A series of black and white photographs on display at the Centre d’histoire de Montreal in Old Montreal’s Place d’Youville captures a stark moment in our city’s history.

In effect, they are photographs of a crime scene. The crime? Monstrous "urban renewal" and "slum clearance" projects, which, starting in the 1950s, displaced an estimated 25,000 Montrealers from their homes and neighbourhoods.

Some photographs have a creepy feel. Before the streets were torn up and homes and business demolished, city bureaucrats ordered that photographs be taken and carefully numbered so that the devastation could be carefully documented.

Today we know those areas through what stands in their stead.

The giant parking kiosk that is the CBC-Radio-Canada building was once a thriving neighbourhood of 5000 people called the Faubourg à m’lasse – the molasses neighbourhood, named for the aroma of refining sugar at the giant refinery a few blocks east.

It was also the edge of Montreal’s infamous red-light district, which was also destroyed, displacing another 4000 or so.

The third area was a working class Irish neighbourhood called Goose Village. Now it’s the entrance to the Bonaventure Expressway and the site of the since demolished Autostade, a 25,000 seat stadium built to showcase 1967 World Fair events. It also was a massive parking lot for Expo 67.


The projects didn’t happen without a bare knuckle fight between Mayor Jean Drapeau and "le Chef," Premier Maurice Duplessis, who saw Montreal’s ambitious young mayor as a threat to his supreme power over the province. In their biography of Drapeau, Brian McKenna and Susan Purcell captured the story.

While Drapeau was mayor, he had to face a hostile council, many of whom were allied to Duplessis. Their leader was Paul Dozois, Minister of Municipal Affairs in Duplessis’ cabinet, who was also on Council, leading the "slum clearance" faction at City Hall.

"The tension was palpable in September 1954 when Duplessis made a Saturday morning visit to city hall to review the state of the housing project. Police posted at the main door had been told to escort the premier to the mayor’s office, where Drapeau waited anxiously.

Instead Duplessis slipped in a side door and bypassing Drapeau’s office, went straight to the executive committee room.

Duplessis took Drapeau’s chair and sent for the outfoxed mayor.

During a tense two-hour meeting, Drapeau stood his ground and said finally: ‘The project will not be built as long as I am mayor!’

Duplessis looked at Drapeau and said the solution to the impasse was obvious."


The 1957 election that unseated Drapeau was the most vicious in the city’s history. Duplessis hired an army of goons and even ordered the provincial police to steal ballot boxes. Drapeau was defeated and the Habitations Jeanne Mance, which Drapeau rightfully described as a "barracks," were built, much to the distress of city planners since.

These pitched battles went on in cities across the Western World. In addition to razing neighbourhoods, highways like the Ville-Marie Expressway and the Decarie trench sundered communities beyond repair. The damage was mortal to American cities like Detroit – Canadian cities like Montreal and Toronto survived the amputations.

For the first time in history, more of us live in cities rather than in the country. The hope is that proximity will mean more sustainable living and less waste. Protecting and greening existing city neighbourhoods, and building high density housing, are the answer. No more "urban renewal" and mega projects.

Lost Neighbourhoods

At Centre d’histoire de Montreal (335 Place d’Youville)

To March 25, 2012            http://hour.ca/2011/06/23/bloke-nation-montreals-lost-neighbourhoods/

................You have until next March to see this exhibit: