polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Seizing the Right to the City in Pointe Saint-Charles, Montreal

by Melissa García Lamarca

Reflecting on the right to the city in theory and in practice in my last post, I mentioned some examples that come to mind when thinking about Lefebvre’s radical understanding of this term that challenges capitalist social and power relations driving the production of space in cities. One of mere dozens of examples that have emerged throughout Montreal is the Autonomous Social Centre in city’s southwest, in the borough of Pointe Saint-Charles.

Paralleling urban development processes across the world, many of Montreal’s traditionally working class / industrial neighbourhoods are experiencing massive gentrification as old industrial buildings and vacant spaces are converted, through a closed, top-down and profit-driven process, into expensive condominiums. This process has risen to a boil in Pointe Saint-Charles, a neighbourhood situated south of Montreal's downtown core in Canada’s original industrial heartland, the site of the country’s first industrial slums. Located in the first multi-ethnic working-class enclave in Canada, the Pointe furthermore has a long and rich history of popular struggle: it is the site of the first community-run clinic and legal aid services in Quebec, and there is a strong tradition of successful struggles for improved public transport, daycares, social housing and the decontamination of soils, to name a few.

The area has undergone drastic change in the past fifty years, from holding the most important concentration of manufacturing industries in Canada to total deindustrialisation that has led to significant job and population losses. Physically much of the built environment has stood crumbling until the late 1990s, as abandoned factories rotted alongside the long-obsolete Lachine Canal that forms the northern border of the Pointe Saint-Charles.

In an effort to rejuvenate the area in the 1990s, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in significant infrastructure improvements for the Lachine Canal by federal, local and private sources. While the area around the Canal has dramatically improved in terms of an extensive cycling path that is heavily used and renewed use of the canal for recreational boating, infrastructural improvements have simultaneously opened the door for waves of private developers to convert abandoned factories into expensive, and thus exclusive, condominiums. Despite the fact that for the past 15 years community organisations of the southwest have tried to keep the canal accessible and open to people from the neighbourhood and surrounding area, almost all structures alongside it have been privatised as the City of Montreal has facilitated luxury condo projects along waterfront, cutting of the canal to people living in the area and in essence constructing a corridor of gentrification.

In direct response to this top-down production of space, denying the Pointe’s residents a say in their right to the city, over the past two years dozens of people have worked together to take back control over their living spaces, to organise and create a self-managed social, cultural and political space directly accountable to the community: the Autonomous Social Centre (ASC). Based on values of sharing and creative reclaiming of autonomy instead of competition and profits, the ASC envisaged the centre to house a variety of independent projects including an independent media centre, a bar, a show space, a collective kitchen run through food recovered from the dumpster and urban permaculture, a free bike workshop, socio-political workshops, a daycare centre, a housing project and a mobile cinema.

By the end of May 2009 signatures from over 500 people and 74 social, community and political organisations had been gathered for a public declaration supporting the ASC. Due to the lack adequate and accessible spaces and infrastructure for alternative and autonomous cultural projects, the ASC’s two years of organising were ready to grow roots through an action to occupy one of the last available structures along the Lachine Canal, in Pointe Saint-Charles.

With over 100 people present, in a child-friendly atmosphere including music and dancing, 60 people entered, fixed up the building's broken windows, and set up a kitchen and cinema. Yet less than 24 hours later, Montreal riot police evicted the Autonomous Social Centre; reports from different sources give different accounts of the process, with people inside claiming the police projecting pepper spray through the windows and the police denying allegations. After attempts to defend the squat, everyone inside exited and joined a support demonstration; a few hundred people strong, it took to the streets.

What does the ASC's experience say about the right to the city and the production of space in our urban environments? It is clear that capital and private interests dictate, with existing municipal tools such as the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities – mentioned by UNESCO as one of several initiatives towards “promoting a rights-based approach and ensuring the 'Right to the City' for all urban dwellers” – in reality speaking only of rights for people to participate in city-sanctioned projects and participation processes. It clearly functions within existing capitalist social and power relations, nestled within the status quo, and is thus far from Lefebvre’s radical call to change existing social, political and economic systems.

What would happen if activities such as the ASC, challenging private property as one of the foundations of capitalism, with two years of organising and significant community support, flourished? What would the city look like if we followed David Harvey’s words, if we understood the right to the city not merely a right of access to what already exists but as a right to change it after our heart’s desire, the right to remake ourselves by creating a qualitatively different kind of urban sociality?

The response from the Autonomous Social Centre, after its eviction from the occupied building, is true to Lefebvre’s vision: to continue the struggle for the right to the city, to continue challenging and creating alternatives to the capitalist-driven production of space.

Credits: Image of Centre Social Autogéré banner on fence from No One is Illegal. Map of Montreal from Google Earth. Image of old factories along Lachine Canal from buildings.ca Image of cyclists and converted factory along Lachine Canal by C. DeWolf from Spacing Montreal. Image of ASC banner on building from ASC website. Image of ASC building occupation by A. Heffez from Spacing Montreal. Image of downtown Montreal from inside abandoned factory in Pointe St-Charles from City Noise.