Parc Oxygène: The Small Cause & The Cost of Community

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Have you ever seen a really small rally or demonstration? The kind where you instinctively ask yourself whether those gathered may require the services of a new communications director? Or feel compelled to determine exactly which crackpot idea would lead to this small congregation? “What’s so ‘special’ about your special-interest group,” you may ask yourself, for shits and giggles.

In Montréal you’d be hard pressed to go a day without some kind of protest, rally, vigil etc. somewhere in the city public demonstrations are a key element of civic life, and Montrealers are generally proud and active members of their community, and thus inclined to participate. That being said, and with our many infamous riots and other major public gatherings well in mind, we must keep in mind that the day to day demo in our city is typically a small gathering, attended by only a handful of people.

You’ve doubtless seen these quaint affairs, and perhaps have even had a laugh at their expense. After all, there are no small civic demonstrations – or at least not as far as the TV cameras will show you. There are only large potential threats to internal security, marauding black-masked anarchists and an endless parade of indolent, self-righteous students in attendance at these events, right?

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of taking in a small demonstration. There were only a couple dozen people in attendance, but this was not a rally in which the force for change would be measured in mere attendance statistics. Few ever are. Change is effected by concerned citizens who work tirelessly, and too often without any recognition, to achieve altruistic goals. On Saturday I got a chance to meet some of these people, and as result of my meeting I’d like to state that I believe in their cause and would further like to see their wish realized.

That wish, incidentally, is to see a small, unusable plot of land that has been turned into a park recognized and protected for what it is.
The saga of Parc Oxygene goes all the way back to the very heady days of the 1960s. Back then Parc Oxygene didn’t even exist, largely because the adjacent La Cité apartment complex was still nothing more than an architect’s proposal.

The La Cité development was a testament to inefficient government planning, unscrupulous real-estate developers drunk with power and served, for these reasons, to galvanize public opinion into a cohesive protest force. The Milton-Parc Citizens Committee was formed to stop the development and protect the community, which in turn would lead to the creation of Save Montreal, Heritage Montreal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and our city’s generally more enlightened approach to urban redevelopment and architectural conservation.

While the MPCC wasn’t able to stop the project completely, they were able to scale it down to about an eighth of what was originally planned. Subsequently, the MPCC grew into a major community organization, and today they protect the interests of the residents of more than 600 rental units in the area, not to mention many local small businesses.

Take a trip to the corner of Milton and Parc and take a seat at any of the three cafés on that intersection (I prefer the Second Cup for its massive terrace and, no joke, the community of regulars) and watch the world go by. Clearly there is a community here, and the streets dance with the movement of people carrying on their day-to-day. It is a fascinating vantage point on the city, one I’d highly recommend to tourist and seasoned boulevardier alike.

Consider that all this activity takes places in the shadow of the massive housing, retail and office complex that is the La Cité development. Over the years the community here has demonstrated its resilience to massive urban renewal projects and has managed to get along despite the alterations that occurred over forty years ago. Perhaps time truly does heal all wounds…

Despite the scars, the neighbourhood has managed to stimulate its own renewal, and as you can imagine, land value in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood, not to mention the adjacent Quartier Ste-Famille and McGill Ghetto areas, has skyrocketed. What is curious is that the present threat is not from mega-projects, as it was back in the 60s and 70s, but by small, discreet condo projects, aiming to jam postage-stamp condos into alleyways, overhangs, courtyards and any other small tracts of land which may be available in a given area.

We’ve benefitted as a community from the laws that enforce building height and massing restrictions, inasmuch as we’ve benefitted from an as yet un-satiated condo market that has until now largely focused on recycling old factories. But there are only so many old buildings that can be converted, and it’s for that reason that the MPCC suddenly finds itself once again dealing with La Cité’s legacy. A residual plot of land from the project’s construction, declared unusable by the city (yet somehow there’s a claim to ownership, complicating issues), and since converted into a pleasant little green-space, aptly named Parc Oxygene, perhaps because people so often forget the free resource provided by flora.

The park was an initiative of the residents of this close-knit community, as it had previously been used by taxi drivers revved up on thoughts of F1 glory and quick shortcuts through a dense part of the city. Frankly, before it was taken over by the citizens, it was bare, barren and dangerous. And of course, being an open space connected to the alleyway meant that it was frequently filled with children during the day and the homeless at night. Far from ideal for all parties concerned.

When residents asked the City as to what the status of the land was, they were told that it could not be developed, and was thus unusable for this purpose. Too bad for the proprietor, but this proved to be a major boon for the community, as the locals quickly pooled their resources, planted flowers and shrubs, created a little path, and gave something directly back to the community. Feel good altruism at its finest.

Unfortunately, the reason for this rally in particular was to remind the public that this space exists, and that, as almost all green space is these days, it is under threat of redevelopment into wait for it condominiums. Eight at four hundred grand is the estimate, wedged onto a plot of land no larger than the floor-space of a typical Victorian row house. And poof goes the park in the process.

Though the City is still adamant that the land is unusable, the owner has a team of lawyers apparently working round the clock to find a solution to this project in Quebec City of all places. This seems doubtful, likely little more than intimidation. At the event on Saturday, the owner’s wife showed up and told people to “get off her lawn.”

Think twice about the next small rally you pass, as the cause may be righteous and more practical than you think. Small community involvement never catches the public’s eye, but they are still a vital and important tool and element of our civic lives. And who cares if the issue at hand isn’t good enough to be on the six o’clock news if it affects you or your community, then it is your responsibility to stay informed.

Of all the anxieties expressed at this gathering, the one that struck me was the feeling of hopelessness experienced by those who overhear a popular and preachy discourse pertinent to the merits of preserving the diversity of the urban environment. It’s a great game to talk, but too few walk it. So think too about your day-to-day access to green space in this city, and consider that Montreal is in no way a leader in this respect. Citizen access to public green space is still embarrassingly low in Montreal by international standards. Our access to condos is thoroughly unencumbered, by contrast.

* Parc Oxygène photos by Cindy Lopez, 1972 photo courtesy urbanphoto.net

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