The Word Bookstore, a McGill Ghetto institution
PHOTO: OWEN EGAN
In the Ghetto
SYLVAIN-JACQUES DESJARDINS | Being at the centre of things is important to Lana Tomlin. That's why, when she moved to Montreal from her native Saskatoon two weeks ago to begin her first year as a McGill music student, the only neighbourhood she wanted to live in was the McGill Ghetto.
"It's smack dab in the middle of the city," she says, of her Aylmer St. apartment, "and close to everywhere I'll be going: the gym, pool and music buildings."
Tomlin, 18, isn't alone in wanting precious proximity to McGill's downtown campus. Like her, hundreds of local and out-of-town students have moved into the McGill Ghetto over the last few weeks, as they've been doing for decades.
And the neighbourhood's popularity with students is easy to understand. Not only is it steps away from the University's campus, it's also in the heart of Montreal, within walking distance of two Métro stations and virtually every convenience a person could need.
But for Gina Bowen,19, one of Tomlin's two roommates and a fellow Saskatoon expatriate, moving to the neighbourhood meant more than just convenience. It meant living with people like her -- students -- where she's more likely to increase her social network than if she rented a flat far from the University.
While the first-year biology major seriously considered moving to a McGill residence, she opted for an apartment in the Ghetto when she was told it was swarming with just as many students.
"With all these students walking around," she says, "it's like the Ghetto is an extension of the McGill campus."
Indeed, that's probably why the neighbourhood's very name, which is officially the Jeanne-Mance district, long ago became known as the McGill Ghetto in our lexicon. And having so many peers around is what gives the Ghetto its appeal to students like Jeff Feiner, 23, a fourth-year philosophy major.
"No matter where we go," he says, "we're always surrounded by other students and we come to form something like a small town in a huge city."
Having lots of students around pleases McGill Ghetto merchants, too.
Camille Lajeunesse, owner of Lola Rosa Café on Milton St., says business doubles when classes resume in the fall. "Seeing the students return is like a breath of fresh air," she says.
A few doors down, at The Word Bookstore, owner Adrian King-Edwards says the start of school sends his sales soaring "off the map," while Patricia Desrochers, a stylist at Espace Haircraft, a funky salon on Milton St., says students represent 25 per cent of her clientele and are "a refreshing part of the neighbourhood that comes from all corners of the world."
Yet the heavy student presence in the Jeanne-Mance district is taxing to some residents who even object to the neighbourhood's common epithet.
"I object to the McGill Ghetto name since this is primarily a residential area and not part of the campus," explains Richard, who has lived on Lorne Ave. for some 18 years and requested his real name not be published.
He also rejects the Ghetto label because of his numerous beefs against students: they play too much loud music, carelessly dump garbage anywhere, anytime, throw too many loud, overcrowded parties and go through the streets drinking and yelling at night.
And it isn't just a few students who misbehave, he insists, but rather a prevalent, laisser-faire attitude among many in the district.
"It's like there's a double standard," he says. "There's one set of rules for average citizens and another for students."
Much to her dismay, Tomlin has already been woken twice from her slumber by the screams of drunken students in the streets. The experience left her, she admits, "angry." And sleepless.
Richard says the episode is typical and leaves him thankful for winter when tightly shut windows keep out the shouts. "This is just an example of students having freedom for the first time since leaving mommy and daddy," he says.
Wayne Wood, who's lived in the Jeanne-Mance district with his wife and two daughters for 10 years, says the negative image of partying undergraduates is somewhat synonymous with McGill students to many Ghetto residents. But Wood, the director of the McGill Safety Office, stresses students add to the diversity of the neighbourhood and their bad image could improve if McGill launched activities that would foster good relations among all residents of the community.
Currently, he says, "it's like two neighbourhoods that co-exist, but don't know anything about each other."
Wojtek Baraniak, vice-president (community and government affairs) of the Students' Society of McGill University, who has first-person exposure to neighbourhood problems as a Milton St. resident, agrees work is needed to improve student relations with other Ghetto residents.
"Most students need to realize this neighbourhood isn't just a place for us to sleep," he says. "It's our home for four years."
That's why he's working on forming a McGill Ghetto residents' association, which he hopes students will join, to address the area's problems. He also hopes to improve community relations by launching a student-led food-drive for the needy this year and a neighbourhood garage sale and barbecue next spring. "To give something back to the community," he says.
Participating in or organizing community events, and getting to know your neighbours, can have the added benefit of reducing crime in the community, says Constable Nelson Marshall, who serves the McGill Ghetto from Station 19. "Having so many students walking around the neighbourhood, at all hours of the day can really be an advantage,"Marshall says, "since if they see something suspicious, they can be the first to call 911."
The arrival of the community police station in 1997, has also been an effective deterrent to crime in the area. Two years ago, for instance, there were about 60 break-ins per month; now there are about 30. Marshall says a strong police presence in the district has also helped reduce noise complaints.
Michel Prescott, Montreal counsellor for the Jeanne-Mance district, agrees Station 19's opening has helped reduce rowdiness in the neighbourhood. "The number of complaints we receive has significantly decreased," he says, noting keeping tumultuous students under control is difficult, "with such a high ratio of students in one area."
Personal safety has also been bolstered throughout the McGill Ghetto -- a place with many foreboding alleyways -- through the presence of Walksafe. Launched in 1991 by the SSMU, the free service provides some 400 volunteers to escort students at night to their destinations.
"With this service," says Samar Breitem, Walksafe public relations coordinator, "even a short trip doesn't have to be uncomfortable."
As a recent Ghetto resident, Gina Bowen says she feels quite comfortable roaming her neighbourhood. But what she relishes most about living so close to school, she admits, "is that I can get up 10 minutes before class and get there on time."
For Wood, living in the Ghetto means more than living next door to a university campus. The experience, he says, is second to none. "It's a thriving inner-city village," he says, with a tremendous mix of ethnic and financial groups. "It's a place where you're judged not by your finances or how green your grass is but rather how interesting and fun you are to be with.
"The Ghetto's also one of the last remaining neighbourhoods in North America where it's safe to raise children downtown."