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Îlot Berthelot

Battleground of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste citizen’s movement

Îlot Berthelot stands alongside the former Berthelot market. The market was opened in 1835 to serve the growing numbers of people choosing to live outside the city walls in the Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis districts. In the 1970s the Îlot Berthelot housing block came to symbolize grassroots resistance to the changes being made to the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood’s urban fabric. Its housing cooperatives offered an alternative to the fast pace of modernization.

Marché Berthelot, a new market for new needs

In the 19th century a new public market became a necessity in the crowded areas developing close to the Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis gates outside the city walls. Michel and Amable Berthelot provided a section of their property free of charge so that the city could build a covered market there. The resulting Berthelot market was right on the dividing line that separated both districts, and quickly became a hive of activity.

The market was expanded in 1852, then rebuilt from brick and stone in 1866. In 1901 the local association of Zouaves—soldiers sworn to defend the Papal States—set up home there and gradually occupied all of the building as people began to prefer shopping in local grocery stores. The Zouaves transformed the market into a leisure centre with a gymnastics hall, bowling alleys, board and hoop games, a library, and conference room. Fire damaged the building in 1962 and the city decided to demolish it to include it in its sweeping modernization project.

Grassroots resistance

The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s completely transformed the city’s downtown area. The government put up towering office blocks around Parliament Hill for its employees to work in, and the private sector got in on the act, building hotels, offices, and stores.

A lack of funds in the mid-1970s put a damper on these delusions of grandeur just as opposition to radical changes in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood was organizing. On Rue Saint-Gabriel, which ran alongside the old Berthelot market, tenants living in some twenty homes that had been expropriated to make way for a new boulevard grew tired of living in uncertainty with the project constantly pushed back. They joined forces and renovated their homes, even though they were only renting, intending to have the project cancelled. They made the media and general public more aware of the need for affordable local housing and put forward the idea of buying the homes and forming a housing co-op.

The so-called “Saint-Gabriel movement” persevered and led to the formation of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste people’s committee, which won the case in 1978. The St-Gabriel and L’Archange (St. Gabriel and the Archangel) housing co-ops signed a 66-year lease with the city.

Îlot Berthelot

The initiative inspired others. A cluster of homes was demolished beside the former Berthelot market (itself then a park) and promoters had their eye on the vacant lot, but citizens’ groups stepped in and refused to comply with the expropriation notices they were served.

The battle between the two opposing visions for what is now known as Îlot Berthelot continued for some thirty years as the companies that had acquired the lot for a high-rise block clashed with local residents in favour of affordable housing in modestly sized buildings in keeping with the neighbourhood. After a series of new developments, in 1996 the Îlot Berthelot housing co-op was allowed to occupy several homes. But the matter had still not been settled once and for all.

The L’Escalier housing co-op

Controversy again erupted in 2002 when squatters occupied an abandoned home on Rue De La Chevrotière for a whole summer. They aimed to make sure that the free lots on Îlot Berthelot would be used for family housing. Three years later, after much humming and hawing, the city gave most of the land to the L’Escalier housing co-op, which built 80 family units on it. Today the staircase that separates the two buildings in the housing co-op is known as the “Path of Resistance.” How fitting.

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