Friday, February 21, 2014

Mile-End, Always Beginning

I wrote this piece last April for Hyperlocal
It's about my neighbourhood.

I've lived in Mile-End since 1995. When a friend and I first struck out on our own to find an apartment we told ourselves we wouldn't go north of Mont-Royal. That wasn't where the action was. Our friends were all to the south, huddled around a few seedy bars on The Main.

We couldn't find anything so we ended up on Parc Avenue below Van Horne, blocks away north of our stated borderline. Since then I've happily endured the nicknames 'Chief', 'Sheriff', 'Mayor', 'The King of Kensington'  & 'Mile-End Billy'. I've walked around a lot and insisted on eye contact. I know the place. Not all of it and not everyone. This village, for all its tinyness is quite large.

Saint-Viateur, or Sesame Street as I like to call it, was my domain. Too many coffees at Olimpico, co-funding the vehicular lifestyles of its barristas via tip money. Too many hand waving, smiling, bisou laden walks up and down that strip. I awoke into a new role when, in 2000, I took over the family business on St-Laurent. I wasn't just another coffee hippie now, I was a local merchant. I couldn't recklessly add to the street art anymore, I had to step up, go adult.

As a shopkeeper, I've had to represent the hood, acting as gatekeeper to all the tourists looking for Little Italy to the north. I'd tell them, and still do, to hang a left at the corner and get a coffee and a bagel, do some people watching, that this is the 'hood you need to see. Recently a student called me up and asked me if I'd like to speak on the gentrification issue for an article she was writing on Mile-End. I spieled into the phone for a good half hour, mentioning Anglo artists and musicians who flock here for cheap rent and creative vibrancy. I was rewarded with some garbled misquotes. Maybe my Franglais was to blame…or the caffeine  in me, jumping from one detail to the next about the neighbourhood I love. I've been interviewed a lot, for my art, for our shop. I've never been misquoted, or at least never cared if I was. This time it was different. I prided myself on knowing my 'hood and now it seemed like I didn't.

It's a theme that never gets old. How much the neighbourhood has changed. It's always changing. How could it not ? We long ago lamented the loss of the second laundromat, we witnessed expansions and chi-chi makeovers of local grocery marts and the coming of newer upscale niche businesses. The old places I remember from my youth - Greek owned deps full of toys and nights out with my family at the Travailleurs Grecs du Qu├ębec social club - are gone or atrophied. My dusty junk crammed brocante has also transformed into an uptown gallery-boutique. My partner Emilie walked into a hoarded mess and we, very slowly, transformed the shop into something that isn't just a weirdo art project but maybe, just maybe, a livelihood. The neighbourhood changes, we change. Or is it vice versa ?

Recently some of the newer businesses on St-V were hit with hate posters wheat pasted on their windows, screaming "die yuppie scum!". I scoffed that the vandals were at least ten years late in their misdirected gestures. These new shops, like all shops, are simply making a go in what is hopefully a suitable environment. St-Viateur has evolved to be able to harbour such intentional, well designed spaces. But there have been Ferraris up and down that stretch before the new slew of college kids knew how much tattoos actually cost, before any of us used the H-word constantly.

Not everything can or should reflect the charming decay of neglected architecture. This was all pristine forest once. Retail chains do look out of place, but to who ? A few crusty locals bitterly cursing 'change' and 'gentrification' ? Locals like me ? Jerz, A friend from out west visited last summer. We walked around and visited all the new shops. We spoke of the changes. He said, 'It's a drawbridge situation, as soon as you get into the castle, you yell "Raise the drawbridge !" and everyone who follows yells the same thing.'

Sure, deke the sandwich brigade swarming the sidewalks looking for lunch, wait 20 minutes for your coffee (2nd or 3rd wave ?), dodge the strollers and mousey dogs and rock stars piled atop of each other. I'll do all that gladly. I love my hood, I complain night and day about it and always have. Somethings never change.