Notre Dame St. in 2015: Vandals are off the mark when they target new businesses, Allison Hanes says. Most of the start-ups in St-Henri have taken over vacant and derelict storefronts. Phil Carpenter / Montreal Gazette files
In the wee hours of Friday, someone set fire to a row of cars on Léa Roback St. in St-Henri.
None of the witnesses woken by the sound of shattering glass or the flickering of flames got a good description of the suspect, who was seen fleeing on foot as the inferno erupted. Police are still investigating, but this act of pyromania fits into a pattern of the guerrilla warfare being waged in St-Henri against gentrification.
In the past few years, several of the hip new eateries, watering holes and boutiques springing up along Notre Dame St. W. and other arteries in the bustling Sud-Ouest borough have been targeted by vandalism.
It started with anti-capitalist graffiti and smashed windows. But increasingly, the presence of the public has not deterred the miscreants. A group stormed a specialty food store and ransacked it, terrorizing a lone clerk. Patrons were in the middle of dinner when glass shards rained down on them at Ludger. A smoke bomb was lobbed inside a juice bar during the grand opening. The owner of a vintage eyewear store was pepper-sprayed.
Anti-capitalist leaflets and claims of responsibility on an anarchist website leave no mystery about the motive: the transformation of the once working class neighbourhood immortalized in Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute into one of Montreal’s trendiest ‘hoods is not welcome.
Cities around the world are grappling with the same difficulties as their economies boom and workers, who would once have flocked to the suburbs, recolonize the urban areas. With the jobs being created either high-skill and high-paying, or low-skill and low-paying, the result is deepening disparities between haves and have-nots, unaffordable housing prices, and the poor being pushed to the margins. Renowned urban studies professor Richard Florida calls this “the new urban crisis.”
A report by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada warns that growing income inequality in this country is heavily concentrated in four major cities, including Montreal.
Yet another new study from the World Resources Institute finds that government policies overemphasizing homeownership exacerbate these tensions by indirectly subsidizing the rich and further penalizing the poor. It suggests policies that promote more rental housing as one possible solution.
But even with its increasing number of million-dollar condos, St-Henri is a long way from San Francisco, where living in the city is out of reach for most of the teachers, civil servants, police officers and others who work there. Montreal still has a balanced real estate market, even though prices are creeping up. It has a greater proportion of rental units than most major cities. And it has the Régie du logement to control rents and protect tenants’ rights. Still, there’s always room for improvement.
However justified concerns about an influx in wealth displacing traditional low-income residents in St-Henri, vandalism is not the answer.
First off, the focus of much of the property destruction is off target. Small business owners are not soulless corporate behemoths; they’re mostly middle-class folks just trying to make a living. Most of them have spent their savings or borrowed heavily to open their doors. Some give back to the community through donations or fundraising. Independent mom and pop shops boost the local economy. They offer jobs that don’t require an advanced degree or specialized skills to apply for. They are part of the solution to poverty, not its cause.
The big complaint of the window-smashers seems to be that many long-time residents can’t afford to buy anything at these new establishments and don’t like the arrival of their monied clientele.
But borough mayor, Benoît Doré, has said the newcomers have not driven long-standing dépanneurs, hot dog joints and pizza parlours under. Most of the start-ups have taken over previously vacant and derelict storefronts. The right mix of small businesses, both those that serve local residents’ needs and ones that attract outsiders, are the mark of a vibrant, urban neighbourhood. Just ask Jane Jacobs.
By setting alight parked cars in the middle of the night — if the latest incident is indeed part of the anti-gentrification continuum — the marauders are taking their fight to residents of St-Henri while they sleep. The potential dangers are unacceptable. Whatever contempt anarchists have for private property, true believers usually stop short of actions that imperil human life.
And once more, the arsonists missed their mark if they were intending to stick it to the elite. While the initial vehicle set alight may have been a “luxury” BMW, flames quickly engulfed a Toyota containing the tools of a construction worker.
Whoever is behind the mayhem (are they even from St-Henri?) is only distracting from legitimate efforts to address social exclusion with their intimidation tactics. There’s some irony in the fact they burned cars on Léa Roback St. Roback was a long-time leftist, unionist and social justice crusader who left her mark in the community. She was also a pacifist.
Perhaps if the assailants familiarized themselves with her legacy, they would have something more constructive to offer the people of St-Henri than broken glass and smouldering vehicles. If they were really concerned about the well-being of their neighbourhood, they would help build a healthy, engaged, socially conscious community.
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