The Gazette reported this weekend that the Hasidic community in Outremont and Mile End is suffering from a housing shortage. In 2002, there were about 4,200 Hasidim in the neighbourhood; today there are more than 6,000. Rising property values mean that many new Hasidic families are finding themselves priced out of their own Montreal heartland. Apparently, the hunt is on to find a new neighbourhood with suitable and affordable housing.
If the Hasidic community does move on, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Jewish community has come and gone. The entire swath of city from Chinatown right up to Little Italy is littered with former synagogues that were abandoned when the original Jewish community moved west. But it wouldn’t be a good thing if the Hasidim leave.
First of all, a Hasidic exodus would be a disaster for the neighbourhood’s economy. Hasidic Jews make up more than 25 percent of Outremont’s population, and even if they have their own Yiddish bookstores and kosher eateries, they still rely on non-Hasidic businesses for everything else, like drugs, hardware, stationery and fresh fruits and vegetables. Most of those shops are on Park Avenue; imagine the impact if they lost a quarter of their business. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that one out of every four shops on the street was vacant, a situation rectified in large part by the growth of the Hasidic community.
Then there’s the question of streetlife. If the Hasidim left, Mile End and Outremont be far less lively and down-to-earth. What would replace all of the Hasidic fishmongers, shoe stores, chocolate shops, jewellers and supermarkets? Who would make up for the constant foot traffic generated by a community of people that almost never leave the neighbourhood? They’d likely be replaced by affluent professionals who work elsewhere and don’t spend much running errands on foot.
There’s also the question of tolerance. By living in such a compact, high-density and ethnically mixed neighbourhood, the Hasidim come into regular contact with non-Hasidim, which causes some friction but also some mutual understanding. (I doubt I would know anything about Hasidic Judaism if I hadn’t spent so many years living on Park Avenue.) The Hasidic community might be insular, but it would be even more cut off from the rest of the world if it moved to a self-sufficient colony like Kiryas Joel.
Unlike Brooklyn, Montreal hasn’t seen any serious conflict between Hasidim and non-Hasidim; the biggest problem has to do with parking, minor zoning violations and Outremont borough councillors who don’t like the looks of sukkot. So let’s hope the Hasidic Jews stick around for awhile, if only because they play such a big part in making Park Avenue, Mile End and Outremont the places they are.