À Qui la Pointe? or, The Road to Recovery Belongs to Someone Else

My two best friends during this endless-seeming recovery from surgery have been Patricia and my Kindle. The first has a large supply of optimism and encouragement and the second has reading material. Neither, as turns out, has done much for the state of my physical conditioning. A couple of weeks ago, in gloriously mild autumn weather, I took the 10-minute walk to the IGA feeling endlessly pleased with existence itself. But the walk back was a physically exhausting trial. As a result I set for myself the goal of an hour or so of brisk walking-with-camera every day.

The new regimen quickly improved my stamina. This weekend, in a burst of hubris, I installed sub-floor panels downstairs for about ten hours straight. At the end of the day, I was over-tired and careless and managed to hurt my leg quite badly. It was disgustingly bruised, weeping, and swollen so badly that it reminded me of that famous nineteenth century portrait, “Bellevue Venus,” of a woman with elephantiasis Even the ER doc at the Montreal General was impressed, whistling through his teeth when he saw it. The triage nurse said, “Wow, that’s a good one. How can you walk on that thing?” Patricia said, “Idiot. How can I trust you to work alone if you’re going to be that careless?”

When I turned on the radio this morning, the lead item on the news was a demonstration a few blocks away on de la Congregation. Local residents were blocking a caravan of dump trucks that made the street unlivable with the noise of their engines and the pall of dust they threw into the air. By the time I limped down to de la Congregation  to see for myself, the demo was breaking up. But I did speak with Marie-Josée from Action-Gardien, a representative of a round-table organization of  twenty or so Point St. Charles groups whose interests range from healthy food  to the CN yards.

Marie-Josée and a fellow activist told me that the trucks on de la Congregation were carrying tons of excavated soil from condo construction projects across the canal in Griffintown, and she was concerned about the possibility that their loads might be contaminated, not to mention the dust and the noise.


Just as the Point had become a dumping ground for the poor, for garbage, and for the sometimes-sketchy folks who live in the many nearby flophouses, it has become a repository for just plain dirt.

The in-your-face irony here is that Point St. Charles is seen as both a dépotoir and as an object of desire. The automatic conversion of old houses or empty lots into condos large and small appears to be the default position of city planners and developers while long-time residents of the Point struggle with the pressures of rising rents. To some, the newcomers are an invasive population.

Before I wrecked my leg and had to curtail my walks, I saw the rhetorical question, “Who Does the Point Belong To?” posted on telephone poles, construction hoardings, and abandoned buildings from Boilermakers Park to Maison St-Gabriel.


I’m afraid it’s too late for revolution. Real change has already arrived. The Point prides itself on it very long history as well as its more recent Irish heritage, but the commenter (above) who gives us a quote from the American Declaration of Independence (“Le gouvernement pour le people…”) does so in French with Spanish exclamation marks. It’s already a different place from the one some people are trying to protect.

It should be said that there is  sometimes strange crosstalk in these angry denunciations of gentrification–


–as the fearsome thighs and calves facing those Moroccan gigolos will attest.

Signs of the bricks and mortar changes are as common as resentment of the changes themselves.


And of course there’s the literal bricks and mortar.


And old bricks and mortar about to be replaced by new.


And projects with strange names.


Does anyone remember the popular ’90s computer game “Myst”?


Here’s what a Myst dwelling looked like. Is that what we can expect to see along the canal? But my favourite condo development is still the “Style New Yorkais” penthouse “nests for rare birds,” some of which have been thoughtfully, if rather terrifyingly, illustrated for us.


I’d also like to know where the Point St. Charles Spanish language market is. A sign outside a new condo two steps from this morning’s anti-trucking demonstration at de la Congregation has posted this display of la belle vie in Point St. Charles.


I’d really like to find some of those “Nectarinas muy dulces” advertised for only 99 cents a kilo in the top middle panel. The nectarines I get at the IGA don’t look nearly this good and they’re labelled in French, not Spanish.

The more I recover from this surgery, and the more ground I cover in the Point, the more convinced I am that the community is fighting a rear-guard action. The change has already happened. The question of who the Point belongs to is rhetorical because property always belongs to the people who hold the deed to it. Ideally, I’d like to see the city do some serious experimentation with the sorts of housing new Norwegian development uses, with middle class units mixed indistinguishably with subsidized “social housing.” I’d also like to see evidence of the development of commercial infrastructure (a fruit and vegetables store with signs in any language would be nice) to help support these thousands of new residents. And if they all have cars and drive to the suburbs to shop, where will they park when they’re home?


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What I’ve missed! Celebrating the success of BoomJ’s Cuisine, the new Jamaican carryout around the corner. Worrying about the Café Wellington, which has had Kraft paper covering its windows for the last 6 weeks. Kvetching about the lurid, artificially joyous mural that’s colonized the wall of the railway overpass along rue Knox. All this, and missing the anniversary of the purchase of our house and of our servitude to the idea and the fact of home renovation.

I promise to catch up on those things. For the moment, though, I’m recovering from major surgery and sequestered under Patricia’s unforgiving scrutiny. The handy little post-op booklet given to me at the dour old Montreal General Hospital says that I may lift as


much as 20 pounds. And all at once! With strength like that, I’ll just rip through the rest of this fall’s work on the ground floor.

Before this medical inconvenience came along, I had finished sistering all the joists on the ground floor and laying an OSB subfloor over them. I met a smart, personable carpenter and contractor, Jonathan Giacomelli, who gave me some great practical advice about framing, and convinced us to keep the well-built old stairs.

I was also looking forward to lunching with Dr. Steven High, a historian and Canada Research Chair from Concordia University, who is working on a project about the Point called “From Balconville to Condoville?” And I was beginning to grapple with the political goals and ideas behind the Parti Québécois’s Chartes des valeurs québécoises, or Charter of Québec Values, which, on the surface, promotes “religious neutrality of the state” and “male-female equality.”

Laudable goals, no? And how does the Charter propose achieving them? By scrupulous prohibition of the display of obvious religious symbols worn by those who work, directly or indirectly, for the province. This prohibition would extend to a university professor with a turban, a mayor with a kippah, an elementary school teacher with a cross on a necklace and, most of all, to any woman—nurse, city engineer, daycare worker, municipal secretary—wearing a hijab.

OK, you might say, Québec has a history of having been an ultramontane, “priest-ridden” society. It’s natural, therefore, to wish to continue this move toward the secular, isn’t it?

There’s a hitch, though. Or a couple of hitches. The first is that the Quiet Revolution of the 60s and 70s saw the church withdraw (or driven) from the political life of the province as the people of Québec surged into the secular, modern world. The second is that the Charter of Québec Values’ unyielding secularism does not include the removal of the cross dominating Mount Royal, nor the countless crucifixes in municipal council chambers across the province. Why? Well, that’s not religion, that’s history, the government assures us.

In the meantime, news of the horrors wrought by public displays of difference was widely circulated. Pauline Marois, the Premiere, declared that children in a daycare who saw a teacher in a headscarf might be drawn to religion.

hijabMoreover, she insisted, Britain’s accommodations of cultural difference had resulted in the London bombings and other displays of violence. Bernard Drainville, Marois’s personable and articulate Minister responsible for “Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship” confidently assured us that the elimination of pernicious signs of difference would make society, well . . . just plain copacetic.

A monkey could have predicted much of the immediate fallout from the government’s announcement of its goals. A few synagogues were given an unsolicited gift of spray paint. French speaking Muslim women born in Québec were publicly called out on buses and shopping malls. And, perhaps worse, the idea of instituting charters of provincial values began to spread to other provinces. A Muslim Senator from British Columbia, Mobina Jaffer, reported that, in her 40 years in Canada, she had never had a problem based on race or religion, but was now receiving e-mails demanding that she “go home.” Suddenly, the racists felt they had government—at least one—on their side.

I was in the hospital when some of this was raging. There, I was professionally tended by caring nurses and doctors. The pretty Muslim nurse wearing a hijab who wheeled me into surgery joked, “Don’t be afraid of a woman driver!” A crucifix swung from the neck of the ER doc who leaned over me investigating the possibility of a thrombosis. The resident wearing a kippah reassured me about the alarming edema that made my ankles look encased in thick socks of flesh. I heard these nurses and residents speaking—in addition to French and English—Spanish, Créole, Arabic, and, if I’m correct, Tagalog. The student nurse dogging my steps was a Jew from Uzbekistan. As far as I could tell, this extremely varied group of people—what my grandmother would have called “a real U.N.”—worked together in a thoroughly collegial and professional manner despite looking and sounding quite unlike each other, and occasionally sporting symbols of that difference.

One of my favourite nurses told me, “If they say I can’t wear my grandmother’s cross, I’m outta here. Ontario is already advertising that they don’t care what you’ve got on your head or around your neck.” The young woman behind a curtain across the room—born in Québec and speaking perfect French, Hindi, Punjabi, and English—worried when she would be singled out. There’s no question that non-Christians and even some Christians are being made to feel unwelcome or even threatened.

The Parti Québecois is playing a dangerous and reprehensible game, but many people seem not to notice how risible, how contemptible, their arguments are. They are sowing seeds that invite a new grand noirceur, one rooted not in the self-righteousness of religion but in a petty, fearful, retrograde nativism. Yesterday, thousands of people including intellectuals, artists, and feminists marched in downtown Montreal in support of the Charter. They call themselves “Les Janettes” after the radio personality, Janette Bertrand, who came out in favour of the Charter, after declaring that she didn’t want to see the return of the religious domination that one characterized Québec society. One marcher declared her participation as being in sympathy with the Saudi women who have just demonstrated for the right to drive cars.

Wait. Can someone tell me how that works? Marching for the driving rights of Saudi women in hijabs amounts to exactly what in Québec?

Yesterday, I was on the street, too. Not to demonstrate, but to tour the neighbourhood, get some exercise, and build up my strength. Interesting cooking odours escaped the closed door of the Café Wellington, suggesting that Bob might be opening up again soon.  Jermaine of BoomJ’s nodded hello when I passed. And then I stumbled across support from an unexpected quarter. The anarchists around the corner at La Belle Epoque had a new poster up: “Together Against the Xenophobic Charter.” An unlikely bedfellow for me, but I will share the blanket.


And a few blocks away, this ad for a workshop extolling the virtues of goat cheese (“Come learn the art of making fresh goat cheese and discover a slice of history and of cheese science…Bilingual instruction…Pay what you can…No one refused for lack of funds”).

P1010041Mme. Marois, this is the way society works best: common goals, generosity, and largeness of spirit. If you can even conceive of those ideas, give them a try.

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Packing Heat

This August, The New Yorker published a cartoon of “Canadian Lemmings” gathered at the edge of a cliff, each politely deferring to the others with “After you.”Lemmings I suppose there are two possible readings. One is that the politeness is a mask; the politest and most deferential Canadian lemming survives because it has invited everyone else to jump first. I don’t think that’s what was intended, though. Canadians, for some reason that entirely escapes me, are seen as more than ordinarily polite.

A week after I saw the cartoon, we drove to Buffalo, New York, for a family visit. The lemmings came to mind every time we encountered American manners, which are so good as to be almost insistent. The salesperson in Home Depot greets customers with a response-demanding “How are you this morning?” The car waiting to pull into traffic backs out of your way when you cross its path on the sidewalk. The stranger you accidentally make eye contact with wishes you a good day and moves over so you’ll have lots of room to pass.

None of that is particularly Canadian. We’re more likely to avoid eye contact, to be suspicious of a greeting from a stranger, to pay little heed to fair division of sidewalk space, and to let you open your own doors. I knew an American girl who moved to Toronto in the 60s but moved back to southern Ohio as soon as she could. “They’re so cold,” she said of Torontonians. “They look right through you.”

So where did the polite Canadian idea come from?

Ages ago, I read an article about Louis L’Amour, the American novelist of the Wild West and cowboy culture. However wild it might have been, the west was apparently a polite place, with hats tipped to women and apologies extended whenever and wherever necessary. I heard a similar report from a journalist doing research in biker bars. His observation was a simple one. If you don’t apologize when you bump someone’s table, it’s understood that you intended to bump it. In which case there will be consequences. In a society with a rigid social order and handguns, politeness helps maintain that order and it keeps you safe.


Safety, of course, is a curious thing in an armed society. Ask Treyvon Martin. Or ask the middle class young men I met in Buffalo who wore concealed side arms while visiting their grandmother(!) and showed me their permits to carry concealed weapons. They explained packing heat as an unexceptional part of everyday life.

I’m tempted to link American social order to the lawns I saw. My, God, they were perfect.


It’s remarkable that the residents of an entire large suburb in a Rust Belt city have the time, desire, and equipment to make sure that not a single blade of grass transgresses on a square millimeter of sidewalk.

“Transgression” might, in fact, be the right word. The mile-long, sign-carrying train of kneeling folks on Niagara Falls Boulevard respectfully informed drivers in both directions that abortion for any purpose is a transgression. And this cheerily decorated and well-kept home on a street where my Canadian-transplant parents used to live has a message that covers most transgressions.


Perhaps it covers the murder of my mother’s pro-abortion doctor, Bartnett Slepian, by an anti-abortionist with a hunting rifle, as well.

Back to the point, I don’t know how politeness came to be part of the Canadian brand. After all, up here, encased in our mukluks, parkas, and tuques, eyes blinded by the snow, unarmed and defenceless against attack, we rarely dare to even look at each other.

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The Old Point

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.

ClassWar A flurry of signs that appeared this winter promised a class war on March 15. I went out to look for it, but the class warriors must have found a better gig.

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.

NewMural I liked that old wall. I think they should take their hollowly uplifting painting a few blocks north and offer it to the condos, instead.

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Levelling the Floor: Part I

Drop a marble to the floor of an old house and it’ll probably roll a bit until it gets stuck in a cupped floorboard or a valley where a whole section of floor has sunk. The reasons for this are legion. The joists that the floor and subfloor rest on can twist, bow, and shrink. The beams supporting the joists, the posts under the beams, and the foundations anchoring the posts can settle. What’s even worse is that electricians and plumbers, amateur and pro, seem to have little compunction about chopping away at beams and joists, notching them at the edges, and drilling

Holeslarge holes to accommodate the passage of small wires. Then there’s water, probably the most destructive substance a house ordinarily encounters. Leaking radiators and loose toilet gaskets (a $7 ring of wax that can produce tens of thousands of dollars in damage if it’s not kept in good shape) keep subfloors and joists wet, introducing rot and, sometimes, the insects that rotten wood beckons to.

Our old house suffers from all these things except insects. Its original finish floor (birch or maple planks painted red) was a rolling field of little hills and valleys, high near the front of the house and 2 ½” lower in the centre (near the leaky bathroom toilet, of course). We want, eventually, to install solid or engineered wood flooring but, as with all renovation, “want” is preceded by “must.”

The must in this case is making the floor flat so the new flooring won’t look wavy, particularly considering that we’re changing the floor plan to produce longer sight lines and a feeling of openness. A distinction has to be made between level and flat, though. The flooring material you put down doesn’t give a damn about level. You can put a perfect floor on a surface that slopes 15 degrees; what matters is that it’s flat. Lay a long straightedge on it, peer under the straightedge, and see no light. That’s flat. Put a level on it and watch the bubble settle in the middle. That’s level.

Since we had to tear up the floor and subfloor, (the progress of that “peeling” shown below) we thought we might as well go for broke and make the whole thing flat and level. But how to do that, considering the joists, beams, and all the rest were anything but flat and level?





We consulted our great structural engineer, Jimmy Vathis, about the floor and he hemmed and hawed for a minute because he wanted to save us money and grief. At which point, Patricia asked him, flat out, “What would you do if it were your house?”

“Sister the joists,” he said, without hesitation.

Sisterhood, in this case, really is powerful. Sistering usually involves taking a new piece of lumber the same size as the original joist and gluing and screwing the old and new together. The new, sistered joist may also be levelled and placed in careful relation to the other sisters so their tops form a plane that’s both level and flat, a democratic sorority of infrastructure for a new floor.

What about floor levelling compound? No. It’s very heavy, the subfloor in many old houses is in bad shape with large gaps between boards, and you can’t drive nails into levelling compound when you install the finish floor. Shimming? Well, I suppose, but the thought of cutting dozens of 16-foot wood strips to bring each joist up to the proper height at the proper angle is a recipe for madness.

Sistering the joists was the answer I was sure we’d hear from Jimmy, and the one I most dreaded hearing. It meant that, working alone, I would have to glue and screw 16-foot 2”x 8”s to the old joists while making sure they were level and all positioned at exactly the same height to produce a flat plane. There was a modest saving grace, though. Since the original joists were all strong and in good condition, the new, sistered joists only had to contact them for 4 inches. That meant I could do the sistering with smaller, and less expensive, dimensional lumber.


The first one took me four hours to put in. But before we got to the point of gluin’ it up, I had to do some careful measuring. I bought a DeWalt laser level and set it up in the middle of the floor, attached to a post. It projected a red line around the walls about two feet above the joists. Then I taped an ordinary bubble level to a yardstick so I could hold the yardstick perfectly plumb as it sat on a joist and measure its height. From there, it was a matter of hopping from joist to joist and finding the highest spot in the entire floor. Why? So the new, sistered joists could be set to exactly the same height. Flat and level? Easy.


Not. It’s still a 120-year-old house, and those joists are twisted and tilted, when means that attaching new 2”x8”s and expecting them to sit square to the face of the old joists is just not going to happen. I did the best I could, using lots of nails, lots of screws, and sometimes filling gaps with shims. I also discovered that the space between joists is anything but the modern standard of 16”. The spacing varies from 21” to 26”. That’s important because the OSB subfloor I’m putting down over them is rated 24” OC. Which is to say that it’s only acceptable to my engineer and to building codes if the maximum space from the centre of one joist to the next is no more than 24”. So, I sometimes had to sister on both sides of the original joist to decrease the distant between them. And before I’m done, I’ll have to hang some entirely new joists using steel joist hangers that can be nailed into the beams that cross the joists at right angles every 12 to 16 feet.


One of the worst problems of working alone in this situation is just that, working alone. I made a jig to hold the new joist in place (from under the floor) while I ran upstairs to make small adjustments in the height and slope of the joist. It was inefficient, tiring, time consuming, and generally crazy-making. Finally, I decided to rip a flat edge, using a Makita track saw and guide (though the factory edge of a 4 foot or longer panel and a regular circular saw would also do a good job) on a 12-foot 2”x 8” and use that as a guide.

Here are the first steps to achieving flat and level:

• Once the high point of the floor is determined, attach sisters at the proper height to joists separated by a distance equal to the length of the straightedge

• Clamp the straight edge across the ends of the newly sistered joists


• Install new sisters between them by pushing the new lumber firmly to the bottom of the straight edge. That way, you don’t have to measure (thereby introducing errors) to have the sisters all at the same height

• Move straight edges once new sisters are glued and screwed, and repeat.

This method has saved me a bunch of time and hassle. Carpenters avoid measuring when they can because it takes time and introduces error.

After doing that for a bunch of joists and laying down a couple of OSB 4 x 8s, I was worried about how wavy (not flat) the floor would be. It’s not dead flat, but the greatest error I could find was about 0.075” of light shining underneath my long straight edge. Good enough.

By the way, this long-delayed blog is flying under a WordPress search category I’m using for the first time: Construction. Long time comin’.

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Rail Yard Runaround

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

Binspickup 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 CNGatethey 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

VMBCInteriorbecame 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

VMBCNunsLsland 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”?

Posted in Demolition, Life Otherwise, Renovation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

How to Demolish a Staircase without Dying

When we first looked at this house two years ago, Patricia immediately saw how much floor area was devoted to a tight little staircase that twisted its way from the second floor down to a postage-stamp size landing and porch on the ground floor and to the moldy basement where the washer and dryer lived. “That’s too bad about the lost space,” she observed to Peggy, the real estate agent.

“People take that space back,” Peggy said. “It’s not hard.”

The house inspector later agreed with Peggy. So did the structural engineer, Jimmy Vathis, an inexhaustible mine of information about building codes, techniques, and common sense.

“You can do that,” Jimmy said. “Just remember that when you take it down you reverse the process of putting it up.”

That has proved to be the best demolition advice I’ve been given. When you look at a structure that seems imposingly monolithic, Jimmy’s dictum gives you an indispensably useful way to think about it. If it’s got a roof, for instance, the roof goes first. Then the roof structure, the ceiling, the studs, and so on, until that imposing structure is a pile of rubble in your back yard or bin.

With the staircase, I started at the top and worked my way down. The reciprocating saw vibrated the staircase unnervingly, but there was no danger. The only real threat came from the ancient pre-knob and tube wiring I uncovered. It was hot and bare and tucked into the wall by the people who installed a dropped ceiling decades ago.

I should say that fatigue can be a danger, too. I’ve done a couple of stupid things that could have resulted in broken ribs after 10-hour days of labouring. Now, although I don’t like to stop working I know that it’s idiotic to push it.

The next step to recovering the stairwell space isn’t shown here because I didn’t do it. I asked Jean-Noel Dubois, our great resource for structural work, to send a crew over to hang joists in the stairwell shaft so I could cover it with a floor. Jean-Noel sent his number one guy, Junior, and it was done in a day or so. Sometimes you have to recognize that spending money and turning it over to a pro makes the most sense.

The pile of demo stuff that you see at the end of this film is only the staircase. The sheer volume of material that goes into building a house is astonishing. I’m learning this another way now because the space that used to be stairwell on the ground floor is now covered with stacks of 4” x 8” OSB and 2” x 8” x 12’ spruce lumber. I’m tearing up the floor and subfloor on the first floor, sistering the joists to make them level, and putting in a new floor. The new walls are framed on top of that. Then the electricity, plumbing and insulation go in.

We’re just now on the edge of reversing the order of Jimmy Vathis’s demolition advice. The process of putting it up, we’re discovering, is more complicated than the process of taking it down.

Posted in Demolition, Renovation, Trades and Tradesmen | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Summer Salad

A while back, I heard an angry mother on a radio phone-in show declare that there was no way she would allow her kids to be transferred from a defunct English school in a nearby district to one in the Point because “there’s open warfare down there.”

Now that school has started, I’d like to reassure the concerned parents of neighbouring districts that we’ve learned to handle the warfare because it rarely involves civilians. The real problem is something quite different.  As we know, much of the Point is built on a landfill of garbage and debris that grew like a tumour on the original St. Lawrence shoreline. And where you have garbage, what else have you got? Right. Bears.

I took this video a few weeks ago. Even the militias (as they like to call themselves) will stand together for a few minutes to gawk at the bears before returning to their noisy arguments with Soviet-era weapons.

When these 400-kilogram brutes (the bears, not the gunmen–most of whom look like they really could use a square meal and a clean pair of sweat pants) turn up on your doorstep as you’re dragging out the bags on garbage day it just scares the living bejesus out of you. Monday night, a lively old lady who gets around with a walker had a garbage bag torn out of her hands when a bear smelled the remains of a salmon dinner inside it. Fixing this problem is where the Point St. Charles warriors should be using their energy instead of taking pot shots at each other in the old CN Yards.

Think of old ladies. Think of the school children. Shoot the bears. The meat can be distributed to the poor, the tanning and dying of hides can provide the raw material for rugs, coats, and hats for the carriage trade, and the increased tax revenue can be earmarked for civic improvement.

What’s not to like about that?


The Wellington Café has re-opened with a new owner, Bob Hliaras, and a deli menu starring, in particular, Bob’s hand-sliced, lean smoked meat. The sidewalk tables, flower boxes, music, and imported beer are a welcome display of economic and social life. Maria Stergiou, herself a recent immigrant to the Point (“I came here to find peace of mind”) looks after the tables and argues vociferously with Bob in Greek.

Patricia and I just finished one of Bob’s smoked meat sandwiches. The nachos and tzatziki included with the smoked meat platter are a little peculiar in combination but, no matter, it was all good. Bob’s a good guy. His place deserves a visit.

As long as I’m reporting from the street, I have to note that the Wellington Café’s next-door neighbour is an anarchist organization that meets every Thursday from 5 to 9 pm. Their street address—swear to God—is 1984.


We continue, of course, to work on the house. In particular, the last annoying bits of demo on the ground floor, in the old stairwell at the back of the house, and in the stairwell entrance at the front. The temperature, with Humidex kicked in, was parked at around 41 degrees C. The dubious pleasures of demo have been amplified by the useless old blown-in cellulose insulation that cascades from the ceiling every time I remove a new strip of lath. That, and the ancient dust beneath it, stick to my sweaty body and shirt like fur.

For some reason, I didn’t previously write about the one-man removal of the two old water heaters in the basement. They had been emptied, of course, but getting them up the stairs and around the corner at the top of the stairs was a trial.

I used a $20 block and tackle I picked up at Canadian Tire, anchored it to studs and joists and hauled away.

Disentangling all those ropes from the intricate system of pulleys has given me a new and profound respect for the engineers who designed the system a couple of thousand years ago.

Posted in Demolition, Life Otherwise, Point People | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

People Like Us

Kathy Dobson, the author of With a Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood warned me. Sort of. She circumspectly asked how Point St. Charles residents were reacting to me, what with me being a newcomer and all. “Warmly,” I said. “Well…” she said, letting the rest of the sentence float portentously away. So it came as no real surprise that these comments (reproduced as received from “None of your business”) turned up on the blog.

First: “It’s people like you that ruined and are continuing to ruin the Point. You come here with your money and desire to make things better but all you do is ruin for those who have no money. Your renovations increasse the real estate value while you live your fantasies out of neighborhood. It is not your area nor your neighborhood, and you should just leave. You are all a bunch of heartless robbers of the poor, of the working class, and of those who belong here. The place is better left alone and left poor rather than being converted to the nice ideals of your middle class fantasies. Get out, go away. Leave the Pointe along, Leave Burgundy alone. Go fight honest battles to make life better for people who belong here.”

Then: “Ps. Just saw that you ‘moderate’ comments. Well, Ill be damned! that means you get to knock if off so others cant read my badly written comment and see how disagreeable it is. But you have seen it and that is what counts. That you, and those like you, are dishonest and do not belong here. In the south-west.”

The thing that chilled my blood just a little was “people like you.” Wow. Too many categories there to count and each one is a great excuse for lighting faggots, collecting a hooting mob, and driving someone out of town.

One of the notable flaws of my personality is defensiveness. I wanted to explain, perhaps even to apologize. I granted some of the nameless writer’s points. For instance, in some parts of Montreal, like the Plateau (and probably the Point, as well), landlords are driving out and buying out tenants in affordable rental housing so they can do condo conversions. That will destroy the character of a neighbourhood. And where will people go? Also, here in the Point, I do run into new residents who are snobbish, self-important jerks. They dress more expensively than most people, talk loudly on their cells in grocery store lineups, and threaten me with their black SUVs at intersections.

Then the “people like you” business started to rankle. I’m very polite in the grocery store, speak softly, and can’t afford an SUV. So just what is included in the “like you” category? I imagined myself telling Mr. or Ms. None of your business that, like many in the Point, I’m primarily of French and Irish stock and that my father’s family was so poor that they gave him up to the care of an orphanage. That he once told me that he joined the army under age because he didn’t have a pair of pants to wear to high school. That the house I bought here would have been declared uninhabitable and was, in fact, uninhabited. That I’ve lived “in the south-west” for 37 years.

But then…enough, already. Was I trying to say that my poor was every bit as good as the writer’s poor? My father left the tribe of the impoverished and, for the most part, led a middle-class life. Excommunication from the Church of Poverty followed shortly thereafter. Cast out from the Garden of Want and Hunger. What a pity.

The defensiveness I mentioned can sometimes make me a little pathetic, but it also masks—even from me—a slow burn. The self-righteousness and cowardly anonymity of the comment and its postscript slowly got under my skin. The out-and-out prejudice began to feel inexcusable. The general stupidity of the message had me shuttling between anger and pity.

So, Mr. or Ms. None of your business, should you have the courage to face me, please recognize that I will be contending with the impulse to explain myself and make peace, and the impulse to punch you in the face.

Posted in Blogging, Point People, Renovation | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Sex, Shelter, Art, Intoxication, and Death

It’s hard to imagine a 120-year-old house that isn’t hoarding a few secrets and surprises behind its walls, under its floors, and above its ceilings. Secretiveness and guilt make people hide things but there’s also the simple fact of loss. A ring slips into a gap behind kick moulding, a coin rolls between shrunken floorboards.

When we bought an old fixer upper in Point St. Charles, I was hoping to encounter a few surprises as I stripped it to its bones. The first one came easy. In a downstairs bedroom, someone had panelled a wall with cheap woodgrain stuff that bulged suspiciously near the floor. A few tugs at the edges of the panelling revealed an iron and tile fireplace insert that looked as though it had just come from the shop–circa 1890.

I expected to find more coins than I did but the house was stingy in that respect. Patricia’s microscopic examination of this nearly-effaced male monarch places that coin in the 1880s. The rest might have come from your pocket (If you’re in the habit of carrying Canadian coins in your pocket, that is).

One of the most fragile treasures the house had to offer was a ragged patch of its earliest wallpaper. Most of the wallpaper we found was in the later Victorian style–a darkish burgundy on tough cloth backing. This one is more delicate and subtly coloured, albeit kind of pencilled up.

A small, sad discovery lurked under three layers of old carpet and some quarter-round that had lifted from the floor. Patricia identifies it as a baby’s gold bracelet with the initials “FB.” I don’t imagine Point St. Charles has seen much gold pass through it, and this little bit has re-surfaced, in all likelihood, after its owner’s death.

 The carpenters who built the house left a legacy of their own in the ceiling between the first and second floor. This empty bottle of John de Kuyper “Geneva” gin used to be known in French Canada as “le gros gin.” I have relatives who were far too devoted to it. The carpenters may have been indulging in this stuff on the job but it appears not to have compromised their ability to put up a strong, tight-fitting structure.

If the subject of mortality seems unavoidable in discussion of an old house, should sex be far behind? One day, I was blindly pulling some wiring from above the grimy ceiling in the basement and my hand brushed against a piece of paper. It was an embrittled envelope that, when pulled out, disintegrated from the light pressure of my touch. Inside it were two packages of Cleo-Tex condoms, one of which was still in its original cellophane wrapping. The image on the front is of a young woman in a late teens or ’20s style silky dress that shows off her notably firm derriere while she glances over her shoulder with a slightly disengaged come-hither look. The back of the package attests proudly to Canadian manufacture of liquid latex products and promises a guarantee of “POSITIVE PROTECTION” for five years. Hmm. That would have taken us, according to Patricia’s researches, to about 1928.

At the time, I thought the condoms must have been hidden by a discreet father or a hopeful son. Then other packages turned up in even more inaccessible parts of the house, but these were dried and worm-eaten. The sparkling promise of sex now had only the feeling of the grave.

Youth was also in evidence, though. Home-made doll clothing kept on turning up in unexpected corners. The design of the dress suggests that the house once held a family from eastern Europe.

When we first moved in, we found a trail of mouse turds so thick it looked like a tiny gravel road running along every baseboard on the first floor, but we were relieved to find no mice. Until the day when I was cutting out some old water pipes and saw the fluffy remnants of a nest. It made perfect sense from a mouse’s point of view. They were hidden between floors, enjoyed the warmth from the pipes, and had a metal highway that allowed them to travel all through the house and emerge wherever the pipes supplied hot water to radiators.

When I dislodged the nest, a couple of mummified rodents fell on my head. Patricia is grossed out by the fact that I kept them and disturbed by my painfully unfunny joke of referring to them as “Mickey” and “Minnie.” Will Disney Corp’s lawyers write?

By the way, doesn’t this look like an art photograph, with its suggestion of bodies preserved in a block of glass?

The people who lived here seem to have coped with the facts of sex and mortality in the usual human way by attempting to tame them with art. Two oil paintings surfaced. The first, with its thick impasto, saw the palette knife more than the brush. Trees bend over a lane leading to a house. What awaits? Death? Sex?

At the end of the lane a young woman with closed eyes and monstrous calves waits outside a house, holding a basket of grapes. Sex, I would say. is unlikely.

Death, then? Nah. Too bland for that. I guess we’ll just have to finish this place before we find out.

Posted in Demolition, Design, Discovery, Renovation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments