Anti-Gentrification Groups Push For Community-Centred Spaces

Building Alternatives to Gentrification in Montreal’s South-West

South of downtown, the Lachine Canal cuts through the island of Montreal like a vein. Along the canal, large brick buildings—the factories that drove Montreal’s industrialization in the early 20th century—dot the landscape, marking the neighbourhoods that surround them.

St. Henri, Little Burgundy, Pointe-St-Charles, and Griffintown were once the beating industrial heart of Montreal. Together, those neighbourhoods and a few others form the city’s South-West borough.

In the 1970’s, the Lachine Canal closed, and the factories began to close with it. This created the context for the gentrification that is shaking the area today. The high-rise condos that tower over Griffintown, the expensive cafes that line Notre-Dame St., and the changing demographic of the borough are all bearing its symptoms.

—Video by Stephane Lavoie

“Gentrification is an economic displacement process,” said Fred Burrill, a doctoral student at Concordia’s history department whose studies focus on is gentrification in St. Henri. “I would say it’s actually a partnership between business and the state.”

Burrill says gentrification in the South-West can be traced back to the 1990’s, when Montreal’s municipal government took on “an essentially neoliberal approach to housing.”

“The city itself […] basically washed its hands of development,” Burrill said. “Before that, we saw city administrations […] who were more concerned with affordability, housing issues, that actually started their own social housing program.”

But since the early 2000’s, the city essentially let the private market take control of neighbourhood development, Burrill said, adding that this had the effect of increased condo development and rent increases.

“So the gentrification process is pushing people out, and bringing in a new population,” he said. “And that’s causing a lot of conflict in the neighborhood.”

Mona Luxion is an organizer with Projet organisation populaire information et regroupement, one of the most prominent anti-gentrification community organizations in the South-West. They highlight that beyond altering the housing landscape of the borough, gentrification is also significantly changing the commercial sector.

This is taking the form of an increasing prominence of “destination businesses.” These are businesses that attract people towards the neighbourhood, rather than businesses geared towards the people from the area.

“The effect of that is that people who have lived in the neighbourhood for quite a while are feeling increasingly stressed in terms of not having places to find food,” Luxion said. “You get the sense that this neighbourhood is no longer serving the people who live in it, and have lived there for a while.”

As city planners and condo developers plan a gentrified South-West, community organizations are developing their own plans. On Saturday, Oct. 29, a demonstration was held in St. Henri demanding, with the goal of reclaiming an abandoned building—specifically, the former library on Notre-Dame St.—and converting it into an autonomous social centre.

“It’s really important to have a place where you can spend time without spending money,” Luxion said, adding that other social spaces in the South-West—such as La Belle Epoque and Ste. Emilie Skillshare—have closed down in the past years.

Beyond creating a social space for residents, Luxion also says an autonomous social centre in the neighbourhood would contribute to broaden anti-gentrification struggles in the area. They say the space could provide meeting grounds for community groups, and a place to rebuild community networks that are increasingly stressed by the gentrification process.

“The effect of that is that people who have lived in the neighbourhood for quite a while are feeling increasingly stressed in terms of not having places to find food. You get the sense that this neighbourhood is no longer serving the people who live in it, and have lived there for a while.” – Mona Luxion

Community organizations taking over abandoned buildings to repurpose them as social centres may seem far-fetched, but it’s not unheard of—even in the South-West. It’s happened before.

In 2012, after years of mobilization, planning, and direct action, community organizations in Pointe-St-Charles succeeded in taking over Building 7, a 90,000 square foot former warehouse in the abandoned railyards of the southern part of the neighborhood. Canadian National Railway had sold the entirety of the railyards, including Building 7, to a real estate developer for a single dollar, plus decontamination costs. The developer planned to tear down Building 7 and build condos.

In addition to gaining control of the building, the community organizations were given $1 million for renovations, and forced the development company to decontaminate the site at its own expense.

Anna Kruzynski, a professor at Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs, was involved in the struggle for Building 7. She called the victory a “popular expropriation,” because it “removed this piece of land from the capitalist real estate market.”

Kruzynski says Building 7 will be transformed into a centre of affordable services—including a cafe, a bar, a brewery, some urban agriculture, a public market, and an event space—once the bureaucratic aspects of the transfer are finalized.

“Each of these different initiatives is being run by a different group of people,” she said.

“Then the structure that’s going to federate people is going to be a direct democracy,” she continued, with delegates from each organization voting on common issues such as maintenance and financing. She said Building 7 would be experimentation into a new economic model, with the “idea of controlling your means of production.”

In our society’s dominant economic model, Kruzynski said, “People often go to work, and work for a boss, and the boss tells you what to do—so you’re alienated from your work. But also the boss, or whoever owns the company, is pocketing the profits—the result of your labour.”

“Here, that won’t be happening,” she continued. “It’s a situation where people work, produce surplus, and then decide how they’re going to redistribute it—be it amongst the workers, or within the community.”

Community-led development plans in the South-West also go beyond reclaiming individual buildings. Mona Luxion described a campaign by Solidarity St. Henri, a roundtable of community organizations in the neighbourhood, which would classify businesses based on how much they cater to local needs. They said this would help locals know which businesses to patronize—leading to greater success for businesses that gear themselves towards locals.

The city has a role to play as well, according to Burrill. He described a different method of zoning that the city could adopt called “community zoning,” where “a small business that sells fruits and vegetables at a reasonable price would have less tax increases than a destination business.” Solidarity St. Henri is also working this idea into its campaign.

Another major priority for community organizations in the South-West is the creation of social housing. Burrill said the city should buy up abandoned land and turn it into a “tax reserve” land that is reserved for social housing or community development. This would also help bring down real estate speculation, he said, which drives increasing property value and rent prices.

“There are 2,000 people waiting on a list for social housing in Pointe-St-Charles,” Anna Kruzynski said. “People who are paying 75 to 80 per cent of their income in rent.”

“If we were able to get organized and reclaim some of these condo buildings and finish the construction ourselves,” she said with a laugh, “that’s my dream.”