September 15th, 2007

Norman Bethune Square

Posted in Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Norman Bethune Square, a tiny triangle wedged between the intersection of Guy St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd., is Montreal’s shittiest square. I mean that literally: it quite possibly has more pigeon shit per square inch than any other public space in the whole of Greater Montreal. I have no idea why pigeons like this place so much, but it’s almost like an homage to Trafalgar Square, filled as it is with twitchy flocks of little grey birds.

This small square also has the distinction of being the only square in Montreal named after a Communist. Born in 1890 and raised in small town Ontario, Norman Bethune moved to Montreal to join the faculty of McGill University as a thoracic surgeon. During his time here, Bethune was known for his support of free health care, and his leftist sympathies eventually took him to the civil war in Spain, where he provided medical assistance to the Republicans, and to China, where, in 1938 and 1939, he worked alongside Communists fighting the Japanese invasion. Bethune died of blood poisoning in 1939 when he was cut while performing surgery.

Bethune remained largely anonymous until his work was praised by Mao Zedong in an essay entitled In Memory of Norman Bethune. Bethune was one of the few foreigners revered in Maoist China, and statues of his likeness can be found throughout the country. Even today, Bethune’s name holds a certain resonance in China.

But what about his square in Montreal? Well, to be blunt, it doesn’t do the man justice. Although Norman Bethune Square is easily one of the busiest spots downtown, located in the midst Concordia’s bustling downtown campus, next to bus stops and Guy-Concordia metro, and surrounded by tall apartment towers, it is ratty and weather-beaten. Its pavement consists of cracked concrete and packed gravel, and the handful of benches that surround Bethune’s statue are of the most dilapidated and crummy variety possible. Crude wooden boards have been nailed to their seats to prevent people from sleeping on them. On the far east corner of the square, a single sickly pine tree struggles to survive amidst the constant buzz of traffic.

It’s a sad situation, if only because Norman Bethune Square has so much potential. Even given its insalubrious state, its benches are often full and there are always people lingering about the square. Thousands of people pass through it every hour. Cafés — a Java U, a Tim Horton’s and a Starbucks — overlook the square on all three sides and their terraces are always full. The surrounding few blocks probably has the densest concentration of 24-hour businesses in Montreal, so the area around Norman Bethune Square is reliably busy around the clock. If it was ever given a facelift, this would be instantly catapulted into the ranks of Montreal’s best public spaces.

So what is being done to improve the current situation? In 2005, Concordia announced an ambitious plan to completely revamp the square. De Maisonneuve Blvd. would be reconfigured, allowing the square to more than double in size. It would connect directly with the busy south side of the street. Sidewalk space on the north side would be expanded, too, and new trees, benches and paving stones would make the space cleaner and more inviting. It would become, in effect, the central gathering space for both Concordia and the entire west end of downtown.

Two years ago, when I talked about the plan with Clarence Epstein, Concordia’s director of public projects, he mentioned that Concordia and the city hoped to finish rebuilding the square by 2008, the 70th anniversary of Bethune’s arrival in China. He even hinted that the government of China might provide some sort of assistance to the project. Obviously, none of that has yet happened. In fact, not a word about Norman Bethune Square has been uttered since 2005. Hopefully that will change soon enough.

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The busy sidewalk adjacent to Norman Bethune Square

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11 comments

  1. Nick D says:

    Thanks for this — I go through this square all the time but I didn’t know who Norman Bethune was.
    I’ve been enjoying this blog for a while and had almost thought of suggesting that you write something about the Tim Horton’s on that square — one of the most culturally diverse meeting points in the city.
    Another thing: that square, just in the last few weeks, has lost one of downtown’s best magazine stores (the Multimags next to Java U), which has closed because the new tobacco laws make it illegal for a shop in a university building to sell tobacco (they leased their space from Concordia), and it seems newsagents make all their profit from the cigarettes they sell. For me, the closure of that newsagents is a real loss to life of the square (since the time-honoured combination of newsprint and coffee has now been broken). I’d be interested to see if anyone has commented on this.
    Keep up the good work with this blog!

    September 15th, 2007 at 12:38 pm

  2. Fagstein says:

    The Quartier Concordia project plans to replace the square … err, triangle, with expanded sidewalks on both sides and just one roadway.

    That won’t solve the pigeons though. That’s caused by all the food people throw there to attract them.

    September 15th, 2007 at 12:55 pm

  3. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Nick, I actually used to work at that Multimags. It was an interesting place. In fact, I still see some of the regular customers around town now and again.

    September 16th, 2007 at 12:55 am

  4. Patrick Donovan says:

    Nice informative piece. Norman Bethune square (and the entire Concordia Campus) definitely needs some work. I was a student there ten years ago and there was a push for “the greening of Mackay” – but every time I go back to have a look, very little has changed. Anyone knows what happened to that project?

    September 19th, 2007 at 11:36 am

  5. Desmond Bliek says:

    The Quartier Concordia’s sort of a tricky project, no? I’m not sure how much the university can really accomplish in terms of public space, as its not really theirs to meddle with and it’d be awkward for the City to lavish funds on one campus and not other parts of the downtown. The other trick with the square is that Maisonneuve was an artificial slice through the blocks that, until the construction of the metro, stretched from Ste-Catherine to Sherbrooke. Unfortunately, they forgot to change the orientation of the land parcels to front on the square, which is why you get the awkward combination of the side of a Second Cup and the Tim’s apartment building, a parking lot, and an alley. The black glass medical building with the Café Dépot and the Guy métro building are doing the best they can, sitting on parcels that really face Guy and MacKay, and not Maisonneuve, like a ‘square’ suggests that they should.

    September 21st, 2007 at 3:05 pm

  6. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Maisonneuve isn’t entirely new — it actually consists of three different streets stitched together. That’s why it works in some places (like west of Guy, east of Berri and right around University) but not in others (around Place des Arts).

    Slowly, though — very slowly, considering it has been around for 40 years — the city is adapting to its presence. All of the new condo development around Stanley faces Maisonneuve with retail; other buildings have created new facades.

    My favourite recent adaptation is the tall apartment tower at Maisonneuve and Guy. Until two years ago it faced the street with blank walls and concrete planters. Then the building was sold and the new owners redeveloped the ground floor with retail, converting the planters into spacious terraces. A great move — the terraces are always full of people.

    September 21st, 2007 at 8:27 pm

  7. natali says:

    this is really great article. its described everything i felt about the square. It is seriously fading away… but knowing that they are planning to fix it up might help it out. I bet that most of the people who walk by havent even noticed that there is a square. Good job Christopher DeWolf

    September 25th, 2007 at 5:40 pm

  8. Gerd says:

    Yes, I also was there some years ago;-). It was not possible to make a photo with “Norman Bethune” without some doves.

    It is interesting for me how unknown Dr. Bethune is in Canada. In China every child knows him.
    Some Canadian books were written about Dr. Bethune (from Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon, from Larry Hannant, from Roderick Stewart, from Sylvia DuVernet and some others – look for the books by Amazon). Also a film with Donald Sutherland in the role of Dr. Bethune was maked in your area.

    For Nick D: Dr. Bethune was not only a good lung surgeon, he was also a very strong smoker;-). The closing of the store can not be in the tradition of Dr. Bethune;-).

    I hope you get with the help of China a new or better square.

    Kind Regards to Canada

    from Gerd (M.D. in Germany)
    (I’m sorry my mistakes in English language)

    November 10th, 2007 at 10:42 am

  9. Theresa says:

    Can you name some of the condo projects that have already been developed in and around the Norman Bethune Square. Thanks.

    Kind Regards,
    Theresa.

    May 31st, 2008 at 5:29 pm

  10. LiliinTO says:

    I am a geneologist specializing in fur trade families and Dr. Norman Bethune is the descendant of NorthWest Co/Hudson’s Bay Co trader, Angus Bethune, and his Metis wife, Louisa Mackenzie, daughter of Roderick Mackenzie of Terrebonne. Angus Bethune was the eldest son of the Rev John Bethune, the elder, a UEL who was the first Prebyterian minister west of Quebec City and founder of the precurssor to the St Gabriel Street Presbyterian Church, and his French-Cnadian wife, Veronique Ouaden dite Vadeboncoeur (also called Veroniqe Wadin) – the descendant of a multitude of habitant, soldat et filles du roi.

    While Bethune’s contributions seem to be mostly outside of Montreal, Quebec and Canada, much of the research work that he did was done in Montreal. In a country that quickly ignores the work of it countrymen, at least Bethune’s name is still remembered somewhere.

    February 20th, 2009 at 10:49 am

  11. dragonkingpan says:

    bethune is famous in our country china.great person and e…

    November 13th, 2009 at 1:34 am