“History is the memory of a culture and memory can never be free from passions and commitments. I am not in any sense inhibited by the fact that my own passions and commitments are clear.” – E.P. Thompson
I am not usually a historian inhibited by my passions and commitments. From writing about my interest in Japanese popular culture to dissecting my own presence in the oral history interviews I conduct, deconstructed positionality and self-reflexivity have been central to my practice. However, when reflecting on the politics of our audio walk-in-formation through Point Saint-Charles, my own political position seems ambiguous and fraught with tension. In writing the political framing of the audio walk, I have had a chance to think deeply about key pressure points in the history of the area, such as poverty, deindustrialization, activism, immigration, neoliberalism, and gentrification. Yet, in my considerations, although I felt a profound empathy for the loss wrought by these processes, I became simultaneously aware that many of these historical pains were not my own. Indeed, I have even benefitted from some of the same histories, which, in the abstract, I am examining with a critical eye.
Let me expand by focusing on gentrification. Several years ago, as a graduate student attempting to live frugally, I moved from an upper middle class neighbourhood to Saint Henri, a slowly gentrifying area adjacent to Point Saint-Charles. The triplex that I lived in was a former tenement building, with its characteristic long hallway and lack of windows except at the front and back. Although it was still poorly insulated and rather cold in Montreal’s harsh winter, the inside of the apartment had been redone, with a new Ikea kitchen and bathroom. My two upstairs neighbours were also graduate students at Anglophone universities who commuted by driving the short distance to their downtown campuses. Across the street from us was the old Dominion Textile building, transformed into the Chateau Saint-Ambroise which now houses upscale residential and commercial lofts; workers and residents of this complex came in and out of expensive cars, signalling their membership in a class above my neighbours and I. However, in the eyes of the area’s longtime residents, who scrolled “Fuck Yuppies” on the wall near my apartment, students lured by cheaper rent and short commutes, and the wealthy winners in the new post-industrial economy seemed one and the same, driving up the housing values, altering the known landscape, demanding home renovations, cute cafés, and fancy spas.
Recently, I read an article on Salon.com which was an interview with James Tracy, an author who forcefully argues that the word gentrification should be replaced by displacement. As Tracy insists, gentrification, with its linguistic roots in high society rather than in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods it ravages, sounds too benign, too gentle for its effects on working class populations: “I prefer to use the word “displacement” because it drives home the end result of gentrification: someone loses their home and their community. You can’t play fast and loose with the word!” As lower income residents become displaced and speculators buy up and flip properties, homes and communities disappear to be replaced by condos for double wage earning couples, often without children, and affordable housing options vanish. This economic violence is hidden by the attractive façade of gentrification, which decorates neighbourhoods with Starbucks, boutiques, and hipster pubs. On the other side of Atwater street, Saint Henri and Little Burgundy’s main thoroughfare of Notre Dame is a case in point with its trendy antique shops and bistros, all priced ostentatiously out of reach of past and present working class residents. Despite my awareness of the graphic nature of the upheaval caused by these changes, somehow, I was still drawn to the cafés on the gentrified side of my old neighbourhood, more comfortable due to my socio-economic background and status in the corporatized environment than the remaining community institutions that I should have supported, given my political sympathies. But, I justified, I hadn’t bought out the buildings myself, I was only profiting from their transformation into coffeehouses, pizzerias, and sushi bars. Soon, however, even that area felt uneasy to me, bereft of the community which had infused it with life historically, just as the condominiums near my triplex faced inwards, interacting with neither the Canal at their back nor the still un-gentrified street at their front, residents leaving each morning from underground garages…
I moved last year, back to the middle class neighbourhood where I had come from, partly due to this discomfort with my own position. Neither entirely a gentrifier nor a displaced person, I possessed enough capital to benefit from the kitschy remaking of the streets but too much empathy to participate actively in the remodelling of the working class neighbourhood. In Point Saint-Charles, in the making of our audio walk, this ambiguity has reappeared again within my psyche. It permeates my work on the booklet, compelling me to always question who I am to write about the community, encouraging me to ground myself deeper in the historical sources as an objective barrier to the uneasy fit between myself and the threatened neighbourhood. Recalling E.P. Thompson, however, I know better than to truly believe in primary sources as factual equalizers with the ability to make my analysis perfectly balanced and unbiased. Indeed, “I am not in any sense inhibited by the fact that my passions and commitments are clear” if only I was entirely sure of what those commitments currently are. Yet, I hope that this consistent deconstruction of selfhood and self-disclosure can in some ways make the work that we all produce more accountable, thoughtful, and honest.
Palmer, Bryan D. E.P. Thomson: Objections and Oppositions. New York: Verso, 1994.
O’Donoghue, Liam. “Don’t Call It Gentrification,” Salon, 2 November 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/11/02/don’t_call_it_gentrification/.