Society and Space in the Industrial City: Introduction

By Gilliland, Jason | Urban History Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Society and Space in the Industrial City: Introduction


Gilliland, Jason, Urban History Review


Over the last decade, historians, geographers, and other urban analysts have devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to the history of Montreal. This attention derives not just from the fact that Montreal celebrated its 350th birthday a decade ago (landmark anniversaries do encourage us to reflect on the past), nor is it solely because for most of those 350 years, Montreal was "the largest, wealthiest, and most progressive city of the fair Dominion." (1) Interest in Montreal is in part a function of these circumstances, but it is related mainly to the fact that the city has managed to maintain a distinctive social, cultural, and physical fabric in an increasingly homogeneous world. (2)

This issue of the Urban History Review / Revue d'histoire urbaine focusses on society and space in the 19th century, when Montreal was "Canada's Metropolis" and industrial powerhouse. During the second half of the century, Montreal underwent rapid industrialization. Its population doubled every twenty years (from 40,465 in 1842 to 324,880 in 1901), and the labour force was segmented into ever more specialized tasks in which the positions people held differed according to age, gender, ethnic origin, and recency of immigration. (3) In the volume and timing of its waves of immigration, Montreal resembled other east coast cities of North America, but no other city had a comparable cultural mix. At mid-century Montreal's population was one-half French Canadian, one-quarter British Protestant, and one-fifth Irish Catholic. Each group of actors -- whether united by common ethnicity, religion, language, occupation, or social class -- competed intensely for urban space, or the best locations on the monopoly board. (4)

The city's unique social fabric helped construct a distinctive urban fabric. At the outset, the cote system of settlement under the French Regime produced long narrow lots which dominated the shape of future land subdivision and building practices. (5) Drawing influences from Edinburgh, London, and Paris, as well as New York City and Boston, the built forms of 19th-century Montreal were also distinctive. (6) The unique Montreal triplex, for example, which continues to make up a significant portion of the housing stock today, finds its roots in the industrial cities of northern England and southern Scotland; however, the winding external staircase, which is the hallmark of this form, was a French innovation. (7)

The papers in this issue consider a diversity of spaces, at different levels of resolution: parishes and churches; cemeteries and graves; streets, lots and buildings. What ties the four papers together is not only 19th-century Montreal, but also the collective focus on the production of space and social-spatial relations in the rapidly industrializing city. Given the common theme, readers will not be surprised to learn that all of its authors are current or former students of historical geographer Sherry Olson. For the last two decades, Professor Olson's research on the "shared spaces" of 19th-century Montreal has made important contributions to our understanding of urban survival strategies. (8) To celebrate Olson's larger contribution to geography, in May 2000, past and present students and colleagues participated in a day of special sessions at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers held, appropriately enough, in Montreal. This theme issue evolved out of those special sessi ons, and is also dedicated to Professor Olson. (9)

All of the papers in this special issue incorporate "spatialized" approaches and present considerable new evidence to address previously neglected topics in Montreal urban history. The first article by Rosalyn Trigger contributes to our understanding of the role of the church in the industrializing city. Social and cultural geographers have written much about the spatial distribution of religious populations and their impact on landscapes, but, until recently, few scholars have examined the historical relationship between religion and the city.

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