Beyond semantics:

The colourful stories of Milton-Parc

By Robin Nyamekye, Contributor -- February 21, 2017
(Christopher Li/ The McGill Tribune)

“In recent years, [...] there is now a relationship between McGill and the neighbourhood, because at first, McGill would say, ‘If it’s beyond our [gates], we don’t want to hear about it.’ But now, at Frosh, there is an introduction about our neighbourhood,” said Andrée Deveault, who has been a Milton-Parc resident since the 1970s, having graduated from McGill in 1978.

Regardless of whether they live there or not, most McGill students are familiar with the ‘place beyond the gates.’ Situated directly east of McGill’s downtown campus, the Milton-Parc neighbourhood—often referred to as the “McGill Ghetto” by students—is a residential area located within the borough of Plateau-Mont-Royal, with borders defined north to south by Boulevard St-Laurent and Rue University, and east to west by Rue Sherbrooke and Avenue des Pins. With a population of around 11,150 residents, Milton-Parc is one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city of Montreal. Statistics provided by Mcgill indicate that approximately 3,500 students live either in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood or close by.

(Noah Sutton/ The McGill Tribune)

Although exact statistics on the number of students living in the area are difficult to ascertain, the available data indicates that permanent residents comprise the majority of the population in Milton-Parc, numbering around 7,650, making McGill students the minority. Why is it, then, that most people refer to the area as the “McGill Ghetto”?

While the colloquial term has been used by students and outsiders to describe the area for decades, its exact origin is unknown. Non-student residents of the area are aware of this misnomer. According to Adrian King-Edwards, founder of the Word Bookstore located on Milton, who has lived in Milton-Parc since 1972 after graduating from McGill in 1971, the term has been used for a long time.

“It was always there, as far as I know, [...] as far as I go back,” he said.

(Hannah Taylor / The McGill Tribune)

Deveault remembers the term being used when she was a McGill student back in the ‘70s. She explained that even today, it seems that more people are familiar with the misnomer than the actual name for the neighbourhood.

“When I was a student in the ‘70s, it was already a term” she said. “Actually, to call it Milton-Parc is fairly recent. Many people don’t know what you’re talking about, so then I give them the little blurb, ‘You know, some people call it the McGill Ghetto,’ and then they go, ‘Oh, right, I know what you mean.’ But it should be called Milton-Parc.”

The correct title “Milton-Parc” conveys a much deeper meaning than “McGill Ghetto,” a myopic moniker for a place where McGill students reside. To call the area the Milton-Parc neighbourhood also represents an understanding that its residents live in a distinct community, where they interact with many other people from all different walks of life. In essence, the correct term reflects the dynamic living experience offered by the area, which should be respected and explored.

The term “McGill Ghetto,” though seemingly harmless, is inaccurate and even objectionable for various reasons. Aside from a few student residences, such as Royal Victoria College and New Residence Hall, McGill holds no form of ownership over the neighbourhood.

(Noah Sutton/ The McGill Tribune)

Furthermore, to refer to the area as a “ghetto” connotes characterizations of poverty or socio-ethnic homogeneity—neither of which accurately apply to this geographic area. King-Edwards claims that the use of the word could be considered demeaning for this reason.

“[The term] carries a derogatory ring to it [....],” he said. “It is sort of ironic in a sense [because] the students that used to live here were not affluent, but to talk about the student ghetto now when it's full of affluent students is really not accurate.”

To Hélène Brisson, a long time permanent resident who was born on Avenue des Pins and now serves as the vice-president of the Milton Parc Citizen’s Committee (MPCC)—a membership-based organization that seeks to advocate for citizen rights on issues such as housing, neighbourhood ecology, and economic development for local enterprises—the term is more than just incorrect. She sees it as a misrepresentation of an active and dynamic neighbourhood.

“Yes, of course there is a strong McGill presence, but clearly it gives a false impression,” she said. “The area, Milton-Parc, is not just the stopping point for a transient student population or other transient populations, it’s a vibrant and thriving Montreal neighbourhood.”

The permanent residents are a diverse group: Some have been homeowners for generations, others are members of housing cooperatives, and some are long-term tenants. Most have unique stories that demonstrate their longstanding connection to the community, making one think twice about using the term “McGill Ghetto” to describe the historically rich and unique area.

King-Edwards recollected his own connection to the community. Over the years, he has moved through three different residences in the borough, while running The Word, which has become a vital part of the community, for 41 years.

“My first place was on Lorne. I had a basement, basically [a] closet, for eight dollars a week, and then I lived on Hutchison,” he said. “I’ve lived on Milton, and now I’m on Aylmer. The neighbourhood has changed a lot. It used to be much poorer because it used to be rooming houses, and the situation where I had a room for eight dollars a week was not unusual, since most places were rooms for elderly people and students.”

Similarly, Deveault was a McGill student in the ‘70s before she became a long-time co-op resident—a living arrangement that provides not-for-profit housing for their members. She describes the sense of camaraderie and stability that comes from living in the co-ops. Milton-Parc is the home of the largest cooperative housing project in Canada, La communauté milton-parc.

“Being a member of a co-op, I find, it’s like a little village,” she said. “When I go do my groceries, I always see someone that I know enough to say hello or at least nod.”

Another permanent resident of over 38 years, who asked to remain anonymous, discussed the role the cooperative housing program played in formulating the borough’s permanent resident demographic. She works on projects to preserve the old buildings in the area. Those who have wandered the neighbourhood will notice how its building’s architecture stand out compared to the neighbouring downtown area. Buildings are typically no higher than four stories, with the occasional high-rise apartment building wedged between Montreal walk-ups. According to her, one of the main objectives of the preservation project was to encourage long-term residency in the area.

“We wanted families, and people who were going to /live here/ and not just be landlords,” she said. “A lot of these homes are actually quite big and so families can live here. We formed a big housing co-op, we have 20 different groups in this area now.”

King-Edwards emphasized the fact that there are many families in the area that make up the population. He recollected his own experience of starting a family in the community.

“While a lot of [residents] are students, there’s this assumption of ownership and students need to realize that they are sharing in a community, and it doesn’t look like it because it’s downtown, but there are more people than you think, that live here as families—as I did with my kids,” he said. “I brought up my family here on Aylmer, and the people who live across the street from me are [the] second-generation from the same house. The people next door to us have been here for years and years.”

(Christopher Li/ The McGill Tribune)

Therefore, it is crucial for members of the McGill community to remember that there are some people in the neighbourhood that are seeking a relatively calm, stable lifestyle. Unfortunately, some non-student residents articulate that the term “McGill Ghetto” provides a false sense of entitlement to McGill students who live in the area. In a way, the title makes the students think they have a free pass to disregard the concerns and needs of neighbours who are not students, and, thus, follow disruptive schedules and take up unruly activities for their amusement, such as late-night partying. Deveault spoke about how some students even interpret the term “McGill Ghetto” as a justification for vandalism.

“If the students use [the term “McGill Ghetto”], some students then by a leap of imagination, think that they own the place and that can lead to behaviour that’s [disruptive….],” she said. “Sometimes they will go wild and think, ‘This is our place’ and its called a “McGill Ghetto” and we are within our right to treat it as we wish.’ No, just a minute, [...] you live here but there are other residents, and we have to live decently together. I don’t mind students singing during Frosh week, but vandalism no, and peeing on my fence, no.”

Another resident of the area suggests that instead of the “McGill Ghetto,” people should refer to the area as a community.

“The name itself should not allow people to think, ‘Oh, because it’s a student ghetto, I can be as wild as I want to be,’” she said. “Rules of neighbourliness and respect of others should always be, even if you call it a ghetto, but anyway we could like it to be called a community because all of these elements of respect for neighbours, and sharing of space are implied in the term.”

King-Edwards provides an alternative narrative, suggesting that this respect for the diversity of the community runs in both directions. He believes that living among students, and the vigorous rowdiness that comes with it, is part of the experience and even a perk of living in Milton-Parc.

“There is another side of it too, in that people will often move into this area and then start complaining viciously about the students, which is also really wrong,” he said. “There are a lot of students here, and if you’re going to move into this area, you have to recognize that. If you want a quiet suburban life, you shouldn’t be living here. I’ve seen that happen quite often, where people will move in and really dislike the noise and the flurry in September [....] We find that in the summertime, before the students come back, there is a real nice quiet flow to everything and then students come back, and it's fantastic! There is all this energy, and it’s exciting, and everybody’s happy and I really enjoy that.”

In recognizing and respecting these different lifestyles within the community, there is an opportunity to build a healthy relationship between McGill students and permanent residents of the area. In recent years, primarily due to the work of Brisson and the MPCC, communication has been established between permanent residents and various representatives of the university. Further, McGill has recently developed formal relations with the community, with the establishment of the Community Action and Relations Endeavor (C.A.R.E.) in 2010. The C.A.R.E. agreement is a strategic community relations framework developed by former SSMU VP External Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan and Brisson, with the aim to promote harmonious relations among the permanent residents of Milton-Parc, McGill students living in and around the area, and the McGill administration.

(Christopher Li/ The McGill Tribune)

Even before C.A.R.E was established, on July 7, 2008, a public meeting organized by former dean of students Jane Everett, brought various representatives from McGill and long-time residents of the neighbourhood together to discuss ways to improve community relations. At this meeting, a consensus was founded: The parties agreed to use the correct term for the area, the”Milton-Parc neighbourhood” rather than “McGill Ghetto.” This decision was meant to signify not only a change in terminology, but a shift in perception to acknowledge the area as a distinct and separate neighbourhood, independent of the university.

Since then, community relations have improved considerably. For instance, Brisson talked about the increased coordination and communication between organizers and residents during large events, such as Frosh and St. Patrick’s day.

“Certainly Frosh was a big issue for everyone and over the years, it took time and a lot of discussion, and, in the end, we have managed to change it [...] everybody [including students, the administration, the residents, the police, and merchants] has a stake in the neighbourhood and that’s how it should be,” she said.

Beyond using the correct terminology to refer to their neighbourhood, students should realize that wherever they go, they must respect the area that they’re in. It's important for them to learn to live with others: Once they move out of this neighbourhood and go on to become permanent residents of another area, such skills in neighbourly etiquette will be essential. Moreover, the opportunity to build a deep connection and understanding with their community is a valuable experience, and one that benefits all residents of the area, not exclusively students or permanent residents.

Deveault expressed her pleasure towards being able to interact with students in her neighbourhood.

“These days with the snowstorms, I go on the sidewalk with my shovel and a dollar sign and I find students to come and shovel for me,” Deveault said. “It’s really really nice, because it's hard for me to shovel [....] I like to have the students here, it's nice to have young people around and have a relationship.”

(Noah Sutton/ The McGill Tribune)