Way back in the spring of 1975, my father kindly drove me and my then-wife to Montreal to help us look for a place to live. I’d been stranded in a small town in southwestern Ohio and the need for change felt like a life-or-death matter. None of us knew Montreal and the Internet hadn’t been invented yet, so we just roamed. When that got old we found a real estate agent who handled rentals. My father wanted me to buy, but my minuscule savings and dubious employability weighed heavily against that option.
The real estate agent must have figured all this out on her own because the first place she took us was Point St. Charles. She drove us to a duplex on Ste-Madeleine where the neighbours sat in lawn chairs drinking beer and staring at the street. Inside, the sink and kitchen cabinets had been pulled from the walls and dumped into the middle of the floor. The walls had been smeared with what looked like shit. Someone had smashed holes in the plaster-and-lath walls. A chandelier hung, tilted, from the high ceiling.
“It’ll take some cleanup,” the agent said. “Sometimes when people get kicked out of a place they take revenge on the landlord before they go. It’s just the bad old Point.” The asking price for the entire duplex was $9000—not much, but still a fortune for me. We left Montreal without finding a place to live.
Thirty-five years later, I live a 5 or 10-minute walk away from the place on Ste-Madeleine, which is now worth, at a guess, $350,000. Some of the unemployed people on my street sit on their steps all day watching the world go by, just as they did in 1975. Other neighbours teach music, sell on Etsy, write for magazines, run university departments, or follow trades and drive Ford F-150s. On our northern border, new condos loom over the Lachine Canal beside other new condos. The evening sky is festooned with construction cranes.
The old Point—or at least part of it—is still here, though. You see it in the telephone pole posters advertising community suppers, literacy training, rent control, and the community clinic.
There’s much to be said for the activist side of The Point, much less to be said for the poverty that drives it. Not long ago, I saw a group of ten-year-old boys playing in the street beneath the window of my second-floor study. One of them wore a Darth Vader mask, was dressed in green Lycra, brandished a plastic sword, and held a black plastic garbage can lid in his left hand. He appeared to be challenging the traffic. Some readers will know that I’ve done a lot of street photography. The scene had Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark written all over it but, what the hell, just because it’s low-hanging fruit doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick it.
I took my camera down to the street and asked the kid if I could photograph him. He was too confused by the request to come up with an answer, but he didn’t have to. Within seconds, we were surrounded by a group of his friends, almost all of whom were pale-skinned and freckled. Oddly, there was no curiosity in their expressions, no sense of turf, danger, or aggression. The exception was a pudgy kid that I couldn’t identify as a boy or a girl. S/he was commanding in manner, pretty, short, soft, had skin the colour of milky tea, and wore a gold earring in the left ear. The kid suddenly yanked his (by then, I could tell) sweatpants part-way down and insisted he wanted “pornos.” He slipped his hand into the front of his pants and stuck two fingers out the fly. He said that his parents were dead. He told me the kinds of pictures he wanted. He asked me if I had a wife he could fuck. There was no stopping him.
Obviously, the situation was in no way cool. As I was extricating myself, a red-haired, obese 15-year-old girl who lives a few doors down rushed up to lecture me about the evils and the illegality of picture-taking. I briefly reassured the kids that I wasn’t going to take pictures, and left, but I could tell it wasn’t over. I stepped inside, kept half an eye on things from my study, and waited. Awhile later, I went back downstairs to see a deserted street and, really, what I had expected. The kids had found a bag of dog shit and splattered it across the front door. It was almost a relief, because I knew that meant they wouldn’t dare return.
The old Point/new Point contest is on display in a mural that’s being painted on the side of a rail bridge a few blocks away. Until this spring, it carried warnings against banks and capitalists, praise for bicyclists, and a charmingly primitive trompe l’oeil painting that made it look as though the bicycle path leading to the bridge continued into a sunny glade rather than into a concrete wall. Every time the painting was tagged, a white-haired man with a backpack filled with paints would appear to repair it. Now, we have a massive stretch of banal righteousness celebrating a variety of human stereotypes from a magically wise old woman to a dancing, black trumpet player.