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LISTEN! Following the Hidden Signs of Saint-Henri’s Gentrification

Written by

Aaron Vansintjan
March 9th, 2020

Categories

In the Spring of 2017, I was standing just outside of a dépanneur in western Saint-Henri. With Lucie Le, an urban planning researcher at the University of Montreal, I was conducting research on the effect of gentrification in the neighborhood on low-income people’s daily lives.

We had just interviewed the dépanneur owner, who told us about how she had had to renovate her business to attract the new, wealthier customers. Absent-mindedly, my eyes hovered over the wall. Something clicked, and I quickly looked back: there, in a font I immediately recognized, someone had written the text:

DID WE LOSE SAINT HENRI?

Someone else, in a different handwriting, wrote under it:

YES

Next to it, someone had drawn the outline of a bird.

I immediately recognized it as the work of a graffiti artist, LISTEN. The moment passed, and we moved on. I didn’t take a photo. But that image stayed with me. I moved to Montreal in 2008 at the age of 17, and lived in Saint-Henri during my first year. Over the next decade, I would often catch LISTEN’s tags and pieces on the periphery of my vision. A tag—hastily written in a public space—would usually involve the word LISTEN, and maybe an outline of a bird. Perhaps a seagull, a pigeon, or something else. A bigger piece, like a mural, would involve the bird, with a speech bubble of the bird saying something cheeky.

Their graffiti has been a constant presence in my adult life. Usually I don’t pay attention to what the walls around me are saying. But, once in a while, when walking to the store, or looking out the window of the bus, I would catch a bird—on a mailbox, on a crumbling façade. Sometimes, I’d just see the word LISTEN in hidden corners. And those moments when I did pay attention, thought about what I saw, it offered a moment of reflection. I would think to stop and pay attention to my surroundings, really listen. And, LISTEN’s graffiti kindled a playful feeling of wanting to interact with the walls around me.

In the spring of 2017, a decade after I moved to Montreal, I returned to Saint-Henri to try to better understand how gentrification had changed the neighborhood. Over six months, Lucie and I interviewed 140 residents, activists, community group staff, and politicians. I also took lots of photos, trying to chronicle the transformations of the neighborhood.

One time, I was taking a picture of the neon cat looking out from Bar de Courcelle—a dive bar on rue Notre-Dame. Only when I looked at the photo more closely, did I notice the recognizable tag in the corner.

Maybe, over the years, I had become so used to seeing these tags across the city, that I had stopped seeing them? Perhaps, I thought, I should be paying closer attention to what the walls are saying. Sure enough, as we trudged through the neighborhood, LISTEN’s pieces would appear, often like Easter eggs tucked away as a surprise. So, over the next six months, I decided to trace them, to try to listen to the story they were telling me.

Bar de Courcelle itself had recently changed ownership and had been renovated. Now, well-to-do young professionals were bending over their hoppy craft brews and cocktails while older regulars sipped their Bleue and Budweisers. But it wasn’t all so rosy. As Elodie (name changed for research anonymity purposes), a long-time community activist, told us, “I know lots of people who used to go to the bar de Courcelle but who don’t go any more. They don’t feel welcome.”

Over the years, many places had closed—often under pressure of rising commercial rents. Those that stayed open, like Bar de Courcelle, often renovated and changed ownership, in the hopes of attracting newer, wealthier clientele. You can’t blame the business owners for trying to stay afloat in this economy. But, the upshot is that a lot of poor residents we talked to felt alienated from the neighborhood they called home.

Later, I noticed a former bank was being turned into a condo development and gym called “HENRI”. Next to the entrance, with brand-new elliptical machines visible through the window, I noticed a LISTEN piece, this time not posed as a question but as a statement:

WE LOST ST-HENRI…

Across the street, overlooking the gym, another piece read:

CONDO

LISTEN

On the same post, someone else, clearly in a bad mood, had scribbled “NO MORE LISTEN PIDGENS!”

Even the food bank, the Welcome Mission, seemed to be gentrifying. There, planter boxes set up by the urban greening organization, ProVert, lined the entrance to a “vintage” charity shop. Only later did I look closely and see some traces—erased with a strong cleaning product—of a LISTEN tag on the handbag in the advertisement.

Sometimes, the pieces were bigger, and more ambiguous. From the alleys and on garage doors, LISTEN tells us to CHECK YOUR NEWS FEED, they warn us of the SKUNK PATROL and THE DREAM WEAPON.

Other times, LISTEN isn’t giving social commentary. Just the tags alone provide a backdrop for the bigger picture. Here, AirBnB customers head back to the metro, passing through the neighborhood like ghosts. Platforms like AirBnB are well known for driving up rents in working class neighborhoods.

Photographing graffiti in a gentrifying neighborhood has its issues, too. The role of artists—and graffiti artists especially—in driving gentrification is contested and often challenged by more socially aware artists. Developers may hire graffiti artists to deck out decaying buildings, as a way to attract tourism, artists, and, eventually, massive profits from speculation on real estate. In Berlin, artists even painted over two of the city’s most famous murals—as the artists stated, “We would rather destroy our street art than let it contribute to that process.” Graffiti has also been packaged as part of Saint-Henri’s “post-industrial chic” over the years. The work of LISTEN, no doubt, has contributed to that aesthetic. When this happens, should graffiti artists just slink away? And, given that it’s really politicians and real estate speculators who drive gentrification, can we even blame graffiti artists?

I don’t have the answers, but bird watching in Saint-Henri has given me a sense that LISTEN, along with many Saint-Henri residents, was also in mourning. Their engagement with the city—once frivolous and playful—seems to have become more of a rallying cry, an announcement that we’re still here. While doing my research, I felt that LISTEN’s running commentary on the walls of Saint-Henri was one way of telling the story of a gentrifying neighborhood.

Throughout those six months, I felt I had gotten closer and closer to LISTEN, so much so that I would expect their art everywhere, and wonder what they thought about the changing neighborhood, if they had met the same people we interviewed, whether they, too, would be forced to move out one day. The LISTEN bird perched itself in my subconscious.

In the 2004 film Chats Perchés, or in The Case of the Grinning Cat, French director Chris Marker follows the street art of M. Chat in post-9/11 France. Threading together politics and detective work, Marker imbues M. Chat with agency and character. “The grin of the cat was the gate of a different Paris,” he muses. “Somebody at night, was risking his [sic] neck, just to have a smile floating over the city.” I thought the same about LISTEN and Saint-Henri.

Later, Lucie and I attended a protest. The neighborhood was coming together in its struggle against gentrification to push for turning the iconic, and derelict, Canada Malting factory into a community center, replete with cooperative housing, a cafeteria, and a community garden.

Walking through the crowd, looking at the children playing and the utopian model of the reclaimed Canada Malting drawn by activists, I wondered if LISTEN could be amongst the crowd. Chris Marker, too, spends much of the film aimlessly attending protest after protest, looking for M. Chat: “I wander from demo to demo, with a single question. Where are the cats? Where are the cats? Where are the cats?” I look around, examining different people. LISTEN could be anyone, and anywhere. Where are the birds? And what are they telling us?

Two years after our research, I decided to go back. I invited my friend Thomas Boucher along. I had two goals. First, I wanted to see how Saint-Henri had changed in the time since. Second, I wanted to find more LISTEN pieces that I had missed. So, we went bird-watching.

We set out on a cloudy winter day. We found that gentrification had clearly become more acute. A month after our research ended, Miracle Pizza, a cheap diner frequented by many elderly residents we interviewed, had closed due to a fire. It has not re-opened. In May 2019, POPIR, the tenants’ rights group in Saint-Henri at the forefront of the fight against gentrification, had been forced to move from the office they had been in for 15 years. They continue their work, now from an office in Little Burgundy, one neighborhood over.

Walking along rue Notre-Dame, we noticed more empty storefronts where there were previously dépanneurs, used furniture stores, and dollar stores targeted at working class residents. Meanwhile, brunch spots aimed at young professionals, many of whom come from outside the neighborhoods, had long line-ups. Even outside Bar de Courcelle, the LISTEN tag I had first noticed was gone, replaced by several others.

I wanted to show Thomas a LISTEN bird, but it didn’t seem like it would appear. One of them had long crumbled away, overlooking an empty plot (and a real estate advertisement from a realtor known for raising the rents on many small businesses, forcing them to close). Saint-Henri seemed lost, and LISTEN birds were nowhere to be found.

Almost defeated, we trudged along Saint-Antoine, reaching the western border of Saint-Henri. Then, in the span of a few moments, the clouds parted and the winter sun came out. We turned a corner. There, standing observantly on a warehouse wall, stood a LISTEN bird. We stopped, the sun warming our backs. Behind us, little birds, spending the winter in the thick bushes lining the highway, started singing.

We might never know who LISTEN really is. They could be anyone. They could be me, they could be you, reading this. They are as nameless as the city birds: the pigeons, the sparrows, the gulls. But that doesn’t stop us from listening to their stories.

Graffiti is anonymous. Yet it is another way to engage with the city. It helps us to pay attention to our surroundings. If you just stop and listen, you might hear the walls talking. And this is what I imagine they are trying to tell us: the city is yours, if you want it.

Words and pictures by Aaron Vansintjan. He writes about ecology, politics, and cities and lives in Montreal, Canada. He tweets at @a_vansi.

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  1. You might be interested to know that about 10 years ago, the listen bird was indigenous to Edmonton.

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