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madness in montreal

no, this isn't a post about hockey. there is certainly that sort of madness going on in montreal right now, but i'm writing about something more sinister. [which, for some reason, you've introduced with a hockey joke. -ed.]

like most cities, montreal is a patchwork of communities, each with their own distinct character, while fitting together to form a cohesive whole. i would actually say that montreal's whole is more cohesive than, say, toronto's, where the communities often seem very far apart, in all senses. mostly, that means that montrealers share a conviviality and joie de vivre, something for which they are well-known. [also riots -ed.]

however, sometimes the ways in which neighbourhoods come together is a little bit disturbing. i was reminded of this yesterday, when i traveled to an area of the city i don't often see. i was aware of it, of course, and the area had always been faintly disturbing to me as i drove through it, but walking around a little [it was a lovely day, so i got off the bus earlier than necessary], the disturbing-ness really hit me full-force.

here's what i mean:

this is one view of l'acadie boulevard, facing north. it's a wide street, as you can see, which which connects the north-northwest of the city to highways, but doesn't offer much in the way of atmosphere. the view here is of the eastern side of the boulevard, the edge of a neighbourhood called parc extension, parc ex for locals. this neighbourhood was farmland until the middle of the twentieth century, at which point it was quickly overtaken by the expanding city. "quickly" is the part that's important to understanding the neighbourhood. even some of montreal's poorest neighbourhoods often boast elegant architecture, river views and bucolic parks. parc ex, however, bears all the hallmarks of a hastily conceived suburb for post-war immigrants imported to serve as the working class for the dominant class. worse still, decades of increasing poverty and neglect have resulted in a pervasive ugliness, something which is nearly an affront to montreal's normal state of effortless beauty.

go ahead, say it: fugly
in fact, parc ex remains among the poorest neighbourhoods in montreal, if not the poorest. in fact, it's one of the poorest neighbourhoods in canada. it has never lost its character as a place for cheap housing for immigrants, although the faces of those immigrants has changed: first there was a wave of displaced jews from eastern europe, followed closely by italians; then the neighbourhood was overtaken by new immigrants from greece; currently it is home to a large southeast asian population as well as some people from latin america and the caribbean. on the optimistic side, it's been called an ungentrified paradise for international cuisine, however even that orientalist sort of outlook is really limited to the fringes of the neighbourhood, especially the southern border with hip central mile end.

on the opposite side of acadie boulevard is a verdant wall of flowering bushes that stands above my head. it disguises a chain link fence that runs from acadie's southernmost point to the transcanada highway. snuggled away behind this is the town of mount royal, which is the richest neighbourhood in montreal. it's a strange place, because on all sides, it feels closed off from what's around it. it's difficult to approach on foot from any angle and even in a car it seems confusing. it's structured like a bicycle wheel or spider web- everything connected to everything else, but connected to nothing outside of itself. and i think that the residents of the town of mount royal [tmr for montrealers] like it that way. the can feel connected to montreal without having to deal with it.

a less than welcoming welcome sign
the fence between parc ex and tmr has been derided as a type of apartheid, particularly after the town started locking the gates at night. it was extremely controversial when it was built, however the frequent turnover in parc ex has meant that there aren't many people who remember that time. for the current residents, it is something that has always been there. there's an excellent article here on the history of the fence and its cultural impact.

as i wandered up acadie, however, i noticed that there was actually a fair amount of traffic between the two communities: olive- and dark-skinned women migrating from the tmr to the parc ex side in the late afternoon gloom. that's when it really occurred to me what was going on. parc ex is no longer simply a diverse neighbourhood with a number of problems caused by perennial poverty; it's become a servant's quarters for the wealthy neighbours who otherwise would have nothing to do with them. and to me, that's far more depressing than having the city's poorest residents on the far side of a barrier wall from its richest [as depressing as that is].

as insulting as it may have been for the residents of parc ex to find themselves barricaded from entering the leafy neighbourhood across the street, it seems far worse for the rich to assert control over the lives of the poor by pulling them in to do menial work and then shooing them out the door, at the homeowners discretion. it smacks too much of viewing people as property, to be used at will once you've paid for them.

i don't know if i'll have the opportunity to visit the neighbourhood again any time soon. i rather suspect that i won't and i'm kind of happy about that. however i will think about the great wall and the next time i am there, i've promised myself that i'm going to push one of those gates open and leave it that way, just to see if civilised society crumbles.

Comments

Martin Rouge said…
Yeah, Park Ex is a terrible place. I remember when a free local weekly rag made a list of the five worst neighborhoods to live in, and how to fix them. Park Ex came as the worse, which the only solution to fix it being to just raze it down and start from scratch. It is our very own French Banlieu, in the heart of residential neighborhoods.
Kate MacDonald said…
Your memory is very sharp, my friend. I was thinking of that exact article as I was writing this. Sadly, I believe they were right. While there is some development along Jean Talon (which also has the advantage of being extremely well-served by public transit), I think much of it has little to tempt new residents or new investment. Most of the people I've known who've lived there have just been trying to save money so that they could go somewhere else.

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