What Happened Here?

Exploring Communities at the Edge of Deindustrialization

  • The abandoned factories that line the Lachine Canal represent a collective history for residents of Montreal’s south-west. Photo Kelsey Litwin

Standing outside of the Point St. Charles library, I am surrounded by the sound of approaching flames.

The sizzle, crackle and pop of the spreading warmth is growing louder and louder; sirens wail; people are shouting over my head in a way that evokes both celebration and panic.

I open my eyes and look around. There is no fire.

Sara Breitkreutz, the voice speaking to me through my headphones, explains, “Fires have long been common in the Point.” I continue to walk the perimeter of the firehouse-turned-library, approaching a playground. “Especially as factories started to close in the 60’s and 70’s and many buildings were left empty,” she continues.

Breitkreutz is the narrator for La Pointe: The Other Side of the Tracks, an audio walk created by Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. She was one of the 30-member team involved in creating the multimedia tour through the deindustrialized southwest borough of Montreal.

“The residential areas were built along the factories,” explained Professor Steven High, a co-director of the centre. Up until the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the riverbeds of the Lachine Canal were home to a predominantly poorer section of Montreal’s population. The factories that lined the canal were a steady source of employment for the 30,000 residents of the area until the 1950’s. Then the factories closed up shop because ships no longer passed through the canal.

“Between 1961 and 1991, half of the population of the south-west vanished,” said High. “Basically the area got hollowed out.” He explained the streets that used to guide people to and from work now seemed empty.

As deindustrialization progressed, the neighbourhoods began to identify with “dysfunction,” High continued. “You’d almost think the whole area was on fire,” he said. The text that accompanies the La Pointe audio walk explains that fires are a characteristic of neighbourhoods experiencing a socioeconomic crisis, much like in Detroit today.

The audio walk replicates what High describes as the “symphony of industrial sound” that buzzed in the air of Montreal’s southwest during the turn-of-the-century. “It connected people,” said High of the noise. “Now industrial sounds divide […] It’s no longer unifying in the same way.”

In 2000, the population of Point St. Charles dropped to 13,000 people.

Now, gentrification, in the form of boutique shops and condominiums, is repopulating the areas along the Lachine Canal. The socioeconomic reality for long-term residents, however, has been much slower to build up.

“There’s a real sense of helplessness,” said Eliot Perrin, a Concordia graduate history student who is affiliated with the centre. “Inner-city residents see the problems that their city is facing on a daily basis and that comes from deindustrialization.” The isolation furthers as high-rise condos are constructed and new businesses find homes in these once working-class neighbourhoods.

“There’s a real sense of helplessness. Inner-city residents see the problems that their city is facing on a daily basis and that comes from deindustrialization.” – Eliot Perrin, Concordia graduate history student.

Gentrification and deindustrialization, Perrin said, are “economically and aesthetically linked.” Industry provided a substantial amount of jobs in inner-city Montreal, he explained. “Often times, the new job replacements have been in the service industry, providing [options that are] baseline, minimum wage,” he added. The justification, he said, is that “a space of production becomes a space of consumption.” It replaces and flips the economic engine that once existed in those spaces.

The economic reinvigoration is out of reach for those who remained in the shadows of industry long after it left. “Instead of being a part of the larger economy, it’s selling to people who are a part of the same economy,” Perrin explained. The professionals who move into the high-class new constructions are able to consume at a different rate than the working-class who still live there. “People think that these old industrial sites have that authentic appeal even though they don’t understand what the empty factory means,” he said.

High, who authored a book on the social and cultural impact on deindustrialization titled Corporate Wasteland, understands there is a romance to what he calls “ruin-gazing.” The appeal of these gritty industrial spaces is that they carry a collective history, inspiring a melancholic nostalgia for what has been.

“People [are drawn] into it as, ‘Wow! The power of us!’” High said. “We started to see the deindustrial sublime.” The danger in doing so, High remarked, is that the communities that were closely affected by the degradation of these spaces are not welcomed into the rejuvenation process. “So I was asking, ‘Why are people interested in the ruins, but not the poor people living nearby?’”

Those are the questions that High would like to instill in the minds of his students. Through the creation of inclusive projects, like the audio walk, High demonstrates that it is possible to study history from a different point of view. “In universities […] you’re looking outward onto other histories or other people. You’re learning about them,” he explained. “What we’re trying to teach is how do you learn with people, in partnership.”

The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling offers its affiliates the opportunity to study, share and engage with the past. Their projects allow researchers to ask, as High said, “How do you connect people to these stories? How do you curate that connection?”
After all, High said, “History is not just there. It’s each of us.”

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