Will gentrification threaten Mile-End artists?

By Jessica Murphy on May 29, 2008

Mile-End is red-hot. But while the City has been vocal about protecting Mile End artists from the inevitable affects of the gentrification that follows them, it lacks any real plan to protect them.

Galerie Clark is a hub of the Mile End art scene. It moved to the neighbourhood in 2001, after rent increases forced it out of its original downtown site. Now located in an old industrial building on de Gaspé Street, it comprises a gallery, production studios and a residency program for artists.

“It’s ideal for artists. There’s transport, there’s space” said coordinator Mathieu Beauséjour, “And we’re five minutes from the best cafes in Montreal and a lot of cheap family restaurants. As long as the rent stays reasonable, we don’t need a lot: heating, windows, a certain security.”

In January, Plateau Mont-Royal borough mayor Helen Fotopulos announced the $9 million urban redevelopment of the St.Viateur east area. In her speech, she promised a “re-qualification of the sector that will include residential and economic development based on culture and creativity.”

But things don’t bode well. The building that houses Galerie Clark and dozens of art and music studios was sold just months ago. The rents are already increasing.

The new owners demanded “significant rent increases,” said painter Dominique Dupuis, who leases space with two other artists on the building’s top floor. “And it seemed clear their intention is to transform it into luxury office buildings.” They were able to negotiate a more affordable rent increase, but were refused a five-year lease and had to settle for two years.

“The people who are here want to be here, they want to sign a five-year lease, and they won’t go bankrupt,” said Beauséjour. Artists may not make a property owner a lot of money, but they are reliable tenants, he noted.

“Artists, no matter what, pay their rent. And we’re here for 20 years,” agreed Pierre Przysiezniak, an artist with a studio in the building. “It’s one of those last stands. If the city or someone doesn’t do something, it’s going to become very gentrified.” Most of the artists who have studios in the building have leases that expire in two or three years and need that time to organize, he said.

So the concern is real. “The minute the buildings are full, the prices go up. And that’s the problem we’re facing right now. But we’re fighting, fighting to ensure they understand our way of living. And again—we won’t go bankrupt, we won’t disappear,” said Beauséjour. “The city is so proud of its cultural life. They should preserve it. They should study it. Are we still going to be here in five years? I seriously doubt it. I think in five years we’ll move out. I’m very afraid of this if there’s no plan.”However, according to the borough, the very idea that the studios may be threatened is hypothetical. “I’m not sure I’m going to be here in five years either,” said Fotopulos’ political attaché, Marc Snyder. “But if the situation (where artists are threatened) ever arises, we’re going to be there and we’ll work to have their concerns disappear. As of right now, there isn’t anything specific, but there’s a very clear political intention that the developers safeguard the clientele that are there.”

There are no plans in place, he noted, for something the borough can’t be sure will happen. “It’s difficult to say: ‘We’ll do this if this happens,’” he said.

But gentrification in the area is not new.

It began in earnest in the early 1990s, when it became possible to subdivide row houses, old factories, duplexes and triplexes into separate properties. It became cheaper to buy and renters became owners. “When you own a property, you’re prepared to invest in it,” said Susan Bronson, architecture professor at the Université de Montréal, founding member of Mile End Memories. “[The property values] literally skyrocketed since the mid-90s, and especially around 2000.”

Both Beauséjour and Bronson see a strong political will to keep the artists in the borough. Still, Beauséjour admitted that Galerie Clark took it upon themselves to develop and promote affordable spaces for artists to work.

With planning and collaboration, gentrification doesn’t have to mean an artist exodus. Partnerships can be formed with artists and new businesses. Last weekend’s studio open house was a collaboration with artists and gaming giant Ubisoft.

“For us, it’s a different way of working. Usually we work with grants and things. And here we have total artistic direction as well as (advertising) posters in the metro,” noted Beauséjour.

“I would hope it would be able to keep its character as a multi-cultural and artistic neighbourhood,” said Bronson. “I would hope artists would still be able to find a place here and I think that many of them are still installed here. But  we need a place for a younger generation of artists.”


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