Culture | The canal below the hill

St. Henri’s history lives on

St. Henri is a Montreal district – nay, a Montreal institution — which has fought hard for its place in history. Shining through gentrification and modernity, the skeletons of a lost time can be seen throughout the neighbourhood, and heard through the voices of its people. As it continues to develop, its unique heritage and uncertain future come to clash, as it strives to move away from its working class roots.

Initial impressions of St. Henri may seem unceremonious at first. The weathered appearance of a laborious past is hardly hidden behind a thick layer of graffiti upon working class structures and poorly aged infrastructure. The AMT grumbles past, harkening to the freight trains which once commanded the ambiance of the town.

Originally located outside Montreal, St. Henri was established with the intention of opening a tannery in Montreal circa 1685. Unfortunately for him, the process of leather tanning was deemed too disruptive for allowance within the city of Montreal. Undeterred,  a nearby area with an abundant water flow and close proximity to trading routes was selected for the tannery. And so, St. Henri developed into a small artisanal community of leather tanneries, with a decidedly small population of 440. Its reputation as a tannery hotspot grew from here, even taking on the name “Saint-Henri-des-Tanneries.”

St. Henri’s development would be driven by the bordering Lachine Canal. With trade being stymied by the impassable Lachine rapids, the canal’s completion in 1824 provided the first passageway into the upper St. Lawrence River. The area around the canal, especially St. Henri, became the centre of Canada’s industrial development as Montreal moved much of its rapidly growing industry sector from the downtown area into bordering factory suburbs.

It was during this industrial revolution that St. Henri grew into its working class demeanour – perhaps best characterized in Gabrielle Roy’s novel Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute). Here, the sharp contrast between Westmount’s large stone mansions and Saint-Henri’s crowded and purpose-built abodes is depicted in its full glory.

St. Henri’s original town centre was unable to survive the era of mass development, but pieces of the historic Place St. Henri can still be seen at the intersections of St. Jacques and St. Henri. A majestic bank and impressive fire hall, built a year prior to its architectural twin the Atwater Market, stand stoic near the town’s centre

Today, St. Henri remains a wonderful place deserving of a walk. The area has received more attention in the last decade or so with recent public investments in the Lachine Canal (and its designation as a National Historic Site of Canada) and the creation of Montreal’s first woonerf (living street) – a street giving pedestrians and cyclists priority over motorists, encouraging a public social space. The woonerf acts as a living museum, tracing the path of St. Henri’s main water artery, the St. Jacques river. The river was later turned into a canal, the path of which is marked by a treeline through the centre of the woonerf.

The abundance of public improvement throughout the area in general has grown as a new era of private interest in the area has developed. As one traverses the area, the large abandoned factories seem plentiful. A closer look at these seemingly decrepit factories will reveal coloured curtains, lovingly cared for flowers, and freshly created paintings. A never ending battle seems to rage over preserving their past or creating their future. The Saint-Henri Historical Society, as well as many residents of the area, want to preserve these heritage buildings, against the wishes of developers who want to turn them into condos and trendy lofts.

St. Henri is undergoing a new type of revolution, from an old working class enclave to a vibrant Montreal centre. In an area known for its ability to overcome challenge, it now stands to do so in grand form. Expensive loft space and younger residents are coming to define the new St. Henri, allowing the canal to reverberate with life once again while maintaining the cachet of its heritage.