Griffintown was developed in the 19th century as a working-class Irish neighbourhood of Montréal. It has undergone several attempts at urban revitalization from the 1980s onward. Since 2010, there have been a number of controversial real estate developments in the neighbourhood.
The neighbourhood is part of the Sud-Ouest and Ville-Marie boroughs of Montréal. It is located along the Lachine Canal, between Notre-Dame, McGill and Guy streets.
The neighbourhood was developed on a plot of land called “the fief of Nazareth,” granted to Jeanne Mance in 1654. The fief was administered by the sisters of Hôtel-Dieu in Montréal. In 1792, a Protestant merchant from Northern Ireland named Thomas McCord obtained a 99-year lease from the religious community. He hoped to develop the farm and work the land, then known as the “Grange des Pauvres,” or “barn of the poor.” Business concerns forced him to return to Great Britain and leave management of the fief to Patrick Langan, his associate. Langan sold the land illegally to Mary Griffin, the wife of Robert Griffin, a soap manufacturer, who set about developing the area.
The Role of Irish Immigration
In 1814, after a long legal battle, Thomas McCord regained the sub-fief of Nazareth. Montréal's fortifications had been demolished in 1804; the city was growing and new neighbourhoods were appearing. Mass Irish immigration led to a significant increase in Montréal's population, especially after 1815. The newcomers settled in Nazareth, which a short time later was renamed Griffintown or faubourg Sainte-Anne. Nazareth slowly changed from an agricultural area to a residential one. Owing to its proximity to the downtown core and the Lachine Canal (which was then the main commercial transportation route), the district evolved into a major industrial and commercial centre over the next twenty years or so.
Thirty years later, there was a second wave of immigration from Ireland when the Great Potato Famine of 1845–49 forced 500,000 Irish people to make their way to the United States and Canada. In Montréal, they settled near the port and lived in difficult conditions, with no running water. Griffintown’s Irish residents helped build the Lachine Canal (1821–25) and widen it (1843–48), and they also helped build the Victoria Bridge (1860) and the Grand Trunk Railway lines. In addition to crushing poverty, the immigrants also had to deal with river flooding and a number of fires, the most devastating of which made 500 families homeless in 1850. St. Ann’s Church, built in 1854 and administered by the Redemptorists, was the Irish workers’ meeting place.
The district saw the development of many industries during the 19th century, including flour mills and smelting works, making Griffintown an industrial hub of Montréal. The metallurgy sector grew from 11 smelting works in 1861 to 20 in 1890 and 28 in 1929. Chemical plants (especially for the production of acids, fertilizers, oils and paints) and textile factories also sprang up, and Griffintown had a substantial brewing industry. The Dow brewery and the Williams brewery, which became the Imperial brewery around 1850, expanded rapidly. In 1909, they combined to become National Breweries, consolidating the production of Griffintown’s two brewing operations. Griffintown was a dynamic industrial district, but its inhabitants continued to live in poverty and were exposed to the industrial waste that surrounded and permeated the residential areas.
In the early 20th century, the neighbourhood’s economy slowed dramatically, and the economic crisis of the 1930s made the situation even worse. Montréal's progress slowed, too, and Griffintown`s population gradually declined. In 1963, the Jean Drapeau administration re-zoned the district for industry. This decision struck a fatal blow to the neighbourhood. Homeowners could no longer rebuild their houses after a fire or demolition. Lacking students, schools closed one after another, and St. Ann’s Church was demolished in June 1970. Construction began on the Bonaventure Expressway in 1965, the Lachine Canal fell into disuse in 1972, and almost all the factories closed their doors. Griffintown was dying. By 1974, there were only 546 residents. In the years that followed, the last Irish families left, by choice or by force, as more and more buildings were demolished and land was expropriated.
The city decided to re-christen the area Faubourg-des-Récollets, virtually erasing its nearly 200 years of Irish heritage in one name change.
Urban Revitalization Projects
In the 1980s, various projects were launched to revitalize the neighbourhood. The City of Montréal bought much of the land and tried to develop a new community called the Quartier des Écluses (Lock District). However, economic conditions and the collapse of the real estate market in the early 1990s halted the project before it could get off the ground.
In 1996, the establishment of the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), part of the Université du Québec, seemed to breathe new life into the area. In 1997, the city decided to support new technologies and developed the Cité du Multimédia. The Québec government stepped in and made funding available for job creation, prompting a number of businesses to open in Griffintown. In 2003, in response to a great deal of criticism, Jean Charest’s Liberal government decided to end this funding, and it sold all the Cité’s buildings to a private investor in 2004. That year, Ubisoft set up shop in Griffintown.
In 2005, there was a proposal to move the Montréal Casino to a location near the Peel Basin, right in the heart of Griffintown. There were public objections and the proposal was dropped.
In 2007, Montréal mayor Gérard Tremblay teamed up with the Société du Havre to revive the historic district by converting the Bonaventure Expressway into an urban boulevard. The plans included the construction of university residences, residential and office towers, and even a streetcar line. Real estate developers saw a good business opportunity, and in 2010 mayor Benoît Dorais of the Southwest district announced that multiple contractors wanted to start 23 housing development projects and build a total of 6,500 housing units.
District Griffin was to be a multi-phase development. As early as 30 August 2010, Devimco announced that it would take on the first phase of construction with an investment of $475 million. The development consisted of four towers with 1,375 housing units, businesses, and a hotel. Several development projects, including Bassin du Havre and Le Canal, have since been announced and are taking shape.
These revitalization and real estate development plans have sparked a great deal of controversy. While the goals of the first few projects were to conserve and convert industrial buildings and build low-rise dwellings that fit in with existing buildings, there has recently been a move towards “hyper-density.” Many buildings and sometimes entire blocks have been torn down to make room for new buildings, and condominium towers taller than 20 storeys have gone up. As a result, the City of Montréal has been heavily criticized and accused of a lack of creativity in urban planning. Moreover, the administration waited until 2012 before launching a public consultation process, several months after it approved the real estate development projects.
Griffintown’s Irish Legacy
Commemoration of Griffintown and its Irish inhabitants is relatively recent, except for a park established by the city in the 1990s on the site of St. Ann’s Church.
In 2003, Richard Burman produced a documentary called Ghosts of Griffintown. It tells the story of Mary Gallagher, a prostitute murdered in 1879. According to legend, she returns every seven years to haunt William Street in search of her head. The documentary uses the legend as a theme to explore the neighbourhood’s history. The guided walk Sounding Griffintown, available in podcast form and developed by Lisa Gasior in 2007, is an original way of letting local residents and visitors discover how the urban landscape and the sounds of Griffintown have changed over the centuries.
In 2013, a community group called for the preservation of the Horse Palace, one of the oldest existing stables in Montréal. The stable was built in 1862 and is still used by the caléchiers (carriage drivers) of Old Montréal. Even though it is in a state of disrepair, it is one of the few remaining urban structures built at the time Irish immigrants settled in the southwest part of the island. In 2014, a fundraising campaign collected $60,000 to conserve the site and rebuild the stables, which were too fragile to be renovated. Preserving the site and its original purpose will help promote the neighbourhood’s history by keeping it alive and accessible to visitors.