More "Infinitely Cruel" Evictions in Montreal
After years of fighting to preserve a Gorilla Park in Marconi-Alexandra, two working artists are being run out of the neighbourhood
By Matilda Cerone
It was like being “punched in the gut.”
That’s how Frances Foster described the eviction notice she received last fall.
Though they’ve been asked to leave, Foster and her neighbour Trevor Goring are fighting to stay in their home of 30 years: an old factory in Marconi-Alexandra, the neighbourhood they helped shape.
Foster, 64, and Goring, 73, are painters. They moved into this factory in 1992, when the neighbourhood was just industrial buildings and houses for the working class. Back then, there were barely any street lights and no garbage pick up. Until they moved in, the building was an industrial printer. On her first visit, Foster remembers seeing Catelli pasta boxes coming out of huge printers. Back then, the open space was so big that “you could have driven a truck around,” Goring recalls.
The building had just been bought by a dentist who dreamt of turning it into an artist co op; a place where creatives would have their homes and studios. So Foster, Goring, and 12 other artists moved into these 1,200 square feet apartments where they lived and created while paying cheap rent.
“I was a pioneer,” says Foster. “I wasn’t afraid of putting myself in a new space.”
Foster and Goring spent years reshaping the industrial neighbourhood into something more human. Their biggest contribution — converting a patch of unused land into the now infamous Gorilla Park — was immortalized last year when the city announced they’d be buying the lot and preserving it. And though one local politician called this an “infinitely cruel” piece of irony, blocking the eviction falls outside of city jurisdiction.
If the eviction goes through, Foster and Goring’s landlord will convert their apartments into storage units. Another section of the building could potentially be rented out to an artisanal distillery, a project that worries many residents of the area.
In neighbouring Parc-Extension, residents face a wave of evictions and rent increases following the arrival of Université de Montréal’s MIL campus. The neighbourhood, which has historically been home to immigrants and labourers, is aggressively fighting against “studentification”, a phenomenon where a large student population moves into an area, increasing market speculation and pushing out current residents.
Marconi-Alexandra is also feeling the new campus’ impact as real estate developers are buying industrial properties to bulldoze them and build luxury condos. Foster and Goring were the last two tenants in their building to receive eviction notices.
They say they plan on resisting their eviction to the bitter end but even a cursory glance around their neighbourhood will tell you times are changing. And fast.
Foster and Goring dedicated years in Marconi-Alexandra to the well-being of their community, fighting for what is now known as Gorilla Park – a vacant lot between Beaubien, St-Zotique, St-Urbain and Waverly streets.
In the 90s, the Canadian Pacific Railway relocated the tracks that divided the Mile End and Marconi-Alexandra.
While most of the underlying land was turned into what is now the Parc linéaire du Réseau-Vert — a long bike path that coasts the current train tracks — one spot was abandoned. It became a spontaneous park filled with poplars, yellow birch and cottonwood trees. It was one of the only green spaces in what is otherwise a heat island, an urban area with structures that absorb sunlight and almost no vegetation to bring down the temperature.
Real-estate developer Olymbec bought the land in 2013 and razed it, cutting down trees that were 20 metres tall. This reawakened something in Foster.
She grew up north of Laval in Sainte-Thérèse. At the time, the suburb was still not developed, and Foster’s “playground” were the remains of the abandoned Tapp Zoo. It was a wild piece of land, filled with nature and abandoned buildings that until the early 60s housed over 200 animals. Otherwise, children played on the train tracks. Foster and her friends would wait for the train to wave at the engineers, and then watch as the train became smaller in the distance.
“There was a path that went up and down, up and down,” Foster recalls, as she moves her finger in the air. “I used to take it with my bicycle. I would go to the end and then turn around to be back home for dinner.” One day, when she arrived at the end of this path, she saw a mass of tree trunks set ablaze. It was the 70s, and housing development in the area had began.
“In the span of one summer, I saw my playground disappear,” she says. At the time, she did not have words to express her grief.
When she moved to Marconi-Alexandra, many things echoed her childhood’s spaces. She lived near tracks, tracks connected to those she played around so many years before. And Gorilla Park was akin to the forsaken zoo, an enclave where nature had conquered civilization. When it came to fight for the park, Foster saw an opportunity to do what she could not as a child.
“So I did something, and thought ‘That’s enough.’ But then it wasn’t enough, so I did something more and thought ‘Now that’s enough.’ But it wasn’t, and so it ended up being something I did for 10 years.”
After Gorilla Park was destroyed, Foster, together with Goring and a few other community members, became active in trying to have the city buy the land and turn it into the park it once was.
Despite being the land’s owners, Olymbec did not have a permit to bulldoze it, and therefore acted illegally. This made it easier for the neighbourhood to advocate for a land hold, which was granted by the borough. The activists formed the non-profit organization “Les AmiEs du Parc des Gorilles” in 2016 and other organizations joined them in their battle. After a decade of activism, the city bought the land and announced on November 16, 2022 that it would allocate $10.3M to the space, with the intention of bringing it back to being a wild and somewhat unkempt park.
Foster and Goring received this news five days after their eviction notice. “To see this love of 10 years come to completion is bittersweet,” says Foster.
The eviction of these two longtime residents is part of a wider trend of gentrification in their area.
In the span of a few decades, Marconi-Alexandra has changed from being a poor and working class neighbourhood to an up-and-coming hub for innovative architecture and tech companies.
“I’ve seen a huge change in the fabric of the neighbourhood,” says Foster. But “(its) ‘revitalization’ doesn’t seem to take into account the people who live there,” she adds.
The Rover is a reader-funded publication. If you enjoy stories like this one, consider signing up for our free emails or becoming a paid subscriber.
The border between the Plateau-Mont Royal and Rosemont-La Petite Patrie is the CP railway tracks.
Today, the fences that bar people from illegally crossing these tracks are full of holes made by citizens who walk from one borough to the other every day. The hefty fines, maimings and deaths that happened over the years do not seem to deter citizens. The division seems to contradict the way those around it live.
Even before the 1920s, when the Mile-End and Marconi-Alexandra were considered one neighbourhood, the northern part was known as the “mauvais côté de la track,” said Justin Bur, a member of the Société d'histoire Rosemont–Petite-Patrie.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, the (neighbourhood’s) parish Saint-Jean-de-la-Croix was nicknamed Saint-Jean-de-la-Misère,” said Bur.
In the 60s, the factories that produced outdated products like lead paint were taken over by mega clothing manufacturers, and these remained the main industries of the neighbourhood for over three decades.
Factories and dwellings coexisted in the area, something that would not be possible in most Montreal neighbourhood. Houses were cheaper and heterogeneous in style, and workers lived in them.
Over the decades, the nature of the factories changed, but the turning point was in the 2000s. Cheap prices of these huge, high-ceilings structures with their vintage factory look attracted architects and architecture firms. They mostly preserved the external aesthetic while drastically redesigning the interior, and Marconi-Alexandra became known as the “Quartier des Architectes.”
The arrival of French video game developer Ubisoft in 1997 on the other side of the tracks sparked the next big change. It showed that old factories could be successfully turned into offices, says Bur.
Video game and AI companies started establishing themselves in Marconi-Alexandra, with the information and cultural industries increasing by 350 per cent between 2000 and 2011, according to the Plan de Développement Urbain, Économique et Social des Secteurs Marconi‐Alexandra, Atlantic Beaumont et De Castelnau. Simultaneously, the previous industries died out, causing a 82 per cent decrease in manufacturing jobs.
These tech companies brought with them cafés and bars. To the locals, seeing these fashionable venues and their young clientele in front of run-down churches, storage buildings and garages, is jarring.
Foster, Goring, and a group of Marconi-Alexandra residents are worried about the potential arrival of the distillery for the same reasons.
The owner, Matt McMillan, wrote a post in the neighbourhood’s private Facebook group addressing some concerns, including noise, environmental worries and the possibility that distilling alcohol can create black fungus to grow on surfaces surrounding the building. He also mentioned he is “sad to see (artists) be facing evictions.” He reassured the residents that he intends to run a small business, and that his vision is to build a collective of creatives and craftsworkers who would operate in the building alongside him.
Some residents welcomed and encouraged him, while others were not convinced by his explanations. Many are still concerned about the ecological footprint of the project, and some are skeptical about his commitment to creating a new arts hub. A member of the group asked in a comment to act now for the community, rather than promise to do so in the future.
Gorilla Park will be revived by the city in this context, and Foster knows that she will have to fight for it to truly be the urban jungle that it once was.
“They want picnic tables, which I am opposed to,” she says. “They are catering to the AI companies, who are gonna use Gorilla Park to eat their lunch. Sit on the ground!”
After trying to increase rent and attempting to change the residential status of his tenants, the dentist went bankrupt.
In 1997, real estate company 9044-0744 Québec Inc. bought the building, and they have been the owners since. Following their arrival, building maintenance went to the wayside, with poor insulation, a broken heating system, and puddles in the main hallway every time it rains. A few years ago, the landlord even fired the building manager, who Foster describes as a nice and available man who worked to make the tenants' living space better.
Since the first tenants began moving out of the old factory, Goring always asked them to transfer their leases, so that they could protect their current neighbours and future artists from rent increases and renovations that would justify evictions. As the time passed however, fewer and fewer people did.
Foster and Goring hired a lawyer to represent them. The eviction notice gives them until mid-May to vacate their apartments.
Goring is safer, as Quebec law protects low income individuals 70 years and older who have been living in a rented property for more than 10 years. Foster does not fall into this category. Goring told their lawyer that he wants “to proceed with some degree of solidarity," and that he would like to help Foster as much as possible as he defends himself against the eviction.
At first, Goring was hopeful that the borough of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie would help them.
After the decade they have spent fighting for Gorilla Park, Goring believes that “(the borough’s elected officials) respect us and recognise us as valuable members of the community.” He hoped that because of this recognition, their case could be some sort of catalyst for the city to start fighting against this unjust wave of evictions and gentrification more aggressively.
At a borough council meeting on Monday, borough mayor François Limoges acknowledged that inaugurating Gorilla Park without Foster as a neighbourhood resident would be “infinitely cruel.” However, the management of leases does not fall under municipal authority.
Residents present at council proposed to change the zoning of the area, but Limoges explained that doing so would be detrimental. In 2013, the borough declared a moratorium on re-zoning the sector, following the residents’ concerns about the fast and extreme makeover that the neighbourhood was undergoing. The borough wanted to preserve the mixed — industrial and residential — character of the area.
Limoges stands by this decision.
“If we allowed to re-zone (the area) from industrial and commercial to residential, it would not be just condos (that would be built), it would be billionaires’ homes,” he says. “If what we wanted was to open the doors to the strongest wave of gentrification in history, we would allow the re-zoning.”
The proposed distillery project was tabled at the council, as the officials felt the need to further study it. However, they clarified that it is not in any way connected to the eviction of Foster and Goring.
Bur says the rebranding of Marconi-Alexandra threatens the neighbourhood’s character.
Since the area was previously so devalued, it is particularly tricky to save its original image and patrimony. However, we cannot expect to keep this neighbourhood, or the city as a whole, still, Bur says. “To avoid the fossilisation (of neighbourhoods and cities), the heritage buildings need to be (collectively) selected as what we want to keep as a testimony of the past.”
On his part, Goring sees the eviction as another example of the great injustice that gentrification brings. “I am not surprised,” he says. “It’s happening everywhere.” But if they don’t win against their landlord, he doesn’t know where he would find a place like his, especially not for an exorbitant price.
This eviction, and all that resemble it, have a snowball effect on people who live “unconventionally.” As Foster notes, “(the city is) losing so much by losing different types of living situations” such as artists co ops.
Goring and Foster are not only losing a large space that they pay well below market prices for. They are losing their homes of 30 years, homes to all their creative processes, countless personal stories, and ideations of justice for their neighbourhood. And with all that is left to fight for as Gorilla Park is revitalized, Foster really cannot leave.
“I am not finished with what I need to do in my community.”
About the author…
Matilda Cerone is a freelance journalist, photographer and videographer based in Montreal.