The Red Light District, Goose Village, Faubourg m’lasse. These neighborhoods have disappeared from Montreal maps. Between 1950 and 1970, they were erased during the city’s modernization era. Hundreds of dwellings reduced to rubble; tens of thousands of people displaced across the island.
In a new exhibit, the Centre d’histoire de Montréal rebuilds these areas the only way possible: not brick by brick but memory by memory. Lost Neighborhoods is an innovative, documentary-style exhibit that reintroduces or, in most cases, introduces visitors to these three demolished neighborhoods thanks to the accounts of their former residents.
“It’s like you actually step into one of those photographs of demolition and have people talk about the impact it had in their life to lose their home, to lose their neighborhood, to lose their life in some sort of way,” says Catherine Charlebois, the Centre’s Project manager for oral history and memory projects.
Charlebois interviewed some of the fifty-four former inhabitants whose stories form the foundations of what she considers a unique exhibit demonstrating the “human relation to the city.” True, the Centre’s second floor looks little like a stereotypical museum. Its walls are virtually free of descriptive texts or graphics, and only one corridor is plastered with photographs: black and white snapshots of working class neighborhoods.
The bulk of information is conveyed through video interviews projected in rooms outfitted like the areas they document: Robert Petrelli describes the coexisting seedy and family life in the Red Light District; Frances and Ortuso and Adolf Diorio are ripe with nostalgia over their time in Goose Village; and Cécile and Guy Pauzé remember cramped apartments of the Faubourg m’lasse.
“What you see in the exhibit is a Montreal that does not exist anymore; it’s a Montreal just before the modernization of the city,” says Charlebois. The neighborhood recreations are counterbalanced with an exhibition room devoted to city planning. Interviewees from the urbanism field attempt to explain to visitors how and why such destruction was deemed beneficial to Montreal at the time.
It began with the modernist and functionalist ideas of the 1920s and 1930s. The rise of the automobile required cities to improve traffic flow. With the end of WWII, cities sought to clean up the remnants of the industrial era: cramped neighborhoods and unsanitary conditions. “We were planning and thinking a very modern city and a lot of people, including ordinary Montrealers, were exalted with the idea of having a very modern Montreal,” says Charlebois.
Arguably no Montrealer had such as powerful vision for the city as Jean Drapeau. Acting as mayor from 1954-57, then again from 1960-86, Drapeau was determined to make Montreal an international city and, with the help of a large urban planning office, many would say he succeeded. Drapeau’s government is credited with such mega-projects as the Place des Arts, Expo 67, the Ville-Marie expressway and the metro system. He also put into motion the Habitation Jeanne-Mance, the CBC’s Radio-Canada tower, and the no longer existing 1967 World’s Fair Autostade which replaced the Red Light District, Faubourg m’lasse and Goose Village, respectively. Montreal’s downtown became a civic and commerce core, and residents migrated to the newly built suburbs.
Where there were losses, there were gains. Habitation Jeanne-Mance provided hundreds of social housing units to low-income families, and the Radio-Canada tower greatly increased Montreal’s media capabilities. The Autostade is the only project which Charlebois condemns as “very bad urban planning” in that 350 buildings were destroyed and 1,500 people exiled for the sake of a temporary structure. It is now a parking lot.
In a room simulating a half-demolished apartment watching a video of residents’ emotional testimonies, it’s hard to believe “people actually saw those mega-projects in a very positive light.” But Charlebois reminds us this destruction must be considered in the context of a modernizing high that was sweeping the Western world. “Of course,” she adds, “it didn’t take long to realize that by destroying very large parts of neighborhoods, the impact was not necessarily what we thought.”
Urban planners convinced business owners in these neighborhoods that the loss of local clientele would be made up for by higher earning customers drawn in by the new mega-projects. This was not the case. According to Charlebois, Sainte-Catherine’s East end business sector never fully recovered from the demolition of the Faubourg m’lasse residences.
For the neighborhood’s inhabitants, the greatest loss was on a social level. The dispersion of these thousands of Montrealers to different corners of the island caused a breakdown in the social fabric that had defined these communities. “It was like a death,” says one interviewee of the forced severance of communal ties.
The purpose of the exhibition is not to condemn mega-projects whose infiltration of Montreal’s neighborhoods continues to this day. Instead, “the core message of what we’re presenting is that urban development is something that concerns you because you live in the city,” says Charlebois. Since the 1960s, Montrealers have gained more and more of a say in urban planning with such things as public consultations. The final exposition room entitled “Visions, reflections, mobilizations” encourages visitors to voice their opinions on the changing landscape of their city now, not in retrospect as was only possible for the Lost Neighborhoods’ inhabitants.
Lost Neighborhoods is on June 15, 2011 to March 25, 2012 at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal.