They're having a liquidation sale at a small factory store in Montreal's east end, where you can buy bagged cookies and chips for cheap out of big plastic bins. The shop, within sight of the Olympic Stadium tower, will close for good on Feb. 28, along with the vast connected factory where, at the peak of production, one million Oreo cookies were baked every eight hours.
These are the end times for cookie manufacturing in Montreal, where some 454 workers will have lost their jobs by the time Mondelez International – which is shifting production to plants in Toronto and the United States – completes a shutdown announced in 2016. It's also the end of an era in which cookies played an important role in the rise of French-Canadian commercial might, and in a local utopian scheme for urban development.
The key figure in the story is Charles-Théodore Viau, who in 1867 established a bakery near the waterfront site of the present Molson Brewery. Mr. Viau made a fortune selling treats such as Village biscuits, a plain rectangular shortbread that's as old as Confederation, and still on the shelves of my local Montreal grocery.
Mr. Viau used some of his cookie wealth to buy land east of what was then the village of Maisonneuve. Like some other large property owners in the area, he dreamed of creating a model village, based on urban design principles that eventually coalesced into a movement known as City Beautiful. The movement's main idea was that a more gracious urban plan would lead to a better moral climate and less criminality. City Beautiful advocates pushed for parks and other public spaces, limits on the scale of private development, and higher standards in building design and construction.
In the magnate's Viauville, which is still the name of the district, no one could buy land for a house without promising to build its façade in stone. Mere brick was not enough, though it was allowed for side and rear walls.
Mr. Viau provided his model community with a spiritual centre: the massive St. Clément-de-Viauville Catholic Church at the corner of Viau and Adam Streets. The houses all around the church are indeed faced with stone, though even the presbytery's side walls are brick.
The founder also promised to cover the new parish's operating costs for the first year, but died at about the same time his church was born, in 1898, at the age of 55. His heirs, however, continued to make their mark on Viauville and at the leading edge of French-Canadian commerce.
After the Viau factory was expropriated in 1906 to make way for railway expansion, the family-owned company built a new one in Viauville. The Biscuiterie Viau, which still stands, is an unusually elegant industrial building, set back from the street, with subtle neo-classical touches and short wings advancing symmetrically from both ends.
Mr. Viau's son Théophile was in charge of the family firm in 1926, when it became the second company run by French-Canadians to be listed on the Montreal Stock Exchange. That was at a time when economic life in the city was dominated by the anglophone minority. The company upgraded its biscuiterie in 1952, and four years later the now-doomed Oreo factory opened further north on Viau Street. Business was booming in cookie world, but the area's strong industrial base, which included the massive Canadian Vickers shipyard, was near the start of a long downward slide.
Viau Ltée was sold to Imasco Ltd. in 1969, and eventually became part of Dare Foods, which closed the Biscuiterie Viau in 2006. It has been redeveloped into condos, joining the stock of newer condo structures that line the residential side of Viau Street south of the Viau metro station.
The arrival of condos in Viauville gave a new twist to its founder's belief in design as a lever for urban change. Condos as city infill housing tend to be linked to an upmarket drift that also brings trendier restaurants, more coffee bars, and boutique-style shops.
One could argue that gentrification was more or less what Charles-Théodore Viau had in mind when he demanded stone house fronts, which raised the price of admission and kept the poor out. The irony is that the area around his model village now houses some of the most militant anti-gentrification activists in Canada.
Any kind of passion about urban development is bound to be idealistic, if not utopian. Mr. Viau has a lot to answer for, and to take credit for, in his former model community.