Essays

The Great Wall of Montreal

MARCELLO DI CINTIO

The chain-link fence along boulevard de l’Acadie— two metres high, with “appropriate hedge”—separates one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Montreal from one of the poorest.

For several years, Marcello Di Cintio has been visiting and writing about communities that live in the shadows of walls, fences and other “hard” barriers. L’Acadie fence in Montreal was the last stop in a three-year-long itinerary that took Di Cintio to the Western Sahara, the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the India-Bangladesh borderlands, Israel and Palestine, Cyprus, the US-Mexico border and Belfast. “Wall of Shame,” his story of the Saharawis in the Sahara Desert, appeared in Geist 74, and won Honorable Mention at the National Magazine Awards.

A fifty-year-old fence built of chain links and steel posts separates the Town of Mount Royal, one of Montreal’s most affluent neighbourhoods, from Parc-Extension, one of the poorest. The l’Acadie fence stretches for 1.6 kilometres in the middle of the city, along the west side of boulevard de l’Acadie from rue Jean-Talon to the Rockland shopping centre. The barrier has been referred to as “apartheid fencing” and “Montreal’s Berlin Wall,” but in spite of the hyperbole the fence is almost invisible.

For most of its length, the l’Acadie fence stands about two metres high. Shrubbery planted along the west side, however, grows taller. The thick hedge and its delicate pink blossoms conceal most of the barrier. Only the occasional gap in the foliage reveals the chain links and fenceposts. Three pedestrian openings marked by shiny gates on squeaky spring hinges represent the only breaches in the barrier. The gates were recently reinstalled and still have that new-gate smell, but the rest of the structure betrays its fifty years. The wire sags. Green paint flakes off the fenceposts, and scabs of rust run through the chain links.

There are no checkpoints along the fence: no electrified wire, no concertina wire, no red-lettered signs warning Keep Out. For a tool of apartheid, the fence appears almost benign.

In the late 1950s, the City of Montreal widened boulevard de l’Acadie, then called McEachran Avenue, and converted what was once a dirt track into a busy urban thoroughfare. McEachran formed the eastern boundary of the Town of Mount Royal (TMR); Town residents worried for their children’s safety, petitioned the town council to erect a barrier along the Town’s eastern edge. According to council minutes from May 1960, the Town contracted builders to erect a six-foot high chain-link fence with a single pedestrian opening and “an appropriate hedge.” The builders finished the fence in June.

The new fence faced Parc-Extension, a low-income neighborhood crowded with new Canadians. Montrealers around the city saw the fence as a class barrier, a structure built by the rich to separate themselves from the poor across the boulevard. In a letter to TMR’s town council, the City of Montreal wrote that Montrealers “have been greatly offended by the unsightly fence.” A former president of the TMR landlord association admitted to the newspaper La Presse that the barrier was a terrible political symbol and said “everywhere we go in Montreal they want to talk about the fence.”

Anger over the barrier seethed hottest in Parc-Extension, where residents believed the fence had been built to keep them out. “A lot of people were incensed,” Nick Semeniuk told me in his home on the east side of boulevard de l’Acadie. The house, which used to belong to his mother, faces directly across l’Acadie, and Nick was living there when the fence first went up. “I was quite mad, too. They wanted to keep out the riff-raff.” For Nick, the fence expressed in galvanized mesh a rivalry that always smouldered between the Parc-X boys and the “Townies” on the other side. Not outright warfare—Montreal is no Belfast—but the rather more benign enmity of teenagers from opposite sides of an economic line. Neighbourhood toughs from TMR hung out at the corner store near Nick’s mother’s house and picked fights with the local boys, and Parc-X kids felt unwelcome in TMR. “You couldn’t go to their parks. They would chase you out and say ‘You’re from Parc-X and you don’t belong here,’” Nick said. “So we beat them up.”

Parc-Extension ranks among the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada, not just in Montreal. Among dense, urban communities, only Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside can claim a lower median income than Parc-X. The neighbourhood is also among Montreal’s most crowded; its population density is five times the Montreal average. Thirty-three thousand residents press into an area about a kilometre long and half as wide hemmed in by rail yards on the west and south, Highway 40 to the north and the l’Acadie fence on the east. In French, the word enclave is also a verb, and Parc-X is enclavé.

Ever since the City of Montreal founded Parc-Extension as a community in 1910, the neighbourhood has been a draw for those born elsewhere. The British bought the first houses here; then, after World War II, the Italians, Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans arrived. (Most of these have since left; Nick considers himself the last “Ukie” in Parc-Extension.) Greeks moved in en masse in the 1970s, and by 1976 Greek was the neighbourhood’s most prevalent mother tongue. The Greek community remains strong, and white-haired Greek men still crowd the entrances to their cafés, but the majority of today’s immigrants to Parc-X now come from Africa and South Asia. Many restaurant kitchens that once served souvlaki and thick-crusted pizzas now offer cheap lunchtime thalis and tikka kebab. Nearly every Parc-X depanneur deals in cheap Bollywood videos. West African grocery stores import palm oil and cocoyams and advertise “outdooring” ceremonies for local Ghanaian children.

From the street, the flat-fronted row houses and apartment blocks reveal nothing about Parc-X. Instead, neighbourhood life is revealed in the back lanes. Here, women clip their wash to clotheslines that run to lampposts and back through squeaking metal wheels. Saris and bedsheets hang like flags. Sequins on salwars flash the sun. The women—brown and black, clad in hijab or the bold prints of Africa—chat across this canyon of brick and laundry on balconies linked by coiling iron stairwells. Below, tiny squares of lawn—some trim, others surrendered to dandelions—lie littered with plastic toys and bicycles. Weeds along l’Acadie trap discarded phone cards, the detritus of the poor and the newly arrived.

I found it hard not to love Parc-X for the spiced colours of elsewhere the community offers, and found it easy to hate a fence that appears to shut these people out. Still, the new Parc-X’ers themselves don’t care about a fifty-year-old stretch of chain-link across the road. The immigrants fill their days with the obligations of the New Country. Citizenship papers and school fees. Daycare and groceries and rent. Secondhand coats for their first cold winters, and money wired to family remaining where cold never comes.

On the other side of l’Acadie fence, the Town of Mount Royal has a more orderly history. Officials incorporated TMR in the final days of 1912. Urban planners designed it as a “model city”—a sort of urban utopia featuring a central green space bisected by a pair of major roads. What was a small farming community known for its melons quickly became one of Greater Montreal’s most-desired addresses, especially among wealthy white Anglophones. Today’s town consists of a more ethnically and linguistically diverse citizenry, but the neighbourhood remains homogeneously affluent. Large single-family homes have tidy front lawns and backyard swimming pools. Unlike the littered roadways on the other side of the fence in Parc-X, these streets are kept clean by the “Townies.”

Jill Moroz spent her childhood in a house on the “wrong” or east side of boulevard de l’Acadie. Her family home, the only single-family dwelling on l’Acadie, still stands and is hard to miss. Her father built the house at a slight angle to the street so the front window faces directly into every sunset. The house also faces the fence. “I looked at the fence my whole life,” Jill told me. “Then I moved out and got married and moved to the other side of the fence.” Now she lives in TMR.

Jill’s family was not poor—her father was a dentist—but growing up in Parc-X implied a lower social standing. “The stigma was there,” she said, “that you were on the wrong side of the fence. No question.” Her father used to tell a story about crossing through the fence into TMR to go for a walk. The police stopped him and asked if he lived in TMR and what he was doing there. “It really stuck out in his mind,” Jill told me.

I met Jill in The Little Shop, her store near l’Acadie, which overflows with vintage clothing, jewellery and antiques. When I arrived, a bride-to-be was searching for a vintage veil in the “lace room,” while Jill’s university-aged daughter fiddled with an antique camera. Costume jewellery hung from the walls beneath shelves lined tight with hats befitting British weddings. In one corner, scraps of fur formed a pile resembling some headless hybrid beast. I feared moving lest I knock something over with my bag, and felt relieved when Jill asked me to sit.

The Little Shop opens to the public for only three hours on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons. Promptly at three o’clock, Jill serves tea and cookies to her customers. When I visited, there were just as many people there to chat as to buy. And because of my questions, they all talked about the fence. Jill’s customers believed the barrier was built to keep out the “riff-raff”—I heard this word again and again—and each sneered at the idea that TMR had erected the fence to protect their progeny. Jill accepted it, however. “Why else would it be there?” she asked. But Jill also understands how Parc-X’ers perceive the fence. “It is impossible not to recognize the significance,” she said. “This area is considered one of the poorest areas in Montreal and it is stuck up against one of the wealthiest areas. So you can invent what you want.”

Some time after TMR erected their barrier in 1960, hundreds of students from the Université de Montréal celebrated their winter carnival by driving to l’Acadie and laying siege to the fence. They jumped out of their cars, climbed the chain links, wrenched the wire back and forth, and uprooted the posts until two twelve-metre sections collapsed onto the snow. The students were still trampling on it when police came and chased them away. “It wasn’t a riot but it was a lot of noise,” Nick told me, smiling. “And I was here. Watching the fun.” The students chanted slogans declaring the fence an affront to national unity, and compared Quebec to Cuba. “They called it class separation,” Nick said. Their act of civil defiance was short-lived, however; TMR resurrected the fence before the end of the day.

The student attack was the only physical assault on the fence, but local politicians from both communities repeatedly assailed the barrier in the press and in their respective council chambers. Only two years after the fence went up, Reginald Dawson, the sitting Mayor of TMR when the fence was first approved, already regretted the decision and said that the fence was in bad taste. In the late ’80s, the city councillor for Parc-Extension vowed to destroy the fence but was voted out of office before he had the chance. Town residents, though, continued to express their fidelity to the fence. Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque, who served from 1994 to 2001, observed that “the people of TMR seem to have some sort of psychological need for it.”

Nick remembers the student action occurring sometime in the early ’60s, while other sources suggest the attack took place about a decade later. I found much of the fence’s history similarly ambiguous. I investigated TMR town council minutes and archived news stories, and failed to determine exactly when the students tore down the fence. I knew the fence originally ended about two-thirds of the way along the length of l’Acadie, but I never learned when it was extended or when the additional gates were added. I read that the Town installed security bars on one of the gates in July 1985, and removed them a month later after much public outcry, but I never learned why they added the bars in the first place. And I could never determine when the TMR council started locking the gates on Halloween.

Halloween represents the only day of the year people in Parc-Extension have a compelling reason to visit TMR. Many Parc-X parents take their children into the town to trick-or-treat. Children would rather ring doorbells at TMR houses than get buzzed into Parc-X apartment buildings and have to spend the night hiking steep stairwells. Besides, many new immigrants are unfamiliar with the concept of Halloween. I can imagine the confusion of, say, the father of a Bangladeshi family answering the door to find a little girl dressed as a witch and demanding candy. Most important, especially to the children, is the fact that wealthy Townies always dole out top-shelf sweets. Bags of chips and full-sized chocolate bars are Halloween’s Holy Grails. So each year the costumed pilgrims from Parc-X cross l’Acadie to pass through the fence into the promised candyland of TMR.

Sometime in the late 1990s, however, these kids started finding padlocks on the gates. Town officials claimed to be locking out Halloween vandals, but few outside the Town were convinced. In effect, the padlocks defined Parc-X kids as vandals while exonerating the children of TMR. The locked gates outraged Mary Deros, the long-serving city councillor for Parc-Extension, who used to take her own children into TMR every Halloween. “We found that demeaning and totally unacceptable,” she told me. The local press covered the story, and in 2001 the scandal reached Ottawa, where MP Claude Bachand rose in the House of Commons to speak of the locked gates: “This means that children from low income families will not be able to knock on doors of the homes of the wealthy in Mount Royal. This is unacceptable.” Bachand did not give the Parc-X kids enough credit, however. Finding the gates locked, the children simply walked around the fence.

The Halloween blockades further soured the reputation of the l’Acadie fence and of the neighbourhood that erected it. Whatever the fence was originally meant to do became irrelevant in the face of public perception. All that mattered was what the fence seemed to be. If it was built to keep children safe, now it just seemed to keep children out—at least the poor ones from Parc-Extension. Realizing this, the Town stopped locking the gates on Halloween in 2002, and as a gesture of sincerity the embarrassed mayor of TMR, Suzanne Caron, removed the gates altogether. But when Caron lost her re-election bid in 2005, the new mayor promptly put the gates back in: residents had stood up in town council meetings and demanded them. New signs appeared on the gates designed to soften the effect of the fence by bidding pedestrians from the Parc-X side bienvenu, and those from the TMR side to soyez prudent—“Be careful.”

Mary Deros would like to see the gates removed again “to indicate there is an openness,” but she added, “I have more pressing issues than the fence at this point.” Most of the Parc-X residents I met felt the same way. They don’t care about the fence. After fifty years, some hardly even notice it at all any more, and the structure itself appears dilapidated, neglected and meaningless. Invocations of the Berlin Wall ring absurd. When I saw it, the fence made me think more of archaeology than apartheid.

Still, in spite of its disregard and physical decay, the fence remains a symbol. All barriers, after all, inspire those on one side to wonder about those on the other. Over the years the l’Acadie fence has mutated into something more than it was ever meant to be: a line drawn on a city’s emotional cartography that discriminates the residents of Here from the residents of There. I thought of this as I passed through the fence and listened to the spring-loaded gate clang bienvenue behind me.

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Marcello Di Cintio’s writing has been published in Afar, EnRoute, Walrus, Reader’s Digest Canada and other publications. His work has brought him the 2002 Maclean-Hunter Endowment Prize for Creative Nonfiction and several Western and National Magazine Award nominations. He is the author of Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa, winner of the Henry Kriesel Award for Best First Book, and Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran, winner of the Wilfred Eggleston Prize for Best Nonfiction (Alberta Book Awards). In the Shadow of the Wall: Travels Along the Barricades will be published by Goose Lane Editions in the fall of 2012. Di Cintio lives with his family in Calgary.

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MARCELLO DI CINTIO

Marcello Di Cintio’s writing has been published in Afar, EnRoute, Walrus, Reader’s Digest Canada and other publications. His work has brought him the 2002 Maclean-Hunter Endowment Prize for Creative Nonfiction and several Western and National Magazine Award nominations. He is the author of Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa, winner of the Henry Kriesel Award for Best First Book, and Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran, winner of the Wilfred Eggleston Prize for Best Nonfiction (Alberta Book Awards). His latest book is Walls: Travels Along the Barricades published by Goose Lane Editions. Di Cintio lives with his family in Calgary.


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