’s homegrown art events. “The very good thing about this community and the loft is the art, and the sensitivity they provide the community with was really direct and accessible.”

The night of one of the art events in 2012, four groups of around 100 people were taken around the lofts, into strange places filled with theatrical experimentations, light, and live sound production. On the first floor, Charlebois said, there was an upright electric bass player, with two dancers moving around him. The lights were switched on and off, so that when someone walked into the room, the dancers wrote movement in space with flashes of bright light.

The eviction of these artists will make way for new ones, if the plans of landlord Vito Papasodaro become reality. Papasodaro was reported by CTV News to be planning to invest $1 million to transform the space into another type of artistic lofts, with the full support of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough mayor Réal Ménard. The 38 units will be converted to 70 instead.

“There’s an elite vision that art is for people who can understand stuff, whereas we felt whoever wants to come in can come in. It became a public space,” said Charlebois.

For over two decades, Papasodaro has been receiving approximately $40,000 in total rent on a monthly basis from the residents of the Moreau Lofts – but faces accusations of neglecting to cycle enough money back into the building in order to keep it up to the standards of provincial building code.

Following repeated complaints filed by residents of the Moreau Lofts, inspectors were sent to evaluate the property’s well-being, although, according to tenants, no sufficient action was taken to keep the building from breaking code.

The Moreau Lofts were once the site of documentary film La maison des rêves, or The House of Dreams. But in reality, such dreams were often modest in nature. The only dream Guillaume Vallée-Rémillard, one of the occupiers who had stayed in the parking lot of the Moreau Lofts in protest of the eviction, spoke to, was that of a society that would accept a truly mixed-income neighbourhood.

“Rich people just want to get poor people evicted. Poor people just want to survive,” he said.

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The Comité BAILS of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve – BAILS being Base Action Information Logement Social, an organization that promotes and defends social housing – later organized an occupation of the Moreau Lofts parking lot, organizing tenants in the struggle against gentrification and for more social housing. The occupation in the lot was to last from September 1 to 3.

After that, the occupation continued until the early morning of September 6, when the 15 occupiers who had stayed the night were forcibly removed by armed riot police. It was 6 a.m.

According to Vallée-Rémillard – one of the occupiers awoken to the blare of a megaphone – there were around 40 riot police, with approximately an additional 20 police officers there to take down the camp.

With that, the days of co-operative food share, daily general assemblies, live music, and community housing were over.

Jonathan Aspireault-Massé, community organizer at the Comité BAILS, said the Moreau Lofts would be a marker on a neighbourhood that had traditionally pushed for social housing. Although he doesn’t believe that Mayor Ménard is working directly with the landlord, Aspireault-Massé indicated that the mayor was indeed complicit in the eviction of the Moreau Lofts artists.

“I think the mayor might never have even met this landlord. However, he was very happy about the project that the landlord was developing,” said Aspireault-Massé.

“It feels a lot like it was arranged at the end,” said Charlebois, adding, “At the beginning of the summer, we spoke with the [mayor of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve] and he was all for social housing and helping us.”

“Finally at the end of the summer, Vito Papasodaro was suppose to provide architectural plans so we could set up all the renovations he was going to do. He didn’t do much until the third of September. He was waiting for us to be kicked out. That’s the reality,” said Charlebois.

Fred Burrill, community organizer at the P.O.P.I.R. Comité Logement – which aims to improve housing conditions and provide legal advice to residents in Petite-Bourgogne, St. Henri, Côte-St. Paul, and Ville-Émard – also felt that the timing of the eviction was eerily strategic.

“As soon as the landlord, who has done this before in Hochelaga […] had a project that would bring in a lot more money, that’s when the borough was ready to apply all its inspection rules,” said Burrill. “That’s when the borough was sending the police, the fire department, and of course we didn’t see that before.”

After occupiers were removed from the parking lot of the Moreau Lofts, city workers came to clear out the remnants of the occupation, which was located on Papasodaro’s private property.

“To the audience of The McGill Daily, if they want good tips on how to make their occupation have a better chance to stay longer […] whatever you build has to be high in the sky,” said Vallée-Rémillard.

The beginning of gentrification happens with the conversion of building spaces, said Burrill, who went on to describe the conversion of industrial buildings to residential and other private spaces. According to Burrill, McGill’s conversion of an older industrial building to create the Solin Hall residence in St. Henri set off a wave of gentrification in the neighbourhood.

“McGill students, as a relatively privileged population, who circulate around through neighbourhoods without ever making a huge link or contribution to the struggles going on in those neighbourhoods […] definitely play a role in gentrification,” he said. “It’s about how you chose to participate or not participate in the process.”

The change that gentrification has begun to enact on the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood is a microcosm of the city of Montreal as a whole. As gentrification and the promotion of private development becomes actual public policy, the makeup of this city’s artistic spaces will also change.

When asked what she thinks the Moreau Lofts will look like in the future, Charlebois answered, “It’s probably going to look trendy, and cute […] whatever. But it won’t have a soul. The new architecture is really cold these days. I’d be surprised that this building has a soul in two years. I was there two days ago. It felt like a ghost.”