Industrial heritage as agent of gentrification

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Editor’s note: This is the final post in a series on deindustrialization and industrial heritage commissioned by “The Public Historian,” expanding the conversation begun with the November 2017 special issue on the topic.

The former Redpath Sugar Foundry in Point Saint-Charles is now a condominium. The architect who designed the 1980s era conversion won many awards. Photograph by David W. Lewis.

The former Redpath Sugar Foundry in Point Saint-Charles is now a condominium. The architect who designed the 1980s era conversion won many awards. Photo credit: David W. Lewis.

What is the role of memory and public memorializing in digesting changes so profound and traumatic [as deindustrialization]? Even more, what is the role of memory, memorializing, and history itself in shaping the present and future of communities and regions devastated by such change? What choices do they face, and what role, if any, should publicly enacted memory play in defining, much less making and managing these choices? Whose history should be remembered and memorialized, by whom, and to what end?

Michael Frisch, 1998

With Brexit, Donald J. Trump, and the rise of right-wing populist parties in deindustrialized areas across Europe, the questions posed by Michael Frisch are as relevant today as they ever were. There is a pervasive sense of betrayal in devastated working-class communities, with many feeling that middle-class professionals, among the chief beneficiaries of rising income disparity, have done nothing to soften the socioeconomic blow on others. There is also a sense that they, or rather we, just don’t care. We wish that we could disagree. But classism is alive and well in otherwise polite circles. For anyone in doubt, read the bestselling books by Thomas Frank and Owen Jones on the gentrification of progressive politics in the United States and United Kingdom.

We want to use this opportunity to consider the ways that industrial heritage is implicated in the residential displacement of working people as part of wider gentrification processes. Scholars of gentrification have long established the important role of artists in neighborhood transition, as deindustrialized areas become revalorized, or hipper, and former sites of production are converted to new uses. Industrial loft living was one early example of this. The role of artists is so central that some researchers have come to call artists the “colonizing arm” of the middle classes. By comparison, public historians have gotten off easy. This needs to change.

The creation of industrial heritage sites and museums are often a direct response to major mill and factory closures, as politicians throw a relatively cheap economic and cultural lifeline to struggling communities. Industrial heritage almost never fills the gaping hole left by departing industries, at least initially.

Industrial heritage advocates usually valorize our work by saying that the destruction of the physical sites of industry becomes a mechanism of cultural disinheritance, further wounding the fabric of memory. Make no mistake, the physical erasure of industrial sites contributes to the erasure of the accompanying working-class memories, histories, and identities. But in insisting on the preservation of the remaining residual symbols of the old industrial culture, even condo-ized ones, we have largely failed to acknowledge the direct and indirect ways that industrial heritage discourse and site preservation contribute to culture-led regeneration and gentrification.

In her prize-winning study of the Lowell National Historical Park (created in 1978 after the city’s textile mills closed), Cathy Stanton noted that, “like all industrial history museums, it came to praise and to bury” (xii). By this she means that in locating industrialism and industrial workers only in the past, we render invisible their continuing presence in society today. Crucially, Stanton asks: “To what extent are public historians able to comment critically on the workings of capitalism when their own work has become to some extent a product within an advanced capitalist economy?” (28). Stanton then goes on to ask: “To what extent can museums, tourism, and public history act as critical, counterhegemonic sites—that is, as places to question and perhaps challenge the dominant forces in our lives?” (39). These are important questions, but we also need to go beyond site interpretation and consider the wider economic effects of historic preservation on surrounding areas—which often start off being among the most impoverished parts of the city. Heritage, as anthropologist Michael Hertzfeld has pointed out, is often ground zero for an alliance of state high modernism and the neoliberal tourist economy, pushing out the marginalized communities who actually inhabit urban space in favor of a sanitized version of their memory.

To ground our discussion further, we would like to turn to a local Montreal example. Once the birthplace of Canada’s industrial revolution, Montreal’s Lachine Canal deindustrialized during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Even the canal itself was closed in stages to navigation, with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The loss of thousands of industrial jobs devastated the adjoining working-class neighborhoods of Saint-Henri, Little Burgundy, Pointe-Saint-Charles, and Griffintown. In the years that followed the area emptied as half of the population moved away in search of better opportunities. Those left behind were the poorest of the poor. Even today, only half of area young people graduate high school.

The former Dominion Textile Mill in Saint-Henri has also been converted into condominiums. Photograph by David W. Lewis.

The former Dominion Textile Mill in Saint-Henri has also been converted into condominiums. Photo credit: David W. Lewis.

What then to do with the closed canal and the abandoned mills and factories that lined its banks? Some proposed to fill in the canal and build a highway, but the timing was all wrong. Huge swathes of these poor neighborhoods had already been demolished to build the Ville-Marie Expressway in the 1960s. It was only in 1977, with the election of a sovereigntist government in Quebec, that the federal government decided to declare the canal a national park and to build a system of bicycle and walking paths. Despite calls from local tenants and social economy organizations to focus on job creation and housing, a massive, joint investment from federal, provincial, and municipal authorities aimed to reframe this public property as the economic motor for a new postindustrial society. The canal itself eventually reopened to pleasure craft. Its proximity to the central city led to its revitalization as an affluent zone of condominiums and creative-class activity. Industrial building facades have become hot cultural commodities. Gritty has become cool and the rust belt chic regal.

The Lachine Canal is probably Canada’s most prominent example of industrial heritage. Interpretative panels situated all along the canal present a birthplace of industry narrative.  Passersby learn about the factories that used to line the canal, what they made, and how many worked there. Industrial architecture is also a topic of conversation. But there is nothing here on unions, strikes, or the residential neighborhoods that still stand nearby, but just beyond view. Industrial vestiges are carefully curated, valued for their sense of pastness. Parks Canada does not control any of the buildings; it only owns the canal and a few meters of land on either side.

Like elsewhere, the industrial heritage aesthetic is valued by condominium developers and the new creative class. The first factories to be converted into condos along the Lachine Canal were Redpath Sugar and Stelco in the mid-1980s with Canadian Bag and Belding-Corticelli soon thereafter. High-end art galleries and cultural centers followed. The city quietly changed zoning bylaws, making these conversions legal. In a few short decades, the canal has become a zone of considerable affluence. Today, the names of leaders of local labor struggles such as feminist union organizers Madeleine Parent and Léa Roback ring out only as designations of streets and parks, giving cultural cachet to a new population far from the realities of difficult industrial work.

The postindustrial Lachine Canal has served as a wedge that has pried residential housing from the hands of working people as house prices skyrocketed, and with them property taxes. Duplexes were converted into unitary “cottages,” and rents climbed. First industrial workers lost their jobs. Then, they lost their homes. Industrial heritage—both in terms of the formal heritage area as well as the wider industrial aesthetic—have been an integral part of this transformation. One might even say that industrial heritage preservation has, albeit perversely, become the other colonizing arm of the middle classes. The same can be said in other towns and cities, with the massive industrial heritage efforts in the Ruhr Valley in Germany being the most notable. It is shocking how little serious research is underway on the continuing relationship between industrial heritage sites and nearby working-class communities.

Local residents are increasingly reappropriating heritage discourse for their own needs. In Saint-Henri, the last abandoned industrial site on the Lachine Canal, the massive Canada Malting plant is the target of a condo developer that specializes in the preservation of industrial buildings. A movement is underway in the neighborhood to say that yes, the industrial heritage of the area should be preserved, but “pas n’importe comment”—not at any price. Low-income tenants and community groups are instead calling for public investment in the malting plant to preserve its industrial façade while converting the site to social housing and local, job-creating businesses.

As public historians, we need to pick a side.

~ Steven High is the cofounder of Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. He is the author of many books and articles on deindustrialization including The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places (with Lachlan Mackinnon and Andrew Perchard), Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization (with David W. Lewis), and Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt.

~ Fred Burrill is a PhD student and affiliate of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. He is also a community organizer in Saint-Henri and lives in the shadow of the abandoned Canada Malting factory.

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