The brothers Gravenor over at Coolopolis recently featured this 1972 photo of a street party on Hutchison Street. What was being celebrated? The success of the Milton Park Citizens’ Coalition, which had banded together to fight the proposed Cité Concordia, a massive development that would have obliterated the McGill Ghetto’s ramshackle Victorian rowhouses and stately apartment buildings in favour of a Modernist’s wet dream. The project was scrapped (although the big La Cité apartment and retail complex was still built at the corner of Park and Prince Arthur) and many of the dwellings in the eastern half of the neighbourhood were incorporated into a giant housing cooperative home to 1,800 people.
More scenes of this party can be seen downtown, along McGill College Avenue between Ste. Catherine and de Maisonneuve, in this year’s installment of the street’s annual late-summer photo exhibition. This year, it features scenes of daily Montreal life drawn from the McCord Museum’s vast photographic archives, many taken in the 1970s. I find these photos particularly fascinating: they are recent enough for everything to seem vaguely familiar but old enough to contain a lot that is foreign and unexpected. One shot shows a close aerial view of Old Montreal when it was still a workaday port neighbourhood, giant grain elevators looming over what is now park space. Another portrays a shop on Marie-Anne Street selling winemaking equipment, its hand-lettered signs written entirely in Portuguese, with nary a French or English word in sight.
Many of these photos come from something called the Milton Park Project. It was an attempt to document the life of what was then a threatened neighbourhood. Today, although the area remains physically recognizable, its texture and character has changed dramatically. I was especially fascinated by a photo taken inside a McGill student’s apartment somewhere in the Ghetto: small, but well-appointed, it had elegant mouldings and an old-style window that opened wide onto the street. The walls were filled with ethnic art and overflowing shelves of books. There was something distinctly bohemian, in that 1970s kind of way, about the place. It made me think of the student life described in Francine Noel’s novel Maryse, set between 1968 and 1975, all naive idealism and pseudo-intellectual conversations held in smoky brasseries and rundown flats.
That kind of student life — the boho grit, basically — has disappeared entirely from the McGill Ghetto. Its rowhouses have been renovated into swanky homes for professionals; its coops have become staid and established; its student apartments are filled with kids who watch YouTube instead of reading Foucault. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I imagine the political and philosophical rhetoric of the seventies got pretty tiresome — but it does make the Montreal of thirty years ago seem that much more exotic.