From the mid-1800s, Griffintown was inhabited primarily by Irish immigrants who made up a working class that consisted of “factory workers, frequenters of taverns, waterfront street gangs, […] crowds of longshoremen and sailors.”1 These people formed the backbone of Montreal’s growth and industrial expansion. The working class of Montreal at the time had to contend with a variety of economic and social restrictions, which were largely the result of the expanding power of both the police and social reformers. These two groups defined “the limits of acceptable behaviour” and did not believe in the validity of working class culture.2 As a result, their culture and community was largely centered around the tavern and the church.
This working class community was cultivated and strengthened by a man named Joe Beef who acted as an informal advocate and ardent supporter of working class labourers. He owned a large tavern that was known as a place of refuge for the poor who would be given food and a place to rest. Joe Beef also assisted residents in Griffintown in finding employment. In the late 19th century, Griffintown had no public parks or other amenities that offered recreational opportunities for the working classes, and thus, the tavern was an important part of the community because it offered the comforts of food, drink, and lodging. In addition to similar efforts made by the church and other charitable societies, the tavern provided a number of social services for the working class including alleviating problems of housing, job hunting, health care, and labour unrest.3
In this context, Joe Beef’s role as a community leader was an example of social animation in action. He became a prototypical social change agent by bringing community members together to discuss local issues and solutions, such as the various parties involved in the Lachine Canal labour dispute of the 1870s. He used his skills as a orator to attract public attention to the working class striker’s who toiled under oppressive and dangerous conditions to build the Canal. Additionally, he lobbied established medical institutions to improve health care services for Griffintown residents.4 In the role of the social animator, he “promoted cohesion amongst community members, brought the group needed information, and acted as a facilitator to engender genuine member participation.”5 His tavern was a focal point for social activities in Griffintown and provided the initiative for a number of social services. His actions led to short term improvements for the working class and demonstrated the possibility of a collective response to the common problems”6 of the community. Despite these efforts, the dynamic qualities of this community were weakened by a combination of factors including the de-casualization of labour on the waterfront and new attitudes towards leisure and urban conditions towards the end of the nineteenth century. Despite efforts by community leaders such as Joe Beef, the tradition of poverty and a disconnection between community resident’s needs versus the services available to them are the lasting legacy of this era.
From the time that immigrants began settling in the neighbourhood, religion also played a large role in the community life of Griffintown. St. Ann’s Catholic Church was integral to this. It was built and consecrated in 1854 and was widely attended by the growing Irish Catholic community.7 It played a role in maintaining social capital through facilitation of community cooperation for mutual benefit. The church acted as an advocate for the poor, and provided them with food and clothing when other societal institutions failed to provide aid. The resources of the church were considerably greater than anything the Griffintown community could organize on their own.8
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Over time, the Irish immigrant population of Griffintown was supplanted by the arrival of Jewish and Italian immigrants, and later, Ukrainians. By the mid-twentieth century, Griffintown was in decline as the St. Lawrence seaway opened up to commercial shipping lanes. The Lachine Canal was no longer the a site of heavy industry that provided essential jobs to community residents. Following the Second World War and the post-war economic boom, many families relocated to suburban communities and the now severely de-populated Griffintown was re-zoned as “light industrial.”9 Government policy under Mayor Jean Drapeau dictated that any new buildings had to serve this purpose and as a result, many warehouses went up or empty lots took up space where residential housing once stood.10
In the 1960s, large parts of the neighbourhood were demolished to make room for the new Bonaventure Expressway, which effectively divided the area in two and cut it off from neighbouring boroughs.11 St. Ann’s Catholic Church was demolished in 197012 simply because it no longer had enough parishioners to support it. The community remained dormant for the last quarter of the twentieth century, but has seen some slight rejuvenation in the past fifteen years as a result of high tech companies building office space in the area, combined with a burgeoning independent cultural scene that has taken advantage of the large multi-use spaces that are available at affordable prices. Some smaller-scale housing developments along the Canal have also attracted some residents back to the community.
1Peter DeLottinville, “Joe Beef of Montreal: Working-Class Culture, Community, and the Tavern, 1869-1889,” in Readings in Canadian History: Post-Confederation, ed. R. Douglas Francis & Donald B. Smith (Toronto: Thomson, 2006), 227.
2Peter DeLottinville, “Joe Beef of Montreal: Working-Class Culture, Community, and the Tavern, 1869-1889,” in Readings in Canadian History: Post-Confederation, ed. R. Douglas Francis & Donald B. Smith (Toronto: Thomson, 2006), 227.
5 Jason D.Brown& David Hannis, Community development in Canada (Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2008), 41.
6Peter DeLottinville, “Joe Beef of Montreal: Working-Class Culture, Community, and the Tavern, 1869-1889,” in Readings in Canadian History: Post-Confederation, ed. R. Douglas Francis & Donald B. Smith (Toronto: Thomson, 2006), 231.
7Richard Burman, 20th Century Griffintown: Book One & Two (1st ed.). (Montreal: St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal, 2002), 111.
8Leslie Roberts, Montreal: From Mission Colony To World City (1st ed.). (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1969), 187.
9RobertPrevost, Montreal: A History (2nd ed.). (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993), 387.
10“Kristian Gravenor, “Last Irishman Standing,” Montreal Mirror, March 11, 2004, 27.
12Richard Burman, 20th Century Griffintown: Book One & Two (1st ed.). (Montreal: St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal, 2002), 111.