Out of the Shadows: Montreal’s Historic Saint-Henri Neighbourhood Shines in a New Light

By Robert J. Brodey

MONTREAL, QUEBEC — Below the traffic humming along highway 720, in the shadow of famous neighbourhoods like Westmount and Plateau-Mont-Royal, the worn brick and mortar of the historic working class community of Saint-Henri quietly undergoes a makeover.

The settlement of Saint-Henri got its humble start way back in 1685, when Jean Mouchère opened a tannery along the banks of the St. Pierre River. Even now it’s easy to imagine the streets of yesteryear in sepia, the men in wool caps and dirty faces making their way home from the factories.

Our long weekend here marks the first family road trip with our three month old son. By the thrusting of his limbs and the look in his exploring eyes, I suspect he is as excited about travelling as we are.

We arrive at the doorstep of our friends, Veena and Pierre, who both grew up outside Montreal but have found home in Saint-Henri. Up a long exterior flight of stairs facing Parc Saint-Henri, we lug the tools of nouveau parenthood against the hand of gravity – a stroller, a bassinette, and enough clothes to handle the inevitable baby spittle over a four day period.

When darkness descends, the street lamps bathe the park in pools of light. We sit on the balcony overlooking the splashing 19th Century iron fountain and monument dedicated to the famed explorer Jacques Cartier.

“We fell in love with this place really quickly,” says Veena. “We are union-side labour lawyers, so it’s great to live in an environment that has a long history of social engagement.”

“There’s a strong sense of community,” adds Pierre. “We know all our neighbours.”

The next day, with the morning sun shining down, we set out along the tree-lined Avenue Laporte, past the tall regal Victorian homes. In time, we cross over a footbridge spanning the Lachine canal.

A walk along the waterway reveals a masterful reclamation of space, where old machinery has become objets d’art. The scenic bike path – within view of recreational boats puttering up and down the narrow channel – creates an ideal link to Montreal’s Old Port to the east.

14 kilometres long with seven locks, the Lachine canal was an engineering feat in its time and heralded in Montreal’s industrial revolution. Kayaks and small watercraft are available for rent to get a water-level view of this national treasure. Photo by Robert Brodey

It’s impossible to understand Saint-Henri without appreciating the impact the canal has had on the community at large. Long ago, the rough waters of the Lachine rapids marked the end point for larger ships travelling up and down the St. Lawrence River. But when the 14 kilometre long Lachine canal opened in 1825, skirting the rapids, it quickly became the preferred route for trade.

Decades after opening, the canal and lock system was harnessed for hydraulic power, fuelling an industrial revolution along its banks. The population in Saint-Henri and surrounding neighbourhoods exploded, as factories and cramped housing cropped up to accommodate a mix of European and African-Canadian blue collar workers and craftsmen.

In fact, the father of Montreal jazz legend Oscar Peterson was a porter with Canadian Pacific Railways, which had an important hub here. Peterson himself was raised in the neighbourhood of Petite-Bourgogne (Little Burgundy), on the doorstep of Saint-Henri.

We wander through the cradle of Montreal’s industrial revolution, cruising Rue Notre-Dame, with its restaurants, cafes, and notable antique shops. It still retains much of its character and earthy grit – depending what block you’re on.

“The neighourhood has many iconic diners,” remarks Veena. “It’s part of the old charm of Saint-Henri.” We opt to brunch at the bustling Toi Moi & Café on Notre-Dame West. While the fare doesn’t quite warrant a trip out to the hood, the coffee certainly does.

The savoury world of Quebec cheeses is revealed under one roof at Atwater Market. Pierre (pictured) makes his selections. Photo by Robert Brodey

Our continuing explorations take us to a beacon of Art Deco architecture at Notre Dame and Atwater Avenue. Built in 1933 by the famed Quebec architect Ludger Lemieux and his son, Paul, the Atwater Market houses dozens of indoor shops and many more outdoor stalls. Its beauty is really in the external structure and the beehive-like activity that surrounds it. We pick up some extraordinary Quebec cheeses, like the Pleine Lune, a super creamy cow cheese with a rind covered in ash, and the Roche Noire, a blue cheese with plenty of bite.

Saint-Henri feels like a universe unto itself and is living proof that cities are really just small communities stitched together into a behemoth tapestry.

The neighbourhood’s history is also the story of industrialization. The boom of the 19th Century was followed by the Great Depression of 1929, which decimated industry along the canal.  Then, in 1959, more bad news arrived. The opening of the South Shore Canal of the Saint Lawrence Seaway doomed Lachine to obsolescence, and it was closed in 1970.

Helpful Hands at Angel Jardins in the Atwater Market ensures our hosts receive the freshest flowers around. The market is also home to the super delicious Crêperie du Marché. Photo by Robert Brodey

But in 2002, the canal re-opened to small boats, helping to spark something of a renaissance in Saint-Henri. As buildings that once housed industrial machines and blue collar workers have received facelifts — in some cases becoming condos – the influx of new residents and capital have brought a new lustre to the community.

“It’s nice to see revitalization,” says Pierre. “But the development is happening fast, and no one really knows how it’s going to turn out.”

At dinner time, my son grows restless, so I load him into a sling and take him with me to photograph the neighbourhood. He immediately nestles into my chest and lulls to sleep. Already, I feel that travelling en famille has been a great success. Even the simplest moments, like changing his diaper beneath the shade of a tree, are experiences I will always cherish.

In the falling light, I can see that Saint-Henri has come a long way from its roots, when Jean Mouchère had the bright idea of erecting his tannery along the St. Pierre River. He built it. They came. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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From downtown Montreal, Saint-Henri can be accessed by the Place-Saint-Henri and the Lionel-Groulx metro stations. From Montreal’s Old Port, the bike path west will take you there along the Lachine Canal National Historic Site.

Although there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of hotels and B&Bs in Saint-Henri, have no fear. The neighbourhood can easily be accessed from downtown by car and subway. Alternatively, you can find a short term apartment rental.

A great selection of bistro dining as well as Caribbean, South Asian, and Mexican fare can be found in Saint-Henri and Petite-Bourgogne.  Veena and Pierre weigh in on their favourite spots:
Tuck Shop (www.tuckshop.ca) – Veena: “A trendy restaurant in an untrendy neighbourhood.”
Joe Beef (www.joebeef.ca) – Pierre: “Great Atmosphere. Very good but expensive.”
Gippetto (www.geppettopizza.com) – Pierre: “I love this place. Great ambience. It has a wood fire oven for pizza.”
Burgundy Lion (www.burgundylion.com) – Veena: “The best pub to see hockey and football matches.”
Limon (www.limon.ca) – Pierre: “Mexican! They make great Margaritas. The food is super good, too. Lively atmosphere.”
The Drinkerie (www.drinkerie-la.foodpages.ca) – Pierre: “I haven’t been here yet, but it’s the up and coming spot for an evening out.”
Saint-Henri Micro-Torréfacteur (coffee house) (www.sainthenri.ca) – Pierre: “The best coffee in Montreal.”

IN THE MEDIA: This neighbourhood is no stranger to the spotlight. Saint-Henri was featured in the 1962 NFB documentary September Five at Saint-Henri and was followed up in 2010 with Shannon Walsh’s doc St-Henri, the 26th of August. Also: Before there were ebooks, there was Gabrielle Roy’s 1945 classic novel The Tin Flute set in Saint-Henri.