Le Centre-Sud by the Molson Brewery
Chroniques du Centre-Sud, Richard Suicide’s latest graphic novel, documents the residents and businesses that characterized the decrepit heart of Montreal’s le Centre-Sud in the late ’80s. In this archive, the area around the corner of rue Dorion and Ontario has more tattoo parlours than bars and more bars than grocery stores, which mostly sell beer. Suicide’s neighbours are on disability or unemployment, pick and sell garbage, and party in their front yards to a degree that makes David Fennario’s Balconville look like a portrait of the suburban middle-class. Suicide picks out one neighbour, “le bison bourré” (the plastered bison), a hoarder, to begin his study of le Centre-Sud.
Suicide admits that he moved to the neighbourhood when he was in CEGEP for the cheap rents. He writes, “C’était le quartier des bums, des bikers, et des shops à tattoo.” And it raises the question, is it ethical to use your broke, eccentric, and potentially mentally ill neighbours for artistic material? Does Suicide’s project witness a place and a people eradicated by the municipal government for presenting an eyesore? Is it, therefore, a defense of a city’s most marginal class, persistently forced out of urban cores by evictions, demolitions, and “broken window” policing?
In a way, Suicide dodges the question. His book is an exaggerated, hilarious account of a downtown Montreal neighbourhood presented as “recherche ethnographico-éthylo-inspirative,” a study of beer-soaked fauna (“la faune houblonnée”), and their baloney-and-“trio-fatso”-diets (“la flore gastrique”). Though his narration keeps the distance of an anthropological study, Suicide’s artwork, with his characters’ submarine-length noses, googly eyes, and ketchup stains (or vomit) on everything, seems to come from inside the neighbourhood. His cartoons look like they’ve been made by shifting grease around a page. His language, too, is academic jargon filtered through a decade of living in a hard-drinking, word-slurring slum.
Suicide’s choice of genre, style, and comedy, may be a more accurate archive of life in that place at that time than anything an NFB documentary could attempt (and Suicide ends his book with a lampoon of NFB documentaries, as an alien condo-dweller moves into a cleaned-up Centre-Sud).
Le Centre-Sud and le Faubourg à m’lasse
To clarify, though, the story of “le bison bourré” is not a story about gentrification. When Suicide’s section of le Centre-Sud was torn down, the space was used to build an on ramp to the Jacques Cartier Bridge bisecting the park Suicide calls, “un vrai rape zone.” Thirty years on, the surrounding neighbourhood is still on the cheaper side, a little more desirable than it was, and it still boasts what must be the highest density of tattoo parlours in all of Quebec. It’s also only a few blocks north from le Maison Radio-Canada, a brown skyscraper complex in the middle of a parking lot that would be the envy of any Wal-Mart. In the 1970s, Radio-Canada replaced part of a rapidly declining district named le Faubourg à m’lasse, including just short of 800 residences, 12 restaurants, and 4 factories. It was le Faubourg à m’lasse that lent its name, Parc des faubourg, to the park that replaced Suicide’s old stomping grounds. In this part of Montreal, the city responds to homelessness and heroin needles with wrecking balls.
By the ’80s and ’90s, urban planning had grown out of some of its older slum clearance tactics, such as razing slums and replacing them with housing projects. However, demolition remains a strategic and often devastating political tool against certain kinds of urbanism (like row house and triplex neighbourhoods) and certain kinds of urban demographics. Usually, these are people already on the socio-economic periphery, and demolition is a means of pushing them to a geographical periphery.
Le bison bourré requests a milliwokee besse dry
Suicide’s Chroniques du Centre-Sud is not a protest against the demolition of urban neighbourhoods, and it is only a critique in passing: what it really is is an archive, a tongue-in-cheek documentary of a few vanished blocks. Suicide has undertaken this project without any of the seriousness, sentimentality, or historicity that makes most of these projects utterly boring and profoundly Canadian. Suicide’s “recherche socio-éthylique” doesn’t hold itself above the people it proposes to document. The book abounds in puke, instructions for fermenting potato liquor, inventories of le bison’s crap, his route maps, his preferred means of getting drunk, and one page dedicated to his wife’s many baloney-centric recipes. The squeegee punks, transgenders, bikers, tattoo artists, old drunks, and entrepreneurs of le Centre-Sud are celebrated and mythologized, without glossing over the trash on their streets and in their houses, and recognizing the heavy handed role of the law and the municipal government in clearing out their few blocks of Montreal.
This spring, Coach House Press will be launching The Ward, a series of essays and articles about Toronto’s first real slum, where Jewish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Chinese immigrants often started life in Canada before moving to new parts of the city. The centre of the Ward, Bay and Albert, was demolished in the 1950s to make way for New City Hall. In Toronto, citizens, scholars, and writers have taken up the search for those parts of the city that were demolished mid-century. In a city marked yet again by rapid new construction, there is a literary fervour for dredging up what has already been lost, such as The Ward, Cabbagetown, and the old harbour. And while lost Montreal geographies like Décarie Boulevard, the Red Light District, and Griffintown are similarly on archivists’ radars, they might skip over Suicide’s corner of le Centre-Sud.
Le Centre-Sud is White Trash
In the 1980s, Suicide’s neighbourhood was populated by white trash. To call these characters the more valourous “working class” would ignore the fact that none of them seem to draw any wages, instead paying for their rent and beer with welfare cheques and money earned from panhandling, squeegeeing, or selling the garbage they’ve salvaged. A number of tattoo artists, illustrators, waiters, and grocery store owners inhabit Suicide’s pages, too, but a culture of tattoos, steamés, and binge-drinking may never cross the threshold into the official narrative of Montreal history where Irish bridge builders and Québécois factory workers dwell.
In one scene, le bison bourré returns from the hospital in a suit and a bowler, asking for “n’bièh” (a beer) in his garbled joual that baffles even Suicide. Suicide shows him going through a Clockwork Orange-esque transformation, “Opération Cleanage du Bison,” at the local CLSC (community health centre). Every time the residents of Dorion and Ontario encounter an authority, authority tries to silence or sterilize them, until the day that the police come and clear out le bison’s apartment, taking him with them. Row by row, the tenants on Suicide’s street are evicted and their apartments are boarded up, until finally the scrap store, the legion hall, the Chinese-owned grocery store, the greasy spoon, and the porno cinema are demolished for that dumpy park. Suicide can’t say where le bison and his wife wind up, or any of the neighbours. Municipal governments decide to “clean up” neighbourhoods for any number of reasons: to open up the doors for development companies, to give voters citywide a “tough-on-crime” impression, or to cater to a middle- or upper-class lobby from an adjacent neighbourhood. After the job is done, the lives of those previous residents, however few of them there were, are less than an afterthought. Are their lives better, have they been “cleaned-up,” or are they just the same, but in some less visible place? The interminable process of “cleaning up” swept through Suicide’s neighbourhood. It’s only fitting, then, that his archive of the place would relish in scum, and conclude on four panels of an old man pushing his cart down rue Ontario, littered with broken beer bottles and electrical cords, stopping to demolish a half-bitten steamé left out on the road.
Suicide’s archive rejects the language and visual practices of official memorialization for a comic, and graphic, portrayal of squalor. To sterilize the memory of Dorion and Ontario with photos of barbershops and factory workers, or a bildungsroman about escaping poverty and urban grit, would be to make art that complies with an official policy of “cleanage.”