The rich history of an emblematic neighbourhood
by Sergio Martinez
The Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History has opened an exhibition featuring the evolution of one of the most representative of Montreal’s neighbourhoods: the Plateau Mont-Royal. From the time when it was a place dotted with farms, to the moment in which it got its own railway station to supply the numerous industries established in the area, to the arrival of the main waves of immigration that contributed to shape its peculiar urban landscape, the exhibition “Lives and Times of the Plateau” covers all of that using a combination of media: photos from a bygone era, political pamphlets, commercial advertising, and a variety of objects and artifacts.
The exhibit takes us to the beginning of the area in the 19th century, which before being annexed by the City of Montreal was mostly farmland with four distinct villages, Côte Saint-Louis, Saint Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Louis du Mile End, and De Lormier. The boundaries of the Plateau are to the north and northeast of the CP rail line, Park Avenue on the west, and Pine Ave., St. Urbain and Sherbrooke on the south. While upper-middle-class French-Canadian families moved into homes around St. Louis Square, toward the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, the Plateau became an industrial hub with many factories that employed hundreds of workers, many of them new immigrants, who also lived in the area.
As a piece of trivia it is important to point out that the name “Plateau” was first used in print in a local weekly called “Guide Mont-Royal” in 1938, although others claim that it started with a school and a bus driver around that same time: the bus had a stop at Lafontaine Park opposite a school named Le Plateau, then the driver started to announce the stop by calling out “Le Plateau!” Whatever the real or gin of the name, the truth is that today it is amply used and it was officially recognized by the City of Montreal in 1971. Presently it designates the city borough covering the area.
One of the characteristics the Plateau has managed to keep over the years is its appeal to a mix of people, including some few upper-middle-class people in some areas that have become fashionable, but especially a place where a large segment of Montreal’s working class settled and also a place for immigrants of which the exhibit mentions mainly three groups that have left their mark in the area: the Jews, the Greeks, and the Portuguese. Another interesting element of the area has been the presence of artists of different disciplines, including Yiddish poet Jacob Segal, folk music expert Samuel Gesser, poet Emile Nelligan, poet and singer Leonard Cohen, painter Paul-Emile Borduas, writer Mordecai Richler and many others.
The Plateau as a working class and immigrant area was also a centre for political activism: it was here that the populist Mayor Camillien Houde had his main support base. The area was also the only one in Canada that elected twice a Communist MP, Fred Rose in the 1940s (his career came to an end at the beginning of the Cold War when he was accused of espionage); and in the 1970s it saw the rise to prominence of Gerald Godin, a poet and a PQ MNA. However, the Plateau has not only been a place of artists and politicians, it is also the area where the famous triplex, a type of working class housing was born.
“Lives and Times of the Plateau” at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum will be open until September 1, 2014. The Museum is located at 350, Place Royale, Old Montreal.