CanLitCrit Essay Contest Third-Place Finalist:
Making Up Mile End
by Jason Freure

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Citation from CNQ editorial staff:

Touching on a wide range of anglophone and francophone literary sources, from the well-known to the less so—Mordecai Richler, Lise Tremblay, Anna Leventhal, Sigal Samuel, Clark Blaise, and the graphic novels of Michel Hellman among them—Jason Freure takes us on a fascinating, palimpsestic, geo-historical-literary tour of an iconic Montreal neighbourhood. “Making Up Mile End” demonstrates, convincingly and compellingly, how a place can be the sum of its literary narratives; how, in Freure’s own words, “the idea of a neighbourhood crystallizes by the effort of representation.”

Every morning before we opened up the restaurant, the kitchen manager would sit down at the bar with a coffee and a last cigarette before you had to start following the rules again and butt out. One morning, she asked, “What’s this Mile End place people keep talking about? I’ve lived here for thirty years and never heard of any Mile End.” I, with my eighteen months of expertise in Montreal, quickly outlined the boundaries: Mont-Royal to Van Horne, Hutchison to St-Laurent, roughly. Twenty years old and a Concordia student, it didn’t take me long to discover the hole in the chain-link fence between Rosemont station and St-Viateur. I wondered how you could go thirty years in a city without learning the names of its central neighbourhoods. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Mile End was not the kind of neighbourhood that always had been and always would be.

It was only reading Mordecai Richler that made me suspect something was wrong with that assumption. As far as I can tell, in all his books, he never once describes the streets where he grew up as “Mile End.” He calls them the ghetto or “St-Urbain.” Why not? Was Mile End just made up like its newer cousin to the north, Mile Ex, coined by a restaurateur?

“Mile End” first appeared in print in 1810, when Stanley Bagg signed the lease to the Mile End Tavern at Mont-Royal and St-Laurent. This was the major crossroad in the farmlands north of Montreal, where the road to Rivière-des-Prairies crossed the north side around the mountain. The village that would become Mile End was called Saint-Louis-du-Mile-End by the time it was incorporated in 1878. There was already a church further north with the name, the Église Saint-Enfant-Jésus du Mile-End, inaugurated in 1857. The church carried the name through almost a century of disuse, because in 1895 the village simply became Saint-Louis, and—after its annexation by the City of Montreal—the Laurier Ward. According to a 1993 article by Christopher Schoofs, both the English Mile End and the French “La Molenne” had been completely forgotten by the 1970s. Schoofs was a member of a citizens’ research group, the Société Mile End pour l’histoire et la culture, created to preserve the area’s heritage when gentrification began in the 1980s. Only in 1982 did the City redesign the wards and resuscitate its historical name, bringing Mile End back into parlance as an electoral ward—but one that would be embraced and adopted as an identity in a way that Laurier never was.

When we talk about a neighbourhood, we’re talking about more than the land within a set of boundaries. Neighbourhoods are notorious for their transitory borders anyway, as a neighbouring identity bleeds into less-established territory. We talk about the streets, which shift and change names, the buildings, which are demolished and built, and the people, who move in, out, and die. We talk about the things inside the buildings. We talk about a place’s character and its identity. So, what exactly is this Mile End?

Ave du Parc & St-Viateur

Today, Mile End is best known as the centre of Montreal’s indie music scene. Its loft scene and music venues have staged plenty of renowned artists and hundreds more who haven’t broken into the national consciousness. Jay Winston Ritchie spears the loft-party set in his story “Ocean City” from his debut collection Something You Were, Might Have Been, or Have Come to Represent (Insomniac Press). Jeremy is a musician who hasn’t done anything since he peaked with a show at Sala Rossa. Now the indie music scene has moved on to new darlings and he has retreated to “work on a new project.” He lives in the apartment building upstairs and frequents the laundromat to wash his sheets “not out of necessity, but of desire, he now admitted to himself, to be recognized, to see himself as others saw him during their brief exchanges.” And it almost works for Jeremy. Montreal’s “next big thing” walks into Ocean City with her boyfriend and tells him she was at his big Sala Rossa show. She asks him to sub in as an opener at her upcoming loft party show, their first choice having just been cancelled. But he’s been talking to this man in a chullo and moccasins, an insomniac who’s been walking all day and night and only now stopped to speak to someone while waving a cap of Ocean Breeze detergent in his hand like a snifter. The man wants desperately to say something tangled up in his sleepless brain, “I am in the middle of an experience. I need to tell you something, although I’m not sure what it is yet. Are you listening? Maybe I’ve already said it.”

Jeremy’s not listening. When the man drinks the detergent, Jeremy steps over him to talk to the “next big thing,” so he can book the gig that will reinvigorate his music career. He even takes the man’s chullo for the gig.

Clark & Fairmount: Playing Hooky

At the corner of Clark and Fairmount you can find one of the longest running restaurants in the city: Wilenksy’s Light Lunch. In his story “The Street,” Mordecai Richler calls it Tansky’s, where it serves as the centre of the socials lives of the neighbourhood men. It’s where they go to complain about baseball draft picks and make wisecracks at each other. It also does double duty as a truck stop and a favourite of travelling salesmen.

Occasionally, the truckers and peddlers would pull up at Tansky’s for a bite.

“Montreal’s a fine town,” they’d say. “Wide open.”

Unfailingly, one of the truckers would reply, “It’s Gay Paree of North America.”

Comments like that might not be a stretch in Ste-Catherine’s nightclubs and theatres, but they couldn’t sound more naïve in a working-class deli specializing in beef salami with mustard.

Montreal’s European atmosphere remains one of its frequently cited clichés. You can blame it on a few nineteenth-century buildings in the Old Port, but you’re just as likely to hear it in Mile End. At Fairmount and Clark, you might hear the neighbourhood described as European for its love of street life: the balconies where people smoke, read, drink, and chatter overhead all summer long; the coffeehouses and cocktail bars with their enormous sidewalk terrasses brought to the city by real Europeans from Italy and Hungary in the 1950s and 60s; the civic passion for a smoking habit that’s become gauche in the aseptic “sea of English.”

Montreal is European, sure. You can get a fine espresso at Café Olimpico and while it’s technically against the law, no one will stop you from enjoying a bottle of wine in the city’s bigger parks. In North America, “European” seems to mean walking around, espresso, wine, fine food, smoking indoors, and drinking al fresco. Our image of Europe is of an indulgence in good taste and leisure, in guiltless hours spent not working. Richler’s Wilensky’s is no less a place where people come to socialize, eat, and above all, avoid going back to work:

Between two and four in the afternoon, the horse players held a monopoly on the phone. One of them, Sonny Markowitz, got an incoming call daily at three. Nat always took it for him. “Good afternoon,” he’d say, “Morrow Real Estate. Mr. Morrow. One moment please.”

The neighbourhood, or at least the gentrified one of the contemporary imagination, is a place of leisure. Neighbourhoods everywhere are typically described by their bars, coffee shops, brunch spots, and stores. They’re spaces where you buy things and spend time. If you work there, you’re a shop clerk, server, or a barista. Condos are sold according to the “lifestyle” evoked by a few dozen trendsetting businesses abutting dépanneurs and laundromats. Despite accounting for at least eight hours of every weekday, plus commuting, work rarely factors into these ads. Work is something that takes place downtown or in suburban offices and industrial parks. Work has not belonged to the Mile End imagination since the garment district moved to rue Chabanel in the city’s north end in the 1960s. Yet every day at noon, hundreds of professionals march down St-Viateur to fill up cafés and sandwich shops, leaving in droves the very same buildings that textile workers filed out of for lunch sixty years ago. Ubisoft Montreal opened its office in the garment district east of St-Laurent in 1997. Their three thousand employees have brought about the commercial and rental changes that have incensed Mile End’s other citizens. Ubisoft fundamentally changed the area’s post-industrial character by making work, once again, one of the activities that went on in Mile End.

In the first chapter of Mile End, Michel Hellman’s graphic novel, the author’s stand-in sits on the ledge in front of Wilensky’s with a friend, both of them drinking beer, and announces that he’s starting a blog. “Tu ne devrais pas être en train de travailler sur ta maîtrise?,” his skeptical friend replies. Hellman’s follow-up, Nunavik, repeats the scene, only this time he’s holding a small child intent on reaching a pigeon instead of a beer. His editor at Éditions Pow Pow asks if he’s making progress on his sequel, Mile End 2, so that he can include it in the next season’s catalogue, and asks for a guarantee that Hellman will not change the subject. The title page to Nunavik follows.

Hellman frequently makes fun of his ability to procrastinate, but inevitably, distraction only leads him into making more art. He lives in a 6 ½, two floors above Wilensky’s, and it’s on the street that he makes fun of his inability to commit to any given intellectual labour. It’s up above, in his apartment, where he draws and writes, that the real work happens. In a full-page panel he shows us his work space: a Formica table in a large, tile-floored kitchen, burned-down candles, a half-empty percolator, a case of Boréale on the floor, dirty dishes. He has drawn the floral pattern on the tiles, the plaster on the walls dripping with water damage, spice jars and oils, a pot collecting the leak from the ceiling, the wine glasses and mugs in the cupboards—the detritus of living with two roommates and a girlfriend. One of his roommates, hanging out with a guitar, points out, “Si tu faisais des dessins avec moins de detail, tu pourrais updater ton blogue!

The oxymoron of Mile End is that it’s celebrated as a social, leisure, and consumptive space, but it became what it was through work and sweat. Only in the privacy of his own apartment can Hellman toil on the minutiae that makes his art so good. In public, the romantic image of the carefree artist is valued over the loner going grey at his kitchen table. The difference between artists like Hellman and the working-class men in Wilenksy’s is that the latter’s taxi drivers and real-estate agents go to great lengths to hide the hours they spend playing hooky from their wives. The artists, on the other hand, don’t want to admit how many hours they spend actually making art.

Ave du Parc & Bernard: Greektown

Geoff Stahl’s PhD thesis Crisis? What Crisis?: Anglophone Musicmaking in Montreal tracks the movement of the city’s independent music scene to the Plateau-Mile End from the Old Port and the Latin Quarter. The galleries, presses, venues, and record labels all began moving north when the city limited music venues to Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent. Up to that point, the Old Port had been largely abandoned since the city’s functional port moved east. It was Montreal’s original loft neighbourhood before the tourists arrived.

The music scene’s move into the Plateau and Mile End was sometimes self-characterized as transformative to the urban environment. Stahl quotes Constellation Records’ founders describing the city’s nineties’ cultural renaissance as a rebirth in the tabula rasa of urban despair: “The city slowly transforms itself from backdrop for isolation to inhabited nexus of collaboration and activity.”

When the musicians started to move in, however, Ave du Parc was already considered the heart of Montreal’s Greektown. The narrator in Clark Blaise’s A North American Education, an American discovering a Montreal his parents left behind, is raising his family on Ave du Parc where Greek, Hispanic, Filipino, and Hasidic families collide. He describes the street as bazaar-like, rich with smells, wares on display, families making noise in their triplexes. Mice and roaches are omnipresent. Blaise’s narrator is both fascinated and completely out of place:

Outside the theatre the evening is warm and the wide sidewalks are clogged with Greeks who nod as you come out. Like the Ramblas in Barcelona, with children out past midnight and families walking back and forth for a long city block, the men filling the coffeehouses, the women left outside, chatting. Not a blond head on the sidewalk, not a blond head for miles. Greek music pours from the coffeehouses, flies stumble on the pastry, whole families munch their torsadesmolles as they walk. Dry goods are sold at midnight from the sidewalk, like New York fifty years ago. You’re wandering happily, glad that you’ve moved, you’ve rediscovered the innocence of starting over.

Blaise’s narrator, like Montreal’s music scene, can “start over” in Mile End because it’s a geography marked by difference; a Mediterranean city that got lost in the snowy north. For the music scene, it was the rundown apartments and empty warehouses, the so-called blight (a more neutral term would be “disinvestment”), that differentiated it from the suburbs. Blaise also offers a reminder that the neighbourhood didn’t transform overnight from the St. Urbain ghetto to its cooler present. There are just as many Greek restaurants as Jewish delis remaining. In the constant starting-over of its residents, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mile End itself has been reinvented over the years.

Drolet & Laurier: Everyone’s an Exile

When she translated Lise Tremblay’s La Danse juive into English, Gail Scott gave the book the title Mile End. Tremblay uses the name herself to describe the area, but the quartier at the heart of this book spills out across the St. Urbain ghetto, the francophone Plateau, Little Italy, Little Portugal, and Greektown.

The fat woman, Tremblay’s unnamed protagonist, is a mediocre pianist obsessed with the corpulence that runs through her father’s family. She wanders the streets with a genuine love for her adopted city. She is seeing a man named Mel, an antique dealer who drives around the city in his white van at all hours of the night. Mel takes her on dates to restaurants in Chinatown, where everyone speaks English she doesn’t understand. Mel grew up on rue Marie-Anne, back when the Plateau was still the Jewish ghetto, and while his friends and family have all moved on to Côte-des-Neiges, Hampstead, and Côte-St-Luc, he continues to roam his childhood street alongside newer immigrants. He is the archetypal wandering Jew, sleepless and shambling through the night like Apollinaire’s Passant de Prague. Mel himself is an “itinerant performer, a saltimbanque” who spends “all his time drinking and eating grilled sardines and paella in the Portuguese restaurant on Rue Duluth” He prefers drinking with the Portuguese, speaking their language, and overtaking the room with his performance:

… the men [who]  spent their days hanging around outside the adjoining café. They argued or played cards fingering rosaries of dark beads. The men always seemed free to me. I don’t know why, but their being in exile always seemed to me to represent absolute freedom. You could hear freedom in their voices, feel it in their black threadbare suits.

By contrast, Mel is the exile who hasn’t left, but who has seen his home leave him.

Tremblay’s Mile End is a borough of exiles; Mel, the wanderer, its only native. Tremblay keeps returning to the idea of “DPs”—displaced persons. The fat woman’s neighbour complains about the DPs who took her job in the garment industry. Mel is displaced on his own childhood streets. The Portuguese who fled Madeira and the Azores stayed after the fall of the Estado Novo because it was in the Plateau and Mile End that they reinvented themselves, free of their inheritance, alongside the Greeks and Latin Americans.

At the intersection of Drolet and Laurier, there’s a casse-croûte that’s open late, later on the weekends. Passing Chez Claudette, the fat woman observes:

It’s a funny place, a kind of country restaurant lost in the middle of Montréal. I always get the impression the waiters are more or less related, more or less in need of a job, marking time until something better comes along. I tell Paul it reminds me of an immigrant restaurant, immigrants from the country, that even the woman who owns it looks like she’s just waiting until she’s saved enough money to return to her native Saguenay.

The saguenéens, French Canadian “townies” lost in the big city, are as out of place as any DP in a city where the Chinese speak English. Tremblay’s observation questions the stability of the mainstream or the majority in marginal geographies. Published in 1999, just before the neighbourhood began its millennial transformation, it was still possible to call Mile End a marginal zone, a place where the only person who fits in is Mel, the gregarious wanderer, saltimbanque, and boulevardier, never at ease in his apartment and always at home on the street.

Hutchison & Bernard: Human Landscapes

Hutchison, a north-south street just one block west of Ave du Parc, is the official border between the Plateau-Mont-Royal (thus Mile End) and the borough of Outremont—well-known as the francophone answer to Westmount. It is more conservative, more conformist, but also home to the largest community of Hasidic Jews in North America after Brooklyn. Ave du Parc is the commercial axis intersecting with Bernard and St-Viateur. The Hasidic population, as well as its synagogues, schools, and shops, are concentrated on either side of Parc, on Hutchison, Querbes, and Durocher, described by one resident as “Mile End adjacent.”

The Hasidim appear frequently in Mile End literature—in La Danse juive, Rawi Hage’s “Letter to a Neighbour,” Gail Scott’s The Obituary, Hellman’s Mile End—but often only on the periphery. Hage’s and Tremblay’s Hasidic characters never speak, or even have names.

Anna Leventhal’s collection Sweet Affliction tries to avoid this trap. In one scene, a Hasidic boy pesters the post-adolescent narrator about sex in a way that only someone who had learned sex-ed clandestinely could. Another scene features two women who, while coming home late at night, get called into a Hasidic home to act as “Shabbos Goyim”—gentiles solicited for help because they’re allowed to perform tasks like using the phone or electricity (or heating) forbidden on the Sabbath.

But more than any other work, Sigal Samuel’s Mystics of Mile End focuses on the Hasidic community as one family’s members drift in and out of the religion. One of Samuel’s more humourous gestures is to relegate the young hipsters that bump elbows with the Hasidim to the “human landscape” that is more often dressed up in rekelech and shtreimels. Lev, the younger son in this family, prays while “cool guys wearing skinny black ties and dark jeans climbed up twisting staircases, which were painted green and yellow and red.”

More importantly, Samuel disassembles the idea of the Hasidim as a fixed ontology. The family drifts in and out of devotion, as individuals and across generations. David, Lev and Samara’s father, initially rejected his parent’s secularism in the sixties and turned to studying the Torah. After his wife’s death, David drifts away from the faith, becoming a professor of religion at one of the English universities. Lev, however, is drawn to the yeshiva and wears his payot. Samara, forbidden as a woman from studying the already-verboten Tree of Knowledge, picks up the pursuit anyway to complete the journey that killed her father.

During her journey to understand the Tree of Knowledge, Samara becomes one of Mile End’s many wanderers, first reaching “out into the tangled nightwood of rank bars and dirty dance clubs, not stopping at any one place but flitting from room to room, bottle to bottle,” to discover the self-annihilation her father had been seeking in his spiritual quest. She suffocates in the winter when “the streets were choked, the buses were choked,” and finally she loses her will to roam. Her feet carry her autonomously to a tragic scene on the McGill campus. There, she stumbles into her professor and a group of old classmates. She had dropped out to work at a café after her father died. There, her father’s manuscript, detailing his journey toward the Tree of Knowledge, is blown away, and she falls to her knees, scrambling to gather them allas her classmates jeer and laugh. Driven crazy with humiliation, she starts to cram the pages into her mouth and eat them. Her feet only force her onward, with no destination.

In the middle of the night, fleeing from her embarrassment, she wanders like Mel in his white van, another one of those Montreal lunatics speaking to herself on a forced march to a place she’ll never arrive at.

Mile End is full of wanderers and ghosts; but for the living, it is the zone of reinvention, where Hasidim become secular, secular become Hasidim, suburbanites become bohemians, and exiles become landowners. The only ones who seem to belong are the wanderers who restlessly pace the streets every night. Everyone else is a fraud.

Ave du Parc, a slushy Las Ramblas, snakes its way up from the open spaces of Parc Jeanne-Mance past the souvlaki restaurants and coffee houses, a Dairy Queen, and a laundromat called Ocean City, past Hasidic yeshivas and mystic insomniacs who shamble the streets. Mile End, crowned by the Byzantine dome of the Church of St. Michael and St. Anthony has been home to as many races and creeds as Jerusalem and claimed by none of them.

The idea of a neighbourhood crystallizes by the effort of representation. Sometimes, a real-estate agency comes up with a name so extremely banal it can only have been decided by committee. But the name and idea of Mile End was somehow not co-opted from artists by commercial and real-estate-development interests. The two grew up simultaneously, borrowing from each other. These two uses, artistic and commercial, are too symbiotic to separate. Both, in fact, simply latched onto the municipal government’s contemporary toponymy—a rare thing given how uninspired or esoteric sub-district names typically are. Mile End is suggestive enough to have caught on, bizarrely Anglophone and no longer translated to “La Molenne.” When the artists have gone, and when everyone has forgotten that magazines once called it one of the hippest places in the world, it will inevitably disappear—either divided by the neighbours it emerged from or consumed by a new identity. Who knows? Maybe the Commission de toponymie de Québec will finally catch on, and only a few aging hipsters will refer to Saint-Louis by its old name. By then, it will mean a whole new neighbourhood, full of new meanings, identities, and complaints.

—A CNQ Web Exclusive, October 2017

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