One of my favourite Montreal hangouts is a tiny dive restaurant with no sign. Its precise location and real name are not to be divulged upon pain of threatening the wildlife that congregates there. Smoking is permitted, among other indiscretions. Regulars – mainly night creatures in their 60s – know the joint by its Greek name, which translates roughly to The Dream of My Small Mountain Village. The dreamer in question is the owner, a six-foot-tall, sixtysomething transsexual with a cubist face, painted fingernails and long, blond, Pantene-perfect hair.
All that needs be said about its whereabouts is that it is located somewhere deep in Park Extension, a low-rent, multicultural neighbourhood populated primarily by immigrant families – and many of the city’s best (and strangest) ethnic restaurants. Park Ex, as the district is affectionately known, boasts places such as a Halal Sicilian pizzeria, a Desi Chinese tandoori hand-pulled noodle emporium, a Greek taverna named Panama, and a Pakistani biryani house inside a former Mediterranean seafood restaurant with fishermen’s nets still on the walls.
Its cheap rents and central location are making Park Ex a candidate for gentrification, but the main attraction is the food, from the fried calamari at Marven’s to the buttery, cashew-filled Syrian pastries called kol w shkor at Mahrouse. People make their way here from all over town to pick up obscure spices, or to sample Sri Lankan specialties such as kothu roti (a soul-satisfying stir-fried concoction with chopped-up roti acting as a noodle stand-in) at V.I.P., or to eat steaks at The Dream of My Small Mountain Village.
This steakhouse-cum-nightclub is emblematic of a neighbourhood that remains something of a hidden gem. Everyone who ends up here finds themselves with the same predicament: wanting to rave about it and still keep it a secret.
On a recent visit, I found myself seated next to a woman with Cleopatra eyes who asked me the question everyone apparently asks everyone else who hangs out there: “So what’s your mystery?”
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“I mean, how did you find out about this place?”
“A friend brought me. What about you?”
Her mystery turned out to be that her mom co-owned the place, an insiderness that prompted me to ask: “When is the best time to hang out here?”
“Never,” she replied, taking a drag on her cigarette and looking at me through slit eyes.
That’s the thing about non-gentrified places: The gentry aren’t really welcome. But in a place like Montreal, where everyone feels like they don’t belong, Park Ex fits in perfectly imperfectly.
More than a hundred different cultural communities now live here, in what has always been a landing spot for new arrivals. The first settlers were Eastern European Jews and Italians in the 1950s, then Greeks in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by South Asians in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, a significant new wave of outsiders is arriving: young families and hipsters.
As Mile End has become the next Williamsburg or Prenzlauer Berg – with real estate prices to match – the creative class is fleeing northward. A home in Park Ex today costs about half its Mile End equivalent. Artists, activists, documentary filmmakers and musicians are moving in. Members of Arcade Fire, Stars, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Dears all own homes here.
As a result, some people believe that Park Ex is on the cusp of a boom. “It’s always the same story when artists move in somewhere, whether it’s the Plateau, or Brooklyn, or SoHo,” explains real-estate agent Jimmy Vitoroullis, who grew up in Park Ex.
You can almost feel the change in the air while having a thali on Jean-Talon Street. “This is definitely a neighbourhood in motion,” acknowledges Mary Deros, city councillor for Park Extension. Beyond the encroaching bohemians, there are other telltale signs of transformation, from a new co-operative eco-café called Arterre, to art galleries, to a community-oriented IT company (Koumbit).
Right now, however, what makes Park Ex so fascinating is that it’s an example of a pre-gentrified frontier. It is not yet trendy in any intentional sense. There are none of the hip Mile End trappings: no third-wave cafés, no curated lifestyle boutiques, no valet parking, no chi-chi supermarkets. Instead, there are Turkish delight shops and mom ’n’ pop stores specializing in products from Ghana and the Antilles.