Right to the City swaps classrooms for community
At least 60 Concordia students are learning about working-class history, community theatre and the effects of industrialization, not in a university lecture hall, but in the heart of Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood.
Right to the City is a collection of four history and arts-related courses taught by four different Concordia professors, all based out of the Pointe’s Share the Warmth community organization, which feeds hundreds of low-income families a day.
The fall term is wrapping up shortly, and students in Right to the City will present their work to the public on December 5, with an exhibition in “The Point,” as the neighbourhood is known colloquially.
Cynthia Hammond, an associate professor in the Department of Art History who teaches the project’s Industrialization and the Built Environment course, started Right to the City last year with a grant from Concordia’s Curriculum Innovation Fund.
“They were asking for proposals particularly that would support student learning in interdisciplinary scenarios, or cross-departmental scenarios,” Hammond says.
She’d already been talking with fellow professors Kathleen Vaughan and Steven High about their shared interest in working-class areas when the Curriculum Innovation Fund came through. “This felt like the perfect opportunity,” Hammond says.
Joined by theatre professor Edward (Ted) Little, they decided the best way to teach their students about Pointe-Saint-Charles would be to bring them to it.
“It’s right there. It’s less than a half-hour walk from the downtown campus, so we thought, ‘Why not bring the students to The Point?’” Hammond says.
Historically an industrial sector and the home of Irish working poor, Pointe-Saint-Charles is one of Montreal’s oldest areas.
“It’s a fascinating neighbourhood. It’s an area that grew up around the factories. It’s pretty much an enclave,” says High, a professor and the Canada Research Chair in Oral History at Concordia. He also calls The Point home.
With the Lachine Canal, an expressway, the railway and the Saint Lawrence River for borders, the area feels set apart, High says.
High’s class — a mix of senior undergrads, Masters and PhD students — is working to create an online “memoryscape” as a final project that revisits the history of current and former public sites in the area through interviews and archival digging. Interpretive panels showcasing some of the work will be on display at the December 5 exhibition.
“The idea with oral history is that history is not just out there, somewhere else, involving other people. It actually exists within each of us,” High says. “Ordinary people lead extraordinary lives.”
Hammond’s students are working in groups to learn more about sites of historical significance. The Pointe-Saint-Charles library, for example, exists today inside an old converted firehouse because the community resisted its demolition.
“It’s an incredibly interesting place to study social movements in Quebec,” Hammond says.
Once a week, students from all four classes meet at Share the Warmth to talk about their work. One such meeting early in the semester involved an exercise in which each student told the story of a Point resident by personifying them.
The students had to recount the 90-second story the resident had told them repeatedly to a new classmate each time, sometimes encountering a student who had also spoken with the same resident. The exercise merged oral history and theatre performance — a tangible example of cross-disciplinary learning.
“Asking students to leave the university and work together with life stories, community knowledge and community organizations is a really important way of asserting the ‘university of learning’ has something to offer beyond the academic environment, beyond the ivory tower,” Hammond says.
Students will exhibit their work from the Right to the City project on December 5 at Salon Laurette (1950 Centre St.) beginning at 1:30 p.m., followed by performances at Share the Warmth (625 Fortune St.) from 3 to 5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.