A torch cast a flickering light on the crowd outside the New City Gas Company, an 1849 factory jammed up against a railway viaduct near the Bonaventure Expressway.
Steve Bates, who plays guitar and electronics with the band Lanterner, set up his equipment as audience members sprawled on the cracked asphalt or perched on the curb in the warm summer night.
The outdoor concert, organized by the Griffintown Cultural Corridor, was more than a free night of experimental music, with the Montreal skyline as a spectacular backdrop. The happening, Bates explained, was also a cri du coeur for a unique neighbourhood facing an uncertain future.
"This neighbourhood matters to me," said Bates, who does not live in Griffintown. "Acoustically, as a musician, I think this is an amazing sounding space," he added. "It starts to make people think about how cities could be designed so they sound more interesting. This doesn't exist anywhere else in Montreal except for this exact location."
Griffintown is a neighbourhood on the edge. It's a district on the edge of downtown and Old Montreal, a gateway to the city, a soulful working-class neighbourhood whose 200-year history owes much to the Lachine Canal, which borders it.
It is an area on the margins, populated by crumbling buildings with corrugated metal siding and poplars poking up through cracked asphalt.
And now, it is a neighbourhood poised on the verge of transformation, facing a future, critics say, that threatens to erase much of its storied past.
Harvey Lev's Belgian shepherd mix, Darwin, nosed
around the sculpture garden outside the New City Gas
building. It includes a recycled-metal structure by Lev's partner, Esther Hageman, and a totem fashioned from woodfoundnearthesiteof St. Ann'sChurch, torndown in 1970.
A large sign reads: "See other side of sign." The other side is blank.
The pony-tailed Lev runs a paper-manufacturing business in the heritage building, which once produced the coal gas that lit Montreal's streets and homes in the gaslight era.
The art display is a nod to Corridart, an eight-kilometre outdoor exhibition created for the 1976 Olympics. Mayor Jean Drapeau infamously had the artworks torn down two days before the games began because he considered some of them subversive.
"I wanted to create a little bit of an art space here," said Lev, 58.
"When the bulldozers come to make the bus corridor, I know I can't stop them but I can make a historical moment," he added.
An uneasy calm hangs over Griffintown -roughly defined as the area between McGill, Guy and Notre Dame Sts. and the Lachine Canal -something like the "phoney war" in the early days of the Second World War.
No construction cranes pierce the skyline -yet. But the lull won't last forever.
In October, developer Devimco plans to break ground for 1,375 high-rise condominiums south of Wellington St. along the Lachine Canal.
Last year, Devimco scaled back a controversial $1.3-billion scheme for Griffintown announced in November 2007. The original plan approved by the city called for condo towers of up to 24 storeys with nearly 4,000 units, two big box stores, two hotels and a 2,000-seat theatre.
The recession put the project on the back burner. Devimco now plans a $475-million development, to be built in four phases. Company spokesman Andre Bouthillier refused an interview with The Gazette.
The start of construction will usher in a new era in a neighbourhood that has surmounted Industrial Revolution-era capitalism, epidemics and the wholesale demolition over its 200-year history.
Lev's heritage property is a mecca for urban planning students and professors eager to study the fabled neighbourhood.
"This area has so much history," said Lev said. "Why not make it work for us?"
Griffintown owes its name to Mary Griffin, a businesswoman who subdivided the former farmland around 1800. It later emerged that the land was not Griffin's to sell.
The real owner, Thomas McCord, had been away in Britain when an associate fraudulently sold it to Griffin. In 1805, McCord returned and launched a successful lawsuit to reclaim his property. But Griffin's name stuck.
In the 19th century, Griffintown was Canada's industrial heartland, strategically positioned beside the Lachine Canal, railways, the Victoria Bridge and the port. Workers there unloaded the coal that fed Montreal's industries and homes, forged iron and brewed ale.
But Dickensian conditions prevailed in the district, where Irish canal labourers staged Canada's first strike in 1843. In 1897, shoe manufacturer and philanthropist Herbert Ames studied the living conditions of Griffintown's working poor and found that half of homes lacked indoor plumbing.
By the 1960s, Griffintown was in a downward spiral. The opening of theSt. LawrenceSeawayin1959 made the Lachine Canal redundant. And in 1963, Mayor Jean Drapeau drove a stake into the heart of the once close-knit community by rezoning it industrial.
That was the year Lev's father, Iser, a Holocaust survivor, bought a former dairy on Peel St. (then called Colborne), where he opened a printing business. Eleven-year-old Harvey would tag along with his father on Saturdays. "He used to keep a bar of bittersweet chocolate in the glove box and a good chunk of speck (smoked pork). That was our treat," he recalled.
"The neighbourhood was full of what we would call slums. At least half the windows were Steinberg's paper bags," Lev said.
But colourful characters abounded at haunts like the Coffee Pot. "Doors on an angle with a 'Buvez Kik Cola sign. Seven old locals dis-sing and telling jokes," Lev reminisced.
Iser was enthusiastic about Griffintown's prospects. "He saw that if the city were going to grow, it would have to grow this way," said Lev.
But Iser was about half a century ahead of his time. Residents were fleeing as homes, schools and churches fell to the wrecking ball.
"People didn't fix their buildings," Lev said. "If the roof leaked, they didn't fix it. When the roof caved in, they called in the bulldozer."
But Lev stayed on.
"It was really a wonderful place," he said. "The canal was ever changing. When the water was low, you'd see the tail end of cars. Real urban grunge. I'm a 10-minute walk from Chinatown and downtown. I have my own playground, where there's not a soul."
The Notre Dame St. sales office for the Lowney condo development in Griffintown is humming.
A poster lists local services like sushi bars, coffee shops and video stores. A widescreen video monitor slowly pans over a condo tower: window, balcony, strip of bricks, window, balcony ... Couples in their 30s pore over samples of ceramic tiles and engineered wood.
While Devimco's mega-project stalled, Prevel, a smaller developer with a track record of renovating former industrial buildings, has forged ahead. "We were the first ones to believe in housing in Griffintown," said co-owner Jacques Vincent.
"Griffintown is an attractive neighbourhood because of its proximity to downtown," he said. "If you go to London, there is the Docklands. If you go to New York, it is Tribeca. In Toronto, it is King St. In Vancouver, it's False Creek and Yaletown."
Vincent, 60, cut his teeth building suburban homes in Repentigny. In 1995, the company broke into the downtown condo market with a successful renovation of a former industrial building on the Old Port.
It has tapped into a young clientele attracted by 500-square-foot condos starting at $139,000.
The company's first foray into Griffintown was the renovation of two former Lowney's chocolate factories. Brand new neighbouring buildings followed.
"My formula is disarmingly simple," Vincent said. "Give the customer what he wants."
The formula appealed to Jeff Dungan, 29, a computer engineer who moved into a unit in the original Lowney's building in 2007 and has since become a leading figure in the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown.
"I kind of wanted to live somewhere edgy," said Dungan. "There's a lot of development that seems cold, heartless and unoriginal. This was edgy in the sense that you didn't know which way it was going to go."
Dungan is not too happy with the direction Griffintown has taken. The Devimco project galvanized residents, he said.
"The fact that they proposed something so revolting to the people in the neighbourhood got everyone together," Dungan said.
The committee is also fighting a proposal to route South Shore buses through the neighbourhood, along Dalhousie St. The plan is the brainchild of the Societe du Havre de Montreal (SHM), a paramunicipal agency in charge of a $260-million plan to replace the elevated Bonaventure Expressway with a ground-level boulevard touted as Montreal's future Champs Elysees.
The original version of the plan would have routed 1,900 buses a day past the former gas works, requiring construction of a retaining wall that would have covered up the 1849 stone facade, probably designed by John Ostell, the city's leading architect of the day.
Last week, the city agreed to cut the number of buses by half and change the route to avoid destroying the heritage building.
The concession came after the Office de consultation publique de Montreal harshly criticized the bus plan in a report.
Another big player in Griffintown's future is the Ecole de technologie superieure at Peel and Notre Dame Sts. The engineering school affiliated with the Universite du Quebec has plans to revamp the neighbourhood as the "Quartier de l'innovation," a high-tech business district.
The struggle to give residents a voice on the neighbourhood's future has succeeded in one important way, Dungan said: turning Griffintown back into a community.
"At that time, we didn't decide what we wanted the neighbourhood to be but we did decide what we wanted the neighbourhood not to be. That's what Devimco did," said Dungan, who maintains the committee's bilingual website ( http://csrgriffintown.wordpress.com/).
At Wednesday night meetings, a core of a dozen local residents hash out their vision for the district.
That includes development that takes a cue from Griffintown's 200-year history, said Dungan. "You're not going to create what was here before but we can take inspiration from it."
Dungan's suggestions for Griffintown include holding a lottery for development contracts where both small and large developers could submit proposals.
"If parcels of land are small enough, you get human scale," he said. "It puts development over a longer period. You want organic growth that suits the needs of the neighbourhood. You want to have continuous regeneration."
"This has given birth to a community," Lev agreed. "It's been really delightful. Somebody brings a pizza, my partner makes cake and cookies. Someone opens a bottle of wine."
Lev's suggestions for the neighbourhood are simple, like having a horse-drawn trolley ferry passengers alongside the Lachine Canal on weekends or removing the asphalt from century-old cobblestones that still lie under Griffintown's streets.
Local resident Judith Bauer's contributions include setting up a foundation that hopes to buy the Griffintown Horse Palace to preserve it from demolition.
Bauer is a prime organizer of the cultural corridor and helped create a community garden alongside the CN viaduct where nasturtiums, tomatoes and zucchini flourish. "Don't eat the vegetables -this is where the Industrial Revolution happened!" she warns.
In 2004, Bauer and her partner bought an 1857 house next to the Griffintown Horse Palace, a dilapidated building that stables caleche horses.
"I was going to do a master's in mycology," said Bauer, 42, who has dark hair and a 100-watt smile.
But the Devimco project spurred her to drop plans to study mushrooms in favour of activism.
"I got interested in heritage and making sure I didn't get expropriated."
As a mushroom expert, she often interprets urban issues in the light of forest ecosystems.
A mega-project approach to planning eliminates the diversity and small details that make older neighbourhoods interesting, she says. "It's like loggers who clear-cut a forest."
The community garden, ironically dubbed the Parc de la concertation et consultation Hudon-Tremblay, after SHM chief Isabelle Hudon and Mayor Gerald Tremblay, is an example of how small things humanize a neighbourhood, Bauer said.
"I'd like to see caleche routes and artists' spaces. The more that's preserved, the more there's a connection to the place. If it's all new development, it's like being anyplace," she said, "with towers and Starbucks------------------------HF&RV---------------------