Griffintown: heeding the Patience Principle

Toula Foscolos
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Full disclosure: I love old buildings.
Not just the ones designated as heritage and spruced up for incoming hoards of property-purchasing hipsters, but even the ones that fall short; the ones that, although still surviving, wear their years of erosion, air pollution, and human neglect like old battle wounds.

Toula Foscolos w-e

They stand hobbled, abandoned, covered in graffiti, crumbling, near derelict, and somehow… they still retain an aura of grandeur that never fails to fascinate me.

Layers of history and time keep adding to their patina, as they try to whisper stories of neighbourhoods and people long gone to those who no longer care. They seem more beautiful to me in their imperfection than the immaculate new high rises going up around us these days.

I can hear the groans from some of you even as I’m writing this.

“Oh, God… another bleeding heart conservationist, yelling from the rooftops to save one more dilapidated building that serves absolutely no purpose and will cost a fortune to repair!”

Montreal is in the midst of a building frenzy. Cranes are a familiar site on the skyline, and condos are going up faster than we can say “gentrification”. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes the old has to make room for the new. But it brings about a serious challenge: deciding what stays and what goes.

The City of Montreal, while seemingly quick to issue building permits (twenty-storey high-rises - like the ones planned in Griffintown -  translate to a lot of tax revenue), has been lagging its feet when it comes to offering up protection to some of its most vulnerable buildings. I understand the heritage protection process can be lengthy and time consuming and requires a detailed plan not only for a building’s preservation, but also for its vocation and long-term feasibility. Someone has to shell out serious money to enable some of these badly-dilapidated buildings to survive. The million dollar question is always: who?

Speculation over the fate of The Empress Theatre, the former Cinema V in NDG, has been going on for so long, the young students now residing in the area would almost be forgiven in believing that this amazing Art Deco building has never been anything other than a boarded up sad sight at the corner of Old Orchard and Sherbrooke Street.

The extreme irony, however, about Griffintown being the current epicentre of the ongoing heritage vs. development battle is that it’s precisely an area that has already woefully taught us that ill-advised and inexact decisions (in support of an urban plan that seems painfully out dated today) actually appeared to be sensible and far-sighted a mere 40 years ago!

Because of bad administrative decisions, Griffintown was left to slowly die and become a wasteland. Buildings were demolished because, after all, we needed to make way for that concrete blight (better known as the Bonaventure Expressway) and all those parking lots! The area was re-zoned as “light industrial” in 1962 (only industrial development permits were allowed from that point onwards), resulting in residents being pushed out. When the Lachine Canal closed in 1970, having lost its role as a major transport artery, the entire South West fell into neglect.

Flash forward to 2002. The Lachine Canal re-opens, resulting in the entire area’s revival and a condo boom in the South West that hasn’t stopped since. All eyes are now on Griffintown. There’s money to be made, as the city’s next hot spot prepares to be resuscitated. But there’s that pesky past lurking around again… All these neglected Art Deco and Old French colonial heritage buildings standing in the way of more condo development.

Why should this worry you? Because the past is not the property of historians; it is a public possession. It belongs to all of us.

What’s worrisome about Griffintown is that few people actually live there at the moment to voice their opinions and to question decisions being made by the developer. A developer - it should be noted - whose, up to now, only other development experience has been the South Shore’s Dix-30.

Why should this worry you? Because the past is not the property of historians; it is a public possession. It belongs to all of us.

In many respects, Griffintown’s current urbanism plan was adapted to suit the developer’s plan, and not the other way around. After a public outcry by concerned citizens, a consultation process commenced, to try and compensate for unfortunate decisions that were already made, but it might already be too little too late.

I recently took a tour of Griffintown, offered by L’Autre Montreal, a non-profit urban research and educational organization that offers guided tours (in French) throughout the city. I spent close to four hours completely mesmerized by my guide, who recounted the area’s history, as well as the priceless architectural details in these buildings; many of them in immediate danger of disappearing.

Author Michael Crichton once wrote: “If you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.”

We’re in danger of lopping off entire branches. And once those buildings come down, there’s no going back.

My guide spoke of the “Principe de patience”; about how important it is, when a building loses its vocation, its function, and you’re not quite sure what to do with it, that you just make sure that it’s safe and you leave it alone until you do. You don’t demolish it, because, like death, it’s irreversible.

History has taught us these lessons well. Entire neighbours that used to be considered of no cultural and monetary value in the ‘70s (Old Montreal, the Plateau) came back with a vengeance on all fronts.

The same is now happening with Saint-Henri and Griffintown. Wolves are at the door. Money often makes many bad decisions permissible. If history teaches us the mistakes we’re going to make, isn’t it time we stopped making them?

For a wonderful defense of Montreal’s heritage preservation, read a recent piece by UQAM urban affairs professor, David Hanna.

Organizations: UQAM, L'Autre Montreal , Griffintown

Geographic location: Griffintown, Montreal, South West NDG Old Orchard Sherbrooke Street South Shore Saint-Henri

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  • Chris Hunter
    May 11, 2012 - 03:34

    Amen and well said.