Railroad blues

By critically examining municipal investments into the land adjacent to Montreal’s train tracks, we can see whose leisure, passage, access to public space and safety is given primacy over others.
January 1, 2019

Illustration of a CP rail train dividing a cityscapeIllustration by Tim Scarth / Photos of Montreal by the author

Various train tracks run along the northern edge of the Outremont and Mile End neighbourhoods in Montreal, imposing something of a physical barrier between them and the boroughs to their immediate north, Parc-Extension (Parc-Ex) and La Petite-Patrie. Parc-Ex is further cordoned off by a set of tracks along its eastern edge that separate it from neighbouring Villeray. On the borough’s western edge, another train line, this one reinforced by an imposing fence, creates a firm border with the affluent Town of Mount Royal.

While freight train traffic has diminished significantly over the last few decades, the tracks surrounding Parc-Ex are still used by commuter trains that link the city’s suburban sprawl to the downtown core. At the same time, the tracks are an impediment to convenient passage through the neighbourhoods closest to them—neighbourhoods that have become increasingly residential (and increasingly gentrified) in Montreal’s post-industrial landscape. For proof, we need only look for the holes that appear in the fences bordering the tracks at frequent crossing points. These holes are eventually covered, but they always reappear.

The train lines remain the property of Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail), which has repeatedly expressed opposition to the construction of level crossings along the tracks. In an open letter to the Montreal Gazette in 2017, CP Rail President Keith Creel explained he is only concerned about safety and a potential increase in unlawful trespassing. But there is still intense pressure on the company from the city, the boroughs of Plateau Mont-Royal and Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, and various community groups including the Collective for Level Crossings. Discussions on the matter between city officials and CP Rail, which were mediated by the Canadian Transportation Agency, ended at an impasse in the summer of 2017.

The physical isolation that Montreal’s train tracks engender is not borne equally. West of Parc Avenue, in Montreal’s poorest neighbourhood of Parc-Ex (part of the Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension borough), the tracks are a profound impediment to travelling from the north of the city to the south by foot or bike.

The only options for passing under or over the train tracks are the heavily trafficked main artery of Parc Ave. or else Rockland Road, about 1.2 km to the east. When Parc Ave. is not clogged with rush-hour traffic, drivers take advantage of its four lanes to far exceed the outlined speed limit. Despite being the most direct route for cyclists and pedestrians from Parc-Ex further south, Parc Ave. does not have a bike lane. Responding to safety concerns from cyclists, the city decided to exempt this stretch of road from the bylaw that forbids riding bikes on the sidewalk.

In contrast, to the east of Parc Ave. the train tracks are an inconvenience, but one seldom has to walk more than 500 meters to find a legal crossing. Recently, the bike path that runs along the busy St. Laurent Road that passes under the train tracks was widened and provided with a physical barrier to protect cyclists from cars. And, while unlawful passage is a possibility on the city’s eastern side (although with the risk a hefty fine from the CP Rail police), crossing the two different sets of tracks between Parc-Ex and Outremont is much more challenging.

In spite of the different degrees to which the train tracks restrict pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the Mile End versus Parc-Ex, much of the push for new level crossings comes from the eastern side of the city, in proximity to the Rosemont Metro station. Here residents have organized to issue complaints about the poorly maintained St. Laurent and St. Denis underpasses and to highlight the extra time that walking or cycling around the train tracks adds to their daily movements. If soundbites from these groups in the Mile End and La Petite-Patrie neighbourhoods are easier to find in the media than from anyone in Parc-Ex, it is likely because there are more immediate concerns for community organizers in the latter borough.


We often take our built environment for granted, but as the above comparison makes plain, urban infrastructure can exacerbate inequality. By critically examining municipal investments into the land adjacent to Montreal’s train tracks, we can see whose leisure, convenient passage through the city, access to public space and safety is given primacy over others in this city. Following the money in this way can also help us understand the ways in which municipal governments facilitate gentrification.

The land adjacent to the tracks east of Parc Ave. has been developed into a “green corridor” that includes an outdoor gym, sculpture garden, bike and running paths, dog parks, green spaces and a skate park (currently under construction). These public spaces are all heavily used by the predominantly white and middle class groups that live nearby. Moreover, an annual music festival has been initiated next to the tracks and under one of the overpasses, taking advantage of the increasing trendiness of post-industrial landscapes.

At first glance, the repurposing of these spaces looks like democratization, and it would be hard to argue that these developments are to the detriment of the communities that surround them. However, if we are to understand the right to the city as David Harvey and others do—as a collective right to remake the city after our collective vision—then we must ask why no such amenities can be found in Parc-Ex. Why, in fact, is there very little access to any public space in that borough compared to Mile End or La Petite-Patrie?

According to data provided by the City of Montreal, as of 2015, 51.3% of residents in Parc-Ex were immigrants and 56.4% categorized as visible minorities. The median household income of $38,022 in Parc-Ex (in 2015) is also considerably lower than the citywide median income of $50,277. In contrast, in La Petite-Patrie only 16.9% of the population is considered part of a visible minority, and the median household income is closer to the city median at $49,409 (in 2015). To the south of the tracks in the Mile End neighbourhood, more than 85% of the population is white, and the median household income in 2015 was $53,205.

In this instance, public resources have been concentrated in neighbourhoods that are well-off. Further, we can assume that the “green corridor” initiated in La Petite-Patrie and the Mile End is in line with the desires and expectations of the groups living there, since the associated projects have garnered little protest and are widely enjoyed by the surrounding residents.

In Parc-Ex, on the other hand, the redevelopment of the limited public space that exists has garnered opposition from residents. For example, the city recently awarded funding for new seating areas and kiosks for workshops and wares in Place de la Gare at the intersection of Parc Ave. and Jean-Talon Road. But the coalition behind the project, called Parc-Ex Nourriceier, has been criticized locally for not adequately consulting residents in remaking the space.

“This is the northern frontier of gentrification in Montreal, and on this open space…a skirmish over the neighborhood’s future is being fought,” wrote Kathryn Jezer-Morton for the Next City website in June 2017. “[L]ocals worry that the creative placemaking [that the redevelopment of the space represents] is intended to make the neighborhood more attractive to incoming young professionals at the expense of the ethnically diverse and economically marginal population that currently makes heavy use of it.”

To be sure, a scan of the websites for the various organizations involved reveals that the people driving this project are predominantly white, signifying that the demographics of the coalition are not representative of the demographics of the broader neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the kiosks have been constructed as planned. We need to consider this example as one among many cases where the allocation of public resources or initiation of public projects can facilitate gentrification. The government-led construction of convention centres or public tourist attractions are other examples of publicly funded gentrification that results in the displacement of residents.

The isolation that the train tracks create for Parc-Ex and the lack of city investment in public spaces there have likely slowed processes of gentrification. On the eastern side of the tracks, a plenitude of investment appears to be fuelling the urban transformation. In a recent book, Green Gentrification, Kenneth Gould and Tammy Lewis document the phenomenon in various New York City neighbourhoods whereby property values significantly increase in proximity to major city investments in parks, green spaces and other environmental amenities.         


In Mile End much of the concern about the train tracks centers on the difficulty of accessing the Rosemont Metro station for people who work in the rapidly gentrifying Saint-Viateur Est portion of the borough. With the help of city money, many of the area’s larger buildings that once housed Montreal’s textile and garment industries have been refashioned into studios, co-working spaces, offices, cafes, yoga studios and other obvious hallmarks of gentrification. The need for level crossings here is usually framed in economic terms. For example, Mile End councillor Richard Ryan has said the train tracks are “slowing down labour mobility, and that’s also preventing economic development.”

Saint-Viateur Est is like many other neighbourhoods in rapidly gentrifying North American cities where city governments have sought to attract creative industries in order to repurpose post-industrial spaces and encourage economic development. Inevitably, this strategy caters to a certain kind of urbanite and is accompanied by the displacement of others—frequently new immigrants and/or working class—who are more likely to live in proximity to industrial areas where property values are lower. Both Mile End and La Petite-Patrie were heavily populated by these people in decades past.

Saint-Viateur Est is home to a high concentration of start-ups and the offices of Ubisoft, one of the world’s biggest video game developers. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of jobs in Saint-Viateur Est increased from 7,500 to 13,000, with Ubisoft alone employing 3,000 people in its offices there. The public spaces bordering the train tracks cater to these and other young professionals who work, live and hang out in the trendy area.

Each summer, the city and various corporate partners set up Aire Commune—an open-air networking and events space within and around decommissioned shipping containers—in a gravel loton the southern edge of the tracks. The season-long pop-up festival features craft beer, free wi-fi, food trucks, local DJs and yoga classes. The website for the initiative is tightly branded, highly corporate and plastered with images of young, almost entirely white people having fun. In close proximity, an abandoned warehouse under municipal jurisdiction and used for years by homeless people to escape Montreal’s notoriously harsh winters, was recently torn down. These two city initiatives taken together illustrate who is welcome in this space, and who is not.


Meanwhile, in Parc-Ex the city (and province) continue to invest in the construction of the new University of Montreal campus just north of the train tracks in what was once a train yard. Once completed, this new campus promises to bring thousands of students to the area, likely shifting the demographics of the neighbourhood and inflating rents. Developers have already begun construction on luxury apartments, sparking protests from local community organizations like Brique par Brique. While the neighbourhood has until now been sparse on public space, with the influx of students the plans for the campus include four new parks.

The development along the peripheries downtown Montreal’s train tracks offers a case study for how infrastructure can worsen inequality, how the allocation of public resources favours some groups over others and how the city managers are working to facilitate gentrification. This discussion raises many more questions about how to pursue a more collective right to the city—both for policy makers and for organizers.

How can we improve access to public space and remove impediments to free passage by foot and bike without spurring gentrification? How might well-intentioned community organizing in one part of the city leave behind people in others? And how can we form coalitions across neighbourhoods that are dealing with similar challenges, yet make sure that the loudest voices are not those with the most social capital based on race, gender and class? Only by pursuing the answers to these questions can we ensure that the right to the city is one we bear collectively.

Sophie O'Manique is a PhD student in geography at the Graduat Centre, City University of New York, and is currently living in Montreal.