Grassroots collective Mile End Ensemble aims to preserve the unique Montreal neighbourhood and chalks up its first victory

S.W. Welch Books
S.W. Welch Books, on Saint-Viateur Street in Montreal’s Mile End, was threatened with closure due to an exorbitant rent hike (Photo: Facebook)

It’s been referred to in the press as a David vs. Goliath battle. On one side are residents of Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood – writers, musicians, artists, small-business owners, and renters. On the other are large developers and landlords responsible for changing the character of the neighbourhood by jacking up rents and making the area unaffordable for the very people who have made it the quirky bohemian destination it has become.

Caught in the middle is used bookseller S.W. Welch, which was facing eviction from its location on Staint-Viateur Street after the store’s landlord, Shiller Lavy Realities, threatened to increase the building’s rent beyond what proprietor Stephen Welch is able to pay. This caught the attention of Sean Michaels, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author of Us Conductors and a long-time resident of Mile End.

“Montreal in general has a lot of problems with predatory or speculative landlords,” says Michaels, who decided to take action after seeing increasing numbers of empty storefronts and evictions in his home neighbourhood.

Michaels has joined a group of concerned individuals from different walks of life collectively known as the Mile End Ensemble, a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving the distinctive character of the Montreal neighbourhood. According to Michaels, the group came together very quickly over the course of a week after news broke that Shiller Lavy intended to hike the rent on S.W. Welch by a whopping 150%. “We’re still getting organized,” Michaels says. “We’re a loose assortment of writers, business owners, journalists, lawyers, hackers, punks, and students.”

One of the group’s members is Ashley Obscura, founder and managing editor of Montreal small publisher Metatron Press, who became involved in the Mile End Ensemble after seeing some of Michaels’s tweets. “We’re trying to find a collective message to put out there,” Obscura says of the group’s objective, stating that they are working on a mission statement they hope to be able to present to the public this week. “We’re not quite there yet.”

According to Michaels, the group came about organically as a result of the contours of life in the neighbourhood. “Mile End is so special because of the degree to which people still mix face to face,” he says. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mile End residents would cross paths regularly; the ensemble arose out of serendipitous meetings and shared devotion to the area’s individuality and eccentricity.

Sean Michaels
“People are coming here for the character that was brought to the neighbourhood by the residents,” says Giller winner Sean Michaels (Photo: Julie Artacho)

Part of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, Mile End has long been home to working-class Jewish, Italian, and Greek residents. “The anchors of the neighbourhood for the past few decades are bagel shops and Italian coffee shops,” says Michaels. “The thing that made it special was and is a mix across classes and across ethnic groups. It was neither pure laine Québécois nor Westmount anglo.”

In the 1990s, artists – including writers – began moving into Mile End chasing cheaper rents in the city. Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Arcade Fire were among the musical collectives that helped put the area on the map. “It was really run down, it was nothing to speak about,” says Heather O’Neill, another writer who calls the area home. “I remember someone saying in the ’90s, ‘I didn’t know what was above Mount Royal. I thought it was tundra up there.’ ”

The confluence of artists created a bohemian atmosphere that appeared hip and cool to outsiders and Mile End quickly became a tourist destination. “We all felt like we’d built this neighbourhood together. Everybody collaboratively made this an artistic space,” O’Neill says. Double-decker tour buses began cruising the streets showing off the visibly artistic mien of the area. “You would pass by and the people giving the tour would say, ‘Look: there is a Montreal writer passing. This is where the artists live.’ It had become almost a fabled place.”

“It was really an amazing playground for artists to express themselves and be in community with one another,” says Obscura. “It’s becoming more corporate and that’s pushing out the more interesting stores that defined the area.”

In response to a for rent sign appearing in S.W. Welch’s front window, along with a provocative comment by Shiller Lavy co-owner Danny Lavy – who was quoted in the Montreal Gazette asking, “Does anybody buy books today?” – Mile End Ensemble came up with its first direct action: a read-in to take place on Saturday, March 13 at 2:00 p.m. Supporters are being asked to form a physically distanced line starting at S.W. Welch’s front door and intended to wend down one side of Saint-Viateur and back up the other. Participants are being asked to bring a used book and to stand (or sit) in line reading.

“We want it to be a visual symbol of how much book culture matters to us here in Montreal,” Obscura says. “And also to show up as physical beings on the street to show our support. Because of the pandemic, any sense of community hasn’t existed in the past year, so we’re hoping to get lots of bodies on the street.”

As of Monday afternoon, more than 500 people had responded to the group’s Facebook event to say they were going, with another 872 interested. While Obscura is pleased with the response, she is also taking steps to ensure that anyone who does attend prioritizes safety by adhering to public health regulations during COVID-19. “I’m very worried about the social distancing,” she says. “We just want people to feel that power of sharing a space and sharing a vision and sharing a problem together.”

S.W. Welch has become a flashpoint for the Mile End Ensemble because it represents a physical symbol of the area’s artistic constituency, but also because it is a gathering place where people can meet and congregate (before and after the pandemic). “It’s a real bookstore,” Michaels says. “It’s a bookstore full of books on all kinds of topics with a staff who know books backward and forward, where you can go in and see your neighbours and people are browsing and mingling and having conversations. It’s one of those real hubs for people who love books.”

Heather O’Neill
“It’s a very specific action to see whether the community has any clout,” says Heather O’Neill (Photo: Julia C. Vona)

This is one reason Shiller’s comment cut so many area residents so deeply. “It was a slap in the face,” says O’Neill. “It was an attempt to belittle everything that is in the community.”

For Obscura, what the community represents is the antithesis of the generic chain stores proliferating in other neighbourhoods, in Montreal and elsewhere, that have succumbed to rapid and ongoing gentrification. “As a writer, I fell in love with the Mile End because of its truly inventive, warm, and eclectic culture. Its residents deeply inspired me and helped me form, with and alongside community, into the writer and publisher I am,” she says. “But now, with all these changes and the shifting toward a corporate demographic, what is there to be inspired by? Where did all the artists go?”

As far as Michaels is concerned, the corporatization of the neighbourhood is counterproductive, since it was the individual, artistic nature of the area that made it a destination spot in the first place. “No one’s coming here for the Lululemon,” Michaels says, naming a ubiquitous chain that recently opened a location on Saint-Viateur. “People are coming here for the character that was brought to this neighbourhood by the residents and by the old, authentic, real, beautiful, human-scale businesses, of which Welch is an example.”

Obscura concurs. “I’m a poet. I need inspiration to work, not a Lululemon,” she says. “Developers and corporate interests are quickly destroying one of the best neighborhoods in the world and, further, displacing a rich and vibrant community of artists that made this area world-renowned through their art in the first place.”

For O’Neill, Saturday’s read-in is a trial balloon to discover how much uptake the attempt to preserve Mile End’s unique character can be expected to have. “In a way it’s a bit of an experiment because these movements generally fail,” she says. “It’s a very specific action to see whether the community has any clout.”

As it happens, the experiment has already proved successful, even before the coming weekend’s planned protest. On Monday, Stephen Welch announced on his store’s Facebook page that he has reached an agreement with his landlord to allow S.W. Welch to remain in its current location until he retires in 2023. While this represents a victory for the collective, and a reprieve for Welch, Obscura is adamant that the read-in will proceed as planned, though it may have a slightly more celebratory nature than was the case a few days previously. “We will be out there spreading awareness about how far-reaching [Shiller Lavy’s] grip still is in the Mile End and all over Montreal,” she says. “And how this news shows that [they don’t] have to raise rent so much, and that citizens can make a difference after all.”

Or, as O’Neill puts it, “That’s the nature of when you have Mile End people organizing something, no matter what it is, it turns out to have pixie dust all over it.”

Grassroots collective Mile End Ensemble aims to preserve the unique Montreal neighbourhood and chalks up its first victory