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there is no use looking back December 15, 2008

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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There is a commemorative plaque that stands at the site of St Ann’s church in Griffintown, the heart of what used to be a large Irish community. Today, although there is little left of the Irish, Italians or Ukrainians that populated the neighbourhood, there is nevertheless much to learn about what the area now is. To find out, I trek southwards from Little Burgundy to 1500 Ottawa Street, site of the abandoned Canada Post sorting facility. As for what Griffintown should become, there is much controversy and little consensus – the area itself offers few indicators for its future. If any insight is then to be found, it may be time to look elsewhere.

I begin my trek at Georges Vanier metro station and walk slowly southwards towards 1500 Ottawa Street, through neighbourhoods that have never had a place in Montreal’s official tour guide. First there is Little Burgundy: terraced houses and back gardens, then a large communal garden followed by the community church. The streets may have been empty that day, but there certainly was no lack of vibrancy in church. For a day that wasn’t Christmas or Easter, I have never seen such a roomful of people gathered in a church hall for service. The entire scene felt like a surreal movie set about an idyllic community whose vitality was unquestionable.
The vitality of my trip however was short lived. Barring a brief locus of activity at Notre Dame Street, the community feel was all but gone as I continued towards my destination. By the time I walked down Guy’s last stretch, all that was left was an underused semi-industrial landscape. The narrow street’s low-rise red brick warehouses were marked only by a few back doors and some graffiti. It wasn’t homely here anymore.

Three thousand miles away in Silvertown, one of the industrial wastelands to the East of London, I was given the same, albeit more dramatic, impression. It wasn’t welcoming there either. On a cold winter day, I precariously walked along a highway leading to Silvertown, ironically the only walkable link between the two closest DLR stations. On one hand, the ground plane had been replaced by warehouses holding up a derelict council block and an old church. On the other, a dramatic empty river-front landscape was pierced by a small factory. Save the millennium dome that could be seen in the back across the water, the scene spewed more of post-war desolation than 21st century London. A friend of mine once told me it reminded him of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has never been to the Middle East.
Silvertown shares not only a similar sounding name to Griffintown but also the industrial past, the workers’ housing, the post-industrial dereliction, the nostalgic accounts of life in the slums, the developers’ recent interest, the cities tired of the underuse… It seems every city in the western world hides a small Detroit somewhere. And by now, there is no community left in Silvertown either: “If you play hunt-the-corner-shop you might eventually find a small parade with a Costcutter, a chippy, a bookie and a greasy spoon, with a strip club two corners away.” (more…)