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Ghosts of St. Henri

Posted by / December 4, 2006

hen train.jpgThere is a wide, weedy, empty, lovely space in St. Henri where the main CN line cuts through the 'hood in a long curve on its way to the south side of the Lachine Canal. It was a great place for quiet stargazing and midnight trainspotting, until (you saw this coming) last summer, when half of the space was bought up, paved over and, lo, the IGA came. But that's not really the point. Last week I visited a photo exhibit at the Societe Historique de St. Henri (sorry, no website - it's on the third floor of the fire station across the street from the St. Henri metro station - the exhibit runs till Dec. 10) and had the opportunity to contemplate an aerial photo of this same space as it looked less than one hundred years ago - a smoke-blackened maze, criss-crossing lines of steel ran like a freeway through the heart of a cluttered neighbourhood. These railway networks were the circulation system that kept the factories running and most of the neighbourhood employed in a seemingly never-ending cycle of supply-and-demand. Other photos feature factory workers - children, women, men; some lined up at factory gates smiling defiantly, others at work maneuvering massive plates of steel, dwarfed by machinery.

Eventually demand moved elsewhere (I assume China), the factories closed, that horrible Ville-Marie expressway was built, and by the late 70s St. Henri found itself cut off physically and economically. I don't know when they started ripping up the unused railways; it was before my time. All I know is the empty lot, the abandoned corners of darkness, the relative quiet, the low rumble that you can hear when a freight train gears up at the Turcotte Yards a mile up the tracks - these dirty, lovely moments that are so easy to stumble into around here if that's what you're looking for. I assumed that it was always this way, but the d/evolution of this neighbourhood from a working-class hub and industrialists' paradise to a postindustrial fantasy world has happened so quickly it's a wonder that the weeds have grown at all in the tar-polluted ground. It's a wonder I can see the weeds through the trash that people leave in every empty lot.

And now the condos come. It's strange how I always considered them such an encroachment on the neighbourhood, popping up all cheap and preppy on the mysteriously empty lots at the edge of the Lachine Canal. I never really considered how the romantic decay I love so much is only a brief stage of the city's evolution - back and forth, building up, tearing down, growing in, digging up, starting over. The quiet that I love is the quiet of economic death, of ecological renewal, the empty spaces are disappeared factories full of ugly jobs belonging to proud locals whose families are now into their third generation of welfare. I hope the IGA isn't too pricey. The industrial revolution burned through here and has left billowing, weedy fields in its wake, the ghosts of factories, the sound of old machinery echoing through the streets as a lone train rounds that curve on its way out. I suppose someday, sooner or later, that empty quiet will be back for good.

Discussion

1 Comment

Hannah / December 5, 2006 at 10:23 am
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Such a genuine love note to your neighbourhood. It makes me want to run down there tonight and listen to the wind rustle the weeds (and the scraps of a fast-food life).

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