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Town that aluminum built hopes to join World Heritage list

The Rio Tinto-Alcan plant is pictured near a residential area in the Arvida district of Saguenay, 225km North East of Quebec City Wednesday November 10, 2010. A company town, Arvida was planned around the plant so people could walk to it.

Francis Vachon / Globe and Mail/Francis Vachon / Globe and Mail

To stand in the heart of Arvida, with its plume-spewing smokestacks looming nearby, it's tough to feel you're getting a glimpse into a modern-day Eden.

Yet this remote Quebec community was born as a model city and cutting-edge town, a Silicon Valley of its day. And now, local residents are dreaming big: They want Arvida, an industrial "utopia" carved out of the Saguenay plain, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Boosters say history has forgotten Arvida. After the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and Versailles, could it be Arvida's turn for UNESCO glory?

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"The people want it," says local councillor Carl Dufour, who is spearheading the effort, "and history wants it. Arvida was one of the most ambitious projects of its time."

To boosters, Arvida deserves a place on the map, nearly a century after a hot-tempered, fist-pounding American industrialist literally put it there.

Arvida was the creation of Alcoa (later Alcan) and its president, Arthur Vining Davis, a Massachusetts-born financier who gave the town his imprint as well as his name, at least the first two letters of each part of it.

Mr. Davis had set his sights on a corner of Quebec's Saguenay where abundant hydroelectric power could be used to create the magical metal of its time, aluminum. This was to be no ordinary boom town. By the 1920s, Mr. Davis recruited a New York planner and shaped both a company town and a model metropolis, 240 kilometres north of Quebec City.

He wouldn't be the first American visionary to try to build an arcadia in the wild. Henry Ford set out to create an idealized factory town in the Amazon jungle of Brazil in 1927. He too named it after himself - Fordlandia - but the project failed and was abandoned.

Mr. Davis's vision, on the other hand, took hold. A century on, his "utopia" is still standing.

The tidy "workmen's" homes built as part of Arvida's original scheme still rise on spacious lots on winding, tree-lined streets - no grid-like monotony here. Each house was built with a garden and distinctive architectural style. Arvida was planned down to compulsory dog licences. The town got schools, churches and a way of life that included free Saturday night dances for the workers.

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It became known as the City Built in 135 Days, trumpeted later by the New York Times as "a model town for working families" on "a North Canada steppe."

"It was grandiose, like Ford in Brazil," said Lucie Morisset, a professor of urban studies at the University of Quebec at Montreal, who is working on Arvida's heritage campaign. "It was a grand vision - the idea of creating an industrial city with happy workers. It wasn't easy to accomplish but [Mr. Davis]did it."

For a man who went on to become the fifth wealthiest tycoon in the U.S. before he died in 1962, Mr. Davis seems to still enjoy popular favour in Arvida these days.

A quick tour of the centre takes a visitor to the Davis Pizzeria, up the street from Davis Sports, both situated on Davis Square perpendicular to Davis Street, home to the Davis butcher and grocer.

The district centre - originally qualified as Washington North for its meticulous plan - has a small-town feel, a place where the 79-year-old barber remembers cutting the hair of the soldiers flooding into town during the Second World War. "Everyone knew Arvida in those days," Rosaire Tremblay recalls. "I'd go to New York and they'd talk about us."

Arvida turned into the biggest aluminum production centre in the Western world, so critical to the Allied effort during the Second World War that the wartime city was guarded by anti-aircraft batteries.

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"Bill Gates is cutting-edge technology in 2005. Arvida was cutting-edge technology in 1945," says John Hartwick, who grew up in Arvida and is now an economics professor at Queen's University. "People visited the place with their mouths open. There was pride in the community. It was the Microsoft of 1947," said Prof. Hartwick, author of the book, Out of Arvida.

The minute planning in Arvida might all be put down to profit-minded paternalism, but it isn't knocked by those who benefited from it. Lewis Gagnon's father toiled on the overnight shift at the Alcan plant, breaking the crust in the potrooms with a 36-kilogram iron bar, before returning home dirty and so exhausted he once passed out on the floor.

It hardly sounds like nirvana, but Mr. Gagnon, now 66, says everyone felt a sense of belonging. "We had the biggest aluminum smelter in the world. We had the resources. We felt we were part of in something big."

"Our fathers sweat, but they didn't feel exploited," said Mr. Gagnon, who puts out a newspaper called L'Arvidien, now sent to "expats" as far away as Los Angeles. "Alcan was sacred. They created a world here where there were jobs."

In its day, Arvida's industrial might lured graduates from McGill, Princeton and M.I.T. As some recall, their English-speaking world of curling clubs, balls and operettas didn't much mix with the French-speaking neighbours. In the years before the Quiet Revolution, Quebec company towns like Arvida stood as a symbol of Anglo dominance over a French-speaking work force.

Today the families from what was known as the Quartier des Anglais have scattered, and reunions these days happen over lunch in spots like Kingston, Ont. "They still have the Arvida glow," Prof. Hartwick says.

Now part of the amalgamated city of Saguenay, Arvida has about 12,000 residents, and the smelter and other related plants, now part of Rio Tinto Alcan, are still in operation. This month, Mr. Dufour and other organizers will present their case for recognition to Parks Canada, a critical first step before reaching UNESCO.

Canada has 15 sites on the UNESCO list, as diverse as Old Town Lunenburg, the Rideau Canal and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. As Mr. Dufour sees it, Arvida should be next. "Maybe Arvida's been forgotten," he said. "But there are people here who believe in it."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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