Gritty Parc Émilie-Gamelin gets glamorous makeover

The City of Montreal is turning Parc Émilie-Gamelin, known most commonly as a gritty park often frequented by homeless people, protesters and drug dealers, into a tourist destination with an art-heavy approach.

City seeks to make park often frequented by homeless people and protesters a tourist destination

A mock-up of the renovated park's design. The park reopened Thursday evening. (Quartier des spectacles)

The Quartier des spectacles is betting on public art and gardens to change the culture and clientele of downtown Montreal's Parc Émilie-Gamelin.

The renovated park at the corner of Berri and Ste-Catherine streets reopened Thursday evening.

The park is known as a hangout for the homeless and the starting point for many of the city's protests and demonstrations.

It was closed for a month for renovations with the intention of completely transforming the space so that all Montrealers feel safe and welcome on the site.

Alexandra Mayer speaks for the Quartier des spectacles. 

"What we're really trying to do here is encourage peaceful co-existence. Often times we're asked, 'Are you trying to force homeless people out of here?' It's not about excluding anybody — quite on the contrary. Actually, several homeless people have told us they appreciate when there's programming. It brings a different crowd, it brings more activity and it's even safer for them," Mayer said.

The new installations include wooden vegetable garden boxes, a patio with a restaurant, performance stages, a free-speech platform and new lawn chairs for the grass.

Organizers have plans for a range of activities from soul music at lunch to Saturday concerts and Sunday brunches.

The Quartier des spectacles is working with the Ville-Marie borough to ensure safety by hiring street intervention workers and making the park more welcoming for all.

The story of how the Quartier des spectacles is betting on art, a public garden and activities to make the park safer and more hospitable for all, including the homeless who gather there.
Janet Echelman's floating sculpture is made from millions of hand-tied knots using the same techniques as fishermen for their nets. It's illuminated at night. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

Former homeless man helps out

Quartier des spectacles employee, 49-year-old Gilles Côté, said he used to be one of the homeless people hanging out at the park.

Côté turned his life around nine years ago and now works as a liaison between homeless people and other Montrealers at Parc Emilie-Gamelin. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

He said he turned his life around nine years ago and now works in the park watching for friction and helping build bridges with the broader community.

He thinks he and a second street worker who is also a former homeless person are good examples for the young people who hang out on the grass at the park.

"You know the message we give at the people in the grass. We say, 'Hey look, if you want to take your life in your hand and do a better life, it's possible because look, Simon and me, we come from the grass.'"

Old Brewery Mission president Matthew Pearce applauds the initiative. He said everyone benefits from more beautiful public spaces  But Pierce wonders if the renovations will really turn the reputation of the park around.

"I don't know if that will decrease tensions or whether it might by increasing the number of people who go in. But I support the initiative of making our public spaces as beautiful as we can," Pearce said.


Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.


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