Transforming Montreal

  • The city’s multi billion Quartier des spectacles will have a drastic impact on the lives of sex workers in downtown Montreal. Photo Riley Sparks

Montreal’s urban space is on the verge of being lost to private interest and gentrification, and it’s not just the bottom rung of the economic ladder that will lose out. That was the consensus of the City for Sale panel discussion, presented by the activist collective The Rad School last Wednesday in Concordia’s CI building.

“Last year, 14 per cent of the city lived below the poverty line. This year, it’s 18 per cent,” said facilitator and part-time School of Community and Public Affairs faculty-member Norman Nawrocki during his introduction, citing a recent ad from Sun Youth published in The Gazette. “That’s a big jump in one year. What does this mean in terms of where we live and how we use the space in this city to take care of the needs of people?”

The first speaker was Velma Candyass, a burlesque performer and choreographer, whose troupe the Dead Dolls are a mainstay at Cabaret Cleopatra. The club almost became a victim of the city’s revitalization drive, which would have seen many buildings on St. Laurent Boulevard between Ste. Catherine Street and Rene-Levesque Boulevard destroyed to make way for office buildings.

“[Development] has to be on a human scale. Buildings have to be in proportion to usage and the needs of the community and the needs of the area,” she said. “The big danger is that when you let a prime area go downhill, it’s bad news […] We’ve been lucky so far in Montreal, but we’re having more and more pockets of despair and destruction all along Ste. Catherine Street. You have empty store fronts and more and more of this rot is coming through.”

While Candyass cited artists living and working around the Lower Main as among those affected, there is an even more disenfranchised group who suffer from the effects of gentrification.

Stephanie and Anita—they prefer not to disclose their last names due to the nature of their work—are outreach workers with Stella, a group that fights for sex workers’ rights. They claim that the city’s efforts on St. Laurent are going to have drastic consequences for the sex workers in the area.

“We haven’t seen many changes downtown. There is, but it’s not dramatic yet. It will happen,” said Stephanie. “There’s women working the street on St. Laurent that are not using [drugs] at all, and they don’t want to go to [an area like] Hochelaga [where more sex workers are drug users]. In sex work, you have a hierarchy. It’s going to be intense for these women to figure out where to work.”

The discussion ended with John Bradley, a community activist who has been working on behalf of the residents of Pointe St. Charles for 30 years. Bradley pointed to the recent destruction of the historic Seville Theatre, which will have high-end condominiums erected in its former site, as a perfect example of what he called the “securitization” of space.

“I think of this project as a 20-story gated community,” he said. “Within it, apart from the housing, which is inaccessible, there’s a spa, pool, gym, a whole series of amenities, which used to be public […] What it does, is this becomes a defendable space, almost militarized [against those not living there].”

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 14, published November 16, 2010.

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