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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.
A man with a soft spot for Montreal's seafarers He kept a low profile but he was gregarious, a giant of Old Montreal, with a strong feel for its history ALAN HUSTAKThe Gazette Sunday, January 27, 2008 Grant Townsend, who owned a waterfront maritime supply company, was for more than 30 years involved in the direction of Mariners House, a hostel and social centre for itinerant seafarers in Old Montreal. Much more than an active Mariners House board member, he often contributed directly to sailors in need out of his own pocket. Townsend was 92 when he died at St. Mary's Hospital on Jan. 9. "He was a very good money manager. He was very involved in the welfare of Mariners House," said the institution's manager, Carolyn Osborne. "He never wanted to be board president because he was always bucking the board's considered opinion. "When our original building was put up for sale in the 1970s, the board was ready to take the first measly offer it could get, but he insisted they hold out for a much more substantial offer to guarantee the future of Mariners House." Grant William Townsend, the eldest of six children in a ship's chandler's family, was born in Montreal on Sept. 15, 1915, into a long line of seafarers. One of his ancestors was a British navy officer who took part in the siege of Louisbourg in 1758. His grandfather was the captain of a Nova Scotia windjammer. His father, Dudley Roy Townsend, founded the Montreal shipping supply company in 1917 and was Canada's comptroller for shipping supplies during the Second World War. For his contributions he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Townsend had hoped to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy during the war, but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Townsend was raised in Westmount and obtained an engineering degree from McGill University in 1950. He worked for Alcan then started a scaffolding company that he owned with a partner until he joined his father's business in 1961. Encouraged by his father, Townsend took an active interest in sailors' welfare and was a fundraiser for the Sailors' Institute. He helped negotiate its 1968 merger with the Catholic Sailors Club, which had been started in 1893, into the non-denominational Mariners House. A gregarious individual with a soft spot for those who worked the waterfront, he often housed as many or six or seven seamen in the second floor of his warehouse. "The work he did was unbelievable, he was always involved in service clubs, like the Rotary Club, and as vice-president of the Ship Suppliers Association. He kept a very low profile," said his widow, Berna Nardin. "He always could work his way around any problem and find a solution. "He was very determined. More than money, he used his influence to get things done. He was soft. He'd often hire people because they needed a job, not because they were necessarily qualified." Townsend's company warehouse in the Gillespie Moffatt building on Place d'Youville stood on the site of a mansion built in 1691 for Louis-Hector de Callière, who was governor of Montreal from 1684 to 1698 and then governor of New France until he died in 1703. Seven years ago Townsend sold the historic property to the Pointe à Callière archeological museum for well below its market value. It was, he said, his gift to the city. The museum plans to incorporate the foundations of the mansion into an expanded $30-million underground gallery. "He adored Old Montreal and was steeped in its history," Nardin said. "Rather than see the building fall into the hands of a developer who wouldn't respect the historic foundations, he wanted it preserved as an archeological site." His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Berna Nardin, a former teacher and translator whom he married in 1982, and by the four children he and his first wife adopted. [email protected] © The Gazette (Montreal) 2008 http://www.canada.com/components/print.aspx?id=d15bfab5-c24f-4c3f-862c-daeb870f75dc