You Are Here: A City In Its Street Signs

Rue Groll St.

Rue Groll St., reads the street sign, jutting out from a wood hydro pole. This isn’t a sign in officially bilingual Ottawa: it is found in officially French Montreal, on a tiny lane in Mile End. The original sign was in English, but some time ago a sticker reading “Rue” was added, in a rather haphazard fashion, at the top of the sign.

Lost in the clutter of the urban landscape, street signs go largely unnoticed, but small details like this speak volumes about Montreal’s past and present. They convey more than just the names of streets. They are part of what is known as our “living heritage,” the everyday things we take for granted but are nonetheless a vital part of who we are. They tell us about Montreal’s complicated relationship with language and place.

Street signs did not appear in Montreal until 1818, when crude wood planks bearing the names of streets were erected on buildings adjacent to squares and intersections. In 1851, the system was refined when bilingual wood signs were used to identify all streets and parks.

Today, dozens of different types of street signs can be found across the city, from the red-and-beige ones in Old Montreal, which maintain the colour scheme and typeface of Montreal’s first 19th-century signs, to the bulbous, oval-shaped plaques de rue of Outremont and St. Laurent.

Matt Soar, professor of communications at Concordia University, explains that legibility remains the paramount goal of any street sign design. But other elements creep in. Take the flower logo prominently displayed on Montreal’s most recent street signs, introduced in 1987. “You already know you’re in Montreal,” Soar remarked. “So it’s a stab at civic boosterism. It’s a way of saying ‘We’re different.'”

If these latest street signs suggest an attempt to brand the cityscape, then, what do the older ones have to say? Within the limits of pre-merger Montreal alone, five generations of street signs coexist.

The oldest, found throughout the city, date back at least 50 years. They feature simple black text on a white background and many are in English only. At the time they were erected, the city’s custom was to place English signs on one side of the street and French signs on the other. In the early 1960s, the city decided “English areas,” such as downtown and Cote des Neiges, would have English signs and “French areas,” such as the Plateau Mont-Royal, would have French signs.

This dual-language system ended in 1976, when Montreal installed new French signs on major arteries shortly before the Olympics. The following year, Bill 101 mandated all public signage be in French only, but Montreal did not comply until the mid-1980s, when city workers began to cover common English designators (Ave., Blvd., St.) with white tape, only occasionally adding a French replacement.

By now, much of the white tape has faded away, exposing the English underneath. According to Sylvie Tremblay, an urban designer for the city of Montreal, the city does not actively replace street signs unless they are stolen or damaged, or a street’s name is changed.

The result is a patchwork of signs from different eras that coexist, often side by side.

“I find this fascinating,” said Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal. “In a way there is almost an archaeological nature to them. Although I don’t like the idea of putting tape on things, the fact they were taped instead of scrapped is a sign of adaptation and resilience.”

That resilience can also be seen in Montreal’s unusually passionate relationship with place names. “The way we express names is a clue to our history,” said Bumbaru, and the way street signs express names is also a reflection of how Montrealers see their city.

As the only physical representation of toponymy, street signs can become potent symbols of language and local identity. Consider how many English-speaking Montrealers disregard the official names displayed on street signs by referring to “Park Avenue” and “Mountain Street” instead of “avenue du Parc” and “rue de la Montagne.”

Bumbaru thinks signs should better reflect the local landscape. “In Old Montreal, you can see how the street signs have been made to create a sense of atmosphere,” he said. Similarly, many of Montreal’s former suburbs, such as Outremont or Verdun, used street signs to distinguish themselves from the larger city around them.

In Madrid, street signs often contain whimsical illustrations that reflect the origins of their names. Vancouver street signs mirror the cultural identity of neighbourhoods, with Chinese signs in Chinatown and Punjabi signs in a historically Indian area.

Perhaps, Bumbaru says, Montreal can use similar techniques to reflect the unique identities of different boroughs and neighbourhoods, including some newly conceived downtown districts such as the Quartier des spectacles, Quartier international and Quartier Concordia. “This is a part of civic design at the small-detail level,” he said.

Currently, the city has no plans to introduce neighbourhood-specific street signs. Perhaps, if it did, Montrealers would have a greater appreciation for such a ubiquitous part of their living heritage. For now, though, the city’s motley collection of signs goes largely unnoticed.


A sign from the early 1980s, left, hangs next to a post-1987 sign whose decal has faded away

Rue Jeanne-Mance

A pre-1970s sign attached to the side of a building

Old Montreal

Signs in Old Montreal with the colour scheme and typeface of Montreal’s original nineteenth century street signs. Photo by Marcos Townsend of the Gazette

This article was first published in yesterday’s Montreal Gazette. For more information on Montreal street signs, see my January post, “West Fairmount Avenue.”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday April 06 2007at 03:04 am , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Politics, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “You Are Here: A City In Its Street Signs”

  • slutsky says:

    Great piece on a phenomenon I’ve often noticed.

  • Jimmy Zoubris says:

    Great article….I like the idea of proposing street signs which represent different areas. China town can have chinese letters, the signs around Mt. Royal Park can be earth tone green, etc….

  • Justin Bur says:

    Toronto is the poster child (or is that street-sign child?) for different sign designs in different neighborhoods. Bilingual English/Chinese signs were introduced in Chinatown in the 1970s, followed by English/Greek signs along the Danforth, and eventually a whole slew of designs (mostly unilingual English) for different business development districts.

    Even if the 9 boroughs of the pre-2002 Montreal prefer to retain the 1987 street-sign design with the flower-M logo, I wish they would at least replace the old green “MONTREAL” signs at former city limits with new and attractive signs to let you know which borough you’re entering!