October 14, 2007 § 15 Comments

Between my last post and this one, The Smoking Section turned three.  With rain drizzling outside and a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen, I thought I’d take a moment to mark the occasion.

It has slowly dawned on me that the tone of this blog has shifted, which probably has something to do with the fact that smoking sections no longer physically exist in this city.  So much of what I have written here came from those spaces, and especially from The Café, which was the meeting place for some of my favourite characters.  Although I still stop in for a drink every once in a while it isn’t nearly the same, and I have grudgingly accepted that it won’t be again.

Of course, it isn’t just the smoking ban, just as this blog was never really about smoking.  As I’ve written elsewhere, Mile End has changed dramatically since I found my way to it in the summer of 1999.  In drinking parlance, the regulars are gone, displaced by a process of gentrification that came late to Montreal but which has transformed it with breathtaking speed.  At root, a place is characterized by the people who live in it, and in the absence of many of the friends I made here, the neighbourhood feels irrevocably different.

I watched the same process unfold in Toronto in the 1990s, and it was, in part, what caused me to leave my hometown and move to Montreal.  As the rents went up and the condos took over, there was less and less room for the worlds my friends and I had created, which were economically dependent upon the city’s overlooked spaces.  You could rent a whole house then for less than eight hundred dollars a month, and so we did, pooling our money to start bands, activist collectives, and performance spaces, modest endeavours which nevertheless made a mark on our city and sometimes, to our amazement, others as well.  

I met one of those friends for coffee last week after a lapse of almost fifteen years, and he reminded me of what was important about that time.  As he put it, remarkably unselfconsciously, we were “non-elitist bohemians,” a condition that had everything to do with our limited means.  We were, many of us, the children of low-income urban families, some deeply dysfunctional and brutally violent, others merely broken and struggling.  We came to art and music and books from a sense of desperation, at a historical moment when cities were still places that accepted the poor as their own.  As we stumbled onto the paths that would take us into adulthood, some of us had unwittingly forged bonds for life.

I am only now realizing that our life experiences are far from common, and that many of the things I have always taken to be givens aren’t.  Most people didn’t leave home at sixteen.  Most people didn’t go to alternative schools.  Most people haven’t survived on welfare cheques.  Most people, at least in my generation, grew up in suburbs and not cities.  I am starting to understand that, because of it, the city means differently to us: what others interpret as a narrative of pathology and neglect is, is for us, a story of belonging, and therefore, of home.

Over the last year, this story has found a place in my scholarly work, not as its primary object of inquiry but as a wellspring of inspiration.  I want finally to be able to explain the value of the city I came of age in in a language that others can understand, even as it is slowly disappearing from the streets around me.  If I can pull it off, it will be both a form of remembrance and a small act of defiance.  At its best, that’s what storytelling is.

I’m not quite sure where this leaves The Smoking Section.  I’ve occasionally wondered if it isn’t time to call it a day, but I know I’d miss it if I did.  I like having a place to talk to myself, to force myself to translate impressions into words that I can look at from the outside.  Maybe it’s just time to tell some different stories, ones that are as much about other places and moments as this one.  At least, I can try. 


§ 15 Responses to Anniversary

  • tornwordo says:

    Hochelaga is still pretty gritty. And happy bloggiversary!

  • Jonathan says:

    Sure, but it’s also not what it used to be, from what I gather. It is, however, still quite affordable compared with the Plateau and Mile End, and still pretty close to everything.

  • Frank says:

    Happy anniversary!

    Yes, I saw the same thing happen in Chicago in two separate waves. I saw it as reverse white flight. When I was a teenager, the Lakeview/Lincoln Park area was transitioning from artists to yuppies. Then the artists moved north and northwest Bucktown/Wicker Park and Uptown. Now those areas are making the switch from artists to yuppies. It almost seems like a good bet in real estate is to follow the artists or the gays. Fortunately for the latter, they have more staying power and have had the opportunity to establish and maintain their neighborhood (Boystown in Lakeview).

    In an odd twist of fate, I ended up moving into Lakeview after the yuppification. As with yourself, my emotional tie to the area was very strong and it was where I wanted to move. The difference from your situation was that many of my friends from college were moving into the area also. As you can expect it wasn’t a perfect world since it had a high population of young suburbanites with entitlement issues, but it was still a vibrant urban neighborhood with good access to downtown and the lake. Plus many of the places established while the artists were there are still flourishing. Though the difference is that they run the stores and frequent them but don’t live in the neighborhood. It was actually quite similar to the Plateau.

  • I don’t know enough to answer this question – I am posing it as one yet to be answered. Are you conflating ‘the city’ with ‘Mile End’?

    As Frank says, real estate follows the artists. Where are the young artists now? Where are they carving out their spaces, which neighbourhoods are engraving themselves into their psyches? Not Mile End and the Plateau – affordable places were already scarce in the early nineties and by the late nineties I didn’t even bother trying.

    Hochelaga has been picking up for a few years, more quickly these days. Verdun is also a centre. St-Henri was never the heart of anything that I know of, but still has marginal people, artists and dysfunctional poor living there even as the condo developers and grocery stores move in.

    I lived in St-Henri for a while. It sucked. There were no grocery stores. I had to walk up the Glen into Westmount to get bread and vegetables: there wasn’t even a public transport connection. Now that the condos are moving in they are bringing access to food with them. That’s a good thing. The neighbourhood is becoming more mixed, not less. The problem will be if it becomes less mixed again, with only condos and no poor – the poor having been squeezed out to some other place with no grocery stores.

    I like Park Ex. It’s a transitional neighbourhood where immigrants stay until they figure out how they are going to make a life for themselves and then move on. The Greeks left for Laval; today’s South Asians seem to be moving toward Ville St-Laurent. It has lots of services, lots of available food. Gentrification doesn’t seem like it would have a lot to add, but it is certainly an attractive area for artists… who, as always, will bring the gentrifiers in after them. It seems to be a lot like what the Plateau was when my parents started gentrifying it in the mid-sixties, before “The Plateau” existed.

    And what about St-Michel? I haven’t heard much from Little Burgundy lately. Anything going on there?

  • s a d i a says:

    Are you in identity limbo?

    I can certainly sympathize.

    A few years from now, your life will be – presumably – very different, if not diametrically opposed to the one you are living now. You’ll likely relocate – which involves change, obviously, or worse – re-adjustment. You’ll be a prof (again, presumably) – so, as you’ve stated, poverty will cease to be the organic nexus/incubator to a familiar and somewhat unintentionally ‘romantic’ lifestyle – one which you have described so fondly – again, change. It’s fucking scary when the scaffolding of our environment is stripped away (speaking for myself, here, also). We are then left face-to-face with facade, but, luckily, while people, places, and nifty labels (“non-elitist bohemians”- oooh! ) may shape us (or, dent us?) they do not define us, so you needn’t worry about losing bits of self-hood along with your neighbor-hood, as your urban and social shell falls away. You are still intact. I can say that with a rare certainty, but I’ll have to elaborate on why some other time…

    I’m sure the bonds you’ve forged with others in this life-stage that you are morphing away from (?) will also remain, even if the contexts change. The strongest ones will, at any rate. And, of course, there are always new friends to ‘belong’ with, new niches to fit into, new connections to explore. (Yes, that is indeed a not-so-subtle hint to meet for drinks sooner rather than later!) ;)

    What else can we do but embrace shifts? *shrugs*

    I hope you continue with your narrative sorcery for some time to come, Vila. Honestly, I’ve read many a blog, but, if there are some that are better written, as interesting or more uncompromisingly autobiographical than yours, I’m hard-pressed to think of all that many. Happy blogiversary! *clink*

    (Sorry for droning on so… I’ve always been rather hopeless at leaving short, concise comments. )

  • Happy Anniversary. Three years is significant and meaningful devotion…to anything.

    I can definitely empathize with your experience of being a “city kid” since that was a big part of my growing-up. There is a way in which all the hard, dirty edges that most see in a city become the soapy substance of the sublime when they’re internalized in youth. The noise, the sounds, are particularly revealing. The silence of suburbia, for example, seems an apt reflection of its political character — dulled, routinized and predictable, like the endlessly droning whir of a lawnmower. In contrast, the urban spaces of old held a whole cacophony of metropolitan vitality, always underlaid, like layers of asphalt, by elements of the surprising and weird. It was also very different from the rhythmic sounds of the country — the regular, seasonal sounds of nature that, I now remember, have their own soothing intensity.

    Anyway, congrats. Perchance your milestone is deserving of a celebratory beer…

  • uberfrau says:

    In my experience, St Henri was working class-not “dysfunctional poor”. I suppose it must be easy to conflate the two.

  • Vila H. says:

    Thanks to all for the birthday wishes. There’s a lot I want to say in response to your comments, most of which I’ll reserve for future posts, but a few little things until then…

    Frank: I spent some time in Lakeview in the mid-90s and it reminded me enormously of the Annex in Toronto. At the time, I thought that if I ever found myself living in Chicago I’d try to rent an apartment there, though it sounds like it’s changed quite a bit since then. What you said about artists running and frequenting the neighbourhood’s shops but no longer living there is quite apt, and I believe that it says something about the identity of neighbourhoods shifting from a community base to consumption, but I’ll need at least a post to flesh that idea out.

    Alison: I like Park Extension a lot, and since I live right on the border between Park Ex and Mile End I spend a fair amount of time there. What I find interesting is that people express a surprising amount of fear about the neighbourhood, which seems to derive from a perception of violence (which I have personally never experienced) and a vague discomfort about the neighbourhood’s ethnic composition. At moments, I have felt that this discomfort borders on racism, but I am convinced that it is a central factor in keeping the cost of living there low. Again, this is something to come back to.

    Alison and Torn: Since the cost of living is always relative, one can always find neighbourhoods that are more economically accessible than others, and Hochelega is a good example, as is St. Henri and Park Ex. There are a couple of problems to consider, though:

    Firstly, will these neighbourhoods remain accessible, or will the cost of living in them continue to climb and, if so, at what rate of speed? As Jonathan mentioned, Hochelega is already quite different than it was even five years ago, with development spreading ever eastward. What will it be like five years from now? This is an important question because the evolution of an organic urban community takes time, and if a neighbourhood gentrifies just as one is putting down its first roots, then the process of displacement will be repeated.

    (As an aside, you should know that all four of the neighbourhoods I have lived in during my lifetime have gentrified: Parkdale, the Junction, and the West Annex/Koreatown in Toronto, and Mile End in Montreal. The Junction, which is where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years [nods to Jake], was the one urban neighbourhood that I thought was ungentrifiable, for reasons that I will expound on later. But it too is apparently giving way, which suggests to me that no neighbourhood, no matter how “gritty,” is immune.)

    The second problem is the one that is happening right now: namely, the fragmentation of established communities, which tend in times of transition to scatter in different geographical directions. My community, for lack of a better term, now resides in Park Ex to the northwest, Rosemont/Petite-Patrie to the northeast, Griffintown to the south, St. Henri to the west, and the Village/Hochelega to the east, which makes nighttime socializing immeasurably more difficult than it was before. Imagine if the Village, when it left the west end, suddenly split up into five different neighbourhoods? What effect would it have had on the gay community?

    Sadia: Again, I have much to say, but for now I’ll limit myself to this: wherever I live and whatever I do for a living, I want to be able to live in community with the people who are important to me, irrespective of their social status. This, to me, is what makes for a truly liveable city, far more so than the quality of its grocery stores or how many festivals it sponsors. I realize that this sounds romantic but it is actually intensely pragmatic, as I try to explain here, and, in lieu of a spouse or viable family bonds, it is deeply necessary. I will come back to this, and to your other thoughts, more than likely repeatedly.

    Sparky: As you suggest, there is vitality everywhere, whether in the city, the suburbs, or the country, because vitality derives from life. What I have started noticing recently is how enculturated we are by the environments we were raised in, and how they continue to shape our perceptions and the meaning we ascribe to them. We interpret smells and sounds and tastes as much as we do words, and we learn to do this as children, which is why I like the sound of trains and someone else will find them intolerable. Similarly, I become instantly disoriented in shopping malls in a way that suburbanites would probably find strange and slightly amusing. In any case, stay tuned…

  • Uberfrau: no, I am not conflating the two. St-Henri has many neighbourhoods and the streets I personally lived on were dominated by dysfunctional poor. I just didn’t mention the working class in my very short list.

    Vila: “all four of the neighbourhoods I have lived in during my lifetime have gentrified: Parkdale, the Junction, and the West Annex/Koreatown in Toronto, and Mile End in Montreal.” Yes, my point exactly. You have been part of the gentrification process. (I was was not meaning to say ‘well, just move.’ If that’s what you took, I’m sorry.)

    RE Park Ex: The wild ethnic hinterland of the Plateau (before it was the Plateau) successfully kept the college students out for years.

  • zura says:

    Happy Blogiversary! Yes, please do continue writing. Change is inevitable, but change can be good. Maybe you don’t write in the manner you used to, but evolution is key. Everything changes, why should a blog remain static?

    Little Burgundy is awesome. Yes, we have the odd shooting from time to time (a couple a year, maybe), but despite this it’s a neighbourhood with a considerable amount of greenery, the canal a jaunt away, and downtown but an 8 minute walk. We could use more cafes and useful little shops, but those do seem to be coming in, slowly. I feel I am part of this change that is happening in my neighbourhood. I just pray that it will continue to be well thought-out changes.

  • Siobhan Curious says:

    I hope you will continue writing the blog, Vila, even if it transforms (and seriously, wouldn’t you be a bit concerned if it didn’t? What do we do stuff for if not to lead us to other stuff?) Happy blogaversary, my dear.

  • Vila H. says:

    Zura and Siobhan: Thank you. Yes, I will keep writing, if for no other reason than because it’s a way to process the random bits of thought and feeling that muddle my brain on the best of days. We’ll see where it takes me…

    Alison: Have I? Are you quite sure? I lived in two of those four neighbourhoods under my parents’ roof, and, as I’ve written about before, they were far from bohemians. This doesn’t exempt me from responsibility for economic processes that we are all, to varying degrees, complicit with, but, as Sadia has intuited, it does make sorting out my own narrative a little less simple.

    Evidently, you’ve made certain assumptions about my relationship to these places, which suggests that I ought to be clearer when I write about them in future. However, I would also ask you to reserve judgement in the interim, and to allow me the space to find words that do not always come easily. Much obliged.

  • Frank says:

    This may be a little off topic, but one thing I’ve found interesting is how the gentrification process has generally followed the same paths that the city took when it first grew. It logical since people are looking to move along convenient means of transportation.

    But another realization is that we (North America) is generally quite young in regards to the progression of neighborhoods. Meaning that they have gone through very few cycles. For instance an neighborhood may have been created by affluent people moving to the fringe of the city. Then as they moved farther out, people of lesser means moved into what are now older buildings. They could be the poor or a group of recently arrived immigrants. Then these people become better off and establish a middle income neighborhood until the affluent return to the area since the outer reaches have become too far. I wonder if these tranitions are much different than in Europe considering they went through the industrial revolution concurrently.

    One ideal of a mixed income neighborhood was in turn of the century Paris. In one building you could have people from a wide range of incomes. It generally depended on what floor you lived on since elevators were not in wide use. The merchants lived on the ground floor (near the filth). The affluent on the second floor and income diminished until you reached the poor or servants on the fifth or seventh story at the roof level. I’m not sure how true this was, but it is what I remember from my classes. I’ve always seen the mixed income, mixed ethnic neighborhood as being the ideal. But I’ve been questioning if that is really possible and if so to what extent.

    I know this is different from how we feel about our neighborhoods, but it got me thinking along those lines.

  • heather says:

    Congratulations, and here’s to another three!

  • Vila H. says:

    Heather: Thanks! Now tell us more about your new neighbourhood, will ya? :)

    Frank: That’s fascinating information about Paris. In New York, some interesting stuff was happening around housing types at about the same time. The first multiple dwellings in North America were the tenements on the Lower East Side, which real estate developers later seized upon as a uniquely profitable form of housing. They began building apartment houses for the middle class in the late-nineteenth century, but these were so strongly associated with the squalor of tenements and the working-class immigrants who lived there that no one would touch them with a ten-foot pole. Because of this, developers decided to market apartment houses as luxury residences, and began offering the most opulent amenities to appeal to the city’s upper class. It worked a charm, apparently.

    Do you happen to know when the first apartments were built in Chicago? I’m curious…

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