Wrapped In Chains, by Mercedes Sharpe Zayas

Post date: Aug 03, 2015 9:3:20 PM

Published by MERCEDES SHARPE ZAYAS on Nov 16, 2012 on PetiteMort.ca (now offline, republished here)


"Every wall inspires its own subversion, whether by the artists who transform them or by those who dare to break through them."

Adapted from Marcello Di Cintio’s Walls: Travels Along the Barricades

Hidden within a mile-long stretch of shrubbery along l’Acadie Boulevard stands a chain-link fence. The weathered steel is barely visible. Only three gateways breach the foliage to allow for the occasional passerby to cross from one side to the other. A municipal sign beckons “Welcome” to those who enter the eastern boundary to the Town of Mount Royal, a middle-class English enclave wherein single detached houses line the empty Selwood Road. Turning direction reveals the same municipal sign on the opposite side, this time warning “Be Careful”. Beyond it lie the urban thoroughfare and the western boundary of Parc Extension, a patchwork of mismatched bricks and sidings on rundown attached homes.

L’Acadie fence marks the meeting point between two of Montreal’s most socioeconomically disparate communities, a point of collision between middle class Anglophones and working class immigrants that has been subject to stifled controversy for over fifty years. Both neighbourhoods emerged at the turn of the twentieth century with the construction of expanding transportation lines, yet the trajectories they followed were antipodal. In 1907, Park Realty of Montreal speculatively bought three batches of land along the newly constructed tramlines that extended beyond the existing stretch of Parc Avenue, thereby inciting the name Parc-Extension. When the City of Montreal founded the neighbourhood in 1910, the agricultural community was beginning to shift from francophone farmers to newly immigrated industrial workers from Britain.

The Town of Mount Royal was conceived in the same year, as a corporate urban experiment responding to the growing pains of the metropolis. In an attempt to alleviate traffic congestion and slum formation during the spatial expansion of Montreal, city officials and private firms quarreled over housing solutions for the surge of immigration. The corporate suburb of Mount Royal was proposed as a real estate venture of the Canadian Northern Railway, which would offset the costs of building a railway through the mountain to connect satellite towns to the center of Montreal.

The autonomous municipality was advertised as “an ideal residential district.” To put it simply, an Anglo-American dream. The streets were laid out in a hybrid pattern, combining the Victorian ideals of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement with the localized, benevolent capitalist authoritarianism of Burnham’s City Beautiful framework. However, the socialist intentions of these aesthetic influences were not supported in practice. It may come as no surprise that the traditional descriptions of land as a shared and communal resource in the Garden City were cast aside to promote individual investment.

Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., the architect of Parc du Mont-Royal, was a strong advocate of the large-scale City Beautiful project, and crafted the distinct diagonal thoroughfares of the town as a mechanism to protect Town of Mount Royal from the competing local real estate market. What is often left out of these historical accounts is the blatant contrast of the urban layout to its surroundings, mainly the immigration hub of Parc-Extension. The final gridiron layout for the town was created as a harbinger of economic activity, to facilitate investment and emphasize the symbolic importance of the railway company. During the depression, investors found ways to advance Town of Mount Royal further along middle-class lines by turning a large block of unproductive farmland on its northeastern edge into a golf course. The course became known by some as the old stomping grounds for Parc-Ex youth – a burgeoning population of Italian and Eastern European immigrants who would beat the townies at hockey and football.

After the chain-link fence was first erected in 1960, it was met with lapsed waves of backlash from public employees, Parc-Extension residents, and civil dissidents alike. The enclosure was built by the Town of Mount Royal in response to a petition set forth by young post-war families who worried for their children’s safety in light of the 1950 widening of McEachran Avenue, now known as l’Acadie Boulevard. The Orwellian nature of the fence was unmistakable to those living beyond its limits in Parc-Extension, who questioned whether the fence was indeed a ‘security measure’ for children or a ‘preventative measure’ to safeguard the Town of Mont Royal from its neighbours.

The formation of the meshed enclosure coincided with the upsurge of Greek residents in Parc-Extension, who saw the fence as either a derogative attempt to keep them out, or as a compliment for being too “bad.” Within the first year, the City of Montreal sent a letter of request to the Town of Mount Royal, signed by City Clerk Gabriel Morin and addressed to TMR secretary-treasurer D.W. Lough, urging for the removal of the symbolic segregation under the pretense that, “the citizens of Montreal have been greatly offended by the unsightly fence.” Negotiations followed, yet the “apartheid fencing” continued to stand.

Eleven years later, protests ensued. Following a winter carnival in 1971, hundreds of students from Université de Montréal rushed the gates along l’Acadie Boulevard, throwing themselves at the chain links and uprooting two 40-foot sections before police interrupted the break-through. The incident coincided with the theft of a 70-year old, 1,800-pound piece of artillery from its pedestal on the corner of Maplewood and McCulloch, which was then transported to the Université de Montréal parking lot. Both incidents were overlooked as a series of student pranks, robbing the movement of its political agency. By the next day, the fence was standing once again, after a hasty repair job and disposal of abandoned pickets with the words “Nice Example of National Unity” scrawled across the surface.

The leitmotif of social polarization takes form consistently in urban fabrics across the globe, yet it is rare in Canada to find such a clear manifestation of segregation as l’Acadie fence. Over the first twenty years of the fence’s existence, there were numerous attacks on its exclusionary form, yet this history became stifled with time as populations shifted and ambivalence towards the enclosure took rise. The proliferation of low-income, multi-unit apartment buildings for immigrant families from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri-Lanka reinforced the segregated neighbourhoods, fortified by the clear divisions of urban planning, race, and the rising income gap across the busy thoroughfare. Since the City of Montreal’s jurisdiction fell short of the municipality’s boundaries, the argument became limited to written word and hushed quarrels. Eventually, the trials of the fence became a distant memory in the city’s archive – an afterthought that was no longer relevant to the mayors’ busied agendas. While the structure of the fence remained immutable, its significance had taken a turn.

It was not until recently that the dormant topic of l’Acadie fence opened its restful eye, with this year’s publication of Marcello Di Cintio’s travelogue, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades. Armed with the goal of understanding “what it meant to live a barricaded life,” Di Cintio began his journey across the concrete and barbed wire divisions of the world, taking him to the Moroccan Wall of Western Sahara, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, the India-Bangladesh borderlands, the West Bank, the US-Mexico border, and finally to none other than “The Great Wall of Montreal.” A preview of his chapter on l’Acadie fence was published in Geist Magazine last year, and provoked numerous responses in the classic circulation of social media, from tweets addressing the mayor to forum discussions about the contemporary implications of the fence. With l’Acadie fence listed among the ranks of the West Bank, its fading memory became an ostensive and charged reality.

Parc-Extension à droite, Ville Mont-Royal à gauche. La clôture séparant deux réalités #polmtl pic.twitter.com/l7BEAToQYQ

— Pierre-Yves McSween (@PYMcsween) May 17, 2015

The significance of the fence as a sign of segregation becomes far more nuanced when considering the reactions it has stirred. More often than not, Di Cintio points out, Parc-Ex residents have consciously come to terms with the dilapidated structure. Though Parc-Extension ranks amongst one of the poorest and most densely populated communities in Canada, the streets exhibit a lively bricolage of West African grocery stores, Indian curry houses, and depanneurs that sell anything from Bollywood films to hologram cigarette cases of Labrador retrievers morphing into dolphins. Only on rare occasions would Parc-Ex residents feel the need to cross through the clanging gates to the mundanity of a fading middle-class suburb. Occasions like when children wanted to knock on the doors of their wealthier neighbours for Halloween. This struck a controversy during the late nineties when the Town of Mount Royal began to padlock the gates. This in theory deterred Parc-Ex kids by defining them as Halloween vandals, but in practice simply meant sidestepping the gates.

While it is tempting to develop a righteous critique of the fence, condemning its inherent power as responsible for the pathos of social subordination, this would only perpetuate the waves of recycled discourses that have brought us to where we are today. The problematics of this position is that it builds upon a rhetoric of victimhood, rather than recognizing the agency of those on either side of the line. By fixating on the binary social positions of the ‘injured’ Parc-Exers and the ‘injuring’ townies, as Wendy Brown would title them, the meanings of their actions would be codified against all possible indeterminacy, ambiguity, and struggle for resignification. In other words, this critique would limit their identities to what Nietzsche has named politics of ressentiment.

The anecdotes told by Parc Ex residents in response to Di Cintio’s article remind us of the endless series of interpretations that shape people on both sides of the line, from those who saw the fence as a representation of dreams and opportunities, to those who saw the need to keep the townies out. For now, the hedge’s veil of leaves has fallen to the ground, lifeless and barren of its colours, leaving the feeble relic exposed and rusted at its coils.