I’ll be honest: I hate the sound of Robert Bourassa Avenue. Especially when I face the prospect of living on said avenue. You see, this month is the tenth anniversary of the death of Robert Bourassa, a famously paranoid and tempermental Quebec politician who served as premier from 1970 to 1976 and 1985 to 1994. A new statue has been unveiled in Quebec City, but since Bourassa was one of the few provincial premiers who was a born-and-raised Montrealer — and who represented a Montreal riding for his entire political life — all eyes are on Montreal to commemorate him with something big and noteworthy. Like a major street. A major street around the Plateau Mont-Royal, the densely-populated district from which he hailed. A major street like Park Avenue, my home.
Actually, Park Avenue is only the Bourassa crowd’s second choice. The late premier’s wife originally wanted to rechristen St. Joseph Boulevard, an east-west artery that cuts through the entire Plateau, close to where Bourassa grew up, but residents and the local Member of the National Assembly, Daniel Turp, protested. St. Joseph’s name is too culturally significant, they argued, since it figures prominently in many of Michel Tremblay‘s novels and plays. (The fact that Bourassa was a prominent federalist and many eastern Plateau residents, including Daniel Turp, are die-hard sovereigntists, surely didn’t have anything to do with it.) The argument, as tenuous as it may be, stuck — Tremblay is a household name in Quebec and his work is found on every grade school curriculum — so a replacement street was found. For Bourassa’s wife and the bureaucrats at City Hall, the only acceptable alternative was Park Avenue, a major north-south artery that skirts Mount Royal and heads straight through the heart of Mile End, a cosmopolitan neighbourhood northwest of the Plateau.
The problem with this is that the same argument against renaming St. Joseph holds against renaming Park, which gets its name from not just any park, but the park: Mount Royal Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, North America’s most illustrious landscape architect. Since its construction in the late nineteenth century, Park Avenue became the main street of the quickly-developing Mile End, a neighbourhood rich in immigrants. Over the past fifty years, Park has served as the cultural heart for many communities, especially Greek and Hassidic Jewish. It has also figured prominently in local literature: it has featured in the works of Mordecai Richler, Mary Soderstrom, Dany Laferrière and Trevor Ferguson. It even had a cameo in a Rufus Wainwright song: “The day Noah’s Ark floats down Park,” he crooned, “my eyes will simply glaze over.”
There isn’t much logic in renaming Park after Robert Bourassa. St. Joseph Boulevard was his childhood home and it is identified mostly with the neighbourhood where he grew up, the eastern Plateau (Micheltremblayland). Park Avenue, on the other hand, has had nothing to do with Bourassa. He never lived there, he never spoke for its cultural communities and he never represented it in Quebec City (most of Bourassa’s time in office was spent as the MNA for Mercier, in the east end of Montreal). Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s announcement today that he also wants to rename Bleury Street, which leads from Park Avenue to Old Montreal, complicates things even further. Wasn’t the whole point to give Bourassa a street on the Plateau? Bleury Street is downtown! So why not rename some other downtown street? Or better yet, a street in Mercier?
That said, there is a more profound question at play here: should we even be renaming our streets at all? Street names — especially the names of major arteries in central districts — are etched into our cultural and geographic consciousness. Park Avenue has always been known as Park Avenue; Montrealers have had more than a century to get to know it. People, relationships and communities have all grown, thrived and died on Park Avenue. Renaming it is tantamount to giving it a number: it is disorienting and alienating. Some might say that Park Avenue is a generic name to begin with, but they would be missing the point. Many other Montreal streets are named after Catholic saints or local geographic landmarks — Ste. Catherine, Mountain, St. Denis and St. Laurent are hardly original names — but they are nonetheless an indelible part of our local identity. They are part of Montreal’s economic, social, cultural and literary history, not to mention the personal histories of each and every Montrealer.
Besides, what kind of precedent will this set for Montreal? Dorchester Boulevard was already renamed after René Lévesque in 1986. Does every dead premier get his own street? When Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard die, will they get dibs on Sherbrooke and Côte-des-Neiges? Will the street names that define Montreal fall to an army of dead politicians, rising from their graves like lawmaking zombies? Surely there is a better way to commemorate our political leaders than to paste their names onto streets that had perfectly good ones to begin with. If we’re going to remember Robert Bourassa, why not go all out? Why not create a beautiful square out of the many parking lots that litter Montreal? One friend suggested a park with an elaborate fountain shaped like a hydroelectric dam. Now there’s an idea.
Luckily, there is still time. This is fresh news and people are still absorbing it. Maybe there will be an outcry, although the notorious lack of transparency in Montreal’s municipal government means that the street could be renamed without any public consultation whatsoever. Some news reports are already suggesting that the name change is a fait accompli. That would be a shame. I, for one, am not looking forward to a day when I step outside onto the sidewalk of Robert Bourassa Avenue.
To see photos of Park Avenue, check out the “parkavenue” and “avenueduparc” tags on Flickr — or click here.
Tags: Mile End, Montreal, Park Avenue, Street Names