Griffintown – From the early nineteenth century until the early 1960’s it was known as Griffintown, a name given to a southwest part of downtown Montreal by Irish immigrants who first populated the area. The area stretches as far north as Notre-Dame street and is roughly bounded on the east by McGill street and on the west by Guy street. It is still referred to as Griffintown today even though it was re-zoned as an industrial area in 1962. Many buildings were torn down at the time to make way for the construction of the Bonaventure Expressway.
It is now undergoing another major transformation. Several huge development projects were announced in 2007 and buildings are going up again – way up. Condominium towers are reaching for the sky and deep pits are being dug on at least 20 other projects throughout the area. It has some urban planners scratching their heads, speculating about how it could and should be done right. In an area so much a part of Montreal’s development and so rich in history, there are those also asking hard questions and fighting to maintain a part of that cultural heritage.
How many people are aware that Griffintown is still home to one of the oldest functioning stables on the island, ‘The Horse Palace’? The stable originally built about 150 years ago is still in use by the caleche drivers of Old Montreal.
Or the name of the popular restaurant ‘Joe Beef’ located in the Griffintown/Little Burgundy area was inspired by one Charles McKiernan, a 19th-century Irish immigrant who earned the epithet through his knack of finding meat and provisions in times of need, hence given the name ‘Joe Beef’? Or that Rosie O’Donnell, when searching for her family roots in an episode of the TV show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, found a connection right here in our own backyard? She discovered her ancestors who immigrated from Ireland, first arrived at Montreal’s Griffintown in the 1850’s, before leaving Canada for New Jersey.
Need I mention the St.Patrick’s Day parade, turning us all into happy little Leprechauns every spring since 1824? On that day there are no cultural divides between us, we all go green sporting ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ on everything from t-shirts to painted faces. Erin Go Bragh!
And for the ghost hunters in you, there is the story of Mary Gallagher, a prostitute who was brutally murdered in 1879 and is rumoured to return every seven years to William Street in search of her head…
The name Griffintown originated from a woman named Mary Griffin – and it came to be through a somewhat shady transaction. The area (under British administration at the time – our conquerors of 1760), then known as Nazareth Fief was leased to Thomas McCord by the nuns of Hotel Dieu. While he was away in Great Britain attending to business, a crooked associate of his sold the land illegally to Mrs. Mary Griffin. About 1804, she submitted a detailed plan to subdivide the region into small lots designed for the anticipated arrival of workers. After a series of lengthy court actions, McCord eventually succeeded in getting the land back, but by that time the deed was done and the name of Griffin had become synonymous with the area.
Irish immigrant labourers began arriving in the early and mid-1800s to escape some of the harshest conditions of poverty and famine. Close to half a million Irish made their way to Canada. In 1823, there were only 100 homes in the area, but three decades later the population of the working-class district stood at 30,000 making it the largest English-speaking minority in Lower Canada in a population overwhelmingly French Canadian.
Many worked on the Lachine Canal, the Victoria Bridge and the Port of Montreal. In fact, modern industry in Canada was born on the Lachine Canal and Griffintown played a large part in that. When Montreal adopted its new coat of arms in 1832, the Irish influence on the city led to a shamrock to be included along with the lily, the rose and the thistle symbolic of the French, English and Scottish communities in the city.
During the early twentieth century, Jewish, Italian, Ukrainian and Francophone communities slowly moved in and the Irish became a minority group by the 1940’s. By 1971, the total population of Griffintown had dwindled to only 810.
Now it looks like the population will swell again. Griffintown is the largest housing development project Montreal has had in a very long while.
In 2007 three massive projects were announced; Real estate company Devimco announced its ‘District Griffin’ plans to develop 12 hectares of the neighbourhood into a modern complex of office towers and residential homes (a multibillion-dollar development project which died after the economic meltdown in 2008), the Quartier Bonaventure project for the redevelopment of the Bonaventure Expressway and a planned 10-hectare real-estate development on federally-owned property. Speculation took off and land prices soared to 16 times their municipal evaluations – yet that could have some very positive economic results for the city.
Some might remember when in 2006, a proposed project to move the Montreal Casino to the Peel Basin, as part of an entertainment complex in partnership with the Cirque du Soleil, caused a controversy because of what the social impact of gambling could bring to an underprivileged district. The project was finally abandoned, but with present plans for the area certain to bring about change in the demographics, I wonder if that was decided too quickly.
Last October, the city presented a 59-point urban plan for the area. It was first praised for its vision of a ‘mixed-use’ neighbourhood. “There would be a mix of industrial, commercial and residential buildings, with room for creative industries that would make it a centre for innovation”, said city councillors. The city also promised to invest $93 million in park spaces and to protect the neighbourhood’s heritage.
“A nice plan that came too late”, said Vision Montreal leader Louise Harel, a critic of the project .
With 8,000+ residences either under construction or authorized to be built, Griffintown will be among the city’s densest neighbourhoods. Skyrocketing land prices means creating parks, playgrounds, daycares or a school has become much more expensive – and there are those worried it will lead to an area “essentially oriented toward residences, with small condominiums mostly designed for professionals without children.”
But would families with children essentially want to move there?
When the spate of construction is completed, they say the lack of vision will lead to a sterile neighbourhood with not a shamrock in sight, the history of our Irish brothers and sisters who played such an important part in what made Montreal, erased – except perhaps for the ghost of Mary Gallagher.
But critics of the project are certainly the most vocal. There are other voices. Montreal has not had a development of this size since Expo in 1967. Investment in that project ballooned to over 400 million dollars, but in the long run the project proved to be of great benefit to Montreal, financially and culturally. Over 1 billion dollars is being invested in Griffintown, an area of town where the population had become almost non-existent. Buildings were empty and falling apart and it became a mix of industries, parking lots and abandoned houses. A true ghost town within a very vibrant city… and it is being reborn. Hallelujah.
Robert Libman, an architect and former borough mayor, stated ‘it can be difficult for the city to react to a sudden boom in the housing market… where the market and the city aren’t in sync. You can’t really blame either.’ He also offered the concept of the city instituting “bonus zoning”, which would allow developers to build an extra storey or two in exchange for offering affordable units or building plazas and public spaces next to their buildings, as was done in New York in the 1960s.
With many families choosing to raise their children in suburban areas and not in the city core, how much of the project should actually be dedicated to being ‘family friendly’? And surely there is a way to develop Griffintown and still give honour to its rich history. The Irish influence will always have its roots there, but it is already woven into the very fabric of Montreal – as are the Jewish, Italian, Ukrainian and Francophone communities.
Perhaps there is another destiny for the area, one embracing the inevitable change that comes with the passage of time and adding a new chapter to its history. A very positive one on all levels. Change is not necessarily a negative thing.