Reappropriating Urban Space

This weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the ABC:MTL exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. While a number of exhibits jumped out at me, the one that I’m still thinking about on Monday deals with Building 7 in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

Building 7 is effectively an old train shed, built in the 1920s, and abandoned by CN Rail in 2003. A strong artistic and activist community nearby has been appropriating the space since its abandonment for use as arts studios and a community meeting place. The building was sold in 2006 to developers Groupe Mach for $1, on the condition that Groupe Mach would decontaminate the site. These developers were at odds for some time with the local activists, but in 2012 an agreement was reached, which would give the 7 à nous committee ownership of the building, a necessary arrangement to allow the development of the rest of the site.

There’s a number of interesting things here. First, it’s important to note that the overall trend in Montréal (and other big cities) is to construct condos on every available piece of land, in theory to maximize revenues. If a hundred-unit condo project can bring in revenues touching the tens of millions, why would any economically rational land-owner build anything but? The Griffintown development has come under fire for justly this- the construction of condos to the exclusion of everything else is no way to build a healthy, sustainable neighbourhood.

In a system where private, non-resident landowners, in collaboration with a city government keen to increase its tax base, are able to decide on the use of the land they own and manage, space for the community becomes hard to promote. It is normal that a non-resident land-owner would be concerned solely with the return on their investment, rather than establishing winning conditions for a vibrant, durable neighbourhood. It is thus normal that community and artistic groups are shunted to the sidelines and forced to appropriate economically ‘non-productive space’ to house their activities.

Right?

Well. The second interesting thing about Building 7 is the fact that the land itself is contaminated. While the developers are responsible for the costs of cleaning up this land, it is still likely that if their plans for condo development go ahead, they stand to make a lot of money. There is an interesting rupture here- the developer might clean the land to put up a culturally dead space, whereas the community groups occupying it have no means to decontaminate the space they occupy, even though they are cultivating a cultural vivacity. While the establishment of a cultural centre does not necessarily imply a high need for start-up capital, the fact that these centres are pushed to economically marginal land in turn heaps obligations on them, throttling their growth.

Consider this. There is a lot of unused, formerly industrial land all over the ‘rust-belt’, loosely defined as the former manufacturing cities stretching from Ohio into Quebec. This land tends to be on the margins of 1950s downtowns, is often contaminated, and is generally poorly-suited to residential use (short of knocking down the structures, decontaminating, and then rebuilding, not that this stops developers from ‘loft conversion’ programs). The recession of 2008 created a whole lot of commercial vacancy as well- only time will tell whether these buildings will be reused for offices and businesses, or whether they too will become abandoned, in search of occupants. In any case, there is an abundance of abandoned property in this area of the world: structures crumbling, land poisoned, devoid of people and purpose.

At the same time, the land in urban cores is being built increasingly higher as developers struggle to wring every last cent from their investments. There is no room in such constructions for artistic space: at the limit, a forward-thinking developer will content themselves with luxury boutiques on the first floor and a green roof and call it a day. As land is bought, services are squeezed out, leaving a housing monoculture in place.

The solution, as the 7 à nous activists (and many others!) realized is to reappropriate the existing space. Once they are occupying it, the owner is forced to deal with them. Because the owner does not occupy the space, and is motivated by economic considerations, the activists have a leg up in their dealings, being able to demonstrate the value of the work they do. Inhabiting the space, whether such an occupation is legal or not, is the surest tactic to reclaim it.

Before we all go out and set up studios in abandoned rail yards, it’s worth underlining the importance of bylaws and regulation. A fire yesterday killed hundreds in Brazil- lack of emergency exits and poor crowd control, as well as a toxic, flammable ceiling, appear to be to blame. I myself have been to parties in abandoned spaces in Montréal where a quick evacuation would be next to impossible, and it is our good fortune only that prevented such an occurrence. As hard as it is to see private developers and the city profiting from the homogenization of available space, we must take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: the safety regulations surrounding use of buildings are there for a reason, co-operation with police and firefighters is absolutely necessary in the case of an emergency, and the collaboration of private capital and the city is often necessary to ensure the environmental health of abandoned sites.

And so here is the point. We should be thinking about ways to collaborate effectively with stakeholders to improve the cultural health of our communities. Developers should be forced to take some sort of long position in the properties they are responsible for, ensuring that once the initial sales phase is complete, they have some meaningful stake in the health of the community (ensuring, in other words, that the space continues to be desirable into the long-term). This would force them to a recognition of the value of social and cultural services in the fabric of a neighbourhood, and its durability. The city, for its part, should take a more active role in such development, for example by matching community groups needing space to developers creating it, in order to avoid quasi-legal occupations such as that of Building 7. Yes, occupying the space is great leverage, but in a perfect world, it would not be necessary for culture workers to inhabit diseased land in order to gain use of it. The city too must recognize the value of activist contributions to a place’s vibrancy.

Activists should have allies, from both the top and the bottom. The Quebec government is keen to promote and valourise francophone culture in Montréal, which they distrust for its multiculturalism. By supporting local cultural organisations, they build a network capable of furthing this goal, and by forcing the inclusion of public space in new developments, they may be able to arrest the flow of young families from the city to the suburbs. For their part, local activists would welcome opportunities to sit at the table with landowners and be taken seriously, with their preoccupations and experience taking the place of purely economic considerations surrounding the use of our land.

The space we occupy is important, and decolonising and revalourising it should be a priority.

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