Image: Poetry reading in the Dalhousie Art Space, adjacent to the New City Gas Co. building, Aug 2010.
There are rumbles of change in Griffintown. After lying abandoned for years, the lot next to Judith Bauer’s house is being dug up on a Sunday morning. She comes outside to speak with the foreman, partially out concern for the foundation of her 135-year-old building, and partially out of curiosity to learn about the new neighbours. The new project will be a 4-story condo building with a porte-cochère to match its neighbours, the foreman explains. Could be worse.
Somewhat assuaged that her house will still be standing when we return, Bauer and I set off for a tour of Griffintown’s Cultural Corridor.
If you were to put it on a map – and Bauer has – the Corridor is a cluster of cultural attractions within a narrow strip of the city that runs through Old Montreal, Griffintown, Little Burgundy and Saint-Henri, parallel to the Lachine Canal. Notably, it includes the Centre d’histoire de Montréal, the Darling Foundry, Leo’s Horse Palace, the Atwater Market and the Centre Saint-Ambroise, as well as dozens of other artistic and historic points of interest.
The idea of the Cultural Corridor is to create a thread connecting what might otherwise seem like isolated pockets of creativity in Montreal’s South-West. It isn’t a particular development plan, it’s an invitation directed at galleries, artists’ studios, chef-owed restaurants, microbreweries and more to come together and create a place that will attract tourists, visitors, and new residents who want to be part of a dynamic neighbourhood.
Meme over matter
But if I was expecting the Cultural Corridor to be lined with tourist attractions, I was mistaken. Bauer is able to point out fascinating tidbits of Montreal lore, like the oldest house in Griffintown, or the old police station where Suzanne Kennedy was held for the brutal murder of Mary Gallagher. But only the most dedicated of history buffs would likely make a detour for these sights.
“The truth is, there’s very little,” Bauer concedes. “First and foremost it’s an idea, but I think it has a lot of power…If we think about it that way, then as the neighbourhood develops they’ll do it in keeping with that.”
South of Notre-Dame things begin to look rather desolate – I can almost understand that developer’s impulse to wipe the slate clean and start again. But with Bauer as a guide, its possible to peer beyond the inconspicuous facades: a sprawling, single story building with linoleum siding, originally built as a parking garage, now contains dance and photo studios and a floral arrangement business. She knows the elderly gentleman who lives behind the paint-chipped doors with metal grills over the windows, a place I would have thought abandoned. On one corner there is a glassmaker; on another an entrepot for medieval costumes.
But even more powerful, Bauer has an impressive eye for the best-of-all-possible futures. The Northern Electric building (built 1906) that spans the entire block between Guy, William and Notre Dame and has an inner courtyard, would be perfect for a huge terrace similar to the Distillery District in Toronto. There are already a number of artists studios in the building, and Canada Lands’ Cité des Artistes will soon be going up right across the street.
And to tie everything together, Bauer imagines a calèche route running from the Centre d’histoire to Atwater Market, along Ottawa, William and Wellington streets, and then bordering the Lachine Canal. Tourists could get a day pass and hop on and off at the various historic and cultural landmarks.
The best of all possible Griffintowns?
According to the associations’ website, the Cultural Corridor imagines what the future of this area could be in the best of all possible worlds.
The idea grew out of the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown, the residents’ organization that mobilized against Devimco’s Project Griffintown in 2007. Bauer says that there was a lot of talk at the time about an alternative vision for Griffintown, which would respect the neighbourhood’s rich history and revitalize it through sustainable and human scaled development.
Now Devimco has retreated from much of the neighbourhood, leaving behind a whole lot of underdeveloped property freshly zoned for residential and mixed development, all within walking distance of downtown. In face of an unparalelled development boom, the Cultural Corridor insists that revitalizing Griffintown means supporting a vital and interesting neighbourhood, not just throwing up a collection of dwellings.
“I don’t want to spend my time lobbying politicians about things I don’t like,” says Bauer. Indeed, it seems much more worthwhile to give them an inkling of the creative energy that exists both locally and in the city at large, and that is ever eager to pour into Griffintown given the right conditions.
The borough has supported the concept and is already, in some ways, facilitating the creation of the Cultural Corridor, Bauer says. The borough mayor and councillors were so thrilled with the Cultural Corridor’ Nuit Blanche event at New City Gas Co last year that they have been more than eager to grant the association permits for a series of outdoor performances and installations. They also helped get soil, compost and plants for a community garden near the Dalhousie art space.
As entrepreneurs and developers come through the borough offices looking to claim a piece of Griffintown, hopefully the Cultural Corridor will be somewhere in their minds and plans, colouring the neighourhood’s future.
So, spread the word.