Concordia faculty organize an urban walking tour through Shaughnessey Village
On sunny Spring day in April, a large group of participants took part in Promenade Parlante: Episodes in a Changing Neighbourhood, a “public artwork/art walk” through Montreal’s Shaughnessy Village neighbourhood, seen through the perspective of senior citizens.
Co-organizers Cynthia Hammond, lead co-director for the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS), Shauna Janssen, director of the Institute for Urban Futures, and Eric Craven, community development librarian and coordinator for the Atwater Library’s Digital Literacy project, teamed up with a group of five senior citizens and five students to create a collaborative, interdisciplinary initiative - an urban walking tour with a twist.
The Promenade is built on oral histories developed by seniors participating in the Atwater Library’s Digital Literacy project. Working with Hammond, Janssen, and Craven, and funded by a Partnership Engage Grant from SSHRC, the seniors took their urban knowledge onto the streets themselves, using new technologies as they spoke or performed theirs or other seniors’ memories of the city.
“We wanted to put the tools of creative practice, including urban scenography, in front of this group of seniors,” explains Hammond. “We said to them, ‘the neighbourhood is a kind of stage. If you could perform upon it, what would you do? What would you say? How would you tell your story?’”
Podcasts, songs and performance in Shaughnessy Village
The walk began at 5pm on April 13th at the Atwater Library, where organizers met with twice the turnout they were expecting (over 100 attendees). Participants were given MP3 players with a series of recorded episodes queued up, which they were instructed to play in synchrony at designated sites.
The first outdoor site was Cabot Square, where COHDS affiliate and Montreal senior, Wendy Allen spoke about the Cabot Square Project. Her audio piece featured Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter, talking about the site’s importance to the city’s Indigenous and Inuit communities. Concordia students Niap Saunders and Lucina Gordon gave an Inuit throat-singing performance at the end of Allen’s “episode”.
Later in the walk, participants were led to the grounds of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which contains the historic Shaughnessy House. Two episodes were dedicated to the history of this structure. Hammond wove together a digital audio piece and the performance of fifteen women dressed in white, sharing a little-known piece of the building’s history as a place of refuge for young working women. In the nearby CCA garden, Digital Literacy Project participant and senior, Wanda Potrykus dramatized a village riddle she had composed that blended history, storytelling, and verse. A custom-built “hat”, evocative of one of the new skyscrapers being built in Shaughnessy Village, completed her performance.
‘We all shape the city – whether we’re trained architects or urban planners or not’
It was the seniors involved in the Digital Literacy Project who approached Hammond to start the project. They wanted to share knowledge about the living histories of urban spaces.
“That was their central focus,” Hammond says, “how this neighbourhood had seen a great deal of change.” The closure of the Children’s Hospital and the building of large-scale condo developments are recent examples of urban transformation, she says. “The group felt that the period in Montreal history to which they had been witness was disappearing materially around them.”
Promenade Parlante was an opportunity to channel the oral histories that the seniors had already been working on, into creative projects with a public outcome. “Many people have creative capacities that don’t get fully explored because we don’t feel we have a right to the name ‘artist’,” Hammond says. “Our project was an extension of the idea that we all shape the city – whether we’re trained architects, urban planners, or not.”
‘An opportunity for seniors to mentor younger generations’
At the end of the walk, participants returned to the Atwater Library, where other projects that had been developed by seniors with the support of Craven were screened. These included a video about the Scottish history of the Library by Lilian Harper, and a stop-motion animation by Ramsay Blair. Blair and Potrykus’ work is also being featured in the B/OLD event currently on view in Concordia’s 4th Space.
While the Promenade Parlante project was a way for project participants to hone their creative skills, it also provided a platform for a demographic whose life experiences are not often taken into account in city planning or even heritage discussions, says Hammond.
“Older Montrealers are effectively kept out of the public discourse around what makes the city liveable,” she adds. “So we were especially excited to have two politicians attend our event. But our other intention was to build bridges between seniors’ urban knowledge, which is often quite extraordinary, and a younger public. Our project was an opportunity for seniors to mentor a younger generation, especially our student assistants, about how stories can be told.”