Monday, December 12, 2011


At noon every weekday St. Viateur St. is full of Ubisoftoids, packs of young game designers who pour out of the old Peck Building hungry for lunch, their appetites sustaining a dozen new local restaurants. Weekend mornings, the cafés are jammed with snaking lineups and fancy strollers, trikes and bikes parked three deep on the sidewalk.

Just when I thought Mile End couldn’t get any trendier, a recent study by Concordia and University of Toronto researchers set out to study its trendiness. For over a decade, such studies and cool-hunting articles have had the effect of changing the neighbourhood they’re observing. The result: life in Mile End gets more chic.

I may have been part of the hype.

For three years, I wrote this blog. I started when our daughter Amelia was tiny and I spent all my time pushing her around the block in the stroller. Strolling with my baby made me look at every fruit tree and old person in my neighbourhood with a new sense of wonder. I wanted to champion the details that fell through the cracks in media coverage of the area.

I’d lived here for 20 years and was obsessed with keeping track of what was lost every time a musty local business metamorphosed into something shinier.  I wrote about Barry Shinder’s 80-year-old cap factory, Norman Epelbaum’s time capsule-like photo studio on Park Avenue, and the mysterious corsetières at Lingerie Rose Marie across the street. I was Mile End’s E.B. White, or at least the self-appointed hyper-local bard of the disappearing family business.

Yet every ending also promises a new beginning. I wrote about those, too. Who could object to gardening in the hard-packed earth around tree squares? Or urban beekeeping? Old people may be disappearing from the area but there are more strollers than ever and the next generation of neighbours is set to stay here for a while. The community-building group Ruepublique is full of committed people in their 20s. They seem to love the neighbourhood as much as I do and are working to improve the area’s public street space.

Then, I’m not sure when, or exactly why, but a sense of neighbourhood fatigue set in.

I still walk around, but Amelia is almost four now. She pedals her own bike, and has her own opinions about what we do: (“Mom, this is not interesting to me.”)

I look at the aqua storefront of the brightly-lit new David’s Tea chain on St. Viateur, or the shops on Bernard selling herbs and sea salt, or vintage glasses frames, and I think: “My work here is done. Everything has changed, there is nothing ungentrified left to keep track of.” (“Mom, this is not interesting to me.”)

But of course, cities and neighbourhoods are always changing. There is always something to notice.
My chronicle of mileendings may have run its course for now, but Amelia is alert to anything new that pops up on her radar, every string of Christmas lights, or the (fortunately brief) re-appearance of the gigantic Nokia-Virgin Mobile reindeer on St. Viateur.

I imagine someday in the faraway future, a thousand trends and changes from now, she’ll look back and remember how it used to be when she was a kid, the Mile End of the 2010s, back in the day.

P.S. To all readers of this blog: thank you.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Endings and beginnings

"Manufacturing is a tough business," Barry Shinder told a class of Concordia design students who were seated around his old factory workshop on St. Laurent Blvd. north of St. Viateur.

Three years ago, Barry Shinder was still running the cap-making business his father had started in 1930. A year and a half later, he went out of business.

For months, the space was only sporadically occupied.

Then, one day in February, Anne-Marie Laflamme and Catherine Métivier happened by.

"The first time we came in, we felt it was like a museum," said Laflamme, 27. "We spent all afternoon asking Barry for stories. We fell in love with the space and the story."

The tattooed students took notes, sketched or recorded the talk on mp3 players. They were there as part of an open house hosted by Laflamme and Métivier. The young women are the building's new tenants and run atelier b., a clothing label dedicated to sustainable textiles and local production.

They plan on preserving the factory's history by keeping Shinder's massive cutting table, two sewing machines and the heavy cast iron button and snap-covering tools.

Most of the sewing machines they couldn't even give away.

"We saved a few," said Laflamme. "There was one we put out with the garbage. When the garbage truck came for it, Catherine was crying like a baby."

Shinder, who's spent his whole life working those machines, is resigned to them ending up on the garbage heap. He's glad, if a little surprised, that Laflamme and Métivier want to keep some equipment.

"I just hope they do well," he said.

Last year, when Shinder had to close the business he was so anxious his weight plummeted from 195 to 130 pounds. "I'll be 65 in January," he said. "I'm computer illiterate. I was good at one thing only. Production."

Some of the students examined their nails and closed their eyes.

Shinder  took a job sewing for Magill Hat, the company that used to contract him to make caps. He decided to sell the building where he'd worked and lived for almost 60 years.

"I think I'm more relaxed now," he said, citing his current weight as 165 lbs. "Thursday I get a paycheque, and it's my money. I have an 8-4 job and that's it." Shinder now works in the Chabanel district and is moving to Little Italy.

Métivier and Laflamme plan to use the 1800-square-foot space as a store and a workshop for sewing samples.

"Just don't live to work," was Shinder's advice. "When you're in business you have no friends."

"But everyone is our friend!" said Laflamme. "It's important for us to work with people we like."

Two generations, two different business paradigms. Were the students listening?

"I still say I do the work of one and a half people," said Shinder, of his skill at producing caps for his boss. "But I only get $2-3 more than minimum wage, and I have 50 years of experience.  Still, I'm probably making more there than I ever made here."

Sunday, July 31, 2011

To the alley cat rescue

They call themselves the Pussy Patrol. Together, Danette MacKay, Leni Parker and Zoï Kilakos have rescued 25 Mile End alley cats in the past two years.

They pick up strays, take them to the vet where they're spayed or neutered, and provide foster care until a home they deem suitable is found.

"They've got their fingers on the pulse of the local alleys, " said vet Judith Weissmann who charges the Pussy Patrol a special rate for the strays.

"We're crazy cat ladies," said Kilakos, who puts out food twice a day for the strays in her alley and has been known to spend hours on a rescue stake-out, waiting for a feral cat to approach. "We were each doing it on our own, then we merged. It's our vocation."

They each own four (or five) rescued cats and refer to the strays as "the boys and girls on the street." One recent rescue was Mad Max who took shelter in one of the insulated structures they put out in the winter.

"He showed up with his leg completely ripped open. I live-trapped him to take to the vet. He was there for a month," said Kilakos, a commercial and fine arts photographer, as well as a cat rescuer.

Danette MacKay is an actor and co-owner of the Arterie Boutique & Friperie on Bernard. She had the idea of offering the cats up for adoption through the store, where actor Leni Parker also works.

The current store cat is tawny Leo, who just a few months ago, had fur so dirty and matted he had to be shaved. "When he was freshly off the streets he would lunge at his food and drink all his water at once," said Parker.

Now he lounges around the boutique like a lazy king. A recent visitor to the store may turn out to be his "forever mom," but first she'll have to pass the Pussy Patrol's intensive adoption interview. There's also a $150 fee designed to cover the cost of neutering and to make sure future owners are serious about owning an animal.

Sometimes, the Pussy Patrol despairs about humans.

"Why is it not OK for dogs to be out on their own and it's totally socially acceptable to let cats roam around?" asked MacKay. "It makes no sense. Do we have a stray dog population problem in Montreal? No, we don't."

"People have this mentality that cats are solo creatures and autonomous and need to be outside in nature. That's not true," said Parker.

"Rescued street cats very rarely want to go out again," continued MacKay.

Kilakos points out that if cats aren't spayed or neutered they will produce several litters a year, as will their offspring, quickly resulting in an exponential number of animals. She gives out her vet's card to new pet owners, gently transmitting that message.

"Yelling at people doesn't work so I try to bribe them with compassion," she said.

To adopt a former alley cat, contact

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sidewalk Gardener

On a breezy Saturday morning, across the street from a looming factory building at the corner of Casgrain and Maguire, Diane Boyer gave out cotton gloves and advice .

"When you're an urban gardener you're also an archeologist," she told a small group of people. "You'll find glass, metal, plastic. The soil is compacted. So you take the hoe, remove the top 4-5 centimetres of cedar mulch. Set it aside on a groundsheet," she instructed.

"With a shovel or pitchfork, work the soil. Turn it," Boyer demonstrated. "It's a good opportunity to take out the weeds. We'll add a little chicken manure in there as fertilizer, then we'll put the mulch back on top."

Boyer was leading a workshop on her personal passion: tree square gardening.

Boyer first started planting flowers around the trees by her loft on St. Viateur East three years ago. She won an éco-quartier contest for her initiative. The following summer she took over more tree squares, and then decided to quit her job in film to study horticulture.

She finished her studies this year and started a new job as project manager at the éco-quartier du Plateau Mont-Royal. When she proposed using tree squares as a way to get more citizens gardening, her colleagues liked the idea.

Now Boyer is responsible for a pilot project that's put176 tree squares up for adoption in the eastern, semi-industrial portion of Mile End. In an area notable for its lack of greenery and large garment factory buildings, each tree has a numbered plaque strung around its trunk and instructions for adoption: call éco-quartier.

Residents, schools and daycares jumped at the chance to adopt these patches of dirt.

Plateau Mont-Royal horticultural department  supplied the soil, hearty perennials and brightly flowered annuals. Boyer and her éco-quartier colleagues distributed them, along with planting tips, to willing gardeners.

Some people adopted the spots right in front of their homes. Others, like Deborah Kramer and her three-year -old daughter, Luna, have come from five or more blocks away, eager for the chance to garden.

"There are no tree squares on my block," Deborah said. "I saw the signs: 'Tree squares  for adoption.' They provide tools, earth, a lesson, and there you go. It's cool. We live in an apartment so it's nice for us. We've adopted this tree.  Now we have to take care of it."

Pushing a wheelbarrow  of gardening supplies (donated by Rona at Parc and Bernard), Boyer answered questions from new gardeners. "Horticulture is trial and error," she advised. "There's nothing like trying."

"I've always  wanted a community garden but the waiting list is four years long. Plus, this is more my speed. I'm a novice," said Deborah.

"One tree square is small but if we all get together we can make a difference and make things cleaner and brighter in the neighbourhood," said Boyer. "A garden is so much better than a piece of garbage."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shop talk

Near the Rialto Theatre on Parc Avenue,  the curlicued white lettering of an old sign reads, "Bijouterie Rothschild, Horlogerie, Objets d'Art." From the outside, the narrow store appears dim and quiet, almost abandoned.

But inside, Moïse Rothschild is busy serving a steady stream of customers. People come in to browse for rings, get a watch, a chain, or an earring repaired, or to find out if a piece of old jewelry is actually gold.

Rothschild wears a jeweler's magnifying visor over his silver curls, a dark jacket, and a copper-gold ring set with a bright green oval of malachite from his native Iran. He gives his age simply as "over 70," and says he'll keep working at the store as long as he has the energy.

"I've known Moïse for twenty years!" grinned one woman. Many of his customers have been coming to him, "the man on Parc Avenue," for decades. 

 "There's a difference between someone who's just interested in business and someone who's studied humanities, who has a human point of view and who won't let clients leave without a smile," reasoned Rothschild who has PhD in comparative literature.

He brought his family to Montreal after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and took over the jewelry store in 1980, running it part-time while he worked as a French teacher and principal at a Hasidic school. Rothschild sends out most of the repairs, saying it's his vocation to find the best workmanship for his clients.

These days Rothschild opens the store from around 1 p.m. until early evening. He runs his business on terms some people may consider eccentric.

"Sometimes I refuse to sell to people who buy a lot of things from me," he said. "If they're buying on impulse, they might regret it.

"You have to be a psychologist," he continued. "If somebody comes in to change a battery and watch  band and I feel they're not able to pay much, I ask very little. I don't lose money, because the same person comes back and brings other customers. And some people give tips."

A father and a little girl in search of a gift for Mom, examined the rings and earrings in one of the cracked display cases. After a lengthy deliberation they chose a vintage amber pendant and to the girl's delight, Rothschild threw in a bracelet for her. It was stainless steel filigree set with tiny bits of coloured glass.

"I've never seen a business person like you," remarked Ginette Gauron, a long-time client and friend. She has stylish dark hair, black framed glasses and red lipstick. Her most recent Rothschild purchase was a diamond, but today she came in just to chat.

"He feels sorry for people," she said. "He's not a person, he's a soul. When he's gone we'll have to put up a statue on Parc Avenue."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Desire lines

Sasha Johnson stepped out his front door on Jeanne Mance shouldering a giant 35-pound backpack. He picked up a blue folding chair and set out toward the railroad tracks.

At the sculpture garden near Clark and Van Horne, he stepped through a hole in the fence and walked to a grassy spot along the tracks, well away from any rail traffic. He put down his chair, undid the pack and pulled out a gleaming tuba.

"I'm a little bit tucked away here," he said. "I'm between  the St. Urbain underpass and the train tracks. The odds of someone telling me to be quiet are very small. It's not that I get a lot of complaints at the house, but I like to give the neighbours a break."

The light bounced off the golden bell of his tuba as he played scales. A breeze buffeted the music, carrying the low resonant notes down the tracks and through the trees along the chain link fence.

An orchestral tuba player, Johnson, 39, first fell under the spell of the instrument's breadth and power when he was 12.

"There are many more musical possibilities with the tuba than people think. Most people just know about Oompah and Oktoberfest but it can also sound very tender." To demonstrate, he sent a heart-rending passage floating over the tracks. It was the scene of Juliet's death from Prokofiev's ballet of Romeo and Juliet.

A few years ago, Johnson took lessons with the tuba player from the New York Philharmonic who encouraged him to play outdoors as a way of preparing for auditions.

"The tuba is designed to be the foundation of an 80- to 100-piece orchestra," said Johnson. "Auditions are in concert halls. Playing in a tiny practice room is nowhere close to that. Outside is the largest place possible.

"Now I tell my students to play outside. In fact, I teach out here sometimes," added Johnson who is an instructor at Schulich School of Music at McGill and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He also commutes to work in Toronto with his main employer, the National Ballet of Canada.

"I love playing outdoors and I love coming to the tracks, but it's no fun having to worry about getting a ticket," he  said.

The Canadian Pacific police give $144 tickets to anyone they catch crossing the train tracks or setting foot in the green space along the railroad. People in Mile End, Little Italy and Rosemont are actively protesting the ticketing and lobbying for the establishment of a level crossing at the tracks at the spots where people want to cross the tracks, sometimes known as desire lines.

"I'm breaking the law just by being here," Johnson pointed out.

He stepped back through the hole in the fence to head home and a woman enjoying the sun on a bench in the sculpture garden said: "Thanks for the concert."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Urban barnacles

Billy Mavreas walks down the street with his hands in his corduroy pockets, head swiveling as he  scans left to right and up and down. He checks everything along the sidewalk and its periphery, the utility poles, bike racks, stop signs, walls and mailboxes, looking for new additions.

"People add things. They accrete like barnacles," he says.

"Corazon," he notes, as we pass a scrawl of graffiti on an alley wall. "That's some kid writing 'heart.' That person is looking for attention. There's the listen bird," he points to a spray-painted bird and next to it, the word listen.

I follow a few steps behind, trying to keep up with everything he's seeing.

"I'm like a camera-less photographer," he says. "It's all collecting whether it's in your pocket or catalogued in your brain."

Billy is a cartoonist,  artist and collector. He and Emilie O'Brien run Monastiraki – a gallery, store, and collection of collections. Billy thrives on filing things away. He's been dowsing for found treasure since he was a kid in suburban Ville St. Laurent, who went out to look for interesting stuff, came across flat metal slugs and put them in boxes.

His website features a quizzical, sentimental catalogue of 20th century litter such as wrappers, bus tickets and bits of zipper, along with irresistible stories of their origins. He recently started a new series of tiny flat things that he laminates in plastic: half a five dollar bill; a leaf; a torn photo, among other items. A mental catalogue of the graffiti tags, street art and changes in the neighbourhood is just another dimension of his capacity for collecting.

We keep walking. I'm out and about every day but when Billy points stuff out, it's like I don't even live here, there's so much I never see.

Billy refers to the absence of the giant poplar by the church on St. Viateur as if it's old news. What?! When did that happen? He draws my attention to the disappearance of the evocatively faded old Navarino sign outside the bakery on Parc Avenue. I'd noticed the new sign (sort of), but hadn't registered the loss of the vertical vintage girl with cake. (She has moved inside to the back wall of the bakery.)

"Attention must be paid! Even though it's free," says Billy. "I don't know why, but I get a kick out of 'Afrika Bon Jovy.'" Now that he mentions it, I have seen those mysterious words printed all over the place.

Last year, when I wanted to find out more about the "i love you..." grafitti, Billy was the first person I consulted. He didn't know who'd done it, but revealed  that he'd been responsible for the small, happily waving  creature on a low wall near the Collège Français. (It's gone now, and I miss it.)

"I was always subtle," Billy says as we walk. "I did it for people who are looking –there. That's one of mine," he indicates a stenciled sunburst on Bernard, a thing of the past for him.

When he became a local business owner he realized he couldn't in good conscience be the guy who was putting stuff on walls and getting mad at people for doing the same to his. Now he keeps an eye out for the writing on the wall without  spray-painting other people's property himself.

Once Billy points out the corazon scrawl and heart, the little amoeba ghost stickers, the poles decorated in multi-coloured rings of duct tape, I start seeing them.

"I like these pills," he says, of an oblong-shaped blue and white capsule sticker on a pole. He has "harvested" one for his collection of paper ephemera. "What I don't like is scratchitti." Who knew there was a word for the scratched messages in the plexiglass of a bus shelter?  

In the alley, Billy pauses at a garbage pile and lifts up a small cork  bulletin board that someone has painted with red polka dots. "Because this is fun, I'm going to find a better place to put it." He carries the spotted board around the corner and props it by the sidewalk where it may find a new home.

"I'm not just pulling stuff off the street anymore. I stop myself. I don't want to be a hoarder. Or even a hoarder-lite," he says.

It's a constant battle for someone who notices everything.

Near my front steps he finds a rusty metal door part that he can't resist. He puts it in the pocket of his jeanjacket.  "There are always found things in my pocket," he confesses as he repositions two chess pawns to make room for the new acquisition.


The collections of Billy Mavreas will be featured in the show Bits and Pieces at the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts

Billy Mavreas Inside The Face
new pencil drawings

5478 St-Laurent