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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 On one hand, the ground plane had been replaced by warehouses holding up a derelict council block and an old church.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.”

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I finally make it to 1500 Ottawa Street and begin walking around the site. A huge expanse of grass allows me to look across the canal. I first notice the graffiti: “there is no use looking back” and then a few silos and warehouses. Further down, a recent residential development clad in red brick and large windows reminds me of those new developments I saw emerging around London’s own canals. Few of them reuse any existing buildings but evoke the old canalscape by imitating the warehouse typology, as if attempting to recall a past that was never as pleasant as it is portrayed to be. It seems the architects have found use in looking back after all.
I continue walking around the site, bound by low-rise buildings sporting lofts for rent. There is some office space used, and a Christmas tree shop, but the entire area’s activity is outweighed by the Canada Post building’s huge abandoned shell. In a way, this is London’s East End too, lost between its past and the promise of regeneration.

And after years of neglect, dereliction piles high in Silvertown: “Historically this is London’s largest sewage factory – the East End has always had the smells. With the westerly wind being dominant, that is why they put the houses for the poor in the East End in the first place.” But these days, I am told, this is where the money is. “Now the area appears on fancy sales brochures, with the river curled across it like a blue party ribbon, selling a new name and a dream of 120,000 new homes.” The stakes are high: developers and politicians are eager to develop one of the last of the great London brownfield sites into what they label “a vibrant new heart for the Royal Docks in East London”. The risk, according to Tim Dixon, is the creation of a transient community that exclusively commutes to places of work, play and learning due to the lack of local infrastructure: schools, hospitals, local employment opportunities… But isn’t this the Generic City that Rem Koolhaas describes? A point of density that accommodates a variety of quasi-urban activity?
It may simply be the return of the edge city to the city proper, replacing the decaying fringe that brought about the exurban flight in the first place. With the political focus shifting from creating a suburban idyll to an urban idyll, the imagery had to change. Suddenly, Silvertown emerges as a political construct, fuelled by the will to reinvent London’s urban public space through planning policies that cite Amsterdam, Barcelona and Madrid as examples to emulate. With the help of a rich and expressive use of media and marketing, Silvertown is now a brand: cosmopolitan, trendy and vibrant. After all, there will be an aquarium, riverside paths and boating facilities, set carefully around the listed Silo D building and a few other selected tokens of the area’s past. If Rem’s mat city is to be embraced, Silvertown is becoming a potentially good candidate.

The scale of Griffintown’s redevelopment is smaller, and so is its scope of problems. But the ambition remains: at $1.3 billion, it is the largest privately financed real estate project in Montreal’s history. One common thread between both cities is the apparent desire to address the significance of history in both schemes. I remember looking down Wesley Avenue in Silvertown, past the rows of newly built houses and matching minivans, only to spot a lonely factory chimney left over from the site’s past life. It stands like a totem pole guarding the area from its past ghosts and legitimizing its future. The cavemen at Lascaux were equally ominous: by drawing animals on the walls of their dwellings, their homes were protected from the spirits of the slaughtered bison.

1500 Ottawa Street is being handed a similar fate. Recently released proposals for the site include fours pre-existing basins that are to be dug up. The basins, originally used by the local industry, will be restored to their original artificial splendour. This must be the Generic City after all, the one where ”there is always a quarter called Lipservice, where a minimum of the past is preserved (…) also called Afterthought, Waterfront, Too Late, 42nd Street, Simply the Village” and more importantly that “celebrates the past as only the recently conceived can”. The city that once disappeared unlamented is being brought back through mementos. They are there to give the new city their tacit approval.

I finally approach the Canada Post building. The sickly trees with spotted leaves around the structure remind me of the asbestos warning signs I had seen in Silvertown. A few joggers pass by along the canal, by now used to the huge structure’s empty presence. It will be torn down but it could have been left standing just as easily. It could have been the past that was chosen to be remembered.

silvertown3

Sources

Aubin, Henry. “November Has Been a Dreary Month for Montreal Island”, The Montreal Gazette web page, November 2008
Dixon, Tim. “Commuter Culture”, The Guardian website, August 2006
Johnston, Craig and Mark Whitehead. New Horizons in British Urban Policy: Perspectives on New Labour’s Urban Renaissance. Hants, 2004
Koolhaas, Rem. “The Generic City”, S,M,L,XL (1994)
McGhie, Caroline. “The Golden Gateway”, The Telegraph website, October 2006
Second Griffintown Project Unveiled”, The Montreal Gazette, 13 November 2008

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