Getting to Know the Plex

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There’s a type of urban housing that is more versatile than rowhouses, more human-scaled than apartment buildings and far denser than single-family homes. It’s called the plex—but unless you’ve lived in a select few cities, you’ve probably never heard of it.

What exactly is a plex? Basically, it’s a two- or three-storey building with one or two apartments per floor. Each apartment extends from the front of the building all the way to the back and, most importantly, each one has a more or less direct connection to the street—no lobby and no hallways, in other words. Plexes originated in Europe; in North America, they can be found most commonly in older American cities like Boston, Chicago, parts of New York and some smaller Midwest cities. Only in Montreal, however are they the predominant form of housing: two out of three Montrealers live in an apartment in a building with fewer than five storeys. Walk down a street on opposite ends of town—say, Verdun in the southwest and Rosemont in the northeast—and you’ll encounter row upon row of plexes.

From the outside, the plexes in Boston (known as triple-deckers) and Chicago (three-flats) look like giant single-family houses or ordinary apartment buildings. Montreal’s plexes, however, are strikingly unique. Outdoor staircases spiral their way up to a second-floor landing, from which upper-floor apartments are accessible. Balconies abound: most plex apartments have one at the front and one at the back.

According to David Hanna, an urban geographer at the Université du Québec à Montréal, these idiosyncrasies are the products of two distinct cultural influences. The outdoor staircases come from Scotland and western France – they are common in Edinburgh, for instance–and are evident in some of Montreal’s oldest plexes. The balconies, however, didn’t appear until the turn of the twentieth century, when a great wave of migrants from rural Quebec washed into Montreal. The transplanted country-dwellers, used to traditional French-Canadian homes with large verandas, demanded a way to escape the confines of their apartment without leaving home.

The bulk of Montreal’s plexes date back to the early twentieth century, but the roots of their preponderance can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when, fearful of squalid Glasgow- and New York-style tenements, city officials banned the construction of apartment buildings. The outcome was a lesson in cultural differences: while the city’s middle-class francophone immigrants preferred the plex, anglophones stuck with English-inspired rowhouses. But plexes offer a multitude of advantages over rowhouses and apartment buildings. “Apartments tend to be more cookie-cutter,” notes Hanna. “It’s a very caged existence.” Narrow rowhouses, meanwhile, often offer the same amount of living space as a plex flat on two or three floors instead of one.

Plexes are inherently versatile, with an almost infinite number of possible apartment combinations. A classic sixplex, for instance, has two apartments per floor; a fiveplex has one apartment on the ground floor and two on each level above; and a triplex has one apartment per floor. More exclusive plexes, like those facing Montreal’s Parc Lafontaine, have one flat on the bottom and a large, two-storey apartment on top. The design of each apartment can vary, too. Most triplex flats have six or seven rooms, including three bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and an office, but other plex apartments can be much smaller or larger. L-shaped plexes extend all the way to the back of the property but their shape still allows light to penetrate into the deepest heart of the apartment.

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Plexes have a custom-built appeal for both homeowners and renters. Many plexes cost about the same as a single-family house, so owners occupy one of the apartments and rent out the others to subsidize their mortgage. (In Chicago, three-flats are popular because owners can claim both homeowner and landlord tax deductions on the same piece of property.) This unique arrangement has provided a boost to generations of Montreal immigrants. In plex-filled Mile End, Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century bought plexes from departing Anglo-Protestants; fifty years later, Greek, Portuguese and Italian immigrants became tenants and landlords in those same plexes, as the Jewish community shifted west. This ebb and flow of new arrivals creates what Hanna calls the “layer-cake effect”: the resident landlord is a more established immigrant while the tenants are more recent arrivals, usually from different ethnic groups. Neighbourhoods thus become more thoroughly diverse, and there isn’t quite as much segregation along ethnic or cultural lines. “It reduces cultural tensions,” explains Hanna.

One of the greatest things about living in plexdom is the street life. Plexes— especially Montreal’s plexes – are extremely conducive to what urban-planning visionary Jane Jacobs describes as “eyes on the street.” The multiplicity of entrances, staircases and balconies maximizes the potential for interaction in the public realm, making plex-lined streets lively and interactive. There’s always somebody coming and going and neighbours often stop for idle chit-chat. On warm summer evenings or sunny spring days, balconies fill up with people reading, relaxing or just watching passersby. “The rhythm of the street comes from the diversity of its people,” says Dinu Bumbaru, the director of Héritage Montréal. The plex’s orientation towards the street makes that diversity all the more apparent.

Consider balconies: plex-dwellers love them so much that a City of Montreal study two years ago found that the average Montrealer spends an average of eight hours per week on his or her balcony (during the warm months, of course). A passage at the end of Michel Tremblay’s The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant, a novel set amidst the plexes of the Plateau Mont-Royal, finds the protagonist drinking spruce beer on her balcony one warm April evening:

When … the fat woman was able to contemplate the street as much as she liked, steep herself in the images and sensations of the early spring night, scrutinize the smallest shadowy corners, recognizing, in spite of the darkness, the faces of all the neighbours watching her from their balconies, breathe deep the promises of May, and what still remained of April, time was suspended and nothing moved.

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Ensuring that the plex maintains the elements that make it so successful takes care and vigilance. The plex’s high degree of craftsmanship, and unique architectural details such as wrought-iron balconies and stained-glass windows, make its preservation a vital concern. “A triplex is not a monument in itself,” remarks Bumbaru. “It’s really an urban landscape.” And that’s the gist of it: plexes make for great streets and great neighbourhoods. What has already been built must be well-maintained, but even more important is that the plex continue to exist as a viable form of housing. Luckily, developers in Montreal haven’t forgotten about it: much of the city’s new urban infill consists of “condoplexes” which contain many of the best elements of the traditional plex, including balconies, outdoor staircases and a direct link between apartment and street. One can only hope that these new plexes work as well as the old.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday December 21 2006at 08:12 pm , filed under Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

10 Responses to “Getting to Know the Plex”

  • Ken Gildner says:

    The plex is one of the great housing vernaculars of North America. Great article, Chris!

  • Very intrigued by the ‘layer-cake effect’. The Plex definitely has played a big role in establishing the ethno-cultural dynamics of Montreal. I think the interplay between ethnic and linguistic groups in Montreal is her biggest asset. It certainly feels completely different (beyond just the French factor) from Toronto and New York. It’s cool to think that housing configuration can impact a place so deeply. Awesome article Chris!

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Of course, gentrification and the rise of condominiums has disrupted the layer-cake effect. The only part of Mile End that still receives many new immigrants is the northern part, where fewer buildings have been renovated and converted into condos. (Of course, many new Mile Enders are still immigrants, but they’re often “second-wave” students or professionals, not new arrivals from outside of Canada).

    CDN and Park Extension are both dominated by apartment blocks rather than plexes and the landlord-tenant dynamic is completely different: both of these neighbourhoods, which are majority immigrant, have big problems with slumlords who try to screw over new immigrants who either don’t speak English or French or don’t know their rights.

    By contrast, I wouldn’t be surprised if Verdun, a traditional plex neighbourhood that since the late 1990s has been receiving more and more immigrants from China, has more of a layer-cake effect going on.

  • Verdun… Chinese? Wow. I didn’t know that. I knew Brossard on the South Shore had a large Chinese population but had no clue about Verdun. I assume they are generally mainland Chinese? There’s also a lot of Vietnamese people in Verdun right? It would be interesting to look for trends in real estate acquisitions in the various plex bastions of Montreal to really get a good grasp of the layer-cake phenomenon.

    I read that the Montreal Chinese immigrant population consists of a lot of business immigrants who were educated in French. I find that fascinating. In your observations, is the Asian community in Montreal growing in numbers and prominence – or do you get the sense that Montreal is a stopping ground for many Asians prior to settling in Toronto, Vancouver or even the US? What about Hong Kong presence in Montreal?

    Oh, and what about Koreans? I know of a colleague here in Korea whose relatives live in NDG. They run a dep near McGill metro. From what I remember of my old hood, a Korean family owned the dep at St-Viateur and Jeanne Mance (northwest corner). I also happened to read a random article in the Montreal Mirror, I believe, about a Korean woman who owned another dep somewhere in the Plateau. I get the impression that Koreans have a monopoly of sorts on deps. Any thoughts on that?

  • Zvi says:

    Koreans tend to own deps wherever they are located! The same family still owns the place you are referring to on St. Viateur. There is a Chinese family-run dep/flower shop on Bernard, but I believe that they are actually from Tibet- they have 10 children!

    There certainly is some Chinese immigration to Montreal, but not nearly in numbers that are found elsewhere. Nor do they seem to be gaining much prominence, although they PQ did field a Chinese candidate this year! It seems to be rather technical people who come to Montreal. I have had two colleagues from China, both from Shanghai – they came here originally to complete their PhD studies in transportation modelling at the UdeM. Ironically, The one who spoke better french and was relatively well integrated here (he was the only chinese-quebecker on a quebec-china trade delegation some years back – lots of pictures of him and Lucien Bouchard) moved to California. He didn’t want his kids being educated in french only! As far as I know, my other colleague has no intentions of moving on. Obviously these are not representative of the larger chinese community. I’ve met a few other people who were quite disappointed with Montreal (and North America in general) and were considering going back to China.

    In fact, there is becoming something of a reverse trend of second-generation chinese-americans returning to China to pursue greater economic opportunities! Though they speak fluent english and have engineering degrees and MBA’s from prestigious universities, they are finding that connections are still important in modern china.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Montreal does receive a lot of Chinese immigrants — mainland China is usually in the top three source countries — but the community is very fragmented along class and regional lines. Vancouver and Toronto and completely dominated by HK immigrants, even if they have large and growing mainland populations. Montreal is pretty much evenly divided between HK Chinese, Southeast Asian Chinese and mainland Chinese and the different groups have very little to do with one another.

    Montreal lost a lot of its pre-1997 HK Chinese immigrants — they either moved to Toronto or Vancouver or moved back to Hong Kong — but the other segments of the Chinese population are growing. Typically, Montreal has bled Cantonese-speakers to the ROC, but the mainland Chinese seem to be staying. They’re also likelier to learn French than immigrants from “Greater China” (HK, Taiwan and SE Asia).

    As for Koreans, this is a big surprise: I think the community has doubled or tripled in size since 2001, when the census recorded only a couple of thousand of Koreans in the city. Since then, new Korean churches, restos and supermarkets have opened and there are two locally-published Korean newspapers. Although there are various Korean depanneur owners scattered around the city, the community overwhelmingly seems to be concentrated in Westmount and NDG, especially western NDG where I always hear lots of Korean spoken.

    Zvi, that family on Bernard is actually Cantonese, from Hong Kong. The lady moved here 30-something years ago and she has 14 kids! She used to talk to Laine whenever she passed by — apparently, she’s very bitter about everything. I’d be bitter too if I had 14 kids.

    I have a Vietnamese friend who has spent her entire life near the corner of Waverly and Bernard, so she’s a great source for all sorts of Asian neighbourhood gossip. Did you know that Maiko Sushi, which is Vietnamese-owned (my friend works there), was firebombed last winter by members of the Vietnamese mafia? This was right around when Harji’s was bombed, apparently by Tamil thugs, and also right around the time when Refcon on Park Avenue exploded.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Oh, and about Verdun: yes, it is increasingly Chinese, thanks to strong immigration from mainland China over the recent years. There are a few dozen Chinese establishments there now, such as restaurants, churches, depanneurs and grocery stores, all with Chinese signage. In fact, if you look at the 2001 census, the largest source of immigration to Verdun was China by far.

    I’ve never been to Brossard, but from what I hear it’s where the HK Chinese migrants settled in the 1980s and 90s. There’s also a large South Asian community there.

    Oh, and other unexpected ethnic enclave: Bengalis in St. Henri and Point St. Charles. There are sari shops on Charlevoix Street now!

  • Chris says:

    I am native from Brossard, and I remember that in the years that preceded the hand over of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (around 1997) a real estate agent by the name of Henry Ho was selling a lot, and i mean a LOT of properties to Chinese immigrants before they even immigrated. The properties were all upper range for the time and in newly developed sectors (The S and R sectors). I had heard of an investor-immigrant program that shortened the span required to get your citizenship when you invested a certain amount in the Canadian economy and i think that the amount invested in the properties was eligible in the total amount required.

  • Lois says:

    We live in a duplex in LaSalle that was originally that, it had one large flat on each floor. As far as I am able to determine, the building was constructed in 1946, and was a typical post-war building featuring a narrow hallway with tiny little rooms off to the sides, just like a rabbit’s warren. The bottom flat is still a rabbit’s warren.

    The second owner of the building spared every expense and converted the large flat on the upper floor into two “four-and-a-halfs”. Four a half? The ugly little shoeboxes are a claustrophobic eyesore, but the rent is cheap and we have a quiet neighbour beside us.

    The present owner inherited the building when his mother passed — his brother wisely wanted nothing to do with the decrepit old building. He is basically a slumlord, refusing to maintain the building.

    It has the typical iron winding staircase which I was lucky enough to fall down once, ripping my foot open at the bottom. I’d have been a goner if it had been my squash.:)

  • Ant says:

    looking at those pictures I remember when I used to help my father, “blacksmith”, mounting wrought iron railings on this king of urban housing…
    …many years ago!

    thank you