I hate to put up a second post about bizarre law-enforcing activities over the weekend, but it has to be said: last Sunday, the Montreal Police broke up a rogue gardening session in Mile End.
For the past two years, artist Emily Rose Michaud and a collective of gardeners called Sprout Out Loud! have tended the soil and planted seeds in an abandoned CP lot in Maguire meadow, located in the North-East corner of Mile End. As I wrote last fall, the objective of the garden was to draw attention to a neglected green space and highlight the cultural and environmental value of the space.
And draw attention it did. A passionate post by Marke on the Imagine Mile End blog describes the situation last Sunday:
“The Montreal Police made it clear that Montrealers who work to beautify neglected green spaces in their neighbourhoods have no right to do so, and in fact are treading on criminal ground.”
Its not clear whether this was another case of over-zealous policing or whether the police were responding to a complaint. No charges were brought against the gardeners, but warning were issued. According to Marke:
“…it has been clearly communicated to us that no resident of Mile-End (or elsewhere in Montreal) has the right to move rocks, pull weeds, plant flowers (or any other plants), or in any other way try to beautify or change their community…at least not on Canadian Pacific property.”
The land in question was private – albeit neglected – property belonging to CP that is in the process of being sold to the Plateau borough. Ultimately the borough’s intent is to extend Saint-Viateur street to the Carmelite convent, a plan that some residents criticize as it would pave over one of the only green spaces in the neighbourhood. For decades “grey space” has been appropriated by local residents to walk dogs, exercise, practice art and music, and even hold the occasional bonfire.
To me the most curious thing about the situation is that, while planting, weeding, and landscaping the site are banned activities, police told the residents that they may continue to pick up litter at the site. If the police were working to enforce anti-trespassing rules on private property, or if they were responding to liability concerns on the part of the private owners, why would citizens continue to be allowed to keep the site tidy?
The law specifically prevents people from leaving any lasting trace on public land (or in this case abandoned, soon to be public land). Perhaps it is because these actions would legitimize residents’ appropriation of the place long-term.
Imagine Mile End writes: “There is a great deal of momentum and interest growing around this green space, and the redevelopment of this part of Mile-End over all. And everything I have heard about Helen Fotopoulos and this borough government makes it clear that they are not happy with the possibility of having to actually change their plans due to public pressure.”
In a comment on the Imagine Mile End blog, borough mayor Helen Fotopoulos, said she is hurt by insinuation that the borough called the police and added: “had I been invited and in town I would have probably joined you in the project.”
Representatives from Sprout Out Loud and Imagine Mile End are currently seeking a meeting with the borough to clarify what their rights are in this “grey space.”
Although it may technically be illegal, this kind of spontaneous, grass-roots action can make people feel engaged in their neighbourhood in a hands-on, constructive way. This kind of activity can foster citizenship and community involvement to a degree that top-down initiatives are hard-pressed to achieve. I certainly hope that the local powers-that-be see the potential value of that.
MAY 24 UPDATE: Marke follows up with the Borough and the Police and finds out that niether the borough nor the CP called the police. The police were apparently following up on a call about people camping in the meadow overnight and really don’t mind the gardening activities afterall.
Image: Children play around the Roerich Garden during the Jane’s Walk May 2nd. Photo from Imagine (le) Mile End.