Students Investigate Our “Right To The City”

Concordia Student Exhibition Combines Theatre, Art History and Storytelling

Photo courtesy David Ward
Photo courtesy David Ward

Three Concordia courses took students out of the classroom and into the community of Pointe St. Charles this semester. On Saturday, the general public will be able to view the results of their research in an exhibit that combines theatre, art history and digital storytelling.

Concordia professors Cynthia Hammond, Steven High and Edward Little received a teaching grant from the university to make their “tethered-teaching initiative” a reality.

“What we decided to do was to […] focus on a specific neighbourhood in Montreal that we knew to be very rich in archival history, urban history, but also living oral history and thus life stories,” Hammond said.

She said the rich history of activism and community mobilization in Pointe St. Charles—a formerly working-class, now post-industrial neighbourhood currently undergoing gentrification—made it a great place to study.

“I think Montreal is not unique in the sense that there’s a top-down approach to urban planning,” said Hammond, adding that there’s a lot of disillusionment in the city with how those in power make decisions.

“But what’s amazing about Pointe St. Charles, if you look at it historically, is that so much of what is vital and important about this neighbourhood has come through citizens creating it themselves, despite enormous challenges and restrictions. I felt […] that this would be an incredibly inspiring site for students to work on, because knowledge doesn’t just come from above, it comes from below.”

Each of the classes had both undergraduate and graduate students, Hammond said.

The exhibit on Saturday will begin at 1 p.m. with a guided walk through Pointe St. Charles. High, the co-director of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, had his students work together to produce an audio-walk based on interviews with the neighbourhood’s residents.

“This is original, primary research that’s never been done before,” Hammond said. “You walk through the Point, you look at different streets, you look at different buildings and you hear someone in your ears talking from their own lived memory about that place that you’re standing in front of at that moment.”

At the end of the hour-long walk, participants will head to Share the Warmth, a non-profit organization that occupies a former church at the corner of Wellington St. and Fortune St.

Little, the chair of the theatre department, has tried to give students the opportunity to create site-specific theatre performances that incorporate the stories of different neighbourhoods and their residents. Students will perform some of the pieces they created at the exhibition.

Hammond, who teaches architectural history, had her students work on hands-on projects, researching the history of the neighbourhood’s built environment and then intervening in it in some way.

“Every site in the city has a spatial history, and by that I mean it has a social, cultural and political history. […] Their [goal], as historians but also creative individuals, was to find a way to make that history visible for a present-day audience,” said Hammond.

Two students in Hammond’s class, Evan Stanfield and Laura O’Brien, chose to study two empty lots in the neighbourhood—one a triangular patch of land next to the Canadian National railway at the corner of Charon St. and Knox St., the other an empty lot between housing complexes on Bourgeoys St.

Through their research, they found that two McGill architecture students, Joe Carter and Pieter Sijpkes, had done an intervention project of their own on those empty lots in the 1970s. “They turned one of the sites into a community vegetable garden, and they turned the other site into a playground for children in the neighbourhood,” Stanfield said.

“For our own intervention project, we wanted to try and create a link between the history of those sites and specifically the previous interventions that had happened there and the current state of disuse of those sites in contemporary Pointe St. Charles,” he explained.

Stanfield and O’Brien spent time at the two lots cleaning up any garbage and talking to local residents.

The CN-owned site on Charon St. is no longer accessible to the public. It’s gated and “largely abandoned,” O’Brien said.

Meanwhile, the site on Bourgeoys St. is slated for condo development. “We found out [from local residents] that the site is privately owned, and right now the owner is doing soil tests to find out how contaminated the soil is,” Stanfield said. “Development will probably start within the next year or two.”

Although these two plots can no longer be appropriated by the community as public spaces, O’Brien and Stanfield said they hope their project will inspire local residents to explore the potential of other lots.

“Hopefully, people will walk away and realize that these sites could become more than just dumping grounds or empty plots of land,” O’Brien said.

Another student in the class, Lisa Graves, researched the former Grace Church that now houses Share the Warmth. She wanted to find out what happened to the church’s bell tower.

“In 1975, [the tower] was removed,” Graves said. “There were bricks that were falling and it either needed to be renovated or removed, and at the time they couldn’t afford to renovate.”

Pointe St. Charles, like other formerly working-class neighbourhoods, is experiencing gentrification, with new condo owners moving in and rising property values and rents potentially displacing the area’s traditional residents.

Throughout the semester, the three professors held classes at Share the Warmth. The non-profit operates a food bank, prepares nutritious meals for students at 25 Montreal-area schools every week, and collects school supplies throughout the year to distribute to needy students every August. Volunteers and staff also run an after-school program, tutoring local youth in specific subjects, especially math.

With the teaching grant, the university rented the space from Share the Warmth, thus making a financial contribution to the organization.

“[Share the Warmth] is really a kind of social economy project rather than a philanthropy or charity project, because they’re trying to get—and are succeeding in getting—the community that they’re aiming to serve to also take ownership of the project,” Hammond said.

The Right to the City // Saturday, Nov. 29 // The audio-walk departs from the Pointe St. Charles Library (1050 Hibernia St.) at 1 p.m. and the exhibition is at Share the Warmth (625 Fortune St.) from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.