Stable Living

Text + Photo Juliette Patterson

Walking past the truncated row-houses and aluminum-clad hangars of Griffintown in Montreal, you might catch a surprising smell in the air. If you follow your nose, you will discover a pastoral scene at the foot of the downtown skyline: the Griffintown Horse Palace. A flower-bordered path leads to a large back lot where two stables are home for eight working horses. Hundred-year-old poplars sway in the breeze; the air smells of hay and horse. The buildings don’t seem to have changed much since the 1860s, when they offered lodging for travellers and their horses. “If it was too late to go back to the south shore, you left the horses and slept in the inn,” says owner Leo Leonard, pointing to a small brick building backing onto the wooden stables.

When I moved to the Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood three years ago, I discovered half a dozen stables tucked away within trotting distance of Old Montreal. They offer a rare opportunity to experience history without stepping into a museum. Unknown to most Montrealers, the stables are cherished by neighbours and local schools who bring their children for a visit.

Fittingly housed in a former fire station and stable on Place d’Youville, a recent exhibition of the stables took place at the Centre d’histoire de Montral. The stables were filmed over a one-year period to make a 12-minute portrait showing a day in the life of the horses and people that work in the trade: blacksmiths, grooms, and carriage drivers. Free of their harnesses, horses gallop and play together, or frolic in the snow with the city skyline in the background. The exhibition is complemented by a series of black-and-white photographs, guided carriage tours of the neighbourhood, and horse-care demonstrations.

Our intention was to spark a debate on the future of the city. If nothing interrupts business as usual, the stables will disappear, making way for condominium projects. Leo is about to retire, at 80 years of age. Others at the stable would like to take over the stables when he retires, but a developer has already offered him a million dollars for the property.

In the past, municipal policy sought to attract wealth to the area by promoting large development projects. But studies of successful cities show that it is their quality of life–cultural and social diversity and a high ratio of parks and green spaces–that has attracted investment. This has prompted politicians and municipalities to invest in green infrastructure and to advocate diversity as a motor of urban prosperity. In this light, preserving rural space in the city as part of its rich cultural landscape actually favours the generation of wealth.

The exhibition asks whether the horses’ continued presence in Montreal can contribute to preserving rural space in the city while advocating for a diversity of experience. It has also motivated carriage drivers to create an association to negotiate better working conditions from the city of Montreal. Another positive impact has been the promise of the Centre d’histoire to train carriage drivers in delivering informative guided tours. It remains to be seen whether stakeholders will grasp the exceptional nature of the stables, and take action to retain them.

Juliette Patterson heads up Catalyse Urbaine, architecture et paysages. She is a landscape architect who endeavours to incorporate nature into the city.