Soon after we moved to Point St. Charles, divorce proceedings that had been in the works for years came to an end, leaving us in a precarious financial situation. We didn’t know whether to keep the house and renovate it as a single-family dwelling, keep it as a duplex and rent out half, or sell it and get the hell out from under the mortgage. We opted for the possibility that required the most hope—renovate for ourselves and trust that we would eventually make enough money to keep it.
Since then, renovation has been more a way of life than an activity. I can cite some numbers on the demolition side of things that might help clarify that. Twenty-seven months of work has produced 872 bins, barrels, bags, or bundles left out for municipal
pickup and 64 cubic yards carted away in containers. (If all this is hard to picture, imagine lifting the roof off a typical suburban house and filling it to the top of the walls with demolition crap.) And there’s another 18 cubic yards in the back yard waiting to be picked up and carted away now.
For me, there’s pleasure in labour. But while I wasn’t looking, my sense of life outside the plaster mine–as I began to call the chokingly dusty first floor–began to shrivel. There was only labour and, well, more labour. I would occasionally skip out of the tight orbit of reno to photograph a cover for the Montreal Review of Books (http://mtlreviewofbooks.ca/), an activity that gave me a transient impression of being in the world. It wasn’t enough, though. So last summer I began to think about making a photographic portrait of the Point as I had done some years earlier—although in a much less planned fashion—in Springfield, Ohio (http://terencebyrnes.com/).
My first investigations here involved tromping through the fields around the old Canadian National Railway Yards, where, in a complex of enormous buildings, CN Rail used to have what amounted to a repair shop for locomotives.
Patricia and I had discovered the yards the previous fall. They were fenced off, but with wide gaps in the security fence. We walked through weeds and the industrial graveyard they bordered and entered one of the buildings through a broken door. Inside, we found a high, echoing shell lit only by the slanting light of windows thirty feet above us. There was some graffiti, but the overall impression was simply of vast space and disuse. A locomotive-size work area covered in blue poly sheets occupied the centre of one building. Nearby, two large stall-less porcelain urinals stood attached to an iron vent pipe. I wanted badly to photograph the place: it was all geometry, but a geometry that could be re-shaped and coloured by the high windows above us.
It seemed a reasonable thing at the time—getting permission to photograph the remains of this vast industrial cave in Point St. Charles, which, as Wikipedia neutrally observes, was “one of Canada’s first industrial slums” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointe-Saint-Charles). But does that make such places less important in the history of people who lived in or near them? The nearby district of Goose Village, renowned for its poverty and noisome slaughterhouses, had been unceremoniously demolished by the city in 1964 and had left almost no physical or documentary trace of its existence. We found the remnants of tile floors that may have been laid by the Italian-Canadians who lived there. If so, that’s the community’s only memorial.
I suppose Montreal is no worse in its practice of historical cleansing than other cities (think of Halifax and the black neighbourhood called “Africville”— http://www.africville.ca/), but it’s distasteful nonetheless. I got my first view of this practice around 1990, when I discovered a tiny colony of urban vacationers and boaters in Verdun, on the shore of the St. Lawrence, two blocks from Verdun’s main street. After the Second World War, people took respite from the hot “avenues” of Verdun and built tiny, elevated cottages by the river, and behind them, a neat clubhouse with a bar for what
became known as the Verdun Motor Boat Club (VMBC). In addition to the clubhouse, they built a launching dock and bait store. The cottages were Lilliputian but, often, amazingly tricked out and well-kept.
I wrote and photographed a photo essay on the VMBC for the Montreal Gazette. Not long after, the whole micro-village simply disappeared. I biked down and saw the remains of the concrete dock but, as for the rest, nothing. Not a stick. Unfortunately for the VMBC, it faced new high-rise condos on the Nun’s Island. Residents complained that they didn’t like
the look of it. A Verdun City Councillor characterized the VMBC as a “bidonville du tiers monde” (third-world shantytown). And so they simply disappeared it (http://neath.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/trouble-on-verdun-waterfront/).
This was exactly what I didn’t want to see happen to the buildings at the CN Yards. Negotiations were going on for the possible use of Bâtiment Sept (Building 7) for some community purpose, but the past still deserved some degree of homage.
I thought it would help to have a little weight on my side in getting access to the yards, so I met with Tyrone Benskin, the NDP Member of Parliament for Jeanne Le Ber at his Constituency Office, a 10- minute walk away. Tyrone looked at my photographs, asked a few friendly and smart questions, and offered his help. Over a couple of summer months, Mathieu Boisvert, Tyrone’s assistant, made a number of phone calls on my behalf, but drew a blank. Then I found out that the yards were no longer owned by CN, but by an organization called Groupe Petra, which appeared to be renting the property. A call to Groupe Petra produced a recommendation that I contact the man who managed the property, but he ignored many calls from me and from Tyrone Benskin’s office. Finally, I wrote Mike D’Onofrio, Groupe Petra’s Vice President of Operations, and received a prompt and gracious reply. Mr. D’Onofrio said he would speak to the manager who had ignored my calls.
Sometime after that, I found a message from the manager on my machine. He abruptly told me that the old CN Yards were off limits because of unspecified security concerns. There was no way I could even set foot on the property. Yet, when Patricia and I had innocently found our way into the buildings through an open door, it was clear that some of them were at least partially occupied, with people going about their business. The nature of the security concerns was unimaginable, particularly since I made it clear that I would sign a waiver exempting Groupe Petra and their renters from responsibility.
So today, I said to hell with it, they can bust me for trespassing and I’ll pay the fine. I just want to go inside a couple of those old locomotive shops when the sun is coming up and shoot it. But I was too late. New sections of security fences have patched the old entrance points to the property. I may yet try to get in, although I’m wary of announcing my presence by the trail I’ll leave in the metre of snow we’ve got. Also, I’ve started to feel a little foolish about the effort that’s been put into this. Why should a request to spend a couple of hours in a secure, empty building that’s a relic of the life blood of a community involve so damn much grief? Wouldn’t it have been so much easier for all concerned if someone had simply said “Yes”?