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The Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis districts, which came together to form the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood, have always had vibrant communities. It used to be that way in every part of the city, where everyone knew and socialized with their neighbours. In Saint-Jean-Baptiste community spirit picked up again in the 1970s and is still alive and well today in many different ways.
In the 18th century the Saint-Jean district made uneven progress. Completion of work on the fortifications in 1745 destroyed many homes, a scenario that was repeated in 1775, as the American revolutionary army threatened the city and a number of local homes were demolished to prevent the enemy taking shelter in them. This feeling of belonging to a separate group continued into the 19th century since comings and goings into and out of the walled city were strictly controlled. The Saint-Jean district developed as something akin to a large village attached to the rest of the city.
When the great fire of 1845 completely destroyed the Saint-Jean district, ties between families and neighbours helped ensure homes were quickly rebuilt. Despite inevitable cases of rivalry and jealousy, the same phenomenon could again be observed when the Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis districts were again decimated by fire in 1876 and 1881. On each occasion the testing times brought friends and neighbours closer as they helped each other recover from the disaster.
When the Berthelot market opened and consequently expanded in 1852 and 1866, Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis become more or less autonomous. They became even more self-sufficient when Rue Saint-Jean developed as a busy shopping street where locals could find everything they needed. And the village effect didn’t stop there: many didn’t stray far from home to marry neighbours, move in together, study, work, worship, and go out on the town.
The area began to be neglected by the city and by locals, who tended to come from modest backgrounds. It gradually fell into disrepair, and in the 1950s and 1960s the authorities planned to give it a whole new look just as many were leaving for the quieter, greener suburbs. A younger generation was attached to the neighbourhood or moved there from other parts of town and found it to be a great place to live. It was this generation that helped revitalize the area.
Driven by the community spirit and political activism of the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of local residents worked together to varying degrees, on housing and food cooperatives, home improvements, citizens’ committees working for more green spaces and daycare facilities, projects to fix up inner courtyards and improve home insulation, and the like. This powerful current of solidarity has replaced the relationships that developed between neighbours and parishioners of yesteryear, leaving behind a community tradition that still lives on today in Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
Today community spirit in Saint-Jean-Baptiste is focused around Rue Saint-Jean in the northern part of the neighbourhood. There more local residents tend to be grouped into associations, organizing street parties that celebrate the neighbourhood and gay pride. There are also efforts to bring back a public market and hold events like the Off music festival.
More than fifty years of municipal and grassroots initiatives in Saint-Jean-Baptiste have made it a new type of eco-neighbourhood, where people walk rather than take the car and chat to their neighbours and storekeepers. It’s a place where all kinds of events and public spaces help people get to know each other, creating a warm and friendly neighbourhood vibe.
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