For the last few years, I’ve had no idea where I lived.
More specifically, I’ve had no idea what to call my neighbourhood, a stretch of land wedged between Mile-End, Parc-Extension, Little Italy and Outremont.
Officially known as Marconi-Alexandra (a name no one uses), the area is home to textile factories and food processing plants that tower over century-old duplexes and maze-like, dead-end streets. In other words, the overall Wild West vibe is kind of awesome.
Fittingly, a number of architects have been lured here in the last decade, turning it into something of an architectural laboratory.
Henri Cleinge was among the first.
“It had this feel that you could do anything,” he says. For an architect that had just started working for himself, it was perfect. “Because the context was so industrial, you didn’t have a building committee restricting what you could do.”
Cleinge’s minimalist, industrial-tinged work set a standard, kick-starting an influx of projects that have added more than 500 residential units to the neighbourhood in the last five years. This boom has been mostly under the radar, but that’s set to change: a new Université de Montréal campus, just two blocks west of Parc near Beaubien, will soon increase traffic and visibility.
Unsurprisingly, the city has stepped in, releasing a development study and setting up open-forum discussions. Though this has made building permits harder to get, Cleinge is heartened by the city’s work.
“I think they recognize that this area has a lot of architects that want to do something different,” he says. Like other longtime residents, however, he is not thrilled with the area’s unofficial, marketing-tinged name: Mile-Ex.
Others, though, are more open to it.
“I love that I have a name for the area now,” resident Noelle Visani says.
Visani and her husband, Roy Del Valle, are excited to see the ’hood’s development, but they fear the consequences. In the last two years, they’ve noticed younger, more artsy neighbours (musician Grimes was briefly among them) replacing the traditionally older, mostly working-class population.
“We’re worried about prices going up too quickly. We want to stay in the area,” Del Valle says.
Neighbour Pascale Licinio is equally apprehensive. She believes the area’s transformation is indicative of Montreal’s laissez-faire attitude toward its past.
“I’ve noticed a lack of will to say, ‘OK, we have something genuine and we want to preserve it.’ But maybe it’s just that everything, whether we like it or not, has to change,” Licinio says.
Cleinge is similarly philosophical about what he sees as the loss of a certain kind of authenticity.
“It’s inevitable that the area changes, and it’s not always going to be the way you want. At the same time, though, that’s what makes it kind of alive.”
Just don’t let him hear you call it Mile-Ex.