Tales of the city

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McGill Reporter
January 29, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 09
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Tales of the city

| Given its rich history in city planning blunders, Montreal could use more people like Brian Ray.

Brian Ray
PHOTO: OWEN EGAN

That's because when the architects and urban planners have finished having their way with a city, it's people like Brian Ray who assess the damage.

Ray, an urban geographer, measures the functionality and inclusivity of city spaces. "I've always loved cities and city people. Bringing people from different backgrounds together, sharing the same spaces and it somehow not collapsing into calamity is amazing to me."

The geography professor examines how different cultural groups adapt to and integrate with city spaces, rather than assuming how they might do so. He has focused on adaptation experiences among immigrant women, as well as perceptions of gay spaces from within the gay community.

"I'm interested in the voices of people who in the past have not been consulted on how the city can be made safe, useful and accessible," Ray says. "Traditionally, the ideas in urban studies were built around information about people represented in censuses; that is, dominant middle class culture. There are a variety of different groups who use the city, but aren't normally represented in studies."

While that presents a unique opportunity to boldly enter uncharted territory in urban geography, it also becomes problematic. Those who research the gay village, for example, can't rely on censuses because they don't inquire about sexual orientation.

"And there's no easy way to find immigrants," Ray points out. "Many people have gone through significant trauma getting here, and there are issues about personal security and concern about how the information is being used."

With the help of his graduate students (and a considerable amount of legwork), Ray worked with individual contacts and ethnic and cultural organizations to find his subjects.

Ray's studies on Montreal's gay village in Centre-Sud led him to some surprising findings. "The Village is a wonderful example of how space is shared. There are older families, people in public housing, poor and gentrified gay men and lesbians," he says. "It's interesting to see how these groups have tried to make this space not just peaceful, but more importantly, equitable."

That plays a major role in defining the Village, because it's assumed by many heterosexuals to be a gay, and therefore lesbian, area. But that's not necessarily the case.

As Ray explains, the Village is perceived by many gay women as a male-dominated terrority. "Women talk about it as an exclusive 'boys town.' For them, what constructs the space is gender, not sexuality," Ray says.

Another discovery about the Village identity was the reasoning behind gay men's decisions to live in the area. Rather than moving to be associated with a neighbourhood, the way many people choose to rent on the Plateau, these men cited issues of housing value, cost of living and personal relationships as the main reasons for relocating to the Village.

Ray has also conducted comparative research between immigrant housing and integration trends here and those in Toronto, where as a PhD student he became fascinated with urban social interaction and cultural diversity.

"In Toronto neighbourhoods, there's a lot of pluralism," Ray notes, "but when you look deeper, you also see that there's a lot of racism."

He maintains that the value from comparative studies is evident when you see the significant differences in adaptation between Toronto and Montreal. "In Toronto, the immigrant population is much larger, and it is spread everywhere through the greater Toronto area," as opposed to Montreal, where it is mainly localized on the island.

And he points out that Montrealers are renters in a city of duplexes, as contrasted with Toronto, a haven for homeowners and highrises. "There are better public transportation linkages here, and as a result, more immigrants in Montreal spend time outside their homes, getting to know the city, than those in Toronto."

In addition, Ray has completed groundbreaking research into the ways in which women from India, Poland, Latin America and Vietnam recreate social networks that help them to become integrated into Montreal.

He found unexpected differences in the ways that these women, all of whom came from very patriarchal cultures to Montreal in the late 1980s, adapted to Montreal. Polish women, for example, were more likely to live in different areas of the island, creating "families of choice" with friends, whereas Latin American and Indian women tended to live in specific enclaves, building networks of mainly blood relations.

And he also found notable similarities. "Immigrant women truly want to feel like a part of Montreal in terms of things like language training, but also in a broader sense," Ray notes. For these women, mobility and accessibility to the city become paramount. "Even mundane things like being able to conquer the first experience of taking the metro or bus are very significant."

Ray's next research project will focus on how refugees settle into large cities. "I'd like to find the links between economic factors and social and cultural relationships for immigrants."

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