Squatters’ Rights, Garden Delight

It’s an old story; urban gardeners vs. landlord with a backhoe.

By Zach Mortice

Community members painted the concrete blocks lining the perimeter of Carré Casgrain. Photo by Camille Lasselin.

The reasons that Alexander Cassini, ASLA, got involved with the Carré Casgrain community garden in the Little Italy neighborhood of Montreal are as common as such green spaces should be. It was a chance to get to know neighbors, “foster a feeling of belonging,” and a way to “feel rooted in something real,” he says. Since the fall of 2017, Cassini, a landscape architect with Claude Cormier + Associés, has worked with a group of a half-dozen neighbors to plant, maintain, and program the space.

It all went pretty much according to plan. As a landscape designer, Cassini says his role has been “offering a bigger vision” and sketching out simple plans for the 2,000-square-foot garden. Planting mounds extended into the rectangular site from concrete blocks painted with playful depictions of plants and produce, smiling carrots, and stacked bowls. There’s open space for event programming, and lights and festive flags are strung overhead, all typical of the block-level intimacy community gardens use to beguile. Cassini and his neighbors, calling themselves “Le Carré et sa Ruelle” (French for “The Square and Its Lane”), grew cherry tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and strawberries. They hosted BBQs, movies, concerts, and even a lecture about ways to minimize one’s trash footprint. Monarch butterflies were frequent guests as well. But for Cassini, “the fun part is that besides those more organized events, it also took off as an informal space, [where] you could just walk from work and see a couple neighbors having a drink there, hanging out,” he says.

But the good times came to an end in October 2019, after three seasons of planting and harvesting, when Albino Del Tedesco, the owner of the vacant lot the community garden sat on, sent out a backhoe to tear the garden apart, raking over the one-and-a-half-foot mounds with a diesel engine.

“The bulldozer was really out of scale,” Cassini says. “It felt like a demonstration of authority and anger.”

Carré Casgrain after the property owner used a backhoe to tear down its planting mounds. Photo courtesy Le Carré et sa Ruelle.

Earlier that year, Cassini and his neighbors had introduced themselves to the local community councils and gotten on the radar of Montreal District Mayor Francois Croteau, who represents the borough of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie. The group was encouraged by the city to clean up and maintain what had been a derelict lot for more than a decade. A building, owned by Del Tedesco, that had originally been on the site was condemned by the city for being a public safety hazard. “Since then, he’s done nothing,” Croteau says.

Carré Casgrain in Montreal. Photo by Alexander Cassini, ASLA.

“Our status is kind of ‘squatting,’” says Cassini. “That informal aspect allowed us to, in a quick amount of time, get on the map, get exposure, and be seen by the city. We didn’t feel clandestine because we were constantly getting positive feedback from the city.” In April 2019, the city and Le Carré et sa Ruelle began the process of establishing the garden as a real estate reserve, which would transfer ownership of the property to the city, to be managed by the community members that rehabilitated it. The real estate reserve process had been more often used to establish sites for public housing, but two sites in Croteau’s borough have used this method to develop green spaces. Similar to eminent domain in the United States, the real estate reserve process assigns a fair market value to a site and gives this money to the owner in exchange for the property, whether they are willing to sell or not.

At the Carré Casgrain community garden, Cassini and other neighbors planted cherry tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and strawberries. Photo by Alexander Cassini, ASLA.

That’s a prospect that makes Del Tedesco angry. He says he’s being bullied by the city into selling, and complains of loud parties at Carré Casgrain going late into the night. “This is called extortion,” he says. “The city has wanted this property from the beginning, and they’re doing everything possible to take it away from me. What is this? A Communist country?”

The Carré Casgrain site before the community garden was planted. Photo by Google Streetview.

Croteau sees it differently, and isn’t particularly concerned about the potentially litigious and lengthy process of getting control of the site. “We know we’re going to win in the courts,” he says. For him, the real estate reserve process is a way to encourage self-determination and reward proactive and progressive community involvement. “To change the culture of the borough, we decided to let citizens get the initiative and the power to change it,” he says. “It’s really a big success. Citizens want more power to transform their neighborhoods.”

Carré Casgrain hosted BBQs, movies, concerts, and more. Photo by Camille Lasselin.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.

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