Mile End no longer feels like a real neighbourhood. Fantasies of endless growth are to blame

Those seeking profit in a trendy area have destroyed what made it special

John recently went out and took photos of all the vacant buildings he could find in Mile End, and was disheartened when he saw how full his camera roll was afterward. (Submitted by John Stuart)

This First Person article is the experience of John Stuart, an artist who lives in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

There is an idea of Mile End, like some kind of daydream or fever that takes hold in the people who lived here. You used to be able to hear it echo down the ruelles like the clanking of trains at midnight — but at first, I was oblivious to all of it.

I moved to Montreal in 1999 from Ottawa with my wife and infant son Julian to study design at Concordia University. I dreamed I would be the next big thing in what was then the exciting world of design and typography. At that point, Mile End to me was just another place that I would eventually leave. My map of the city was dominated by nearby parks Julian and I visited and Concordia’s VA building on René-Lévesque Boulevard.

Our preferred parks were Clark Park (Lhasa de Sela Park now) and Outremont Park. Each park had its own character representing different demographics of the neighbourhood. Clark was a bit more wild and egalitarian (and the place where Julian made his first friends). The kids and their parents were more friendly, and on hot summer days those fountains were a godsend.

Outremont Park, while esthetically beautiful, was much less welcoming. But those grand old trees made for excellent canopies to wolf down warm bagels on crisp autumn days.

I didn’t make a lot of friends in Mile End those first few years, but I did notice how relaxed and friendly people were. It certainly helped to have a cute ginger kid in tow. Our regular haunts, aside from the parks, were Café Romolo for pre- or post-park sandwiches and salads, and the Buymore restaurant for cheap, delicious meals.

Just before I began my final year of university, my marriage ended. Divorce is bad enough, but when you’re in a city without family and few friends, it is particularly difficult. But I was able to forge friendships through workshops at an activist design conference hosted by Concordia. Around that time I began spending a lot of time at Pharmacie Esperanza (which later became Cagibi) and Club Social on St-Viateur Street — and with that I began to really understand and love this place.

The building that used to house Cabaret Playhouse on Parc Avenue. As the demand for venue spaces in Mile End increased, many closed their doors. (Submitted by John Stuart)

I spent almost every evening at Esperanza and my mornings at Club Social. I came to recognize and meet the regulars who all excelled at extending the life of a latté to epic proportions. When I visited Ottawa I began feeling out of place. I missed the dirty bohemian sidewalks, the long conversations and lingering crushes.

This was also the time my friend Kevin Lo and I started a deep dive into the Constellation Records catalogue, most importantly Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. Through their music and words, we began to develop a romantic mythology of the neighbourhood. The feral cats stealing glances in ruelles, the dark, lonesome corners blooming improbable flowers and most importantly the notion of hope for a better world without capitalism.

It was also the era when Arcade Fire released Funeral and turned the indie world upside down, and the articles started to appear celebrating the music scene here. I stepped out of my shell and began making a yearly zine with Kevin called Four Minutes to Midnight, and the success of that was our real entry into the Mile End arts scene. I began publicly performing poetry, one of my earliest at the Poetry Plus series hosted at the Arts Café — also now closed — where I managed to impress the McGarrigle sisters when I performed with a bowed guitar.

Slowly but surely, the tenor of the neighbourhood began to change. More and more students were moving in thinking that somehow the «magic» of the indie scene would be their path to success. Despite that, I was deeply invested in the idea of everyday people making art and music for that sake of itself, rather than for profit.

This dépanneur on Bernard Avenue and the apartments above it now sit empty. (Submitted by John Stuart)

I started a music series at Cagibi called «Sake of the Songs» which was open to anyone to play. Those shows forged another little community that resulted in long-term friendships and musical collaborations.

But when Bar St. Laurent and the Green Room closed, it became clear that the neighbourhood was beginning to change for the worse. It was getting harder and harder to find reasonably priced apartments, and friends were being evicted for condos or non-existent family members of the landlord.

Booking venues was becoming more difficult because the demand was increasing, but there were fewer to choose from.

That transformation was impossible to ignore when a David’s Tea opened on St-Viateur. It was a total anomaly — bright and garish and completely disconnected from the community.

People blamed hipsters, and Ubisoft, for the changes. But I knew it was the most sinister of all mythologies — capitalism and the fantasy of endless growth and profit.

Then the tour buses started coming — the sidewalks stopped feeling like home and more like photo ops for people too lazy to explore the city on their own.

Artist-run venues like Lab Synthèse disappeared as did our studio spaces — which were converted to new media grindhouses. Cagibi, too, has since left the neighbourhood because of rising rents.

The St-Viateur Street location of Comptoir 21 closed last spring. (Submitted by John Stuart)

With each eviction and closure my resolve faded, as did my love of this place. Those ideas we fostered in our zines and $5 shows remain strong, but they don’t reverberate in the ruelles quite as loudly as they once did.

Mile End has lost so much of what made it a real neighbourhood. Seeing the public reaction to S.W. Welch’s absurd rent hike was a beautiful glimpse back to the time when I felt we could have moved mountains. The day that a block of St-Viateur was filled with people supporting Welch’s bookstore, I decided to take my camera and revisit the neighbourhood that made me what I am.

Instead of the cats, and the lonesome corners where flowers bloom, I decided to take pictures of all the empty buildings in this supposedly booming neighbourhood. When I got home and saw the volume of shots, my heart sank. The reaction after I shared those photos made it clear I was not alone in feeling this.

It makes me think maybe, just maybe, we will turn a corner and recognize that the value of community is far greater than short term profits for real estate tycoons who winter in Miami.

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