The Mile End's musical history

The evolution of a neighbourhood's creative industry
Chloe Nevitt

The Rialto theatre was built in 1923 and has continued to be an icon of the Mile End's creative industry. (Photo courtesy of: City of Montreal Archives)

For aspiring musicians, Montreal’s Mile End is the place to be. The likes of Arcade Fire, Grimes, and BRAIDS have emerged from its streets. A city like Montreal—famous for being a cultural and artistic hub—begs the question: What made the Mile End so unique?

“The Mile End is a neighbourhood that has gone through many different waves of socioeconomic levels and origins of its people,” said Justin Bur, one of the directors of Mile End Memories, a non-profit organization dedicated to the heritage, history, and culture of the neighbourhood.  “Originally, [the Mile End] was a working village, where you would find the occasional manager. Later, the real-estate workers [came.] By the 1920s, it had [also] become the most important Jewish community in Montreal.”

  • Mile End becomes the most important Jewish community in Montreal
  • Poor immigrants from Italy, Greece, and Portugal replace Jews
  • Wave of middle class professionals revive Mile End
  • Citizens Committee is established in Mile End
  • Citizens Committee begins annual St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations
  • Clothing industry sets up along railways in the Mile end
    Early 1990s
  • Collapse of the clothing industry
    Late 1990s
  • Hill Strategies census shows H2T postal code (Mile End) has the most creative workers in Canada
  • Regroupement Pied Carré finalizes deal to subsidize artist's rents with 30 year lease
Moments in the Mile End's History
Hover over the dates to read more.

The Jewish community then left en masse in the ’50s when an influx of lower class immigrants arrived from Italy, Greece, and Portugal. By the late 20th century, however, these communities were replaced by middle-class professionals. Nevertheless, the architecture, food, and culture of the area continued to reflect the people who had once resided there. 

Hebrew high schools remained alongside public schools, many restaurants offered both Portuguese and Greek food, and churches such as the Church of St. Michael and St. Anthony, adopted a primarily Irish Catholic parish that would later evolve into a Polish and Italian parish. This cultural hybridity—where a unique person, place, or thing could be found at every corner—made the Mile End a distinct place to live for anyone. But it’s because of the industry that developed from of one of its most recognized landscapes—the miles of abandoned rail houses and railroads—that today, the Mile End is a hub for artists.

The train stations built in the Mile End created a booming clothing industry. (Photo courtesy of: City of Montreal Archives)

“A major railway headed to the St. Lawrence was built here [to be] joined up to the brand new railway to B.C. in ’86,” Bur said. “Along the railway line, industries started setting up, and the clothing industry [then] became very important in the ’90s.” 

The clothing industry met its untimely end by the late ’90s, as more and more products were outsourced. What was a left was a huge collection of empty buildings—ideal spaces to host young and struggling artists, like Sebastian Cowan, a co-founder of Arbutus Records.

Cowan came to Montreal eight years ago to start a warehouse venue—similar to the ones he had seen in his hometown, Vancouver. A series of events led him to the Mile End, where he experienced the growth and evolution of the area’s creative industry.

“I thought there was a lot potential for [a warehouse venue in Montreal],” Cowan said. “[My friend and I] came [to the Mile End] to look at a jam space. There was a record store on the fourth floor in the [building on the] corner [of Avenue Durocher]. [So,] we went to [there] and [they] said to talk to the landlord because the whole third floor was unrented.”

 Cowan and his friends—who would later became his partners—decided this floor would become the  place to host their events. After acquiring their jam space, they began an art collective called Lab Synthèse, based on a concert series his friends had already been hosting. Progress was slow, and the artists, as well as their producers, often had to struggle to get by.

“I feel like my kids are going to ask me what it was like during the Great Recession,” Cowan explained. “Nobody had a job, everybody was broke, [and you paid] as little as you could for rent—[but] never once did anyone feel poor.” 

In 2009, Lab Synthèse evolved into Arbutus Records as not only a way to legitimize their work, but also as a way for Cowan to grieve over the loss of a friend.

“One of the people I started Lab Synthèse with—my best friend through most of high school—ended up committing suicide in the room next door to me,” Cowan said. “That was the single most traumatic thing that has happened in my life, and Arbutus was a way to get over it.”

In the Mile End, near the railway yards, artists could loudly produce music late at night, find others to collaborate with, and use the large lofts as ideal concert spaces. It’s no surprise it drew in creative people—all that was missing was getting the music to the rest of the world. 

“Arbutus [as a] label was an excuse to record my friends,” Cowan said. “[It was] a way to help the things go beyond the walls.”

The content produced by Arbutus is edgy, unique, and hypnotic. Their current contracted artists include BRAIDS, an ‘art rock’ band originally from Calgary; Blue Hawaii, an electronic duo from Montreal; and Lydia Ainsworth, an experimental indie singer from Toronto. Their most famous alumnus, however, is synthpop artist Claire Elise Boucher—known better by her stage name, Grimes. But Arbutus doesn’t have a specific ‘recipe’ they use to sign an artist. 

“The whole process of finding a band, competing with other labels for that band, to me is a huge turn off,” explained Cowan. ‘Maybe it’s healthy for business, but I don’t think it’s healthy for art.”

BRAIDs studio debut album, Native Speaker was met with critical acclaim, though the album itself only cost around $500 to produce. This was largely due to the fact that the music was made using a lot of vocal overlays and sounds made from homemade instruments and objects. But this low-budget production yields a final product that is raw, exciting, and beautiful—a trademark of the unique, home-grown spirit that emanates from the Mile End. 

Though Mile End’s unique spirit is a vital part of the development of its artists, another more pragmatic reason presented itself: The neighbourhood’s cheap rent.

“[When] all of these buildings stopped being textile manufacturing [factories], [everything was only] partially occupied, [or] there were just junkies living there,” explained Cowan. “[Here,] we could have 10,000 square feet [for] really cheap.”

Large empty buildings left over from the clothing industry in late '90s were ideal places to host young struggling artists. (Photo courtesy of: City of Montreal Archives)

“Ubisoft arrived [to the Mile End] in 1997 and renovated [many of the apartments] that the artists had been living in,” Bur explained. “The artists [soon] realized that the price would not [remain the same.]”In response to the rising living costs, the creative community in the Mile End unionized, calling themselves Regroupement Pied Carré—“Union for Square Feet” in English. 

The interior of the Peck Building (5575 Saint-Laurent) where Ubisoft currently exists. (Photo courtesy of: The Main: Portrait of a neighbourhood)

The group’s mission was and continues to be the preservation of creative spaces in the Mile End, which included keeping the artists in the neighbourhood. To do that, the issue of rising rent had to be dealt with.

“The borough was behind the artists, so they put a zoning hold on the buildings,” Bur explained. “[The regroupement then] negotiated with [the building owners] and came up with a 30-year lease [with the regroupement.] This was important because [the union] could [then have] two levels of rent. 70 per cent [of the building would be] rented out to poor starving artists, [with] the price brought way down. The remaining 20 per cent [could be] rented out a bit higher to those who can afford to pay that.”

Not only does this create a sustainable solution for the artists, but the landlords will have tenants for the next 30 years, a new guaranteed security. This sustainability is essential for maintaining the variety of creative venues found in the Mile End, but wouldn’t be possible without the community’s ongoing support. This support has been largely due to The Mile End’s Citizens Committee, which, since 1982, has hosted a variety of activities and concerts to create links between people in its area.

“The [Mile End’s] Citizens Committee had an important role to play because of their annual street party on St. Jean-Baptiste,” explained Bur. “They were deliberately working to create links between people of different origins, [and] make it [a] national holiday for everyone.”

Every year, for St. Jean-Baptiste Day, the Citizens Committee would get local musicians to play concerts on Saint-Viateur. It wasn’t until the late ’90s, when crowds would become too large to safely accommodate and the festival had to be shut down. However, its artistic spirit never left the area.

“There’s the Fairmount theatre, where Club Soda [used to be,]” said Bur. “There’s Resonance [Cafe], which is relatively new, there’s Casa del Popolo, there’s Hotel del Tango, there’s Cagibi, there’s a record shop called Phenopolis, [and more].”

Resonance Cafe has live jazz performers every night; Cagibi hosts daily open-mic performances, where local artists are able to able to sign-up for a specific recurring time slot (allowing them to build a fanbase); and Phenopolis features a new local artist in their window display every week. A special example, Casa del Popolo—Italian for “house of the people”—was established in 2000 by Mauro Pezzente and Kiva Stimac, members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor—a Montreal-based post-rock band. Since then, it has become on of Montreal’s top venues for indie rock music.

A video capture from a 1994 film of the annual fete of la Saint-Jean dans le Mile End, a show of one of the Mile End's continued support of artists. (Photo courtesy of: The archives of Comite des citoyens du Mile End.)

“Casa del Popolo is fundamental,” explained Bur. “[It’s] very intimately involved in the development of the Mile End music scene because [Pezzente and Stimac] were musicians to begin with.”

The variety of places to create, promote, and host creative content in the Mile End have been essential to the growth of its music scene. But it is the support of The Mile End’s community that solidified its role as a creative hotspot. In an industry where artists are continuously forced to produce content that will sell—regardless of an artist’s vision—it is the places that not only build up the artists, but protect their voice, content, and style, that will continue to dominate the creative industry.