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Borough in bloom Concerted efforts of long-time residents and more recent transplants have helped buff away Verdun's dodgier side KRISTIAN GRAVENORFreelance Thursday, September 06, 2007 CREDIT: JOHN MAHONEY, THE GAZETTEVerdun resident Claire Garneau was instrumental in revitalizing the park of Notre Dame de Lourdes Church, an example of the borough's revival.The scraggly, weed-covered lawn of the neighbouring Notre Dame de Lourdes Church at Verdun and Fourth Aves. never impressed resident Claire Garneau. She envisioned a magnificent park and started mobilizing. "I've lived in Verdun for all of my 52 years and felt sad about the state of that land. People were hesitant to do anything to turn it into a park. They said it would just attract drug addicts. All sorts of people were against it," says Garneau. After six years of holding fundraising plays and concerts, hitting up businesses and government, as well as countless blisters resulting from endless volunteer landscaping work, the park has officially opened its doors as an urban oasis amid the oft-maligned avenues of Verdun. "It's amazing to see the changes, and the respect has followed. People are proud of the place," Garneau says. "They sit in the garden, they read books, eat their lunch there and toss out their garbage afterwards. The people who were against the park aren't against it any more." The park is one of countless small initiatives that has combined to transform the southwest riverside borough of Verdun. The area, once synonymous in many minds with welfare and dilapidation, has seen government assistance rates fall to eight per cent, about half the rate of 1994, while property values in many parts have quadrupled since the late 1990s. Although the Verdun butterfly might look like it suddenly busted out from a cocoon, the changes are the result of 15 years of snail-like progress, according to Roger Cadieux. In 1991 the veteran physician traded hats for a job leading economic community development as the head of the Economic Forum of Verdun, which has 240 dues-paying members. "Every year citizens and businesses start little projects, small renovations - we've had about 150 projects a year for 15 years and we supported them and published tributes to them. You can really see the changes have added up," he says. When he set up his medical clinic in Verdun in the 1960s, Cadieux got an eyeful of social problems that plagued the area. "We'd see young pregnant girls having problems raising their children. And for a time the welfare was much too high - people saw it as an old-age pension that they could get early. I saw people with no future or hope." Verdun was full of families of workers at GE and Sherwin-Williams. As the jobs went, they too disappeared. The area lost 10,000 residents in the 1990s, leaving approximately 60,000 today. So the area ditched its industrial image and went green. The sprucing up of Verdun relied heavily on the waterfront, which was jazzed up with trees and bike paths. "I'm lucky enough to live on LaSalle Blvd.; 40 years ago I had no idea I'd be able to put a sailboat in front. The waterfront is Verdun's great natural resource," says Cadieux. But like many Verduners, Cadieux admits that the city hasn't fully shed its bingo, welfare and hot-dog persona. "We did a focus group of about 60 new arrivals and noticed that a lot of their ideas about Verdun are quite negative." The borough is roughly divided into three areas: Nuns' Island, which has a population of 16,000; the wealthier area west of the avenues; and then downtown, or east Verdun, which has the highest level of poverty in the area. Another veteran of Verdun's slow march forward is Verdun's development commissioner, Alain Laroche, who was lured away from a journalism career in St. Laurent in the early 1990s. Laroche offers frequent bus tours to new residents, where he points out how a modest cottage in Crawford Park sold for $300,000. But he glosses over the ongoing challenge of Verdun's empty storefronts, a blight partially tackled by zoning that requires almost all empty stores to revert to residential except for on Wellington and de L'Église. Laroche also credits an influx of Plateau yuppies for the turnaround. "Developers started advertising on the Plateau, pointing out that people can buy an 850-square-foot condo here for about $160,000. It's as cheap to own here as it is to rent on the Plateau. Once they started coming, it really snowballed." But the fast-paced gentrification is a challenge to Verdun's traditional social mix, which includes a working-class population. "We try to buy property to build cooperatives to find a place for them, but developers are always snapping them up first," Laroche says. Much has changed, but Laroche is visualizing far more. Some of the next stages of evolution he visualizes include having the four top floors of the city parking lot turned into boutiques, hotels and restaurants. The Verdun auditorium - which costs the administration nearly a million dollars a year to operate - could also be made into a conference centre, and there could also one day be a bridge along Galt to Nuns' Island.