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A Look Back at Montreal's Contentious, First Attempt at Slum Clearance

A Look Back at Montreal's Contentious, First Attempt at Slum Clearance
City of Montreal Archives

Montreal, late to the trend of slum clearance by the 1950s, finally broke through a contentious political stalemate by 1957, wiping out what was the city's red light district (known for its crime and substandard living conditions) and replacing it with the kinds of modernist apartment blocks written off then, and still today, as doomed attempts at social engineering.

The "Dozois Plan," a slum clearance strategy approved by the province, called for the worn-out homes and streetscapes throughout the neighborhood to be eliminated and replaced with modern, government-run apartments. The plan's affiliations, named in honor of the centrist, business-connected Montreal politician Paul Dozois, forced local real estate agents to ease up on equating public housing with Communism. Still, Mayor Jean Drapeau, described years later in Sports Illustrated as "suspicious of public welfare, feeling it erodes individual dignity," remained strongly opposed.


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Drapeau's position confounded then-chairman of the Municipal Sanitary Housing Bureau, Lucien Croteau, who resented the mayor's suggestion that the plan was a "Communist measure" that would "segregate the poor," retorting, "are they not already segregated in a slum zone?
 

To Croteau's relief, the Dozois plan was soon fulfilled. Drapeau lost his campaign for re-election later that year and construction on Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance began, debuting in October 1959.

Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance by Eugene BoykoNational Film Board of Canada (1963)

Drapeau returned to office in 1960, too late to interfere with the project. Meanwhile, curiously, former red light district residents did not stay as anticipated, choosing other neighborhoods over the brand new housing projects. By 1966, only 45 of the 836 people living in the neighborhood before were living in the Jeanne-Mance projects.

While the new apartments were seen by many as a victory against substandard living conditions, the housing project's manager, Leopold Rogers, gave it mixed reviews, telling the Montreal Gazette that it was "no place to bring up children" but that it also did "more for the needy than any social agency in the city." Rogers went on to say that despite its faults, "there is no stigma attached now to living in Les Habitiations Jeanne-Mance."

Drapeau remained as mayor until 1986, continuing to ignore issues related to low-income housing while chasing mega projects and pro sports to fulfill his dream of transforming Montreal into an international destination. He ultimately left the city $1 billion in debt.

By the turn of the century, while surrounding neighborhoods gentrified, the Jeanne-Mance projects were in serious need of reinvestment, eventually leading to new landscaping and recreational areas on the outside; elevators, windows, plumbing, and electrical systems inside. Now revitalized, 1,700 people from 70 different countries call it home, with the average household income around $12,000 (residents pay 25 percent of that towards their rent).

Recently, the City of Montreal Archives republished photographs of the old red light district taken by city officials in the summer of 1957, just as residents started receiving their eviction notices. Often, the city's images show a neighborhood that appears almost charming on the surface (children, adults and animals not hard to find on its streets) but whose residents, we should not forget, were left at the mercy of private landlords often uninterested in creating decent living conditions for some of the city's poorest tenants.


People gather outside a property in the former Red Light district. On the right, a man holds a number for documentation purposes. Image courtesy City of Montreal Archives

Old housing, since demolished, on the corner of Ontario and St. Elizabeth streets. Image courtesy City of Montreal Archives


A woman looks out the back of a second floor apartment (left). Street view of the neighborhood (right). Images courtesy City of Montreal Archives

Children play outside along run down properties in the former Red Light district. Image courtesy City of Montreal Archives


A neighborhood body shop. Image courtesy City of Montreal Archives

Ducks and chickens frolic on a neighborhood property (left). S. Lebeau Market and Butcher on Ontario street (right). Images courtesy City of Montreal Archives


A neighborhood corner store across the street from a tavern. 
Image courtesy City of Montreal Archives


A co-op bakery on de Buillon street in the Red Light district. 
Image courtesy City of Montreal Archives

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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