When Tagging Goes Too Far

Just prior to the first public tour of Montreal’s oldest country house last August, someone splattered giant graffiti tags across two of its four 300-year-old stone walls.

Twenty days later—after many phone calls, advice from Montreal’s pre-eminent heritage art restorer, and 40 hours of careful nylon brushing by a blue collar employee—a pristine building greeted visitors for the archaeology week celebration.

The incident was the first time anyone has damaged Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier, a two-storey stone cottage built by Gilbert Maillet for the Congregation of Notre Dame nuns in 1710. Yet similar vandalism occurs too often in Montreal, says Dinu Bumbaru, Policy Director at Heritage Montreal. “In the past, there’s been a general consensus that the graffiti guys wouldn’t damage historic monuments. This unsaid convention has broken down.”

All public institutions with property on the island of Montreal—including 19 boroughs, the STCUM, five school boards, and the municipal, provincial and federal governments—have different protocols for handling typical graffiti removal on their territories. When a designated heritage building or monument is tagged, however, an expert art restorer has to approve the removal to protect historic value and prevent permanent damage. The graffiti on Maison Dizier put extra pressure on Verdun’s arts and culture head Nancy Raymond, who was already busy finalizing plans for Maison Diziers’ anniversary celebration this month and next, and who normally wouldn’t deal with graffiti.

Verdun’s protocol calls for removing graffiti from all structures, whether publicly or privately-owned. A local bylaw, and a strong partnership with the Montreal police, enables graffiti-prevention experts to meet with parents and shopkeepers, visit schools, and recover costs from anyone convicted of defacing property. Fines go to parents of taggers younger than 18 years.

The three-pronged approach (education, prevention, control) was developed as a pilot project three years ago. It has since been deemed so successful, that the Montreal police are expanding it across the island. “If every borough could imitate what Verdun does here and could clean all the graffiti in all the public and private places, Montreal would be much better off,” says Commandant Eric Lalonde, chief of police for Verdun’s neighbourhood office 16, who also heads Project Graffiti. “They understand very well the “broken window theory” in that everyone feels safe when it’s clean.”

Removing graffiti as soon as it occurs is expensive, and can’t be handled solely by borough blue collars. At their September meeting, the borough awarded four contracts to three companies (Hydrotech NHP Inc., Solutions Graffiti, and S.R. Vapeur Inc.) to cover graffiti removal for the next five years at an estimated cost of $295,277.94, despite having already awarded a $220,423.89 contract to Hydrotech NHP Inc. last May. None of these contracts include removing graffiti from Maison Dizier or any other historic monument or sculpture.

“When it’s a historic building, they want to make sure that the removal won’t hurt the structure,” says Sebastien Pitre, from Solutions Graffiti in Lasalle. “I’m in charge of the projects for the Lachine Canal, and there are historic buildings there, but I don’t do historic buildings in Verdun.”

“Removing graffiti on this isn’t the same as taking it off an overpass built in the ‘70’s. It is a very precious and fragile monument,” said Bumbaru. “There are sections with mortar and sections with stone. When this house was built, they were taking rocks from the fields and they can be limestone, granite and sandstone mixed together.”

“When the house was restored a few years back, the outside of the house was repointed,” said Gina Garcia, the art restorer who consulted with Verdun on the project. “The old mortar between the stones was removed and replaced by a new historically-correct mortar using traditional lime based mortars, which are much more fragile than cement based mortars.”

To advise on how to clean off the graffiti, Garcia spent a day testing different solvent mixes and strippers which could be used without a high pressure water jet. Then she trained Verdun’s regular maintenance team to apply them properly, leave them rest for the ideal length of time and then rinse them without damaging the mortar or the stones. “The technique was gentle and time consuming but it was done using eco-friendly paint strippers, small plastic brushes and water rinsing at very low pressure. And more importantly, it didn’t attack the fragile lime mortars.”

Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier was supposed to open fully next month, but the permanent exhibition won’t be ready until spring 2012. Instead, Verdun has arranged for costumed interpreters, story-tellers and simulated archaeology digs to occur every Saturday and Sunday from now until October 23 to commemorate the structure’s 300th anniversary.

(A version of this story published on Open File on September 11, 2011)

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Misunderstanding between Gamelin Residents and OMHM Resolved

LaSalle—Residents at the Seigneurie des Rapides (760 Gamelin) who are planning a corn roast on Saturday, September 3, have been frustrated by unnecessary road blocks they feel are coming from the Office municipal d’habitation de Montreal (OMHM).

Last week, Esther Giroux, OMHM director of social and community development, told event organizer Serge Gagné that he couldn’t have access to any of three common fridges in the building until their representative, Patrick Benjamin, gets back from vacation on September 5, two days after the barbecue is scheduled. Another resident called Montreal’s ombudsman to complain, but was told that the ombudsman’s office doesn’t act until 20 days after a complaint is lodged, long after their help would be needed in this case.

Gagné had already obtained a $5 liquor permit for the activity as Giroux requested in a letter dated August 12, which was delivered to him August 19. “No other group has ever needed a permit for these kinds of events” says Gagné, who believes that his petition to re-establish a residents’ association in the building is the reason for difficult relations with OMHM personnel. “They don’t want us to succeed in making tenants happy.”

When the Suburban called the OMHM communications office to ask why the tenants couldn’t get access to the fridges for their barbecue, Louise Hebert assured us that the problem could be rectified. “We didn’t understand that the two rooms M. Gagné wanted opened contained three fridges, napkins, decorations and other material that they would need for the corn roast,” said spokesperson Louise Hebert. “Once we found out that that was why they needed the space, of course we made arrangements for the rooms to be opened.”

She suggested that Gagné call Giroux Monday, which he did. “We will have access to the tenants’ association equipment on Wednesday,” said Gagné. “I don’t understand why we can’t use the stuff anyway, since it belongs to the tenant association, but we’ll deal with that after the barbecue.”

The fridge refusal wasn’t their first frustration. When residents first began organizing the event, they said that Patrick Benjamin told them not to count on community contributions for their event because he had personally called local businesses to ask them not to support it. The Suburban called a few business owners to see if this was true. So far, only Jocelyne Long, from the IGA on Champlain (Marché d’alimentation Beck inc. ) has returned calls. “Why wouldn’t we support them,” said Long. “A gift certificate for $50 is already prepared.”

(This article appeared on p7 of the city edition of the Suburban yesterday.)

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Who Decides for Seniors Living in Low-Income Housing?


760 Gamelin Garbage Chute Summer 2011


Fifty of the hundred seniors living at 760 Gamelin have signed a petition in favour of reinstating their tenants’ association, but a spokesperson for the low-income housing authority that runs their building says their request will be refused.

“They can work in collaboration with us, but they can’t organize a tenant’s association until the problems are solved,” says Valerie Rheme, a communications officer with the Office municipal d’habitation de Montreal (OMHM). “We have to take baby steps to get back on track.”

This is just the latest display of the lack of respect tenants say they’ve come to expect of the OMHM. When the Suburban first met with five tenants from the building during the long weekend holiday in late June, their biggest concerns were their struggles handling medical and security emergencies without full-time staff in the building. They told me that more former Douglas Hospital residents arrive every year and since they aren’t medically supervised, they often cause abuse, noise and fear. A part-time security guard tells them to call police when something is stolen or they fear for their safety.

The building looked well-maintained and freshly painted on the third floor where we met, but tenants said they worried about hidden mould and fungus from the water used to put out a fire two years earlier. They also said that their janitor couldn’t clean and repair everything in the building in only two days a week. They also complained that rat and bed bug infestations are difficult to eradicate because the housing authority sprays single units at a time.

A facility tour confirmed a dirty garbage chute, mould on some ceiling tiles and locked doors on unused office space in the basement. The common room—the only air-conditioned public space in the building—was also locked, although by my next visit, a volunteer tenant had been given a key to open it daily. The adjoining kitchen remains locked, except on Wednesdays.

Subsequent tours of four other LaSalle-based OMHM-run buildings for low-income seniors (720 Gamelin, 1580 Shevchenko, and 9576 and 9601 rue Jean-Milot) revealed similar circumstances. Residents work hard to take care of pleasant gardens and create a homey atmosphere but get little support to solve problems. Floor tiles in hallways are cracked, common rooms are locked and grass grows freely through the stones on public patios. Tenants report problem tenants and extra fees for everything, including rides to doctors, dentists and the CLSC.

None of the buildings have active tenant associations.

(This article appeared in the city edition of the Suburban on August 3.)

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LaSalle Fishing Festival Set for Saturday

Fishing in the St. Lawrence River

Long line-ups are expected Saturday morning at des Rapids Park on the waterfront south of 7th Avenue in LaSalle. Registration begins at 8 a.m. for the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources’ popular introductory fishing course. Only 125 spots are available for resident youth, and the course includes a free fishing rod and a fishing permit that lasts until participants’ 18th birthdays.

The event forms part of the 12th annual Fishing Festival in which Quebec residents can fish without a permit all weekend.

“The Provincial Ministry of National Resources holds this event every June,” says Patrick Asch, the director of Héritage Laurentian, one of the many partners in the weekend-long LaSalle borough celebration. “There are fish stocked in the central basin (800 Rainbow trout) to make sure that everyone can take part. In a world where people are always looking at screens, this gives people a chance to try a sport that’s good for socializing, it’s good for food and it relaxes you.”

Volunteers and staff with Héritage Laurentian patrol the des Rapids Park to ensure that people fish without endangering the ecosystem or their own safety. “At the outer perimeter of the Park, the water goes at 4 metres a second so everyone fishing within those zones must wear a life jacket,” says Asch.

This isn’t the only weekend that the organization teaches people about fishing in the St. Lawrence River, either. Thanks to a $175,000 stipend approved by the LaSalle Borough last February, Héritage Laurentian members are on site at Park des Rapids every Sunday from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m., between May and October. They use a hundred-foot net to scientifically inventory fish while treating visitors to a description of the fish found, the inventory process and background about the St. Lawrence River.

Asch says that the organization usually collects 12 or so species every weekend and has found a total of 47 species since they began in 2009. Unfortunately, every year they find more gobies, an introduced species. They only found a few individuals in 2009 and more last year, but of the 176 fish they caught last weekend, 106 were gobies. On the other hand, they usually find lots of carp, another introduced species, but they haven’t found any this year, something that pleases Asch. He’s also particularly happy about the multiple protected red horses species found so far this year, because the rate is significantly higher than either of their previous years. Asch thinks that the high water may make it easier for these fish to breed.

“We would like to educate people that there is more biodiversity in the Saint Lawrence than people expect,” says Asch. “Things are getting better. In Verdun and LaSalle, they’ve been cleaning things up. There used to be sewage pipes straight into the water, but you don’t have that anymore. As far as eating the fish goes, if you follow the standards of the Ministry of Natural Resources, you can eat the fish you catch.”

(A version of this article appeared on page 12 of the  June 8, 2011 city edition of The Suburban.)

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