Montreal Photo of the Day – April 16th 2015

Reflections of Construction - Montreal, April 2015

Taken from Basin Street in Griffintown, from left to right you can see the Cité du Commerce Electronique, construction cranes around both the Roccabella (tower one) and Tour des Canadiens de Montréal, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque Ouest, the CIBC Tower, Place Laurentienne and the Deloitte Tower at far right.

In the foreground land is being prepared for a new condo project, though I can’t recall which one.

Griffintown was arguably Montreal’s first ‘ethnic neighbourhood’, becoming the home to Montreal’s Irish working class beginning in the early 19th century. It would remain as such until about the time of the Second World War, at which point the local Irish community was somewhat replaced by successive waves of immigration – notably Eastern European Jews, Italians and Ukrainians. In its 19th century form the area was populated mainly by general labourers of Irish-Catholic descent who had taken up residence immediately adjacent to where the majority worked – first dredging the Lachine Canal, then building the Victoria Bridge, and then in the multitude of industries that popped up at the intersection of the port, canal, bridge and vast rail yards.

Griffintown was also the first community annexed by the city prior to the introduction of the tram system.

Life in the Griff began a rather drastic change in the late 1950s with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which in turn rendered the Lachine Canal obsolete, allowing Great Lakes shipping to bypass Montreal and the industrial port that had developed along the banks of the Lachine Canal over the preceding century. Perhaps as a result of an acrimonious relationship between Mayor Jean Drapeau and the City Councillor for St. Ann’s Ward, Frank Hanley (who for a while was also simultaneously the area’s MNA), Griffintown was rezoned for entirely industrial purposes, and slum-clearance initiatives popular at the time resulted in widespread expropriations and demolition. The construction of the Bonaventure and Ville Marie Expressways around the same time further isolated the area’s residents from the rest of the city, and by 1970 the parish church, St. Ann’s, was razed. By 1971 the population was just over 800 and it wouldn’t grow by much for the next thirty plus years.

I would argue the biggest mistake made was pushing highways through to the centre of the city, but what’s done is done. Griffintown shrank into virtual non-existence, it’s Irish heritage largely lost. I remember walking around the area about a decade ago, on a lovely summer evening no less, completely astounded that an area so close to the city proper could be so devoid of human life.

Fortunately the last decade has been a bit kinder to Griffintown. The elimination of the vast CN stockyards between Saint Jacques and Notre Dame West in the late 1970s resulted in significant housing construction (mostly townhouses) in the 1980s, coinciding with the Orange Line’s western branch extension from Bonaventure, beginning in 1980. The successful rehabilitation of the former stockyards would encourage additional development projects meant to stimulate the rehabilitation of the area (such as the Labatt Stadium proposal) though this project ultimately fell through.

I’d argue it was the conversion of the former O’Keefe brewery into the main campus of the École de technologie supérieur in 1997, as well as the development of the Cité du Multimédia around the same time, that ultimately provided the foundation for Griffintown’s renaissance as an urban neighbourhood. ÉTS brought in students and anchored the Little Burgundy side of the Notre Dame West commercial artery, and the Cité du Multimédia wound up employing about 6,000 people who take in an average of $73,000 annually. This made redeveloping the former industrial spaces and parking lots between Notre Dame and the canal into residential properties a potentially lucrative endeavour.

Today the area’s population stands between 6,500 and 7,000 with more to come. Just about every open lot is to be converted into condos, and new businesses and services have moved into the area.

Whether Griffintown becomes a neighbourhood in the truest sense of the word is conditional on both the city and province investing in socio-cultural infrastructure – public schools, a CLSC, community and cultural centres, perhaps even a public library branch, not to mention adequate parks and playgrounds.

That remains to be seen.