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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Roerich Garden highlights abandoned site’s value in the face of St-Viateur expansion

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Sprout Out Loud! gardening collective in the Mile End meadow on November 2nd 2008. Photo by Melissa Campbell.

In an abandoned CP Rail lot in the Mile End, a pack of gardeners till the earth and sip Hot Toddy in the November chill. Next spring they will plant red clover and bee balm in the shape of a 20-foot wide Roerich symbol -the symbol of cultural preservation which was placed on the roofs of schools, museums, and historical monuments during WWII to deter aerial bombers.

Emily Rose Michaud, the artist behind the Roerich Garden – which has grown from art project, to gardening collective, to political statement – says her work is a message to the community and city officials that this meadow is culturally meaningful.

The meadow is both a green space and a creative place where people walk dogs, meditate, hold bonfires, play music, and build snow sculptures. Bronwyn Chester visisted the site during one of her tree tours, and over the months, Michaud has also seen ground hogs, skunks, monarch butterflies, as well as walnut and apple trees, which she believes were brought over by squirrels from the Carmelite nunnery next door. It is also a creative space where public art can be made accessible and implicate the community at large: besides the Roerich Garden, the meadow hosted the 2007 edition of Festival Artivistic.

It’s becoming a heavily gentrified area, which makes the space more relevant, more precious,” Michaud says.


Roerich garden ready for planting in Spring 2008. Photo: Kevin Brown.

Now, in late fall, the garden is overrun with weeds. “When you’re working with life, there is so much you can’t control – the seasons, the City, community members, dogs that come and piss on it…” Michaud says, “It’s about being in a relationship with something bigger and not having only 1 artist/author.”

“If it becomes city-owned I would have much less control,” She adds. That is not to say that Michaud would not be open to collaborating with the city or another level of government. She would like to see government funding towards decontaminating the soil using a variety of plants to absorb toxins. Eventually, it could become a garden and food staple for the borough.

She would love for the meadow conserved but kept wild and unmanaged in the tradition of the Commons. “Public parks are not a Commons because they are highly managed by an autocratic system,” she says.

But the city has a different plan altogether: to extend Saint-Viateur street to Henri-Julien, and create pedestrian and cyclist links to the Rosemont Metro. Expanding the Mile End street grid would require taking down one industrial building and paving over the site of the Roerich Garden in the next 2 years.


Saint-Viateur East Sector Plan (PDF) from the City of Montreal, with Roerich symbol added by me in the approximate location of the Roerich garden.

Michaud is currently collecting photos, news clippings, personal stories, as well as artistic expressions to create a document that will catalogue and what experiences it has contained and dreams for what this place may become. To contribute join the Sprout out Loud! gardening collective or to contribute to the catalogue, please visit Emily Rose Michaud’s blog or email her at



  1. With all due respect to Emily Rose Michaud, my understanding of gentrification is that it is the result of professionals, initially of the creative class, moving into a more working class area. Anyone who has the luxury of maintaining a garden, “… meditat[ing], hold[ing] bonfires, play[ing] music, and build[ing] snow sculptures” under the guise of “[an] art project… gardening collective… political statement” is, almost by definition, a gentrifier. Without passing judgement on the artistic value of the work, her statement that, “It’s becoming a heavily gentrified area, which makes the space more relevant, more precious,” passes beyond the realm of the condescending into the totally ignorant.

    This is to say nothing of the fact that neither Mile End, nor any neighborhood in Montreal with the exception of Vieux-Montreal has undergone full-blown gentrification in the traditional meaning of the word. That said, I should think that between the actual legal owners of the land, the traditional ethnic, working-class population of Mile End, and those that would equate the city of Montreal’s infrastructure work with World War II aerial bombing (discussing it perhaps over hot toddies at Le Cagibi?), the latter group would have the most tenuous claim to the area.

    This might not be so absurd an article if the city wasn’t restoring the street grid, making public transportation a more feasible option for those in the western section of Mile End. As I understand it, the abandoned CP yards likely suffer from serious contamination, as well. The city’s goals here are –or at least seem to be– in the best interest of conscientious urbanism, but no attempt at an impartial evaluation of the costs and benefits of such a project is made.

    Spacing Montreal is moving away from the original thoughtful and insightful writing of Christopher DeWolf towards sophomoric posts that read more like an editorial in the McGill Daily than anything resembling serious journalism.

  2. Michael, I’ve been pondering the same things. La friche urbaine between northwestern Plateau/eastern Mile-End and southwestern Petite Patrie is most appealing (to wit the lovely cycle-centric video”comme des enfants” by Coeur de Pirate, with a lovely young couple doing guerilla art around there), but i’m also a member of a tenants’ association, hence keenly aware of the need for more housing (mixed private and social) in a spot so close to the métro, and even parks that will be welcoming and safe for people of all ages and abilities, not just young hipsters who are comfy jumping railway tracks.

    If you look at the first photo, at the top right there is a large and very successful HLM – a friend visiting from the US couldn’t believe those pleasant brick apartments with big balconies were “public housing”,and in the foreground just behind the wonderful Carmelites garden is a housing co-op developed by people of Laotian origin. (on “rue de Laos”).

    You can’t grow healthy food in the meadow unless it is decontaminated.

    I think part of the charm of the meadow is its ephemeral nature, but for once the city seems to be redeveloping the original grid and a mix of different types of housing (and hopefully, places of work). Look just east of Rosemont métro to the development between Rosemont/the CP rail/avenue de Châteaubriand/St-Hubert where there will be modest private condos, social housing, a park, and a community centre with a library and swimming pool in an existing city building.

  3. In response to Michael’s comment, this post does not aim mean to critique – much less to perform a cost-benefit analysis – of the Saint-Viateur street expansion. This infill project has the potential to be good for the cohesiveness and sustainable development of the neighbourhood.

    The goal here was to share an interview with an artist who, thorugh her work over the past year, has highlighted the creative value of an abandoned site. She also shared with me an alternative vision for the site’s future.

    On another note, I certainly hope that meditating, playing music, holding bonfires, and building snow sculptures are NOT activities enjoyed exclusively by gentrifyiers. I think that kids and teenages especially enjoy having access to unmanaged land to explore and to be creative with, irrespective of their ‘class’.

  4. This issue here is less a question of whether or not the events that take place in the meadow are typical of gentrifiers or not–though I would argue Fesitival Artivistic is the absolute archetype of such an activity–but the fact that there has been an absolute confusion here as to what constitutes good community greenspace. An area with toxic soil, abutting a rail line, is NOT an ideal place for kids to play. Does it provide an interesting space for urban explorers to investigate? Absolutely. However, a neighborhood as dense as Mile End, if it intends to continue to be a tenable location for families to live, needs more structured green space for children. Unmanaged land is desirable; I know I loved exploring abandoned areas as a kid. But to suggest that the meadow in its current incarnation is anything but underutilized smacks of an utter lack of pragmatism.

    I understand that your post is not supposed to be a balanced evaluation of the St-Viateur expansion. The problem is that your posts in general–which have made up a large amount of Spacing Montreal since the departure of Christopher DeWolf–present a very narrow viewpoint: that of the urban hipster. The viewpoint is no more or less valid than any other, but you confuse the subjective judgement calls of this very small, very well-off group for facts as to what constitues the greater urban good. Shock of shocks, not everybody fetishizes the “real” and the “gritty” (read decrepit and/or working-class), especially when they are lower on the socioeconomic ladder than those that have the time to freelance on an urban issues blog. As an economically secure urban hipster myself, I had to call you out on that one. You betray your biases too readily; Spacing Toronto and the older pages of Spacing Montreal act as springboards for mature, level-headed, and complex thought about urban problems in a way the current incarnation of Spacing Montreal cannot.

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