Artist John Little’s 50-Year Old Warning and Griffintown’s ‘Dixie Cup’ Condos

“Montreal’s administration goes back to the hoary principle of Dixie-Cup throwaway redevelopment.”

John Little, “A Boys Christmas in Griffintown”, 1978

David Hanna (Saturday, April 14, 2012 Montreal Gazette)

David Hanna a professor of urban affairs and tourism in the School of Management at the Université du Québec à Montréal contributed an excellent op ed piece to the Montreal Gazette under the title At risk in Griffintown: important pieces of Montreal ‘s heritage

In his piece about Griffintown, an area close to the downtown core which is being redeveloped wholesale Professor Hanna outlines a strong defense for an urban heritage policy; “When heritage is given value, culture is preserved, property values soar, quality of life improves.” Using the impending demolition of the “city’s last remaining French lot with all the original buildings on it: an 1862 front house, an 1869 rear duplex and the 1862 brick stable” he concludes that; “When this one goes, there will be no other, and this example of an 18th and 19th century way of life will have disappeared…These are the kinds of properties that make Griffintown. Without them, it becomes just another bunch of streets with condos.”

I bet that John Little had tears in his eyes reading the above. The underlying message in his paintings for sixty years has been to promote and maintain in some reasonable fashion our heritage, within the city centre including the “unselfconscious neighborhoods” occupied by the working city dweller. I won’t say that John necessarily had all the answers sixty years ago as to how to respond to our urban issues but he sure “knew” that what city hall and urban planning groups were promoting was not a healthy long-term solution. Planners do what planners do and decisions were made continuing with the demolition of evidence of our urban heritage replacing it with development providing a more generous tax base, businesses underground, with ten, twenty and thirty floors of offices above.

It was fifty years ago that a young artist, John Little, accompanied by a photographer from Maclean’s magazine stood on a flank of Montreal’s Mount Royal looking out south over the city to all the demolition, some in preparation for the World’s Fair and other for new infrastructure including a subway system and of course oodles of new highways, expressways and the like to move people in their cars to and from the suburbs – newly developed already over the previous fifteen years – as they commuted daily to their work in the city. The two walked around and talked about the need to preserve certain buildings the photographer shot and others which were at that very time being demolished. (Some, illustrated in the magazine, existing back then are long since gone.) The city core was proclaimed for business and anyone who could afford it was encouraged to relocate from the downtown neighborhoods out to the lawns and fences of new suburbia. Almost every home bragged two cars, which as the suburbs continued to grow over the decades, have managed to clog all the highways and bridges leading into town. This of course was not a phenomenon exclusive to Montreal and likely the text of countless North American post World War II urban historians.

John Little, artist-painter for his part, set out in a personal and creative style to document some of the neighborhoods, their architecture and their residents including Griffintown, the Plateau and Point St. Charles, all former neighborhoods particularly vulnerable to the wrecker’s ball. His subjects recall the days when for instance when using junked doors inner city kids made a hockey rink in the back among the sheds, the local soft ball team was sponsored by that man who had the grocery store just up the street and the hockey team by the five and dime store a couple of blocks away and where we all bought our school supplies.

Now fully sixty years since John Little has been promoting the importance of maintaining our heritage in the urban neighborhoods, the good news, is as Mr Hanna tells us, that “most of North America moves relentlessly toward a heritage-based policy of urban renewal around sustainable quality of life principles – a guaranteed formula for reversing the exodus to the suburbs…” And the bad news, he continues, that “Montreal’s administration goes back to the hoary principle of Dixie-Cup throwaway redevelopment.”

It’s probably too little too late anyway but, yes, today’s redevelopment results in “just another bunch of streets with condos”.

Copyright © Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, 2012

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