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New book commemorates former Montreal neighbourhood bulldozed for Expo 67

Goose Village was a working-class neighbourhood made up largely of immigrants
Marisa Portolese, author of the book “Goose Village,” poses under the Bonaventure Expressway in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

There is almost nothing to suggest that the mix of parking lots and industrial lands near Montreal’s Victoria Bridge was once a vibrant residential neighbourhood.

But before it was demolished in 1964 to make way for a sports venue for the Expo 67 world fair, children played on the stoops of Victorian row houses in a small collection of streets called Goose Village, where successive waves of immigrants worked, lived and raised families.

Now, the story of the neighbourhood and its people is being revived in a new book by Concordia University associate photography professor Marisa Portolese. Published in English and French, “Goose Village” uses archival photos, interviews with former residents and modern portraits to chronicle the day-to-day life of the working-class neighbourhood in the city’s southwest before its 350 buildings were demolished in what politicians of the time portrayed as urban renewal.

Portolese describes Goose Village as a small neighbourhood of six or seven streets featuring modest rowhouses and an elementary school, as well as restaurants and family businesses. While its inhabitants weren’t well-off and had to contend with challenges like foul odors from nearby slaughterhouses, she says they formed close ties and many still keep in touch to this day.

“People knew each other,” she said in an interview. “From what they tell me it was a very wonderful place to live where everyone looked out for one another, and a lot of people describe it as a very supportive community.”

Working on the book was a personal experience for Portolese, whose family had deep roots in the neighbourhood. Her father, Domenico Portolese, and her mother, Pina Albanese, began their married life together in Goose Village as part of the wave of Italian immigrants who came to Canada after the Second World War.

Portolese said they were only the latest group of newcomers to settle, following the Ukrainians and Poles who came after the first World War and, earlier, the Irish who landed on the banks of the St. Lawrence in typhus-infested “coffin ships” in the mid 1800’s. Many of the first homes there were built for those Irish workers who survived the journey and went on to help build the Victoria Bridge to the city’s South Shore, which was completed in 1859.

Portolese says the motivation for her book was, in part, an effort to reverse “a complete erasure of our patrimony, of local heritage.”

“There’s no sign on site that alludes to the fact that there was once a neighborhood, an important neighborhood,” she said.

In the book, pictures taken by city photographers in the early 1960s show lively scenes, with children dancing and playing on streets and in backyards and women chatting on doorsteps of two-or-three storey brick row houses. Another series of photos taken just before the demolition in 1964 is more grim, showing the inside of abandoned apartments, with discarded furniture and papers scattering the floor.

The book also features Portolese’s own photos of the area in recent years, showing parking lots overgrown with weeds and flowers, as well as portraits of former residents, including her father, in the vacant lots where their homes once stood.

In addition to gracing the cover, Portolese said her father was also an integral part of the four-year creation process, much of which took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and involved tracking down former residents and sorting through some 1,600 archival photos that came with no index, she said.

Goose Village, which was also known as Victoriatown, was demolished in the spring of 1964, forcing1,500 residents to move to surrounding communities that often charged higher rent. The sports stadium built on the site, called the Autostade, was in use for less than 10 years after Expo 67 and was demolished in the late 1970s.

Portolese believes her project is especially relevant today as rents and housing prices rise in cities across Canada, giving way to a new wave of gentrification and displacement.

Today, the area where Goose Village once sat is again being eyed for development, with competing proposals from developers who hope to build hundreds or thousands of units in the long-underused area.

Portolese says she hopes that whatever project is retained includes a good amount of social housing, as well as nods to the past.

“I would like some sort of sign in that neighborhood that explains that there was once this village that lived there, that there was once this place that existed, so that it’s not completely erased,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press