This is the sixth and final post in the Perennial Problems series exploring the intersections of environmental history and histories of health
Scholars of deindustrialization are increasingly focusing on the long-term “wounds of class” carried by the communities left behind by capital flight; collective scars lived out both socially and in the embodied experience of illness and injury. But what happens to working-class health when urban deindustrialized areas become the gentrified “post-industrial”?
The Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Henri was once the heart of industrial capitalism in Canada, developing quickly along the north bank of the Lachine Canal, which from the early 19th century allowed shipping traffic to circumvent the difficult Lachine rapids of the massive Saint Lawrence River. But this industrial economy began to disintegrate almost immediately following the boom years of World War II, hitting Saint-Henri and the surrounding area particularly hard, and spurring mass layoffs and outward migration.
A variety of neoliberal development schemes pursued since the 1980s – in particular, the makeover of the Lachine Canal from industrial corridor to National Park – have since paved the way for gentrification. Two material worlds now share the same geographical space. For some, it is experienced as a post-industrial playground of eateries, fashion boutiques, and upscale condominiums. Others live the daily realities of harsh statistics: thirty-four per cent of the neighbourhood’s 16 000 residents are under the poverty line, some ten per cent higher than the (already high) Montreal average.
As Saint-Henri’s shifting environment displaces low-income people and distances them from services and care facilities, the chronic illnesses (such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes) that are fellow travelers of extreme poverty have become increasingly constrictive. Oral histories reveal that mobility, or lack thereof, is one of the principal vectors of inequality in Montreal’s gentrifying Southwest neighbourhoods, as patterns of physical and social movement shift with the economic transition from industrial production into the world of real estate speculation and tech. Long-time Saint-Henri resident Marc-Olivier Rainville remarked:
Everybody knows that there was deindustrialization, but it caused something that was really dramatic for the people here. When the Canal closed, and the boats stopped passing by, and the water stopped moving…there were people who fell into a depression because of that!Marc-Olivier Rainville, interviewed by Fred Burrill, 7 June 2018
In place of this industrial activity, new types of middle-class citizen action have sprung up in the form of associations aimed at promoting mobility and alternative transit along its banks, while developers and restauranteurs progressively re-brand Saint-Henri as one of the “Quartiers du Canal [Canal neighbourhoods].”
In contrast to this new culture of physical activity and enjoyment of green space, for former industrial workers and their descendants, moving around the neighbourhood is increasingly limited to the realm of necessity. Doris Leblanc moved to Montreal in 1974 from Acadian northern New Brunswick, drawn to the city in search of the industrial work that she quickly found in a variety of different non-unionized shops, where she remembers working intense amounts of overtime. When asked about what sort of work she did in the various factories, she responded proudly,
DL: All kinds of stuff!Doris LeBlanc, interviewed by Fred Burrill, 16 January 2020
All kinds of stuff.
DL: All kinds of stuff, yup.
And was it tiring?
DL: Nope! Nope! Back then I worked overtime, as much as I wanted. And today, I say that’s why I burned out.
It’s all the overtime you were doing.
DL : Absolutely.
Yeah? You mean in your feet, and everything?
DL: Yup, we were always on our feet.
And you think this affected your health?
DL: I think so, yeah
Doris’ mobility is significantly limited by podiatric pain and swelling and chronic shortness of breath related to a lung disorder. Although she is only in her 60s, many of her friends and comrades from local neighbourhood organizations have passed on, lost to the premature old age of poverty – “There are quite a few who have died … nothing’s the same anymore! It’s really quite a little bit difficult, losing friends we knew. We don’t see them anymore … some are sick, some are old, prostate cancer, another kind of cancer.” Loss is deeply etched in Doris’ relationship to the neighbourhood. Despite the fact that Saint-Henri has become an active destination for restaurant and bar-goers from across the city, she describes it as “fantôme-town,” devoid of the people and places she knew.
The gaggles of well-dressed young people taking up space on often-crowded sidewalks along Saint-Henri’s main commercial boulevard, Notre-Dame Street, have contributed to what geographer Amy Twigge-Molecey has described as a process of indirect, social and cultural displacement for long-time residents. Food and its consumption are central to this alienation. A recent study by Lucy Lé and Aaron Vansintjan on food security in Saint-Henri concluded that, “the long-term presence of a disadvantaged population is now jeopardized more than ever. Beyond increased difficulty to shop for adequate food, there are also feelings of frustration, exclusion, and dispossession.” In recent years Saint-Henri has become widely renowned for its nightlife, dubbed “Montreal’s Coolest Neighbourhood” by the city’s popular trend-watching site, Mtl Blog. But the area is also home to Montreal’s largest food bank, and its low-income residents are more likely to shop for necessities at the Dollar Store than one of the increasingly pricey big-box groceries or smaller, boutique stores. Longtime residents are both unwilling and unable to frequent the new establishments. As Rainville stated, “They’re very expensive … Before Foie Gwas [a new upscale eatery] it was the Belle Province [a diner chain in Quebec]. I used to go there with my kids . . . well it closed down, and now I would never put a foot in the door of Foie Gwas. I don’t want to go there.” Luce Parisien puts it even more forcefully. Responding to recent acts of vandalism against a luxury grocery store, she said,
I wonder what’s more violent, y’know? Filling up Notre-Dame street with very expensive restaurants, when you’re struggling to survive, and you have a hard time getting enough to eat; when all your money goes to your rent and you’re always worried, and you see those people selling expensive stuff and you have restaurants everywhere … one after the other, and it’s all expensive … I find it offensive.Luce Parisien, interviewed by Fred Burrill, 12 May 2018
The proliferation of new food options has in fact served to violently erase the cheque-to-cheque, fixed-income existence of many of Saint-Henri’s inhabitants, compromising not only their attempts to feed themselves at a reasonable price but also their mental and emotional integrity. The visibility of the working and unemployed poor in the neighbourhood decreases as their physical and social conditions continue to deteriorate.
Oral histories of longtime residents of Saint-Henri reveal that health and mobility are significant terrains of struggle in the fight against gentrification and for working-class dignity and survival. There is nothing intrinsically awful about exercise, an emphasis on mobility, or the presence of interesting and varied food choices. But as the cultural conduit for the underlying displacement being played out on the housing market, these phenomena serve to heighten class disparities and invisibilize emotional and physical suffering. A truly collective navigation of post-industrial urban space, one that can prioritize the health and wellness of all, must necessarily move beyond the underlying exploitation-based logic of capital accumulation.