To help students understand how a city’s history is created by both the built environment and the people who live there, Steven High, professor in the Department of History, takes his classes into the heart of Montreal neighbourhoods.
Right to the City began in 2012 as a teaching initiative through the collaboration of Concordia professors from four disciplines: Cynthia Hammond, MA 96, PhD 03, in art history; Kathleen Vaughan, MFA 98, in art education; Ted Little in theatre; and Steven High in history. Using dozens of interviews recorded with residents of Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood — one of the most economically disadvantaged in Montreal — High and his colleagues designed a class exercise called “speed dating with history.”
Students would be assigned to watch an interview with one of these people and internalize their story. “Students were able to become experts in someone’s life story in order to see the neighbourhood through another person’s eyes, and that was really powerful,” says High. Each student would then introduce him- or herself to the rest of the class, taking on the persona of the interviewee. High says this is a powerful tool in thinking about how to represent another person and engage with the neighbourhood where they live.
“When you actually have to perform as someone, you’re so aware of all the issues of appropriation. Maybe this person is a different race, class, gender, and this is what we wanted the students to think about,” says High. “We’re making assumptions about people’s lives all the time anyway, but we’re not thinking enough about it.”
More recently, Right to the City held a course about the Little Burgundy neighbourhood, the historical centre of Montreal’s English-speaking Black community. The Negro Community Centre was the hub of this neighbourhood for many years until it closed in 1992, and the building was abandoned soon after. A few years later, Concordia and members of the Negro Community Centre salvaged more than 100 boxes of historical material from the site, placing them in storage at the university.
In 2016, these materials were given to Concordia Library Special Collections branch. With the assistance of archivist Alexandra Mills, BFA 08, MA 10, High’s students spent a term delving into these boxes to create research-creation projects from the material, which returned these stories to the community. The course culminated in an event that brought out more than 200 people to the Universal Negro Improvement Association Hall in Little Burgundy. At the event, those who grew up with the Negro Community Centre shared treasured memories, while students shared what they had learned from the archives.
“Students learn not just how to engage with the community but are also becoming accountable because they’re going public with their research. We’re aware that the community is part of the audience,” says High. “Right to the City is about engaging with our changing city from the bottom up and making students central to that by reducing the division between teaching and research.”
High says Right to the City has been a natural fit with the Institute for Urban Futures and has received funding to continue this work. “The institute is in its early days. It’s a sign of this larger commitment to think about the changing city not only in terms of a critique but also how it might influence its future development,” he says.
Buildings for people before profit