My Old Apartment

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Four years ago, on a freakishly cold April day, my girlfriend and I walked up Park Avenue in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal, heads pressed against the wind, to check out a third-floor apartment in a typical six-plex, the kind with the steep, curving outdoor staircase leading up from the street to a second-floor balcony.

After meeting with the landlord, a talkative Hasidic Jewish woman whose husband owned a travel agency down the street, we decided to take the place. Over the years, we got to know our neighbours—an increasingly famous DJ, a shy couple from Alberta, an eccentric recluse who once came barging into our apartment at 3am, complaining that our bathroom was leaking—and enjoyed the comfortable intimacy of our surroundings.

It was only last winter, however, that I started to wonder who lived in our apartment before us. I knew that our six-plex had been built in 1918, almost a decade after the other buildings on our block, and I knew that the tenant before us had been an artist with a penchant for green-tinted lightbulbs; he left in a hurry to settle his father’s estate in Brazil, leaving behind boxes of old art books, some rubber gloves and a bag of trash.

But who lived here in the years, decades, generations before that? Just how many coats of paint were on these walls? Lovell’s Montreal Directory, which lists Montreal’s residents and businesses from 1842 to 1999, offers me some clues. Scanning the Park Avenue pages, I see that somebody named Chas Larivee lived in my apartment in 1929. Two decades later, there was another Chas, this one from the Axman family. In contrast with the apartment downstairs, where a Mrs. Laurin lived for at least 30 years, ours had high turnover, with a new tenant arriving almost every year. Somehow, knowing the names of the people who once lived in my apartment makes its history more immediate: I’m not the first to have paced its slightly crooked floors.

The same is true for my street as a whole. Reading through the Lovell’s, my eyes start drifting down the rest of the page past through a century’s worth of tenants and businesses on Park Avenue. As the last block of Park Avenue before it reaches the Canadian Pacific Railway, next to railyards and industry but also churches, synagogues and pretty tree-lined streets, my part of Mile End has always been eclectic, a mix of railyard workers and middle-class strivers, immigrants from Europe and Asia, students and transients and all of the random people that make a place so interesting. The names on my block, more Jewish in the 1940s, more Greek in the 1970s, but always varied, tell me as much.

Strange how a list of names can make me feel that I understand even more deeply how my part of Montreal grew and evolved, not in the broad, abstract terms I am already familiar with, like “working-class” and “multicultural” and “gentrifying,” but in human terms. In that apartment, in that neighbourhood, surrounded by lives past and present, I was never alone.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday January 31 2009at 11:01 pm , filed under Canada, History, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

6 Responses to “My Old Apartment”

  • Kate M. says:

    Wonderful idea. I can see I’ll be spending a few hours soon looking up who lived in this flat, and maybe the flat I had in the Plateau for a long time too.

  • Kate M. says:

    Which reminds me, one day when I was leaving my Drolet Street flat, some rather prosperous looking strangers were about to knock on the door. Turned out the older members of the family, who were with them, had lived there something like 50 years earlier, were back in town (from the U.S., I think) and wanted a look at their old neighbourhood. They were Jewish and anglo, which bore out what I’d been told about the neighbourhood (e.g., the old synagogue on Duluth, which has been an apartment building for decades because the community it served had moved away). The son, himself now middle-aged, seemed a little embarrassed about the ebullience of his mother and aunt at rediscovering their old digs. (Another thing – a Plateau flat that seemed about the right size for myself and my cat had indeed, at one time, been regarded as big enough for an entire family.)

  • AJ says:

    I think Chas would have been an abbreviation for Charles, as was common custom in tightly-spaced directories and address books.

  • Very interesting read. Who lives in the apartment now I wonder?

    Kate, I too live on Drolet. I just bought a small apartment down by the Square. I was told it used to be the location of the horse stables of the adjacent Victorian house that faces Square Saint-Louis. It’s an odd little place and building I’m in.

    The mail that gets sent here is for this guy from France that lived here previous to me, who has since gone back to France from what I can understand, and also this woman with a Spanish name. Most of the neighbours are francophone from what I can tell.

  • carrie says:

    ‘shy couple from Alberta’? I’ve been called a lot of things before, but that is just so…..ugh.

    Even a fellow former Albertan referring to me as an Albertan….. once an Albertan, never a Montrealer. O Canadian regionalist attitudes, how you vex me.

    how about ‘archivist/writer and photographer/filmmaker’? But maybe you didn’t know we write things and make movies. oh, well.

    Or, maybe I’ll put “one half of shy couple from alberta” on my business cards. More interesting than what they say now…..

  • Sorry, Carrie. I didn’t mean to offend you. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you somehow aren’t a Montrealer.