Privilege and the Point, or How I Learned to Stop Romanticizing and Love the Now

By Mikayla Cartwright

My privileged love affair with the Point began as a childhood fascination. I grew up in a cushy sub-suburb, with my working class family and a pretty solid understanding of my place in the world.

Having baby boomers for parents (one who grew up, on the land, in veritable destitution, another who shook off his RAF upbringing to live a respectably WASPy life in Canada), we were reminded daily that though we may have been ostracized by our middle class friends for having 4 stripes on our track pants or not having cable tv, we were to be grateful that we had ‘’never gone hungry and always had a roof over our heads’’. Such ideas were tough for an 11 year old to digest, but I accepted that my life wasn’t really that bad. I never knew poverty, I only knew harrowing stories from my mother about how it felt to live in a tent or split a canned chicken with 15 other kids. So of course, my fascination with urban poverty was like anything else: the excitement of the unknown.

I had a friend who lived in the row of houses across the way. Her mom, who work days and nights in two different places to support her 3 kids on her own, was a commanding, uninhibited woman whose voice could be heard across the green when the kids were acting up. I spent a lot of time at their house (they had satellite!), and I often ended up eavesdropping on her conversations with adults. I always heard her mention ‘’The Point’’, this place I had never seen nor heard of in Montreal. She’d talk about having grown up there, and how it was a ‘hard’ neighbourhood. I thought to myself- a neighbourhood that could produce a woman as tough as her must be serious business. vI had trouble imagining, though, the neighbourhood outside of a stylized location for a 90s box-office hit about coming of age and ‘overcoming’ the ‘ghetto’. Of course, in my ignorant, sheltered mind’s eye, that white people could ever be poor and live in urban destitution was compelling. So, I tucked this image of the Point away.

As I grew into my adolescence, with a tendency to hate my town and wander ‘the city’, I fed off of the reputations of neighbourhoods to map Montreal in such a way that cordoned particular areas off. I still do this- “ooh, thats not a very nice area, lots of crime/drugs/sex work”… such comments from the mouths of others tend to influence my immediate understanding of a place. ‘Poor’ neighbourhoods took on a sinister aesthetic, to the point where if an area looked a certain way, with boarded up shops, neglected buildings and ‘shifty’ characters lining its streets, in my youth, I would have assumed the worst. At the peak of my faux-punk-rock adolescent revolt, spent in raucous beer-soaked hovels, indignantly emptying 40s of Bleue in front of cops on St Cats and Hotel de Ville, I began to fetishize that grit. Poverty was punk, abandoned buildings were rad, and the physical testimonies of economic instability were camera fodder for a privileged poser from the burbs. Only when I got my first job in the city did my perspectives change, and only slightly. I learned not to assume the character of a community, for all can be a facade. 6am conversations on St Catherines with resident street kids (addicted, wildly intellectual and lucid with penchants for faking insanity to frighten passerby) forced me out of my comfortable ideologies of predictable poverty and into the reality of the urban landscape. I wish I could say that my romanticism stopped there, but I believe, in fact, that it got worse.

I took to photography, an art with which anyone can achieve greatness with an eye for light and angles, and I found that my favorite subjects were buildings- of all shapes, sizes and conditions, but mainly relics from an industrial age I knew nothing about. I was charmed by their largesse, unapologetic filth, and seemingly morose color scheme. Stained cement, rust, abandon. I began going out of my way to capture as many as possible, like a little colonizer in Doc Martens, taking care to include dated signage, murky adjacent ruelles and downtrodden exteriors in my anti-portraiture.

Here you may be asking, what’s this got to do with the Point? And here I respond, well, a lot actually. At the beginning of the semester, I looked at the Point through the privileged lens of a suburbanite. And I fetishized it. Then I read a chapter in Dr. High’s Corporate Wasteland, which called me out completely.

I have always sought comfort in the ‘urban exploration’ narrative of my city. In the late 2000s, as bloggers ventured outside their own emotional landscapes and into the sewers and empty buildings, I felt through reading blogs like Under Montreal that I was a member of a special club, one that gave me VIP access to something forbidden or disregarded by civilians. The city became haunting, and punctuated by possible adventure. In my fervor, I began trekking regularly around Griffintown (at that time home an “art studio/venue/squat” called Friendship Cove, which was frequented by the era’s greatest Montreal musicians. You can ask anyone.) with my camera, ogling the empty factories like a pubescent boy with a pilfered lingerie catalogue. But who was I to stand in this place with my lens pointed at these monuments that once comprised the industrial heartland of this country?

In the chapter on ‘urban exploration’ in Corporate Wasteland, this fetish is explained and critiqued for its dismissive voyeurism. The argument, in so many words, is that the privilege we invoke when we enter these spaces and reimagine them as playgrounds is just that, a performance of privilege- perhaps in the same way that a wealthy white traveller engages in volunteer tourism in an underprivileged country, returning home with a self-inflated ego and a memory card full of photos of themselves hugging children of color, while the conditions for those children remains unchanged once that tourist’s plane takes off. Maybe I felt this way about the Point despite having what I thought was an understanding of the community. In reading that chapter, I realized that I had been guilty of this all along, and perhaps even engaged with this “sentimentalizing (of) the past”, on our first walkabout. My fetishizing of historical hardship wasn’t serving any purpose but for me to walk away from the Point with photos to add to my collection of “ruin porn”. I have trouble negotiating this, and my guilt and complicity were called out once again during a class discussion about the audiowalk: “are we a part of the problem?”

It would be nice if I had an intellectual-sounding response to this, and a means of exposing my positionality in such a way that absolves me and leaves my fixation with urban aesthetics intact. But I don’t have that. I have, instead, a reminder of just how privileged I am to have been welcomed into Share the Warmth, to share food, coffee, smiles and chit-chat with the people who spend time there- be they offering me fresh muffins or telling me stories while I smoke out front.

I also have of course, a few burning questions: how do we valorize the tangible manifestations of our city’s history without being dismissive of marginalized narratives? How can we, as inherently privileged scholars, occupy space within a community without speaking over the community itself? And finally, in the spirit of participatory action research, how will our work impact and benefit the people who have allowed us to infiltrate their neighbourhoods and daily lives?