The layering of a neighbourhood

Sep 1 • Articles, Cityscape, MONTRÉAL • 2557 Views • 46 Comments on The layering of a neighbourhood


Sifting through the various layers of a neighborhood, Ellen Gedopt delves into the built history of a Montreal quartier on the verge of a major transformation – again.

By Ellen Gedopt…

I love how much you can learn from a city by walking through it and finding out how certain buildings and neighbourhoods came to be. Cities speak, you just have to listen.


The buildings, streets and open spaces in Montreal’s Sainte Marie neighborhood, are a particularly good example of this. Located at the eastern side of downtown, this area between Sherbrooke Street and the Saint Lawrence River, can teach you a great deal about Montreal‘s history.


The first layer of information this neighborhood presents us with are the small lots and houses. The scale of these lots testifies of the origin of the neighborhood as a manufacturing suburb of Montreal. Between 1850 and 1900 this sparsely settled area was converted into a dense working class neighborhood. Many rural Quebecers settled here in search for jobs and housing. The neighbourhood was predominantly French and Catholic, the church of Saint-Pierre-Apôtre on the corner of Rue Panet and Boulevard René Levesque, a notable witness to this period. The population quadrupled in those years, lots were subdivided and densely grouped housing was constructed. An insurance map of 1954 shows the small lots and houses between Rue Logan and Rue Ontario. Most of the housing was of low quality and does not remain intact, but the fine grain of that old industrial neighborhood has remained in many streets.


Figure 1: Insurance map 1954, source BANQ


The industrial revolution left behind more obvious traces too. Ste-Marie was a district where small firms like bakeries, blacksmiths and beer bottlers serving local markets coexisted with some of the largest industries. The Molson brewery, built on the river bank in 1782 and bought by John Molson four years later, is still the site of the Molson headquarters. The oldest brewery in North America continues to brew beer here and its buildings continue to form a barrier between the borough and the water. The old jam factory ‘Usine Raymond’ also survived time. A sculpture on top of the old smoke stag draws attention to its new use as a state of the art theatre, Usine C. 


Figure 2: Usine C (photo by author, other photos could easily be found)


Sainte-Marie went through a second major transformation, starting in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1970s. The urban renewal plans, that were to make Montreal into a modern city, left significant marks on the neighborhood. To understand how the city physically transformed, it is important to explore the political, cultural and social climate that made these changes possible.


In Quebec, the 1960s were a decade of change. The Quiet Revolution saw the development of education, health and welfare services, until then controlled by the Church. Quebec culture flourished: publishing houses were founded, new theatres and art galleries opened, local films radio and television programs were made etc. In Montreal, Jean Drapeau was mayor from 1954 to 1957 and then again from 1960 to 1986. His vision to modernize the city resulted in many major projects.


These projects, including the metro system and Expo ’67, were not just the result of his grand visions. The favourable political and economic situation, made large projects possible. Montreal was expanding and optimistic estimates of the urban population projected an increase to 4.8 million in 1960 and to 7 million by 2000. The city therefore had to be prepared for this growth.


Four big projects affected the Ste. Marie neighborhood directly. First, the widening of Dorchester Street, now René Levesque, was completed in the 1950s. It created a major traffic artery and potential for new monumental buildings along its axis. Secondly, the construction of the Ville-Marie Autoroute parallel to the boulevard first appeared in drawings in 1949. The eastern section, through Ste-Marie, was completed in 1982. Thirdly, the first 26 metro stations were inaugurated in 1966. And finally, the building and surrounding parking lots for the studios and offices of CBC and Radio Canada were constructed. It was meant to become a growth pole of a Francophone business district around the radio, television and telecommunication sector: “La Cité des Ondes.”


Figure 3: Contrasting scales: the old residential fabric and the Radio Canada tower. (photo by author)


But Montreal did not grow to be a metropolis of 7 million people, and the francophone Ste.Marie never rivaled anglophone downtown. Instead these large projects brought about a shift in scale in the built landscape that to this day does not seem resolved. Especially the building of “La Maison de Radio Canada” deeply scared the neighborhood. To realize the project, an entire working class neighborhood, with an area of almost 100 000 square meters, known as the “Faubourg à m’lasse” was razed to the ground. And to this day, 40 percent of this surface area is taken up by parking!


Figure 4: Current street grid drawn on top of the old Faubourgh. This eastern portion of the Radio Canada site is mostly parking today. (insurance map by BANQ, street map drawn by author)


A new master plan for the area has been developed for the site in recent years. The plan aims to re-establish the physical and functional connection between the site, the neighbourhood and the city. New commercial space and new residential space will be integrated. It won’t be easy to find a new balance in this old industrial neighborhood with its historical complexity and contradictions in scale. But as a result of a participatory approach (a local community advisory committee and union representatives are consulted), the new proposal will likely respond better to the needs of local residents.


Currently, three pre-qualified consortiums are working out a concrete proposal, hopefully taking into account the issues raised in discussions surrounding the site for several years now. The groups each will present a Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM) arrangement for the development of the entire site. Current estimates are that actual work on the site could begin early 2015. Follow what’s happening here:


The neighborhood is still evolving. The Gay Village and the revitalised Sainte-Catherine Street have brought new changes. I invite you to walk through Sainte-Marie and try to see signs of its industrial past and its post-war make-over.  And then notice other more recent layers of transformation.  The city is really a continuously transforming ‘ecology’. And trying to understand the processes that form a neighborhood can be so much more interesting than looking for monumental buildings. 


Ellen Gedopt is an architect in Rotterdam who has lived, worked and studied in Montreal, Quebec. She explored Canada coast to coast and canoed into the heart of the boreal forest.

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