After awhile, even the largest city can shrink to the size of a village. On a good day, this creates a comfortable intimacy; on a bad day, it can impose a banal, oppressive familiarity. Passing through the same streets day after day, it’s easy to lose sight of the things that so charmed you about them in the first place.
I try to avoid that by wandering through Montreal’s laneways, its ruelles, as they’re known in French. To walk through them is to uncover a secret city, a stripped-down, domestic one, the lipstick and blush of its streetscapes removed. The laneway experience is defined by the detritus of everyday life: the flutter of laundry drying on clotheslines, decrepit old sheds, gardens filled with vegetables, doors and gates through which you can glimpse the lives of others.
Laneways first emerged in Montreal in the mid-nineteenth century, but they were usually found only in middle-class and wealthy neighbourhoods. Poorer areas had courtyards accessible by portes cochères, which led to small workers’ homes hidden behind larger buildings. By the dawn of the twentieth century, though, Montreal and most of its suburbs had begun to mandate the construction of laneways in new residential developments, seeing them as a solution to the city’s sanitation problems. Eventually, nearly 500 kilometres of alleyways were built.
Montrealers have made great use of them. Every week, in the warm months, dozens of garage sales and bazaars can be found in the city’s laneways, selling books, furniture and assorted junk. Three years ago, the YMCA in my neighbourhood organized an alleyway art fair that drew inspiration from those alleyway bazaars. Artists hung their paintings on backyard fences, a graffiti crew painted a cinderblock wall and somebody set up a television viewing room in an apartment building courtyard.
What makes laneways so alluring is their ephemeral nature: they change with the rhythm of daily life, never quite the same from one day to the next. There is always a new piece of discarded furniture waiting for someone to claim it; a previously unnoticed view through trees, fences, walls and wires; or a new piece of street art.
The street art, in particular, provides the laneways with ever-changing décor. Over the years, I’ve seen political statements (“25,000 Montrealers call this home” spray-painted on a brick wall, next to a drawing of a homeless man), paste-ups and graffiti and even poetry (“We walked in Lake Ontario / Up to our ankles in sour water / For the feeling of sinking, you said”). My favourite can still be seen in one of the ruelles near my apartment, where somebody has scrawled a succinct message in whimsical cursive to wanderers like myself: “I love you.”
Tags: Clotheslines, Exploring the City, Laneways, Laundry, Mile End, Montreal, Street Art