A Wound and the Remaining Scar
The vast area dominated by the cement support columns of the Dufferin-Montmorency Highway is the legacy of a period of accelerated development in the history of Québec. This now-deserted area was once the parish of Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix. All that remains is the church, which has been converted into condos. Hundreds of houses were sacrificed on the altar of the automobile, the symbol of freedom and progress. After many years, the painful sore has finally scarred over.
Progress. A steamroller
In the 1960s Québec took control of its destiny. The French Canadian majority quickly came into its own. For French-speaking Quebecers, government was the way to a brighter future.. And that meant a highway was needed so that the thousands of suburbanites hired as civil servants could get to the clutch of government offices around Parliament Hill, just above this cliff. You’re looking at it.
This wave of prosperity bypassed Saint-Roch. The thousands of government jobs once intended for this part of town slipped through their fingertips and local factories closed one after another starting in the 1950s. In the space of 20 years, thousands of jobs were lost, and the population dwindled from 20,000 to 5,000. In 1961 a task force report deemed part of the district so far gone that it recommended out-and-out bulldozing of hundreds of slum buildings, especially in the section designated as being beyond recovery. Eight years later, it seemed the perfect place for the required highway to pass through.
Cure or mercy-kill the patient?
The area was so directly in the path and the work so disruptive, Saint-Roch staggered under the blow. The highway slashed into the neighbourhood. The injury was life-threatening. Worse, once the steamroller of sweeping clean the past to lay the groundwork for the future got going, the momentum was hard to stop. Expropriation and destruction spread west.
At the same time, major projects were on the drawing board for the district, echoing the new office buildings going up near the train station. Construction of another highway was planned. This one would run alongside the cliff in Lower Town and service a large shopping mall paired with two giant office towers—the Grande Place project. However, there was no clearly defined need for these grandiose schemes. The end result was vacant lots in place of dilapidated homes, and poverty and crime in the absence of purpose and plans.
A citizens group and a local business, the newspaper Le Soleil, fiercely opposed this depredation and joined forces to fight back. This grassroots movement would become known as Îlot Fleurie, a turning point in the rebirth of the district.
Healing the wound
With time, various initiatives cushioned the impact of the highway. Ramps to aborted roads were torn down. Street artists painted frescoes on the cold grey cement support columns. Neighbourhood festivals were held. For four summers, Cirque du Soleil used the space as an outdoor venue for a breathtaking circus show. And in winter, there is even a spectacular acrobatic ski competition. Today Saint-Roch is once again an exciting place to be and an urban environment with real appeal.
The wound has healed but the scar remains.