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Montreal's Mile End threatened by gentrification

Susan Bronson studies the social history of this rapidly changing neighbourhood

Ubisoft on the corner of St-Laurent and St-Viateur, embodies a new generation of businesses.

Mile End is in the throes of gentrification, causing the greatest upheaval in the neighbourhood in a century, according to architect Susan Bronson, a professor at the Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Planning. Prof. Bronson is currently writing a doctoral thesis on the history and conservation of this neighbourhood renowned for its bagels, Greek restaurants and the Byzantine-style St. Michael’s Church.

Mile End is going through major changes, states Prof. Bronson during a walking tour of this quadrilateral framed by Mt. Royal to the south, Van Horne to the north, Hutchison to the west and St. Denis to the east. The urban history specialist points out that Mile End, where Mordecai Richler set so many of his novels (St. Urbain’s Horseman, TheApprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Stories and Memoirs from St.Urbain Street), is defined above all by its multiethnic landscape. The facades tell a story of Jewish, Greek, Italian and Portuguese settlement. The Portuguese are fond of placing religious tiles close to their front doors; Hebrew inscriptions are still visible on the façade of Collège français (a former synagogue) on Fairmount Avenue; and the Greek restaurants that dot Park Avenue attract the eye with their Mediterranean blue and white walls.

The current residents of Mile End enjoy spots like the Italian Social Club on St. Viateur, or Casa del Popolo on St. Laurent. But living in Mile End is becoming an increasingly expensive proposition, as a tenant or owner. “With the arrival of its newer residents—young affluent professionals—property values have skyrocketed in just a few years,” states Prof. Bronson. Monthly rents for a four-and-a-half have increased from $80 in the 1960s to a minimum of $900 in 2005. Some rents even top $1,500 today. In addition, the number of rental units is shrinking as condo conversions take off.

Having obtained documents dating back to the early 20th century (photos, engravings, urban plans and architectural sketches), Prof. Bronson has been able to assess the extent of the changes over the last 100 years. In 1901, the neighbourhood, a small town known as St. Louis, underwent a demographic explosion, with the population increasing from 11,000 to 37,000 in 10 years. In 1910, this autonomous municipality was annexed by the City of Montreal and became known as the Laurier quarter. Many of today’s notable heritage features date back to this era of intense construction, including the double living rooms so typical of Montreal apartments, outdoor staircases, and stone or brick facades.

Where does the name Mile End come from? No one knows for sure, but theories abound. According to Prof. Bronson, the name may be inspired by a London suburb of the same name, which, in the medieval period, was at the end of the mile (Mile End) outside the City. A rich English owner, Stanley Bagg, adopted this expression in 1815. He talked about his favourite tavern, on Mt. Royal Avenue, located about one mile from his villa, close to Sherbrooke Street, called the “Mile End Hotel.”

The 1960s and ‘70s were a period of shrinking investment in property in the neighbourhood. It was also a period of growing vandalism. However, since the 1980s, property values have climbed steadily and, beginning in the ‘90s, more and more row houses have been converted into condos and co-properties. As a result, the neighbourhood is becoming less and less accessible to low-income residents. With triplexes now comm anding a half a million dollars, Mile End is increasingly becoming home to the more affluent.

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