May 18th, 2008

Rebranding Park Avenue

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The first banner was incongruous enough: “Avenue du Parc,” it read in a vaguely Hellenic font, set to a pale blue background. Underneath was the logo of the City of Montreal. Then, a couple of days later, I noticed other banners, these ones much more inscrutable: each featured a portrait of someone that was pulled up in the lower left corner, like a page being turned, to reveal part of a Greek flag. The city still seemed to be in the process of installing of them, and as far as I could see, there were only two kinds of portraits, one of a thirtyish man of Southern European appearance and another of a little Asian girl — not usually the kind of person you imagine when you think of someone Greek.

Earlier this year, the city announced that it would spend $50,000 to polish Park Avenue and emphasize its Greek heritage. Flowers would be planted, more benches installed and banners erected. I guess this is the fruit of those efforts (and dollars). Unfortunately, they reek of compromise — the worst kind of compromise that is unsatisfying and underwhelming to everyone involved. For years, Park Avenue’s Greek merchants have pushed to have the street declared a Greektown or “Quartier hellenique” that would have the same symbolic value for Montreal’s many Greeks as Little Italy does for its Italians and Chinatown for its Chinese. More importantly, the merchants reason, it would be an opportunity to consolidate their resources, promote the street and draw more outside shoppers.

After a brief spate of investment in what might be called “ethnic infrastructure” — former mayor Pierre Bourque’s administration invested heavily in sprucing up Chinatown and Little Italy, and it built new community-themed parks like Portugal Park on the Plateau and Athena Square in Park Ex — the city has shied away from recognizing the city’s ethnic and cultural communities in any significant manner. The idea for a Quartier hellenique on Park Avenue is just one of several ethnic theme districts that have been proposed by shopowners in recent years. In the area around Jean Talon and St. Denis, where dozens of Vietnamese-owned businesses are located, one merchant has advocated the creation of a “Vietnamville.” North African businesspeople on Jean Talon east of St. Michel are now pressing for the creation of a “Petit Maghreb.” Each of these movements has been met with the same indifference from city officials.

In 2006 and 2007, though, mayor Gérald Tremblay’s attempt to rename Park Avenue angered so many people that his administration is still cleaning the muck off its face. City Hall must have felt that it had political capital to regain among those who had protested loudly against the name change, so it committed itself to investing more heavily in Park Avenue. Many took that to mean than it would finally support the creation of the Quartier hellenique but, as the $50,000 it has decided to invest in flowers and benches indicates, it is simply not willing to go that far.

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Naturally enough, many merchants are disappointed. The rebranding of Park Avenue as an officially-recognized Greek neighbourhood would certainly give its shops and restaurants a boost. In 2005, a study by researchers at the University of Toronto concluded that branding neighbourhoods along ethnic lines — “ethnic packaging,” as they put it — drives up real estate values and encourages gentrification. In this sense, the Quartier hellenique would be a good thing for those business owners who would stand to capitalize on an up-scaling of Park Avenue, but perhaps not from the people who live nearby or those shopowners who wouldn’t contribute to the Greek theme.

From a cultural and historical standpoint, though, the Quartier hellenique does make some sense. Beginning in the 1950s, thousands of Greek immigrants settled on Park Avenue and in the surrounding neighbourhoods, and Greeks formed a plurality along the street in the 1960s and 70s. Even as younger generations of Greek Montrealers decamped for outlying neighbourhoods, many of them settled in areas not far from Park Avenue’s sphere of influence, like Cartierville in north end Montreal and Chomedey in Laval. Today, a large proportion of Park Avenue’s businesses are still Greek-owned, and its Greek bars and restaurants draw many people from outside the neighbourhood every night. When Greece’s national football team won the 2004 Euro Cup, Park Avenue was flooded with people.

Even if it is a street with considerable Greek influence, though, Park is far from being an entirely Greek street. In fact, it is one of Montreal’s more multicultural thoroughfares, with shops owned by and catering to people with hugely diverse origins. On my block, there is a Greek radio station and several Hellenic social clubs, but also an Argentine restaurant, Haitian café, kosher fishmonger and several Hasidic Jewish homewear stores. In fact, Park Avenue’s Hasidic Jewish presence represents the biggest challenge to the concept of the Quartier hellenique: dozens of stores catering to that community are concentrated on and around the street, including three kosher grocery stores and the city’s best kosher bakery. I think you were to analyze the ownership and patronage of its retail stores, you’d find that Park Avenue is actually more Jewish than it is Greek.

That might be one reason why the city seems so uncomfortable with the notion of declaring Park Avenue to be a Greek quarter. That might also explain the “Greek-yet-multicultural” message of the recently-installed banners. Unfortunately, the city’s effort seems half-hearted at best, and it contributes little to the well-being of the street. It combines the worst aspects of ethnic packaging (lame and clichéd imagery that reeks of tokenism) with none of the best (streetscape improvements and more attention to the quality of the pedestrian experience). Planting a Greek flag on Park Avenue, so to speak, won’t do anything to improve the street. Its Greek heritage needs to be recognized, but what is needed more are concrete investments in its viability as a commercial street, not merely as an ethnic quarter.


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3 comments

  1. Patrick Donovan says:

    That “Greek flag-Asian girl” banner is surreal. It will baffle the hell out of most people.

    On a related note, Parc Athena these days seems to be largely a South Asian hangout.

    May 18th, 2008 at 8:15 am

  2. Kate M. says:

    Park Ex is fascinating, it’s older Greek folks (who’ve lived there for years, bought houses and established churches and other fixtures) and younger folks from India and Pakistan, as well as a strand of white anglo folks whom you’ll see dining nightly at Marven’s. Quite a scene, but a great neighbourhood for affordable nosh.

    May 18th, 2008 at 8:38 am

  3. protogenes says:

    It comes from the “They all look the same” school of civic design.

    May 19th, 2008 at 12:47 pm