Has St. Henri been subject to a renewal or gentrification? The latter has become a sensitive topic in urban planning theory, and is the cause of many debates and discussions. Notable for its negative implication of wealthy outsiders displacing poorer residents, the shift in demographics leads to subsequent changes to a neighbourhood’s social and economic character. The rise of rents and property values, and the introduction of new land use activities are often the factors that exclude original residents. Though class and culture may clash, it is these social and economic changes that can breathe new life into a community.
Can urban revitalization even happen without gentrification? Some suggest no, yet others note that the difference lies in whether the community itself becomes involved in the transformations taking place. This would ensure that displacement of lower-income residents does not happen, and improving the community’s quality of life through transparency and participation might ensure the neighbourhood’s stable growth and improvement. As such, equitable revitalization aims transform a forgotten, blighted community into a mixed-income neighbourhood. This helps explain the move towards rebranding revitalization as community development. Nevertheless, it is difficult to forget the urban renewal efforts of the 1940s to 1960s that razed neighbourhoods for highways and other megaprojects. This demonstrates that both topics are heavily controversial and complex, and each hold successes and failures.
The industrial heritage of Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough, which includes the neighbourhoods of Griffintown, Little Burgundy, Pointe St. Charles, Ville Émard, Côte-Saint-Paul and St. Henri, was a prosperous one. However, long gone are the days of shipping along the Lachine Canal, and the hub of manufacturing activity near the rail yards. These low-income, working class neighbourhoods were further segregated with the closure of the Canal in 1970 and the construction of major highway networks.
Yet today, St. Henri is indisputably changing, though at a slower rate in comparison to neighbouring counterparts of Griffintown and Little Burgundy. When the Canal was reopened in 2002 for recreational purposes, renewed interest was peaking in the surrounding areas. Many buildings have been repurposed into condos, lofts, and art spaces, as evidenced by the former Imperial Tobacco Company buildings redeveloped into a sustainable residential complex. St. Henri has become a hub for artists and creative influences, with many studio spaces overtaking empty warehouses. This signifies the importance of cultural facilities in producing communal solidarity, and promoting community interaction. Furthermore, more than twenty years after McGill University opened the residence Solin Hall in a former chocolate factory, students have added to the character and vibrancy of this already eclectic neighbourhood.
There are visible signs of new wealth in the neighbourhood, noticeable simply from the cars that line some streets. Even though the Sud-Ouest borough has the highest rate of affordable housing in Montreal, demand for the construction of more social housing units in St. Henri persists. Furthermore, the new MUHC superhospital and the looming reconstruction of the Turcot Interchange still have the power to reshape this neighbourhood. The possibility of new workers to these two sources of employment would increase demand for housing and commercial businesses.
Communities, neighbourhoods, and cities are never stagnant. What matters is how city officials, experts, and community leaders respond to the factors that are reshaping their urban environments. Many will argue that gentrification is taking place in St. Henri, benefiting the rich and leaving the lower-income residents behind. However, the eclectic variety of housing, commercial establishments, and public spaces that I came across demonstrated the safety and vibrancy of a slowly shifting lower-income to mixed-income neighbourhood.
Do you think there is a difference between gentrification and urban renewal? Has your city or community experienced either process?
Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon. Data linked to sources.