Words & Photography: Benjamin Languay

Dorothy Williams’s life was changed forever when the Ville-Marie Expressway was built in the mid 1960s – when she was only 10 – but there’s a lot about the project that she doesn’t remember.

She doesn’t remember the construction work along her street in Little Burgundy, south of Saint-Antoine Street. She doesn’t remember the constant din of steamroller over cement. She doesn’t remember the furrow in her mother’s brow while she read notices placed in her mailbox by the City.

What she remembers most vividly was her best friend having to move away.

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Intersection of Viger and Bleury Streets in December 1963 and January 2019. The Ville-Marie Expressway runs underneath Palais des congrès. (Archives de la Ville de Montréal).

“It was a massive shock to the community,” said Williams, who is now a historian focused on minority issues in Montreal. “A significant portion of the community was affected. People wound up having to leave the neighbourhood – people who had been there for two or three generations.”

Williams’s case isn’t unique. During the construction of the Ville-Marie Expressway, which stretches from Notre-Dame Street East to the Turcot Interchange in the west, at least 15,000 Montrealers — more than 3,300 families — were displaced. Three entire neighbourhoods were completely erased: Faubourg à m’lasse at the base of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, the red light district bound by Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Berri Street, and René-Lévesque Boulevard, and Goose Village at the foot of the Victoria Bridge.

Many areas north of Saint-Antoine Street, including Viger Street, were completely renovated. In the 1950s and 1960s, mayors Jean Drapeau and Sarto Fournier invested heavily in projects of urban renewal; both wanted to replace lower income housing with modern structures to boost Montreal’s cultural status. Faubourg à m’lasse made way for the Radio-Canada complex, the red light district now houses UQÀM, La Grande Bibliothèque National and CHUM, while Goose Village first became the Autostade for Expo 67, and is now a parking lot.

Intersection of Viger and Sanguinet Streets in December 1963 and January 2019. This is near where the red light district used to be located. (Archives de la Ville de Montréal).

The decision to sacrifice poorer, racialized neighbourhoods is one that has only recently come under contention. Steven High, a History professor at Concordia, led an investigation into the construction of the highway in collaboration with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. “This is the North American story,” he says. “This happens in every major North American city. Urban planning often targets black and other minority neighbourhoods”.

Intersection of Viger Street and Saint-Laurent Boulevard in December 1963 and January 2019. Chinatown, which begins on Saint-Laurent, was affected during Mayor Jean Drapeau’s urban renewal project. (Archives de la Ville de Montréal).

The construction of the Ville-Marie Expressway came at a bad time for the Black population in Montreal. In the 1950s and 1960s, 90% of Black men in Montreal were employed by the railway, usually working on passengers trains for weeks at a time. When transportation shifted away from railroads, and cars skyrocket in popularity, this created an economic crisis for Black Montrealers.

“At the same time, you’re building a highway from the suburbs for white consumers into the city,” High says. “It’s a 1-2 hit. The job losses on the railway, as well as the making of the highway, which was all about the mobility of others, not those who were being forced to leave.”

Intersection of Viger and Hermine Streets in December 1963 and January 2019. (Archives de la Ville de Montréal).

For Williams, the highway changed the fabric of her neighbourhood. “The place I remember in my early years was not where I was when I was 20,” she says. “We used to play in the little lanes and alleys behind our houses, they were part of my home. These places got reshaped and renamed, and it changed the way we saw our community. A certain character in the neighbourhood changed. But we didn’t have a choice.”

The Ville-Marie Expressway project, which started under Fournier but really came to fruition under Drapeau, was typical of latter’s political ambitions. But the urban renewal of the 1960s, which culminated in the implementation of the metro system, left many behind.

“This is the North American story. This happens in every major North American city. Urban planning often targets black and other minority neighbourhoods.

Intersection of Viger and Papineau Streets in December 1963 and January 2019. This is where Faubourg à m’lasse was located prior to the construction of the Ville-Marie Expressway. (Archives de la Ville de Montréal).

“It’s about politics, and who’s being listened to,” High says. “And that hasn’t changed. They’ll never put a highway through a rich neighbourhood. They’ll put it through a poor neighbourhood. They might just say it’s cheaper for them to build it, but it’s also about who has clout. These are not rich neighbourhoods, and because they’re not rich, they’re disposable for those in power.”

Map by Sarah Boumedda