By Alyssa Campbell
The Plateau-Mont-Royal is arguably Montreal’s most famous neighborhood. Ranked by many publications as one of North America’s “best neighborhoods,” the Plateau has built a reputation for being a hip area with trendy bars, shopping, restaurants and cafes. Yet four decades ago life in the neighborhood was quite the opposite, on the precipice of gentrification from its working-class past. The incredible evolution of the Plateau from its time as a place of rural farms to one of large working-class families to being the go-to spot for young professionals and students is an exemplary story of the effects gentrification can have upon a neighborhood. Yet, the image of the Plateau as a completely gentrified bohemian haven occults a secondary reality of rising living costs problematic for renters and a pervasive poverty that is more widespread than the public acknowledges. To understand the process and consequences of gentrification in the Plateau, it is necessary to analyze the multifaceted reality it has given rise to beyond the trendy boutiques.
The Plateau-Mont-Royal refers to the municipal district in Montreal that is composed of five separate neighborhoods – the Mile End, Saint-Louis, the areas surrounding Laurier Park, Lafontaine Park, and De Lorimier. As of 2011, the Plateau had a population of 100,390 inhabitants. The neighborhood is the youngest in the city, with an average age of 34.1 years versus 38.6 for the city of Montreal. It furthermore is characterized by a high population density – the highest in Montreal, which is in part a result of its having the smallest geographical area of any neighborhood in the city.
What today consists of the Plateau was originally rural farmland with country houses owned by the local bourgeoisie. Small towns like Côte-à-Baron, Côteau Saint-Louis, and De Lorimier were formed around the quarrying industry. The city of Montreal progressively annexed the cities after the turn of the 20th century, leading to the modern formation of the Plateau. Most of the Plateau’s buildings were built at the beginning of the 20th century and it soon became the settling place for various ethnic groups and newly arriving immigrants to Canada Before and after WWI, Eastern European immigrants settled in the area, followed by the Greeks, the Portuguese and the Vietnamese. A bustling area of commerce at the beginning of the century, development in the Plateau stagnated until after WWII.
The Plateau of the 1960’s was known for being a neighborhood of large working-class families. It is often associated with the famous Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay, who spent his childhood there. His childhood experience is reflected in his well-known play, Les Belles-Soeurs. Premiering in 1968 and written in joual – a French dialect linked to the Francophone working class of Montreal, Michel’s play gives a sense for what the Plateau was like before it went through gentrification. The following excerpt of one female character in the play gives an idea of the working-class lifestyle of the period:
“I get up and I fix breakfast. The same goddamn thing … I drag the others out of bed and I shove them out the door … I work, I work, I work and I work. It’s noon before I know it and the kids are mad because lunch isn’t ready … I work all afternoon. Suppertime comes, we all fight … I walk all day, I break my back carrying parcels this big, I come back home exhausted. But I’ve still got to make supper. When the others get home I look like I’m dead … My husband bitches, the kids scream. We all fight … I work. I slave. I kill myself for my pack of morons.”
In another excerpt, a social-climbing female character who yearns to escape what she considers to be the dire living conditions of the Plateau exclaims that living there is “like living in a barnyard.” She compares the Plateau to Europe, where she says people are “so much more polite” and “refined.” Speaking of the inhabitants of the Plateau, she exclaims: “These people are cheap … They don’t know how to live! … Dear God, they make me so ashamed.” This depiction of the Plateau as a crude and poor working-class neighborhood with loud rowdy families contrasts greatly to its contemporary image as an eclectic European haven for young educated professionals. A description of the Plateau written for tourists gives a completely different view of the area:
“Wrought-iron staircases, old-style stone masonry, walk-up duplexes, imported cars … designer fashion boutiques … this working-class-turned-yuppie neighbourhood with bohemian undercurrents is by far the grooviest scene in Montréal. Those of us who don’t live here come to play as often as possible … Saint-Denis Street with its designer boutiques and cafés, Prince-Arthur Street’s BYOW terraces and restaurants, and Mont-Royal Avenue’s trendy hotspot … [are] balanced by the tranquility and fresh air afforded by luxurious green spaces such as Parc La Fontaine.”
The term “gentrification” entered the English language only in the 1960’s when a British sociologist, Ruth Glass, coined the term in an attempt to describe the replacing of the lower-income population in central London by the upper class. Formally the process is defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” In the Plateau, the process of gentrification started in the 1970’s.
In Montreal, the gentrification of neighborhoods has been noted to have four steps. First, there is the necessity of the arrival of the pioneers who lay the groundwork for gentrification – usually young single professionals and artists who renovate older and unoccupied buildings. As soon as 1971 one could witness a decline in the number of family households in the Plateau at the same time that there was an increase in the population of disadvantaged young adults (aged 20-24 years old) that settled around Parc de la Fontaine. Damaris Rose, a leading scholar of gentrification in Montreal, points out that the cultural investment made by people in “alternative social movements” and by the earlier Italian and Portuguese immigrants was a critical step in attracting investment to the area, laying the groundwork for gentrification. This pioneering group was made up of young intellectuals, artists, university students, and teachers all between 20 and 34 years old attracted to the area primarily because of its low rental prices and central location.
One resident who grew up in the Plateau recounted how her family participated in this early urban culture: “My dad moved to the Plateau [in the] late 80’s, early 90’s [as a] want-to-be-writer. He live[d] with this actor friend … in this cockroach infested apartment on Farbre … that’s the first wave of gentrification that hit the Plateau.” She describes how when she was a child she witnessed the shops on Mont Royal “open and close and open and close” and how they bought cheap “cheese [and] coffee,” adding: “I guess we were part of that first wave of gentrification.”
In the second step often noted in the gentrification process, outsiders begin to notice the neighborhood and begin investing in local property – causing rental prices to slowly start rising. By the early 1980’s a more educated, slightly older and higher salaried population of young professionals began to settle in the area. By 1980’s the economically disadvantaged young population, the “pioneers” of gentrification, moved further to the North as they were replaced by their more well-off counterparts further south. Certain original “pioneers” in the area that had made the decision to invest in and renovate property saw themselves become wealthier as their assets rose in value. The heightened interest by investors led the media to take notice, using the term “gentrification” for the first time to describe what was happening in the area.
In the third step of gentrification, the city often will become involved in financing development because of the new incentives it offers – such as increased municipal property taxes as a result of rising real estate prices. In the Plateau, this began occurring in the 1980’s. The previous decade had witnessed a population exodus away from the Plateau as a result of suburbanization and a decline in urban commercial activities due to the relocation of industry to the periphery. The population of the Plateau fell 30 percent between 1971 and 1981 from 110,000 inhabitants to 77,500.
In order to avoid depopulation and ameliorate living conditions to attract wealthier residents back into the city, the city government of Montreal pursued policies that focused on revitalizing older neighborhoods. In 1980, the Plateau Mont-Royal was targeted by the city as a “priority zone of intervention” as part of the municipal program entitled Programme d’intervention dans les quartiers anciens (PIQA) which led to the municipal financing of the renovation of many older buildings, streets and sidewalks. This transformed Prince-Arthur Street, Duluth and Mont-Royal, as well as Rachel and Saint-Laurent into “rues d’ambiance” as a result of the installation of trendy establishments with the opening of new restaurants, cafés, ethnic grocery stores, and pubs. The number of these “new wave” businesses increased greatly during this era.
Gentrification in the Plateau has been labeled as “socialism for the rich and a free market for the poor,” implying that the city government only offers subsidies favorable to owners and real estate developers at the cost of the interests of the renting and low-income population. This occurs in the final step of gentrification that sees renters, as well as poor property owners who can’t afford to pay the rising property taxes, become displaced. New shops and restaurants open up accustomed to the tastes of this new wealthier population. During the 1990’s, real estate prices in the Plateau continued to rise as more and more wealthy professionals settled into the neighborhood. It is during this decade and into the 2000’s that the Plateau Mont-Royal became one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in Montreal. Many condominium developments were built, composing the majority of new construction, in order to meet the growing demand for property.
Today, the effects of gentrification in the Plateau are well evident. The neighborhood is described by some accounts as the ideal neighborhood in terms of new urbanism with many alternative forms of transportation, a mixity of uses, a high number of public parks and recreational spaces and proximity to the city center. Rental prices as a result have soared. In general, Montreal has become an exceedingly less affordable city over the last 10 years for renters, which has “led to increasing difficulties for lower income people, especially … [those] with children.”
During the past three decades, a great public imaginary has developed surrounding the Plateau. It has been described in public discourse as a sophisticated bohemian utopia and as an urban success story. However, this romantic vision of the Plateau as a neighborhood only for the rich hides the other reality of the gentrification process – that of increasingly unaffordable living costs for long-time residents and the widespread poverty that accompanies it. Poverty in the Plateau is not concentrated in a specific geographical area, but intermixed throughout the neighborhood, which can make it hard to notice at first sight. In fact, 1 in 3 residents in the Plateau are affected by poverty with 28,000 people in the area living below the poverty line. Its low-income population is higher than the Montreal city average, while the average revenue is lower. One can see a large gap between the rich and poor in the Plateau – where 18% of the population has an annual income of more than $75,000 while 29% earns less than $20,000. As a result, less than 20% of the Plateau’s residents earn three times more than those who live just next door.
1 out of 4 people in the Plateau live off of government services (social assistance, unemployment insurance, pensions, etc.) According to the Jeanne-Mance Centre for Health and Social Services, more than half the Plateau’s population is “socially disadvantaged” which implies weaker social networks. The Plateau’s proportion of single-parent families is higher than the city average. In the eastern part of the Plateau, 13% of the population is ranked as socially and materially disadvantaged. “Materially disadvantaged” implies lower levels employment, income, and education. Furthermore, the life expectancy at birth is actually lower in the Plateau than on average in Montreal.
The increasing unaffordability of rental housing has been a key problem facing the Plateau. Between 2005 and 2008, the cost of rent increased by more than 15% – from $661 to $757 for a two-bedroom apartment and from $803 to $1032 for a three-bedroom apartment. One women interviewed commented that her parents had lived in the Plateau “for 15 years, so they have an affordable rent” but that “they definitely have to stay put because they’re never going to find that rent anywhere else.” The Plateau has a higher than city average proportion of rental households at 74.3% of residents. There is large gap in the income between those buying in the Plateau and those renting, with the salaries of owners averaging at $64,236 while only at $29,815 for renters.
1 out 5 renters in the Plateau devotes more than 50% of their income to rent. When a household that already suffers from low income must devote the majority of their income to rent, they no longer have a sufficient amount of money left to spend on transport, food, and health care costs. This contributes to a vicious cycle of poverty that exacerbates an already serious situation of poverty. As rental prices continue to increase, those with low-income will either be forced to move out of the area or go on government assistance. Out of the 18,000 households renting in the Plateau, 43.3% would qualify for social housing.
The Comité du Logement du Plateau Mont-Royal was created in 1974 in order to promote “harmonious urban development” and “to protect the rights of renters against the abuse of the private market.” In response to the mass creation of condominiums, the Committee launched a campaign called “My home is not for sale” that achieved a law controlling the conversion of rental housing into condominiums. They have been implicated in the creation of housing cooperatives as well as the creation of more than 1,200 social housing units. In 2007 the Committee launched a campaign entitled “My house, my neighborhood: Here I am, here I will remain!” to promote housing rights demanding compulsory rent control and the construction of 1,000 social housing units over the next five years. Simon Dumais, the director of the Committee, argues that even though some residents have seen their salaries increase and have become owners, “poverty is far from being a fiction in the Plateau … rental households have been hit hard by housing crisis which is rampant in the neighborhood … this reality counters the popular belief that the Plateau is only a rich, gentrified, and connected neighborhood…”
The Plateau has been described “as one of the best places to live” attracting “shoppers and people watchers from the suburbs as well as tourists.” This narrative of the contemporary Plateau, however, hides another reality that must be considered when examining gentrification in the neighborhood. Gentrification is ongoing as prices continue to rise and the livelihoods of those who have long lived there become threatened. The contemporary Plateau is a neighborhood that has been shaped by a rich array of inhabitants, from wealthy estate owners to Portuguese immigrants. It is through this diverse lens that one must contest the image of a homogeneous chic and wealthy Plateau Mont-Royal, considering the poverty that continues to be a daily reality for many of the neighborhood’s residents.