Urban Canada changes, rushing forward, all the time. That is how the fabric of it ages quickly and evolves. There is little thought for the past, especially the past of the working poor, those who lived in tiny homes and laboured in the traditional industries and trades.
On my little street in Toronto, two of the oldest homes in the entire city, dating from the 1850s, are about to be demolished. Part of the few remaining Garrison Common Cottages, they housed, in their early days, countless railway workers – brakemen, conductors, engineers, telegraph workers. These small homes, unique in size and streamlined design, were continually occupied from before Canada was a country until earlier this year. Yet they are considered to have such little historical value that permission to demolish was given with breathtaking ease.
Thing is, we sentimentalize urban Canada but blithely allow history to belong to the rich. Those said to have built the country with wealth or through politics are ostentatiously commemorated.
Memory or acknowledgement of those who truly built the country with their hands and their skill and fortitude is obliterated. We just romanticize them as an idea and pave over their existence.
In this context, Return To Park Ex (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is a welcome and important program. It is a candid and bittersweet rumination on Montreal's Park Extension neighbourhood, once considered its Greek area. The neighbourhood is seen through the pensive eyes of filmmaker Tony Asimakopoulos, the son of Greek immigrants, a recovering addict and current resident of the neighbourhood.
He dwells lovingly on the physical texture of the area; the packed streets and small homes, the street celebrations at Easter and the memories of some of its oldest Greek residents. Once there were 25,000 Greeks, and now there are less than 3,000. "We gorged on work, we worked day and night," is one of the memorable comments from an old-timer. He's talking about the Greeks who came in the early 1960s, fleeing poverty in rural Greece and fiercely anxious to succeed and have a modicum of comfort in Canada.
Park Ex was a tight-knit place back then. Someone says that if you were heard swearing or seen behaving badly, somebody would inevitably tell your mother, because they knew your mother. "You'd go downtown just to swear," the guy says ruefully.
But the documentary is not about blindly sentimentalizing the good old days. Asimakopoulos is keenly aware that tight-knit meant oppressive and, sometimes, intolerant. A local woman explains that having a Greek father but not a Greek mother meant she was isolated and not fully accepted. "I would go to the temple with my friends; I found my place in the Indian community and I married a Sikh man," she says. A former police officer, a woman, says that she had to go to the church in order to speak to Greek women, to make them understand they had rights and were not obliged to do what their husbands or sons told them.
Asimakopoulos structures the film around Easter, the time of death and resurrection. Many Greeks in Montreal still return to Park Ex at Easter for the church services and the street parade. Some say they wish they had never left the 'hood. Others look wistfully at what was once an almost entirely Greek community and is now filled with new immigrants from South Asia, a neighbourhood where Sikhs and Muslims dominate.
During the filming of Return to Park Ex, the Greek church burned down. As the filmmaker notes, this is not simply fraught in terms of losing a Greek community gathering place. Locals had donated toward a rebuild in the wake of a previous fire, but it didn't happen, and there were suspicions that a small few had robbed others.
"It's about loss," the filmmaker says at the end about his film, but it feels like he's talking to himself. This is a very personal and at times provocative documentary about place, home, community and memory.
It's an important program because, for all its complicated feelings, it commemorates the lives and homes of the working poor without romanticizing them. We don't do enough of that in Canada, and we allow so much of our urban fabric to disappear, insulting the working poor and their place in urban Canada's fabulously rich history.