This post first appeared on The Metropole, the official blog of the Urban History Association.
Throughout the twentieth century in North America, the material presence of energy has tended to disappear gradually from cities. Following evolutions in transport technology and changes in fuel sources, the storage of physical energy, such as wood and coal, disappeared from urban landscapes. Generating stations moved away from city centers as gas and electricity, distributed through often underground networks, gained prominence.1 But to what extent have protests from urban citizens against the presence of energy in their neighborhood been an important factor in the material urban retreat of energy? Vehement opposition from citizens towards the urban presence of coal and wood yards played an important role in the spatial reorganization of energy consumption, as physical energy sources disappeared from urban landscapes. But citizens also protested against a more “modern” energy source, petroleum, whose presence in the form of gas stations was emphatically resisted while auto-mobility was gaining prominence over cities.
During the fall of 2020, after a welcome return to the City of Montréal archives, I stumbled upon a rare corpus of documents. Archivists have kept around a representative five percent of all the applications for permits submitted to the municipality between 1946 and 1960 for a range of activities, from taxies to newsstands. Within this collection I found permit applications for building coal yards, wood yards, gas stations, and heating oil reservoirs. Varying between six and more than one hundred pages, these files are extremely rich sources for understanding the attitudes of different social groups towards the material footprint of energy in cities. They contain letters and opinions from municipal services and outside actors, petitions, maps, plans, pictures, and diagrams.
These applications for permits reveal that urban energy landscapes were highly contested in the period considered. Montréal’s inhabitants and industries consumed very high amounts of energy for reasons of climatic conditions, spatial organization, and social choices.2 Coal and wood yards, gas stations, and oil reservoirs were thus plentiful in the city—although coal and wood’s presence diminished over time due to energy transitions towards gas and electricity. Why did people complain about the proximity of the very energy sources they needed in their everyday lives to heat their homes and propel their cars? And who was doing the complaining? To answer these questions, I built a database using the 203 archived permits.
Before going into the numbers, let’s take a few particular cases to get a finer grip of what was going on. In 1948, J. A. Aird Ltée submitted an application to build a combined wood and coal yard in the northern borough of Ahuntsic, near the Rivière-des-Prairies.3 His request was met by widespread opposition from parishioners and residents. The former, without excessive justification, argued in a letter that “such a commerce would be detrimental to the taxpayers of the municipality of the Saint-Laurent Parish.” The latter sent a petition to the Executive Committee of the City of Montréal, the arbitrator for the granting of permits, signed by 86 out of the 124 eligible residents—calculated by proximity to the proposed building site. The petition read as follows: “An inspection of the houses in the vicinity of your Public Notice board will reveal that those houses are of pleasing design and modern architecture. As these houses have been constructed within the past few years all rents are within the higher rental bracket. In view of the fact that this neighborhood is an attractive one and all residents desire that it should remain so in the future. We, the undersigned, ask that proceedings be taken to prohibit the storing of coal in this vicinity.” The opposition, reaching just over the two-thirds threshold of surrounding residents required to block a permit, led to the abandonment of J. A. Aird Ltée’s project.
This example reveals that the proximity of coal yards was seen by residents as a danger to the overall unity and appearance of their neighborhood; this had the effect of depressing property values. One could think that having a coal yard in walking distance from one’s house would be seen as a positive attribute, since acquiring this energy source for domestic purposes would be more convenient. But coal yards, as well as wood yards, brought with them many nuisances. A 1948 permit application by J. A. Robillard for a wood yard was opposed in another petition started by residents.4 According to their words, “we don’t want saw noises and dust etc. etc.” Another important urban threat related to wood and coal yards was fire. Urban historians have already documented the importance of fires in modifying the urban fabric as well as construction techniques.5 Without surprise, wood yards were denounced for the fire hazard they represented, both by residents and by the municipality’s fire department. In 1958, Gaston Lamoureux, a resident, opposed the granting of a permit for a wood yard in these words: “I wouldn’t want a wood yard near my house which would be dangerous for fire it would triple the insurance on my house and tenant thanks.”6 A petition against the wood yard collected 18 signatures out of 105 eligible residents. This wasn’t enough to block the permit application, but an unfavorable opinion from the fire department was. Raymond E. Paré, the department’s director, noted that the proposed location was behind wooden houses on a small lot only reachable through a backyard and denied the permit.
Gas station permits were also vehemently contested. Opponents decried the increased traffic and the subsequent casualties that they brought with them. The planning department’s director, Charles-Édouard Campeau, argued against the granting of a permit in 1955 to Richard Hagan since “it is not desirable to spark, at this intersection, new sources of conflict and obstruction that would bring about the maneuvering of vehicles entering or leaving a new refueling post.”7 His opinion was followed by the executive committee of the city, which turned down the request. Property owners on André-Jobin Street opposed a 1959 permit since “with the park across the street and a gasoline station on the corner, don’t you think it might be a little dangerous for the children to cross? There is [sic], at the moment, enough service stations, it not only devalues the property but also the district and jeopardizes the people’s health with a gasoline garage practically on every corner.”8
We thus see that energy landscapes associated with wood, coal, and petroleum were highly contested between the 1940s and the 1960s in Montréal. Urban complaints—about traffic, security, residential character, the respect of zoning ordinances, and aesthetics—were the most prominent. Environmental grievances also featured heavily, mostly the language of urban nuisance as well as fire hazard. And economic reasons, notably the threat of property value depreciation and insurance premium appreciation, were also mobilized by historical actors. In this order, the three most important opposition groups were residents, the urban planning department, and municipal councilors. They manifested their objection through petitions and letters. Only in a few instances did residents explicitly favor coal and wood yards or gas stations. A few petitions in favor of these energy nodes are found in the archives. Unfortunately, these don’t detail the reasons why people wanted more access to wood, coal, and gas in their neighborhoods. Only one letter of support for a gas station permit by Guy Benoit in 1956 expressed enthusiasm, deploring the fact that “almost all residents drive an automobile and need to drive far away to find an adequate service.”9
To what extent did this opposition materialize into actual change? Out of the 203 permits surveyed, 46 percent were met with opposition and 22 percent eventually rejected by the executive committee. This attests to the widespread ambivalence towards the presence of sites of energy consumption within cities, although this didn’t always translate into actual material change. A major takeaway is that not all actors were equal in the permit application process. Residents needed to gather more than two-thirds of their neighbors’ signatures to block the granting of a permit. Starting in 1955, a rule change stipulated that property owners whose property values were at least two-thirds of the total for a determined area around the proposed location could also block the application.10 Municipal administrations—themselves influenced by councilors and urban dwellers—had a much bigger say. In most cases their recommendations were followed by the executive committee. Using their nascent legitimacy in an era obsessed with urban order applied through zoning ordinances and building codes, their technical language evolved during this period. During the 1950s they integrated color maps to illustrate land uses around proposed sites while also including traffic infographics to document the consequences of gas stations on adjacent road use.
This case study adds to our understanding of how energy transitions unfolded in cities. In postwar Montréal, the transition away from physical energy sources stored within the city center seems to have been partly pushed by the opposition of regular citizens and urban professionals in regards to coal and wood yards and gas stations. Although they differ, these energy landscapes all seemed to constitute a threat to the urban order by bringing about visual and sound nuisance and confronting citizens with the ever-present risk of fire and accident. The particularly high opposition rate for gas stations (70 percent of permits) should remind us that the hostility towards cars in cities isn’t a product of the 1970s.11
Even after the struggle between different transportation modes was partly settled in the 1930s in favor of the automobile, the multifaceted threat they posed to urban lives and order was still denounced in the early postwar years supposedly marked by enthusiastic motorization.12 Although the opposition wasn’t yoked into a widespread critique of environmental degradation and pollution, it still has to be considered as a form of resistance to auto-mobility that sometimes led to material change embodying the possibility of building the North American city differently.
Feature Image: “Montreal from the Church of Notre Dame” (circa 1900 and the image as it appears, is reversed), Detroit Publishing, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
1 See: Clarence Hatton-Proulx, « « Sous vos pas, un parfait agencement » : la transformation du paysage énergétique urbain de Montréal, 1890-1950 », Flux 121, no 3 (2020): 4‑28.
2 Richard W. Unger et John Thistle, Energy Consumption in Canada in the 19th and 20th Centuries. A Statistical Outline (Naples: CNR Edizioni, 2013).
3 Conseil de ville, Permis, cour à bois. 28, AVM 001 VM001-03-3-02 (Montréal: Ville de Montréal, 1948). My translation.
4 Conseil de ville, Permis, cour à bois. 29, AVM 001 VM001-03-3-02 (Montréal: Ville de Montréal, 1948). My translation. The original contained multiple spelling mistakes.
5 See: Anna Rose Alexander, City on Fire: Technology, Social Change, and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860-1910 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016); Mark Tebeau, Eating Smoke. Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); Sara E. Wermiel, The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
6 Conseil de ville, Permis, cour à bois. 82, AVM 001 VM001-03-3-02 (Montréal: Ville de Montréal, 1958). My translation.
7 Conseil de ville, Permis, postes d’essence et des réservoirs d’huile à chauffage. 2432, AVM 001 VM001-03-3-08 (Montréal: Ville de Montréal, 1955). My translation.
8 Conseil de ville, Permis, postes d’essence et des réservoirs d’huile à chauffage. 2655, AVM 001 VM001-03-3-08 (Montréal: Ville de Montréal, 1959).
9 Conseil de ville, Permis, postes d’essence et des réservoirs d’huile à chauffage. 2515, AVM 001 VM001-03-3-08 (Montréal: Ville de Montréal, 1956). My translation.
10 « Nouvelles conditions à l’octroi de permis », La Presse, 2 mars 1955.
11 For useful historical studies of 1970s opposition to the system of automobility, see: Valérie Poirier, « « L’autoroute est-ouest, c’est pas le progrès ! » : environnement et mobilisation citoyenne en opposition au projet d’autoroute est-ouest à Montréal en 1971 », Bulletin d’histoire politique 23, no 2 (2015): 66‑91, https://doi.org/10.7202/1028884ar; Valérie Poirier, « Expertise, Local Knowledge, and the Construction of the Automobile as an Environmental Risk in Montreal, 1960s–70s », Canadian Historical Review 101, no 3 (2020): 397‑423, https://doi.org/10.3138/chr-2018-0102.
12 For the period between the 1910s and the 1930s, see: Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).