Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Mile End

Montreal's Hamlet Beneath the Hill

Mile End feels like Sesame Street. It has the right combination of rusty cornices, welcoming atmosphere and multiethnic groups of children playing in the street, although big yellow birds and blue cookie monsters are lamentably absent.

You’ll find Mile End in Montreal, nestled between the slopes of Mount Royal to the southwest and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks to the north. Its 23,965 residents eat, sleep and curse the crooked floors in a motley array of triplexes, duplexes and apartment buildings, all with little gardens and those quintessential spiral staircases. Quintessential, really, is the key word here. Mile End embodies most of what’s best about Montreal: the effortless mix of languages, the whimsical architecture, the easygoingness and the sense that sitting in a leafy terrasse on St. Viateur Street is more important than whatever mundane task you’re neglecting.

But Mile End is also a good neighbourhood, period. Its diversity, pedestrian-oriented scale, fine mix of housing and commerce, and innovative architecture all come together to create a model environment. People here can easily live without a car—indeed, the Plateau Mont-Royal borough, of which Mile End is a part, has one of the lowest car-ownership rates in Canada—and there’s no shortage of locally owned businesses. So what’s behind it all?

Mile End was born as a little hamlet huddled around the church of Saint-Enfant-Jésus, near the present-day corner of Laurier Street and St. Laurent Boulevard, about a mile north of what was then the Montreal city limit. Incorporated in 1878 as the village of St. Louis du Mile End, the town blossomed; in 1895, it became the City of St. Louis, with a population of about four thousand. Stretching from Mont Royal Avenue in the south all the way up to Jean Talon Street in the north, St. Louis billed itself as the best town on Montreal Island, an over-the-mountain oasis of clean air and cheap housing.

Development in St. Louis occurred at a furious pace. Heavily influenced by the City Beautiful movement, the town required each building to have a setback of about three metres to make room for tidy little gardens. Streets were built wider than in Montreal, a tree program was established and bathrooms were required in each apartment. Elegant streets like Park Avenue and St. Joseph Boulevard were developed, the latter boasting gorgeous greystone houses and a tree-lined median that would eventually stretch well into Montreal’s east end. By the spring of 1909, when burgeoning St. Louis was annexed into Montreal, the little hamlet had become Quebec’s third largest city, with 37,000 inhabitants.

Over the next fifty years, Mile End became Montreal’s most Jewish neighbourhood, as thousands of Jews, who had fled pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe, migrated north along St. Laurent Boulevard from the older Jewish ghetto downtown. If you’ve read any Mordecai Richler, you’re probably already familiar with Mile End: the renowned author lived in the 5600 block of St. Urbain, just above St. Viateur, and many of his stories are set in the neighbourhood. Wilensky’s, the neighbourhood hangout described in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, still serves hand-pumped sodas and mystery-meat Specials at the corner of Clark and Fairmount.

By the end of the 1950s, though, most of the Jews had left for western suburbs like Snowdon and Côte St. Luc. They were replaced by a virtual potpourri of immigrants: ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards and other Eastern and Southern Europeans.

To firm up my grasp of Mile End history, I sought out Susan Bronson, a professor of architecture at the Université de Montréal and the founder of Mile End Memories, an organization dedicated to the neighbourhood’s history and heritage. Over coffee and juice at a café on Villeneuve Street, the affable Ms. Bronson let me in on a few bits of local history.

It turns out that, ironically, Mordecai Richler’s old stomping grounds were once pretty WASPy. In 1911, some 34 percent of Mile End residents were anglophone, compared to a mere 4 percent in 1891. Neighbouring Outremont—now a bastion of the francophone elite—was also heavily anglo in those days. Faced with the influx of Jews in the 1910s and ’20s, however, many anglos fled. Protestant churches were converted to synagogues, and Jews, unwelcome in the Catholic system, attended Protestant schools. In some schools, like at Bancroft School on St. Urbain, the student body was more than 90 percent Jewish in the decades before World War II. On streets like St. Urbain and Esplanade, the number of Gentiles probably could have been counted on a single hand; Bronson’s own research concludes that around 75 percent of all property owners and renters in lower Mile End were Jewish.

Still, even in its most ethnically homogenous days, Mile End was a diverse place. “It was very common to have doctors and lawyers next door to labourers,” says Bronson. Prestigious streets like St. Joseph were only a few minutes’ walk from more ramshackle ones like Clark or Casgrain. In fact, the very fabric of Mile End encouraged diversity. Triplexes, Mile End’s most common form of housing, provided a perfect opportunity for new immigrants to gain a foothold in Montreal. Immigrants, Bronson tells me half-jokingly, “seem to live here for three generations”—one for each floor of the triplex. “Triplexes were a way to add to the family revenue,” she explains. When Greeks and Portuguese arrived in the 1950s, they often rented apartments in triplexes owned by Jews. As the Jewish community moved away, the newcomers were able to buy the triplexes and put down their own roots in the neighbourhood.

By the dawn of the 1980s, however, Mile End was run down, suffering from the urban neglect afflicting cities across the continent. Two decades earlier, Mayor Jean Drapeau’s administration had ripped out the leafy median and turned St. Joseph Boulevard into a car-choked thoroughfare. Park Avenue had acquired an air of faded grandeur as it too was assaulted by legions of cars and trucks. When Bronson first moved to the neighbourhood in 1980, you could rent a seven-room apartment for $130 a month. “The number of fires was amazing,” she says. Most were arsons.

But things began to change: in a familiar turn of events, artists and students were attracted by the ethnic diversity and the fantastic architecture, setting off a long period of gentrification. In some ways, the triplex phenomenon that encouraged Mile End’s role as a stepping stone for immigrants has also contributed to its ongoing embourgeoisement: the grandchildren of immigrants can make a pretty penny by selling their family’s triplex to a condo developer, so they leave the neighbourhood and buy a house in the suburbs.

But there’s an upside to gentrification, too. As buildings are renovated, more attention is being given to the neighbourhood’s architectural heritage. In an odd twist, many of the gentrifiers are actually immigrants, albeit well-off ones. Transplants from France make up nearly a third of all new immigrants to Mile End and 14 percent of all immigrants, the same proportion as people born in Portugal.

Mile End’s success as a neighbourhood comes from its history. Each wave of residents has left its own unique mark on the neighbourhood: the Portuguese, for instance, taught Mile Enders the value of a well-maintained garden and adorned their triplexes with tiles depicting Catholic saints. Park Avenue remains a sort of downtown for Montreal Greeks, even if most of them moved away years ago. And the Hasidic community continues to thrive; little boys with yarmulkes pedal their tricycles furiously down the sidewalk, braided hair blowing in the wind. It will take care and attention from residents and from the city for Mile End to retain the qualities that make it such a great neighbourhood.

Mile End Memories offers summer walking tours exploring Mile End’s residential and religious heritage, as well as lectures and discussions throughout the year. Email [email protected] to sign up for the mailing list or phone (514) 849-9543 for more information