Spacing Montreal contributor Adam Bemma recently interviewed me as part of The Gentrification Project, a documentary film about how urban development effects low-income neighbourhoods in Montreal. Adam has done extensive interviews on the subject with academics, community organizations and citizens from Milton Park, Shaughnessy Village, Park Ex, Saint-Henri, Burgundy and Griffintown. (Although my interview isn’t up yet, Adam assures me that it’ll be integrated into the finished documentary).
To be honest, I’m not sure how I got into that mix: Gentrification is a topic that I generally steer away from. It is a subject I have mixed up feelings about: a sense of loss, a dose of guilt, maybe even a hint of righteousness. In short, it’s complicated…
When I was a kid, my mom had a knack discovering finding the neighbourhoods that were full of potential, yet still affordable to a young couple who were students and unemployed in turns. We lost three separate apartments in Saint-Henri before before I was out of diapers. Later, the lease ran out on a sprawling 2-story apartment with hardwood floors in Little Burgundy. We even had to leave a granny flat in Beaconsfield which was slotted to be converted into an old-folks home.
By the early 1990s my parents had split up and my dad moved to Rue Fabre, above Avenue Mont Royal. He was working a day job and composing a novel; his roommate was an actor who hung his bicycle from hooks in the stairwell. On weekends, I joined these pioneers of gentrification, the artsy-types whose presence effaced some more authentic Plateau way of life. Later, my dad remarried and hunkered down in a Plateau 6-and-a-half to raise three more kids, as the rents skyrocketed on all sides.
Meanwhile, across town, my mom and I lay down roots in NDG: we hung on to a gorgeous apartment with basement and bay windows from the time I was in grade nine all the way until my second year in university. Then a zealous new landlord bought the duplex, evicted our upstairs neighbours (two ladies in their ’80s who’d lived there for 50 years), moved in with wife and baby, and set his eye on our groundfloor pad. He may have lost his case at the Régie du Logement, but that didn’t stop him from calling the police every time we guests, video-taping us from his balcony and drilling through the water main (to be fair, the last one was probably plain ineptitude). There are few things more exhausting than feeling persecuted in your own home: when he sent an eviction notice we let him get his way.
The gentrified becomes the gentrifier…
Skip ahead nearly ten years: I’ve got a university degree, I’m mostly employed and so far childless. I cannot deny I like espresso, wifi, bike paths and fine cheese and, what’s worse, I’ve imposed these preferences on the traditionally working-class neighbourhood by moving to Petite Patrie.
“Combattez la gentrification” someone has scrawled on the wall in my old ‘hood, Saint-Henri, as if the city were clearly divided into troupes of haves and have-nots; those with condos versus those with nothing but cans of spray-paint. On the ground, I have found that this battle is made up of tiny actions that are rarely black nor white:
Consider my landlord’s wife struggling to carry the baby stroller up the stairs; me shedding tears as I turned over the keys to my home, and the ladies upstairs whom, after half a century of rent-control, were inevitably the first to go.
Consider my brother and I building forts in the Plateau alleyway while my dad climbed the corporate ladder and wrote poems late at night. Pray tell, what side of the line were we on then?
Consider that, today, I buy almond croissants on my way to work and microbrews on the way home and have yet to set foot in la Belle Province, that cornerstone of local flavour.
Am I the only one who feels like a gentrification double-agent?