I live in Saint-Henri, a working-class community in southwest Montreal. It’s a great neighbourhood, one that has so much potential because of it’s proximity to downtown and location along the Lachine Canal, which is great for cycling, running or walking. It’s really quite an exceptional place, especially for me because I’m two blocks from Atwater Market, one of Montreal’s biggest tourist attractions, a large open-air fruit and vegetable market. The funny part is I rarely buy anything there, because everything is outrageously expensive.
Due to the relatively recent condo development along the canal, near the market, rents have been skyrocketing. Some in Saint-Henri have been fighting this on-going gentrification process, one that has slowly turned this once affordable area into one of the most highly sought-after real estate markets in the city of Montreal.
I moved to Saint-Henri last year, after living downtown on Berri Street, which is ground zero for the city’s down-and-out, drug addicts and homeless populations. I didn’t mind it there, but it lacked any sense of community whatsoever. Thus, I moved to the southwest, an area known for it’s collective spirit and citizens who fight for live-able spaces. My first introduction to Saint-Henri came when I first moved to Montreal in 2008. Following my journalistic instincts, I was drawn to Village des Tanneries, a small neighbourhood in the northwest corner of Saint-Henri, where residents were (and still are) fighting the redevelopment of the Turcot interchange.
Their fight showed me how people in this community mobilize quickly and will stand up to city hall and the provincial and federal governments to show Canadians that another way is possible. They’ve since gained support and saved people’s homes from being destroyed for this multi-billion dollar highway project. I produced a radio documentary on their struggle and have followed this story ever since. Now I see Griffintown, the neighbouring community being threatened with big box retail, which is another issue I’ve been following over the last few years.
But in Saint-Henri, gentrification is a serious problem. There’s a few corporate chain-owned grocery stores, which are definitely affecting the mom-and-pop owned depanneurs and shops, a McDonald’s and a new trendy cafe on Notre-Dame Street to compliment all the hipster-crowd pubs and restaurants that dot the landscape of this once poor, working-class neighbourhood.
Saint-Henri reflects better than anywhere else in Montreal what this city is going through at the moment. Even taking a look back at a 1960s ONF (NFB) film done by cinema-direct (documentary) Montreal filmmakers in À Saint-Henri le cinq septembre, this community has drastically changed over the last 50 years. But can residents say that this change has been a good one? I mean with rent increasing, is this area any longer affordable for families?
At the new Saint-Henri cafe that opened a few months ago on my street corner, a cup of coffee costs $2.25 and up. To me that is ridiculous. Someone took it upon themselves to vandalize the cafe by writing “Yuppie Scum” on the wall in front and I asked myself this question. Is it the person who wrote this statement that’s vandalizing the cafe, or is it the cafe that’s vandalizing the community?