A historic industrial neighbourhood with a unique identity at the centre of current debate

Along the Lachine Canal, the former industrial sector of Griffintown is bordered by the Bonaventure AutoRoute as well as the Canadian National railway line; two breaks in the continuity with the rest of the city of Montreal. Today, it is in perpetual development; the question of what it will become, and what it will ultimately look like, remains a hot topic. Why did we choose Griffintown as the point of gathering for this festival; as an emblematic subject for the activities such as talks, guided visits and urban walks? Here’s why:

A milestone of modernity, this former industrial borough’s re-development has been symbolic of renewal in heritage conservation in many ways: for the consideration of vestiges of industrial heritage, for a number of archeological sites, for the tidy and modest way the century old workers home’s contrast with the massive condo towers, and the empty lots left by demolition awaiting a brutal restructuring of the landscape. Speculation on property values and gentrification have become a reality for Griffintown residents, resulting a certain gusto on the part of the municipality to loosen development regulations with sad consequences. Take for example this soon to be built condo project, whose importance relies mainly on the status of its designer, “star-chitect” Phillip Starck, than any sort of appropriate contextual integration.

Can coming years bring a turning point in this sector’s rehabilitation? We sure hope so! After much debate, in May of 2013, the city finally decided to review the urban plan it had previously agreed upon. This time, heritage concerns have been taken into consideration, ceding place to the existent historically rich structures present in the neighbourhood. However, we must thank citizen engagement, and cultural and artistic fervour for this second chance. Despite quite a bit of ill-conceived new construction and some unfortunate urban planning decisions, cultural initiators have been working in this area and founding projects of all sorts since the 1990’s. It is because of their hard work that the potential of inhabiting and enlivening the once very active streets of Griffintown has once again become possible. Additionally, these same initiators rose up against some unhappy recent decisions and defended the potential of Griffintown, which brings our focus to some of their efforts.

We invite you to discover the Griffintown of yesterday and of today, by focusing on the history, projects, and urban spaces which you will soon discover at MTL Heritage Fest.

Key moments in time:

From rural religious to industrial boom [1800-1960]

On the eve of the 19th century, the land currently known as Griffintown is naught but pastures for farmed beasts. Known as the “Nazareth Fief”, the land belonged to the well-known religious figure, Jeanne-Mance, and the future sisters of the hospital known as l’Hôtel Dieu (God’s Hotel). The pastoral landscape was profoundly transformed by the digging of the Lachine Canal (1819-1826), opening the door for economic, commercial, and industrial development. The enlargement of the canal, development of the Port of Montreal (Old-Port), building of the locks (1950s), and massive Irish immigration, contributed to the installation of a large number of factories at this spot, until the year 1961. In the years that followed, the neighbourhood would be witness to economic crisis, extreme poverty and now infamously unsanitary living conditions; but would conserve throughout its unique and essential industrial nature.

Post-industrialisation, a brutal end to a thriving sector [1960-1990] 

In its attempt to turn Griffintown into an industrial park throughout the first half of the century, the city succeeded in choking the life and identity from its landscape as well. The zoning put in place at the time turned this still residential neighbourhood into an almost exclusively industrial space, and dismissed rehabilitation of the vernacular living spaces, favoring demolition of smaller buildings and homes which began to degrade with time. The urban tram, gutted of its coherence and urban continuity, lost all of its social reference points. Griffintown was a neighbourhood full of empty spaces seeking new use and parking lots. The construction of the Bonaventure AutoRoute became the next milestone to contribute to the fracturing of this landscape from the rest of the city.

Conflicting visions; In search of a present and future

At a crossroads between its industrial past and its urban potential, the neighbourhood became a playground for those wishing to incubate projects mixing conservation and new economic perspectives, which lead, for better or worse, to the confrontation between developers, citizens, artists and heritage professionals.

If historic traces of the land that built Montreal’s industrial past can be counted with the fingers of one hand, all the more reason to preserve them! Here are a few sites/projects/spaces that demonstrate the richness, potential and ambivalence of the place.

Places / projects to remember….

…for their courage, saved from demolition by current initiatives…

  • Horse Palace and New City Gas Company: the role of developers

Just like the industrial complex, New City Gas Company, was preserved through the efforts of its owner Harvey Lev, Horse Palace, “one of the oldest urban stables still in use in North America” was saved by the efforts of a financing campaign supported by a private developer.

  • Darling Foundry and the Wellington Tower: the role of the artist

Quartier Éphémère, an artist’s collective, was the first to develop an artistic pole around a rehabilitation of the Darling Brothers Foundry. Since then, the collective has been active in a number of heritage conservation initiatives in the sector, while its presence continues to draw a strong artistic scene. Notably, the Darling Foundry is involved in the rehabilitation of the Wellington Tower.

Only recently has the Wellington tower been at the center of attention; a mysteriously shaped white structure along the canal’s bike path, it is a unique feature of the entrance to Griffintown. Placed along the Lachine Canal, the former control tower was used by boats and trains alike who passed through the area, but has been abandoned for over ten years and is now in a state of advanced decrepitude. Confronted with this unfortunate reality, four creative labs came forth with designs to re-imagine the iconic building. A variety of audiences were invited to discuss, suggest and invest, with the goal of identifying what should be preserved. The winning project has been announced

  • Griffintown Café: the role of the citizen

Located on Notre-Dame Ouest, this modest looking café is a not only a symbol of the architectural identity, but also of the historically rambunctious quality and lively social community present in Griffintown; continuously inhabited for the last 135 years.

… For their uncertain future: awaiting a new use, a new look, or demolition

  • Forge Cadieux: awaiting destruction

Right along the Bonaventure is an old forge, an example of stoic fragility, ready to fall any minute to the crush of a bulldozer. However, its interior is a treasure trove of historical artefact, preserved entirely intact and in place since its closing day in 1987: tools, furniture, machine, pens and notebooks lay in the same spot they were left on that day.

  • The Railway Overpass: Conservation or demolition?

If after much suspicion of its demolition, the municipality seems to have the intention of investing in the space for cultural uses, no mention of it has been made publicly. Its future remains uncertain, despite the potential of this historic structure, as evidence by a number of well-known international projects such as the Highline in NYC.

What about the homes and other smaller, less obvious structures ? Century old homes still dot the landscape, meekly occupying modest plots of land next to incongruously large and obtrusive structures. Notably, McGill street where there are the ruins of an old home at number 470, which once belonged to the salesman Mathewson, built in 1850. Father down, Keegan house (1863), said to be the oldest home in Griffintown, will be turned into an entryway for the next Brickfields condo project by Maître Carré. Integrated or erased by modernity? What do you think? Let the discussion begin!

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