The Areas We Inhabit

Brief histories of Tiohtià:ke neighbourhoods

By Athina Khalid

Having grown up in “Montréal,” I may be biased, but I really do think there’s something special about this city. I can’t pinpoint it, but I can make note of little things: the way the city comes to life with the warmth of spring and summer (everyone acting like ants swarming out of a crushed anthill), the camaraderie in winter, how green it looks from every lookout point, its size (simultaneously both small and big). But the closure of two spaces that were significant to my process of getting to know “Montréal” beyond the areas I grew up in, as well as an increasing awareness of how I interact with parts of the city I’m less familiar with, prompted me to think about how “Montréal” has and is changing. While cities are dynamic and bound to change, the increasingly rapid speed at which they do so is disrupting
certain communities, and people’s lives. Understanding the history of the areas we inhabit can clue us into their fabric, but it also helps us understand how these areas are currently undergoing drastic change.


Tiohtià:ke, this island, has been populated for thousands of years. For most of that time, it served as a meeting place for the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations, confederacy (which was comprised of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations). This meeting place was at the base of the mountain, most likely where McGill and/or Concordia now stand (on unceded land). The arrival of European settlers disrupted Indigenous ways of life across the continent, and Tiohtià:ke was no exception. After a century of plagues, violence and forced displacement affecting the Haudenosaunee people of Turtle Island, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve “founded” Ville-Marie (today Old Montréal). The late 17th and early 18th centuries in Montréal consisted of settlers trying to survive the harsh winters and attempting to proselytize the Mohawk people. The late 18th century saw French Canadian rebellions against the new English colonial ruler. By the late 19th century, “Montréal” had become British North America’s economic and industrial hub. Of course, dire conditions for the working class accompanied this. Arguably, this period shaped contemporary “Montréal,” with the business elite’s grandiose houses built in Westmount and the Golden Square Mile, and with the working class scattered along the Lachine canal and the Saint Lawrence River, close to the factories at which they worked. Contemporary “Montréal” has been marked by its reputation as “Sin City,” stemming from its proximity to the American border during prohibition, and from its red light district. The city has also been marked by Toronto’s rise as Canada’s economic centre, and by exodus of Anglos and wealth during the 1980 and 1995 referendums. Demographic shifts and new waves of immigration throughout Tiohtià:ke’s history have also shaped it remarkably.


The description on the back of my English 1960s copy of Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute calls St-Henri, where the book is set, a “slum of Montréal.” Historically, St-Henri was known as the French, Irish, and Black working class district. Often, the French and Irish would work in factories along the Lachine canal, while St-Henri and Little Burgundy’s Black residents worked predominantly for the Canadian Pacific railroad. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Saint-Henri’s residents saw much higher rates of poverty than the city’s average.

Today, rue Notre-Dame is lined with hip restaurants and cafés—perfect spots to take your yuppie Tinder date, or to go for a cinq-à-sept with your Ubisoft coworkers. While overall conditions in St Henri have improved drastically from its industrial period, the recent uneven development of the area is striking. While the overpriced restaurants are a clear symptom of gentrification, the root of this problem may be more clearly linked to the rise in condominium developments along the canal in the 1990s. These condo developments “upscaled” dilapidated industrial buildings while the surrounding area suffered from disproportionately high rates of poverty. The traditionally lower-income area would have benefitted from the development of  social housing, rather than luxury housing. Rent continues to go up in St Henri, as its increasingly bougie aesthetic attracts want-to-be yuppies, and as its relatively low rent attracts those who can’t afford to pay the increasing rents in other areas across the city.

In the last few years, there have been a number of anti-gentrification attacks on local businesses. The city has passed a law that prevents new restaurants from opening up within 25 metres of existing restaurants, and Projet Montréal has vowed to increase social housing funding. But the  fundamental concerns of long-time residents still haven’t been met:  affordable housing and sustainable income.

The Plateau

The Plateau began to take its form as “Montréal” expanded outside of the fortified area, where Old Montréal is now. By the early 20th century, the Plateau was a largely working class neighbourhood which became home to various immigrant communities, most notably the Jewish, Greek, and Portuguese communities, with the Italian community settling further north in Little Italy. Toward the end of the 20th century, many of these immigrant communities were relocating: be it towards Hamstead and Cote-St-Luc for the Jewish community, to Laval and St-Leonard for the Italian and Greek communities, or to Toronto for many young members of these communities. Especially around the time of both referendums, the Plateau was littered with “à louer” signs, and the cheap rent attracted many artists from across Canada, making it the home of a thriving art and music scene. This  phenomenon can be linked to the formation and success of certain “Montréal”-based bands whose members came from outside the city, such as Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

In 2005, the Parc-Pins interchange was demolished, making travelling from the McGill Ghetto to the Plateau much easier. Today’s flat interchange is far more aesthetically-pleasing, far more pedestrian-friendly, and far less dangerous than the preceding multi-layered interchange, but the change gave way to an influx of McGill students into the Plateau, raising rent prices.

Although you can still find some inexpensive apartments, the Plateau is no longer seen as a cheap part of town, and many of its long-time residents are seeing their neighbourhood, especially the south-west part of the  Plateau, become a predominantly student area, rather than a diverse residential area.


Parc Ex was, and continues to be, filled with various immigrant communities. In the mid-20th century, as it was developing, its makeup was similar to that of Plateau: Jewish, Italian, and Greek communities took root there, with the Greek community being the most sizeable. As with the Plateau, as those communities became more upwardly mobile, and as the suburbias of “Montréal” developed, they resettled in other parts of town, leaving Parc Ex vacant to new waves of South Asian, Haitian, and Central American

Today, Parc Ex’s cheap rents are attractive to people who don’t want to pay, or who cannot afford, higher rent, but unlike past demographic shifts where gradual influxes coincided with exoduses, a more rapid influx seems to be occurring; Parc Ex is one of the lowest-income postal codes in Canada, and, seeing as 60.5% of its residents are immigrants, it is clear that their economic circumstances are racialized.

Plaza Hutchison, on Hutchison across from the Parc metro, has been bought by BSR Group. The group plans to redevelop the complex to attract “professionals, young families and immigrants to the neighbourhood.” In the process, they ousted grocers and other local businesses with little notice. While Parc Ex’s residents need more low-rent apartments, more apartments for upwardly mobile middle-class people are being built. This kind of development, as well as the new Université de Montréal campus just south of Parc Ex, will inevitably disrupt the neighbourhood and the communities that live in it. The use of the name ‘Mile Ex’ for this area displays the tendency of attempting to ‘rebrand’ a neighbourhood, causing further displacement.


If anything says gentrification, it’s dumb, aggressively hip nicknames, like Ho-Ma. The traditionally working class area surrounding the Olympic Stadium still has one of the highest concentrations of low-income residents, yet it is being taken over by condos, fancy restaurants, and influxes of Francophone students. Between 2014 and 2017, over 800 condos popped up in the area. Hochelaga-Maisonneuve is sometimes talked about as “the next Plateau,” and while the Plateau was gentrified, the process happened more slowly than gentrification is happening in this neighbourhood now.

Like in St-Henri, anti-gentrification activists have taken to vandalizing  storefronts, but, like elsewhere, the direct concerns and needs of  low-income residents aren’t being met.


Individual actions, such as avoiding renting in areas that are undergoing gentrification when possible, not using AirBnb in areas undergoing gentrification, and frequenting mom and pop shops rather than chains or stores targeted at the incoming yuppies, are important steps to take to avoid contributing to gentrification. Being aware of the way one engages with new areas is also important; often, trying to explore new parts of town means consuming—whether it be at a café, restaurant, or bar. Trying to be aware of who the establishment’s target clientele is, and who its main customers are, is important in terms of keeping local establishments  viable. That said, broader social action, such as getting involved with  community organizations such as Centraide or with local Comités de  logement, can directly address the underlying problems. While many argue that gentrification makes neighbourhoods better for residents, it often makes neighbourhoods fit bourgeois notions of “nice” and pushes out original residents. We need diverse neighbourhoods that meet the needs of more vulnerable communities.