Step one: fire
When I first moved to Montreal in 2002, the city was littered with vacant lots, many of them in very prominent locations. The lots, which were filled with weeds and surrounded by heavy concrete blocks, became as much a symbol of the city as potholes and outdoor staircases.
Since then, many of the vacant lots have given way to new buildings. But some linger on, joined by new lots created by fire. In some cities, when you hear a siren in the distance, you can safely assume it’s a police car or an ambulance. In Montreal, it’s more likely a fire truck.
Even more alarming than the high number of fires is the fact that many of them appear to be the result of arson. Four years ago, a fruiterie near my apartment was firebombed multiple times, the used appliance shop where I built my fridge mysteriously exploded and a popular sushi restaurant suddenly closed for renovations — an employee later told me that it had been set ablaze by someone to whom the owner owed a debt.
Step two: demolition
There seem to be two culprits behind these arson attacks: organized crime and greedy landlords looking for insurance money. Neither has trouble evading police. Earlier this year, two men were arrested after a series of Italian cafés were firebombed, but the fires eventually resumed. Nobody was ever found responsible for the attacks on my local fruiterie. The appliance store explosion was so intense it forced firefighters to demolish the entire building, leaving little evidence for arson investigators to uncover.
Apparently, this kind of thing was even more common in the 1970s and 80s, when Park Avenue was poor and property values were depressed. Once, while having a coffee on the terrace outside Navarino, I met a woman who grew up on my block in the 1980s; she said her mother was so terrified of the fires that she moved her family to another neighbourhood entirely.
Step three: rubble
Sometimes a newly-emptied lot is redeveloped within a couple of years, but other times it remains empty for decades. I have no idea why. The site of the old appliance store has been empty for four years now. Another lot that is now used as a parking lot for a radio station appears never to have been developed — a photo from the early twentieth century shows it vacant, much the same way it is now. (The building that once stood on its southern side has disappeared, leaving yet another vacant space.)
Whenever I pass by a vacant lot, I can’t help but think of the opening lines from the song “Left and Leaving” by the Weakerthans, a band I listened to quite a bit when I was a teenager. The song is about Winnipeg, a city in far worse shape than Montreal, but its elegiac tone fits the mood of a vacant lot in any place: “My city is still breathing, but barely, it’s true / through buildings gone missing like teeth.”
Step four: vacant lot
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