St-Henri is ground zero in the gentrification battle taking place on the streets in Southwest Montreal. Working class folks and modest income families living in the area are coming up against a crowd of young, urban, professionals now calling the neighbourhood home.
Condo buildings along the Lachine Canal are being snatched up almost as quickly as they’re being built. While development pressure anywhere near the canal and Atwater Market is causing property owners to sell to condo companies looking to gain a foothold in what some are calling “the new Plateau.”
Community groups and local activists have been organizing meetings and workshops on how to work together in dealing with skyrocketing rent prices and forced evictions as a result of gentrification, where low income residents are displaced while a demographic change takes place.
For some residents of St-Henri, however, the response has been to target and vandalize businesses along Notre-Dame Street, where trendy cafés and restaurants are starting to pop up. Except for the US chain Domino’s Pizza, the strip has seen little challenge to the Dollaramas and seedy massage parlours. Until recently.
One of the main targets for vandals has been the trendy Café St-Henri. It has been attacked not once, nor twice, but three times since it opened a year-and-a-half ago. Its 32-year-old owner is quite aware of the gentrification happening around the neighbourhood and doesn’t understand why his little café has become the centre of attention in this little feud.
The first instance was when a vandal tagged the words “Yuppie scum” on the tiles next to the front entrance in 2011. About a year later someone else emptied the contents of three paint cans on the front plate glass windows. Then, only a few weeks ago, the words “Fuck gentrification!” were scratched on these same glass windows.
Journalists tried contacting the owner to comment about the latest attack, but because of the enormous amount of media attention after the paint vandalism, he is refusing, fearing further attacks on his café. Understandable, considering how much it must cost to pay for the clean up efforts.
St-Henri residents feel strongly both for and against gentrification, with those in favour saying the area has now cleaned up and is more safe as a result. Whether this is true or not, it’s interesting to hear visitors to St-Henri, either at the Atwater Market or taking a brief stroll down along the canal, say how much the area has changed in the last few years.
Of course, there’s no way to tell who’s carrying out the attacks on Cafe St-Henri, or, if they’re even the work of ideologically-motivated residents and not just some disgruntled former employee. But one thing’s for sure, these confrontations will continue to happen in the neighbourhood until residents, for and against gentrification, are consulted on the future of their community.
Walking down rue Notre-Dame, the main thoroughfare of St-Henri, it’s hard to get a sense that anything is really changing. But as you turn towards the canal you begin to see the effect of gentrification on the old, working class character of the neighbourhood. Remnants of its former character struggle to assert itself in the shadow of new condo buildings and those in the process of being constructed. It is this struggle that we are seeing, for better or worse.
Adam Bemma is a new media journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Montreal, Quebec.