Published in the Montreal Gazette on May 24, 2014
In 1966, as an undergraduate student at Sir George Williams University (today, Concordia), I took a summer job as a freight worker at the Bonaventure Terminal on Peel Street, just opposite the now – decommissioned Montreal Planetarium on Chaboillez Square. The depot was previously the site of the ornate Grand Trunk Railway station of the same name. It was demolished in the late 1940’s, shortly after the inauguration the city’s majestic Central Station.
For a little over three months, I toiled, along with a dozen or so other students, in the train yards of that same Bonaventure Terminal. The enclosure was situated immediately south of St. Jacques Street and stretched all the way west to Guy. Within this working area, we energetically emptied the various railway cars parked at our respective docks. We were paid $1.66 an hour, a fair amount of money for the period.
With the passage of time and the advent of long haul vehicles for the transport of most commercial goods, the terminus was ultimately abandoned in the early 1980’s and its tracks removed a short time thereafter. A coveted piece of real estate quickly became available for residential development. Enter ‘Les Floralies de la Montagne’, a unique housing project within a stone’s throw of the city centre.
Construction took place on the plan in the middle of the 1980’s when the former railway land was converted into an extensive circle upon which 116 townhouses were built. The eastern side of the loop, which borders Mountain Street and situated more or less where I worked in 1966, was left free for the later erection of several high-rise condominium towers.
Known originally as ‘Place Victor Hugo’, the toponymic designation had a run in with the OQLF in 2005 and emerged from that encounter as Rue Victor Hugo. Whichever, it has been my home address since 1999.
Since that time, the street evolved considerably and has become very much a tiny, yet unmistakable, community. Much of this development is the product of the tireless efforts of two residents in particular, Steve Shanahan and Darrell Hellyer.
A number of years ago, Shanahan (who now represents the ward at Montreal City Hall) started a popular residents’ association that organized various activities such as the annual summer BBQ. When he later moved, the association was taken over by Darrell Helyar, a longtime inhabitant of the neighbourhood.
Helyar expanded on the work of Shanahan and, at the same time, developed a close working relationship with former city councillor, Sammy Forcillo, another individual to whom the inhabitants of ‘Rue Victor Hugo’ owe a great deal.
Helyar maintains the residents’ association website (www.residentsvh.wordpress.com) through which the locality is kept up to date on a multitude of issues ranging from impending community events to sharing information concerning home security. He also attends most borough council meetings.
One of the greatest achievements of the residents’ association was the refurbishing of the Julia Drummond Park, which is situated on the east end of the circle. It is now a popular, family – friendly green space in the very heart of this most unique neighbourhood.
The population of Victor Hugo Street is an amazing yet often typical Montreal mix – majority francophone, followed by English – speakers, then by people from far off lands like China, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, to mention just a few.
Long time resident, Ed Nurse, remembers the area from his youth. Nurse, a retired educator from St. George’s School, recollects with fondness the multi-ethnic nature of the district, even before the arrival of ‘Les Floralies de la Montagne’. Says Nurse: “ I vividly recall sharing meals with Québécois, Ukrainian, Polish and Italian buddies, and the street hockey games carried the emotions of Stanley Cup finals!”
Today, Rue Victor Hugo is very much surrounded by intense development. To the north, around the Bell Centre, at least nine deluxe office and condominium towers are underway, or in the planning stage. To the south, Griffintown is being transformed in a similar fashion.
Living in an oasis of tranquility, the residents of this rather quaint locality carry on in the hope of preserving their vibrant community on the very periphery of Montreal’s city centre.
The Victor Hugo Residents’ Association is holding it annual garage sale on Saturday, June 14, from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. All are welcome.
Below, photo from our rooftop in September of 2007