For many McGill students, a walk through the Milton-Parc area is part of the daily commute to class, so ingrained in their routine that they no longer notice its grey-stone facades, charming staircases, and painted wooden details. What most students don’t know is that this beloved neighbourhood and architectural heritage site was nearly demolished in the 1960s. It stands today thanks to the tireless efforts of a passionate group of community activists.
The Milton-Parc district was constructed in the 1860s with the opening of the Hotel-Dieu hospital, and was originally based around Sainte-Famille Street. Over the next 30 years, British merchants and Anglophones settled in the neighbourhood, building ornate two- and three-storey grey-stone houses that demonstrated the area’s character as an upper-middle-class neighbourhood.
Following the Second World War, its wealthier residents migrated to Westmount, Outremont, and other Montreal suburbs. Rising real estate prices led landlords to subdivide dwellings into smaller rent units, attracting low-income families, elders, immigrants, and McGill’s growing student population.
Despite the deterioration of the neighbourhood, as Claire Helman writes in her book, The Milton-Park Affair, the area retained a particular charm, and many of its residents “liked the old, somewhat run-down neighbourhood for its surprising sense of community … and urban village atmosphere.”
The origins of the Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee
The coexistence of these very different groups was threatened in the mid-1960s, when four companies began to buy the buildings in the six-block area of Hutchison, Pins, Sainte-Famille, and Milton. These purchases were part of a ‘re-development’ movement in North America in the ’60s that promoted the construction of high-rises to stimulate urban development.
In 1968, members of the University Settlement—an organization that provided services to lower-income residents—discovered that the four companies in fact belonged to a single, major real estate company: Concordia Estates Ltd. Between 1958 and 1968, this company had purchased 96 per cent of the residences in the six-block area.
At this time, it came to the residents’ attention that Concordia Estates Ltd. intended to demolish the houses in the area, recalls Lucia Kowaluk, current president of the Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee, and one of the residents who played a primary role in saving the neigbourhood.
“Florence Bailin, [one of the members of the University Settlement] said, ‘you know, there’s a company buying up all of this property and they’re going to tear it down—they’re going to throw people out,”’ Kowaluk says. “She convinced the staff and other people that the University Settlement had to do something about it. And they did. We formed the Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee.”
Thus began the Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee (MPCC), a grassroots response to the news that the area was going to be demolished and replaced with high-rises that would drastically change the urban environment and the demographic composition of the area. Residents were additionally concerned that lower-income families would be pushed off the area.
In the following four years, members from the Citizens’ Committee and the University Settlement worked in a movement that aimed to protect the neighbourhood they called home.
“Those were four years of a tremendous amount of work,” said Kowaluk. “There were demonstrations, and many people came … Older people, who had never in their lives gone on a demonstration, marched with us to City Hall. That really big one was a few thousand people.”
The residents organized petitions, knocked on doors to raise awareness, demonstrated in the streets, and held festivals and events to rally the community to protect the architectural value of the neighbourhood. Community members began discussing, for the first time, the possibility of forming housing co-operatives in the area, but the project was not feasible at the time.
During this period, Concordia Estates Ltd. began the first phase of their project. Tenants in designated blocks were forced to move out, and their houses were demolished to make room for the construction of the La Cité complex and underground mall, as well as an office building and the hotel that is now McGill’s New Residence Hall.
In May 1972, a dozen citizens organized a sit-in and occupied the offices of Concordia Estates Ltd. on Parc Avenue in protest. A total of 56 people, including community members standing outside of the office in support of the occupation, were arrested by the police and charged with public mischief. Kowaluk herself was not arrested, but her partner and many of her friends were. In February 1973, a jury trial acquitted the group, but the arrests left the community exhausted and discouraged.
“[Many] felt that they had failed, that they had not succeeded at doing what they wanted to do,” Kowaluk says. It seemed that the movement had lost the momentum and energy that it needed to protect the area.
A new opportunity
Over the next few years, a mixture of economic factors created problems for the developers. The Ford Foundation, one of the project’s financial supporters, withdrew its funding in response to the negative attention generated by the MPCC’s demonstrations.
In addition, the construction linked to the 1976 Montreal Olympics led to an inflation of building material prices that decreased the value of the funds that Concordia Estates Ltd. had set aside to develop the remaining two thirds of the area.
In 1977, the community learned that Concordia Estates Ltd. was interested in selling the rest of the area, and residents explored options to acquire the land. During this period, the Trudeau government gave Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) the mandate of developing housing co-operatives. Aided by a grant to research the feasibility of turning the neighbourhood into co-ops, and with support from the city-wide heritage conservation movement, community members submitted an application to the CMHC. In May of 1979, the CMHC announced that it owned the property and that it would divide it into co-ops, renovate all the properties, and turn them into subsidized co-op housing.
The process of transferring the properties from CMHC to the residents was lengthy. It wasn’t until June 12, 1987 that the members of the houses in question signed a Declaration of Co-ownership. The buildings and the land underneath are owned by a legal ‘person’ called the Communauté Milton-Parc (CMP), which governs as an assembly.
According to Kowaluk, who is as also one of the founders of the CMP, the community decided that a single co-op would be unmanageable, and divided the properties into 15 co-ops and six non-profit organizations. The rent is heavily subsidized by the CMHC.
“I pay my rent to the co-op—I’m a tenant but I’m also a co-owner,” Kowaluk explains. “As a tenant, I can expect some work from the co-op, the co-op can take care of some things for me. But basically, I have to take care of the house the way an owner takes care of it.”
There are several strict stipulations that come with being part of the co-op. The houses must be available for people with moderate incomes who need housing, and co-op members must maintain the architectural qualities of the buildings’ facades. Co-owners cannot sell an individual building under any circumstances. In doing so, the co-operatives have enabled low-income residents to enjoy the proximity to Montreal’s downtown, while preserving the architectural value of the area.
“We preserved six square blocks of housing downtown, in a large city,” Kowaluk says of the movement’s legacy. “This is not only of benefit to the people who live there, but a benefit to the city as a whole because residential housing keeps urban areas safe, comfortable, and secure.”
A student neighbourhood?
Kowaluk emphasizes the importance of having spaces for long-term residents of the area.
“That residential area is now threatened with people selling, moving out [and renting out spaces to students]—that destroys the community aspect of the neighbourhood,” she says. “I think that everybody loses when that happens. The students may gain in the short run, McGill may gain in the short run, but in the long run, I think it takes away the safety of an area. The students all leave in May, and then, who moves in? It’s not healthy.”’
Kowaluk also rejects the common term ‘McGill Ghetto,’ used colloquially for over 15 years to describe the Milton-Parc area, as a misnomer.
“We don’t use that word,” she says adamantly. “It’s not a ghetto and it doesn’t belong to McGill.”
The Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee today
The role of the Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee (MPCC) has shifted from its original purpose of protecting the neighbourhood from demolition. Today, the focus is on facilitating the community’s continued well-being.
“It’s a normal citizens’ committee, and we deal with a lot of issues,” Hélène Brisson, vice president of the MPCC says. “Some have to do with our neighbours, the students, and the university. We’re also concerned about other issues that pertain to urban life, such as parking, snow removal, being in contact with our elected officials, and maintaining green spaces.”
In addition to facilitating communication between different sectors that impact the community, the MPCC has remained involved in other improvement projects in the area. Among those was the dismantling of an overpass at Pins and Parc, built in 1959.
Neighbourhood residents challenged the expansion of the overpass in the ’70s, and in the ’90s, 23 associations demanded its complete dismantling, as there had been over 50 accidents in 1989 alone.
“It was not at all adapted to today’s number of cars—it was becoming dangerous because of the curves and the ramps,” Brisson says. “Mostly people from the co-ops across the street were active in getting the ramp closed because there had been very deadly accidents.”
The committee’s efforts gained momentum after a 1999 report found that it would cost four to six million dollars to extend the overpass’ life another 10 years, as the it was in constant need of repairs. In 2001, a survey of the area found that 85 per cent of the residents of Hutchison and Parc Ave. were in favour of closing the ramp onto Hutchison because of the accidents. The City initiated a consultation process, and Brisson herself sat in a Comité de Bon Voisinage to ensure that the residents’ concerns would be heard.
The demolition of the overpass began in June 2005, followed by the re-development of the Pins-Parc area. The freed-up land has allowed for expansion of the Jeanne-Mance Park, in addition to other green spaces and bike paths on Parc Avenue.
Photos by Alexandra Allaire and Simon Poitrimolt.