Summer 2010

 

FEATURE

 

 

Little Italy, Montreal – Redefining the Old Neighbourhood

 

 

by Domenic Cusmano

 

Exactly when Montreal’s Little Italy stopped being a working class neighbourhood and started becoming a trendy nightlife district is uncertain. The process happened gradually, as first- and second-generation Italians left the area for more spacious quarters in the suburbs, and as gritty grocery stores, discount clothing shops and factories gave way to trendy bars and restaurants, jewellery shops and designer clothing boutiques.

 

The exodus from Little Italy spawned the creation of a number of Italian neighbourhoods across the island of Montreal and beyond – RDP, Laval, Ville Émard, LaSalle, Lachine, St. Michel, Montreal North, Ahuntsic and St. Leonard among others – neighbourhoods where people in the street speak a mix of Italian, English and French a great many decibels higher than elsewhere, where one can buy fresh crusty bread every day at the corner bakery, and where a bar is a place for espresso coffee or gelato.

 

However, it is the quadrilateral bordered by St. Laurent and St. Denis to the west and east respectively and Jean-Talon and St. Zotique to the north and south (spill-over not withstanding) that retains the designation of “Little Italy.” It is here that the espresso and gelato are tastier, the bread crustier, and watching soccer on a flat-screen TV somehow more meaningful. With few Italian residents left, it is the smattering of Italian businesses that remain and the memories that give the neighbourhood its Italian character.
 
 
Only a few decades earlier it seems, Italians were moving in. The rush began in the first decade of the twentieth century, when increasing numbers of Italian labourers, intending to stay temporarily, decided to remain permanently. Abandoning the cramped quarters of the downtown tenements around Dorchester (today’s René Lévesque) Boulevard and St. Timothé (Montreal’s original Italian district), they made their way north to the Mile-End district where they could find housing more appropriate for the families they called over and lots with a back yard to grow a vegetable garden.
 
 
By 1905 the Italians living in Mile End were so numerous that Mass was being celebrated in Italian in the French St. Jean de la Croix Church (now a condo complex) on the corner of St. Laurent and St Zotique. The community soon demanded its own church. Madonna della Difesa Parish was completed in 1919 on Suzanne Street, renamed Dante Street in 1922, in honour of the great Florentine poet.
  Accenti FEATURE   Little Italy, Montreal – Redefining the Old Neighbourhood  Domenic Cusmano
     

As the influx of Italians continued, community leaders put forward the idea of erecting an edifice where Italians could congregate and organize their community activities. The Casa d’Italia was inaugurated in 1936 (see Symbol of Resurgence by Pasquale L. Iacobacci in this same issue).

 

In 1933, by chance or by design, the Marché du Nord, later rechristened the Jean-Talon Market, opened to the public in an area between Jean-Talon and Mozart that also housed a bus terminal. By the 1960s the bus terminal would be abandoned, and the entire area taken over by “la marchetta.” Vestiges of the old terminal remain in the six parallel “islands” in three rows and adjoining lanes that shape the Market – the two furthest east and the parking lot having since been covered and turned into a year-round, indoor market housing a number of specialty food boutiques.

 

A market was just what the working class residents of Mile End, now Little Italy, needed. Fresh fruits and vegetables could be had for cheap, and live animals – chickens, rabbits, and on feast days kid and lamb – satisfied the need for fresh meat for many who were versed in the traditional practice of animal slaughter. (The sale of live animals continued until the mid-1960s, when it was banned by city authorities out of concern for hygiene).

 

As the Italian community became increasingly integrated, leaders commissioned a statue in honour of Giovanni Caboto, which was inaugurated in 1935. It still stands on the corner of St. Catherine and Atwater, though the original inscription the Italians intended, “Discoverer of Canada,” was blocked by Montreal City Council for fear it would give umbrage to the French explorer Jacques Cartier who had sailed the waters of the St. Lawrence River 39 years after Caboto had made landfall in Newfoundland.

 

The Italian community’s early growth and increasing influence within the society at large was violently disrupted at the start of World War II, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, siding with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, declared war on the Allies. Beginning on June 10, 1940, hundreds of prominent Italian Montrealers, many Canadian born, were arrested and given the designation of “enemy alien.” None was ever charged with any crime, much less of being a spy or an enemy operative for Italy, yet many were interned for years. The so-called “Internment” of Italian Canadians, which ended in 1945, had a devastating effect on individuals, families and the community as a whole. Italian businesses in Little Italy and elsewhere were forced to close, as men, often the sole breadwinners, were shipped to prisoner-of-war camps in the Canadian bush. A sense of profound shame enveloped the community, which some carry, cross-generationally, to this day. For years, discussion of the subject remained taboo.

 

Despite several attempts at redress, the Canadian government has never formally acknowledged the impact of its actions. Recently, a bill sponsored by St. Leonard Member of Parliament Massimo Pacetti, and passed by the House of Commons in April, requires the Canadian government to apologize to the Italian Canadian community in Parliament and institute symbolic reparation for its actions.

 

But in the ashes of the European war’s aftermath lay the foundations for the revival of Little Italy in Montreal. A new wave of Italian immigration swelled the ranks of the community from the second half of the 1940s to the mid-1970s. Many new arrivals established themselves in Little Italy, breathing new life in the quadrilateral and the entire island. New businesses sprang up, and a renewed sense of optimism infused the community.

 

The influx of young families soon taxed the school system, and caused a schizophrenic reaction within the city’s host French-speaking community. While most Italian immigrants gravitated towards English language schools (to the chagrin of radical French nationalists who feared that Montreal would soon become a majority English-speaking city), not a small number of new immigrants who wanted to enter the French school system were turned away (see Accenti 9, Fall 2006). In the 1950s and 1960s a confluence of factors resulted in the creation of dozens of English-language schools throughout the north end of the island including Little Italy where, not just the majority but, nearly the totality of the student population was ethnic Italian.

 

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We moved into Little Italy in 1966 and out in 1972. In hindsight, it doesn’t feel like we were making history. My parents had merely found an affordable apartment that was slightly less cramped than the one we left behind in Montreal East. Our trajectory followed that of many latter-day Italian immigrants, who saw in Little Italy friendly surroundings and familiar customs – a transitory stop on the way up the social ladder.

 

Our apartment sat atop a bakery cum restaurant on the corner of Jean-Talon and Casgrain, where the pleasing scent of the restaurant menu wafting from the kitchen air vents fused with the stench of rotting garbage – restaurant detritus – piled up against the back stairs below the bedroom I shared with my brother. These contrasting scents were in some ways symbolic of life conditions in the old neighbourhood – the good and the bad intertwined, the line between the two sometimes impossible to discern. This was equally true of some of the characters who inhabited the neighbourhood – their actions often blurring the line between the lawful and the illicit.

 

But despite the obstacles and risks, we felt safe and confident within the invisible walls we had created, our shear numbers nourishing our sense of security. With virtually everything we needed within walking distance and with Italian as the language of every day, we had little reason to venture out. Though hardly idyllic, we were self-satisfied in our village within a village.

 

My first job at the age of 11 was at the Market selling flowers after school and on Saturdays for twenty-five cents an hour. Long before we had any conception of bicycle paths, tennis lessons, and summer art camp, we rode our bicycles within the confines of the Market after the stalls closed and the cars were gone – a safe, concrete park, all to ourselves and the other neighbourhood kids.

 

When we weren’t riding our bikes or getting into the occasional fight, we would play at catching flies – whose density in our area, because of the Market, far exceeded the norm – and keeping them in Mason jars. In winter, we played hockey in a makeshift outdoor rink on one of the Market parking lots – our house serving as the hockey dressing room for my school mates and me.

 

At different times in the summer, a procession in honour of the patron saint of some Italian town would wind its way around the narrow streets, always finding passage through the Market. From our front-row seats on our second-story balcony we observed the men, women and children in costume chanting in unison, led by someone with a bullhorn, and a life-size plaster reproduction of the saint. On Sunday mornings we watched Teledomenica, the mother of Italian television programming in Montreal. What the show lacked in finesse, it made up for in charm.

 

We were jolted into the reality of events outside our invisible walls one morning in October 1970, when we saw soldiers in full battle gear standing guard around the police station down the street and by other vital buildings around the Market. The effect of seeing soldiers patrolling city streets on a twelve-year old boy is at once exciting and disconcerting. For our parents, with memories of the chaos and carnage of World War II still lingering, the sight of armed soldiers on patrol was rather alarming.

 

The FLQ-instigated October Crisis had breached our perimeter. Though hardly at the root of the problem, by the mere act of sending their children to English school, Italians were unwittingly exacerbating political tensions. One year earlier, the St. Leonard Riot, though a minor footnote in the city’s history, had polarized people along linguistic lines. Fortunately, a conflict that could have had serious societal repercussions was effectively diffused by the authorities. A succession of language and education laws, culminating in Bill 101 – a law that annoyed some for being too severe and angered others for not being severe enough – settled the issue by making French Quebec’s only official language and by restricting but not banning access to English school.

 

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In the meantime, the Italian community was adapting and growing. Greater numbers among the second generation, who attended university and joined the professional ranks or started businesses, didn’t feel the need nor the desire to huddle together. The conditions that insulated the inhabitants of Little Italy eventually felt stifling, blocking access to the broader society. Greener pastures lay outside the village walls.

 

With Little Italy no longer the single focus of Italian Montreal affairs, its role is being redefined as a locus of style and fine living, an emblem of la dolce vita. St. Laurent Boulevard is where Formula 1 Racing aficionados gather in June to admire Ferraris in anticipation of the Canadian Grand Prix and where in August the city celebrates “Italian Week.” Close to 500,000 visitors come to the festivities in Little Italy, confirmed Josie Verillo, one of the organizers of the event. Massive crowds spontaneously swarmed into the old district in 1982 and 2006 when the Italian soccer team won the World Cup – a subconscious desire to return to the womb, psychologists might argue. The symbols and appeal of Italianness in the neighbourhood are evident, but much has changed.

 

This evolution in some ways mirrors the transformation of Italian Montrealers themselves, from an inwardlooking and cautious people composed mostly of labourers to a sometimes brash and overconfident horde of business people and professionals who bridge the city’s English-French divide.

 

What was once perceived as a ghetto, inhabited by an exotic people with strange eating and social habits, is now a vibrant part of the city, where people gather to celebrate and simply enjoy life. Because of a critical mass that resisted assimilation long enough, the Italians of Little Italy were able to leave their mark. Some of their quirks, like eating outdoors, drinking wine with a meal and a passion for soccer (not an easy feat in hockey-mad Montreal!) have become mainstream.

 

For all the comforts of living in the suburbs, it is still in Little Italy that Italian Montrealers like to gather. Today, when I find myself sipping a cappuccino or enjoying a pizza at a sidewalk caffé in Little Italy, even though I know I am just visiting, I feel like I’ve come home.

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