Van Horne and St. Laurent, Mile End, Montreal
Archive for May, 2008
If you found yourself among the 17 percent of Hong Kongers who drive, and you were inclined to drive to such a centrally-located neighbourhood as Yau Ma Tei, you might find yourself parking in the large garage near the top end of Temple Street.
There are eight floors of parking, all in all, and the higher you go, the more impressive the view. To the southwest, the city’s foothills built up to the mountain of Union Square, a mega-project consisting of several very tall buildings. To the west, the cranes of fishing boats moored in the typhoon shelter are visible. To the north, towers march north to Mongkok along rigidly straight streets. To the south, the mountains and highrises of Hong Kong Island are visible above lower Kowloon’s jumbled mess of urbanity. If you look down from the west or east-facing sides of the garage, you’ll notice that a highway passes straight through the building.
Most of those who park their cars in this garage value convenience over scenery, though, and the eighth floor was entirely empty, save for a few other men who, lurking around with camera bags around their shoulders, seemed to be doing exactly the same thing as me.
It was a quiet, rainy day at McGill when Devin Alfaro, just out of his last exam of the semester, walked into the Caférama on the first floor of the university’s William Shatner student centre.
Two weeks earlier, in early April, the café was at the centre of a battle over campus business. Caférama will not renew its lease this summer, so the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), which manages the space, was faced with a decision: rent it to students, who would operate a non-profit café, or rent it to another private vendor. Although leasing the space to a student-run business would fulfill SSMU’s obligation to prioritize student needs, a privately-operated tenant would provide a reliable cash flow to the student union.
“It was a marathon meeting,” recalled Alfaro, a third-year undergraduate and arts representative on SSMU council. “It started in the early evening and lasted until three in the morning, and the vote was close.”
Ultimately, SSMU voted 13-12 to lease the café space to an outside business. Alfaro was one of the council members who voted against the student proposals, not because he was opposed to the idea of student business on campus, but because the three student proposals that had been submitted were simply unfeasible.
The strongest bid came from Midnight Kitchen, a volunteer-run collective that provides free vegan lunches to students. Along with serving lunch, it would have used the café space to sell coffee and pastries, but this proved too modest for SSMU, which was looking for a full-service café.
Food services and other businesses at Canadian universities are becoming increasingly centralized. Every year, new undergraduate students are being met with restaurants, cafeterias and bookstores run by corporate franchisees, and many complain of high prices and a lack of choice in product offering. This is especially true at McGill, Montreal’s oldest university, which has systematically closed many of its student-operated businesses over the past several years.
When a street, neighbourhood or city is mythologized, its private spaces are torn open for the world to see. Stories might be just that—stories—but they have a way of humanizing the people that might otherwise be strangers. That’s what Mordecai Richler did for St. Urbain Street and Montreal’s old Jewish neighbourhood, which includes much of Mile End, with his fiction. The Street, a collection of semi-fictional stories and vignettes, is one of my favourite books of his because it focuses so singularly on the 1940s-era life of St. Urbain. In this short 1976 National Film Board film, animator Caroline Leaf captures the essence of that life.
Hong Kong is not normally considered to be much of a Muslim city, and by most measures, it isn’t. Its 100,000 Muslims — a hugely diverse group that includes people of Middle Eastern, African, South Asian, Malay, Indonesian and Chinese descent — make up less than two percent of the city’s total population. By comparison, Muslims account for about 4 percent of the population in Montreal and just over 5 percent in Toronto; the proportion in many European cities is far higher.
Unlike those places, though, Islamic presence in Hong Kong goes back as long as its history as a territory. As a result, mosques occupy some unexpectedly prominent positions in Hong Kong. One of these is the Kowloon Mosque, one of the most recognizable landmarks of Tsim Sha Tsui. Another is the Jamia Mosque, which was first built in the 1840s and rebuilt in 1905, making it the oldest mosque in Hong Kong. Although the mosque itself is small, it occupies a fairly sizable chunk of land in the otherwise tightly-packed confines of the Central Mid-Levels. Filled with greenery, the mosque grounds are an oasis of sort, but they are often devoid of people, which makes them feel like a bit of a secret. If the harried pace of Central ever gets to you, I can’t think of a better place to unwind.
But relaxation is only one reason to visit the Jamia Mosque. Within its walls is a strange collection of buildings, terraces and gardens, including what appears to be an old apartment building, a small row of houses and, most oddly, a bungalow with a giant satellite dish. The last time I was there, laundry, strung over a vegetable garden, billowed outside in the wind, a scene that could have been from some country farm if not for the towering apartment buildings all around.
Last week, someone named BK McCabe sent me an email about an old tobacco ad that had been revealed when a fire-damaged building was torn down on Sherbrooke Street West in NDG. Not too long after, another NDGer, Grant Martin, emailed me about the same thing.
“Interestingly, one of the first results you get by googling ‘Turret Cigarettes’ is Mordecai Richler talking about smoking them when he was in high school. Mid-1940s I guess. Makes you wonder how many more of these there are, preserved from the elements but completely hidden by brick,” he wrote. “I don’t know what their plans are for this lot, or how long this will remain visible.”
There are hundreds of old painted advertisements, known as ghost ads, still visible on exposed brick walls throughout the city. Each one is a window into the commercial life of historical Montreal, giving you a chance, as you walk through the city, to see the evolution of marketing campaigns and advertising styles over the decades, not to mention product fashions — when was the last time you saw a billboard for shoe polish, sewing machines or Worcestershire sauce? In this bilingual city, ghost ads also capture a bit of socio-linguistic geography, with mostly English ads in the west end of the city and mostly French ads in the east.
The longer they are exposed to air and light, the more quickly these ads disappear. Some, protected from the elements by the shade of a neighbouring building, look much the same as when they were first painted. Others have decayed rapidly. It’s a bit ironic that the best way to preserve these ads is to actually cover them up. Frequently, when a building is demolished, an old painted ad is revealed. Eventually, they will be covered up once again. Ghosts, after all, never appear for long.
Photo credit goes to BK McCabe (top) and Grant Martin (bottom)
The first banner was incongruous enough: “Avenue du Parc,” it read in a vaguely Hellenic font, set to a pale blue background. Underneath was the logo of the City of Montreal. Then, a couple of days later, I noticed other banners, these ones much more inscrutable: each featured a portrait of someone that was pulled up in the lower left corner, like a page being turned, to reveal part of a Greek flag. The city still seemed to be in the process of installing of them, and as far as I could see, there were only two kinds of portraits, one of a thirtyish man of Southern European appearance and another of a little Asian girl — not usually the kind of person you imagine when you think of someone Greek.
Earlier this year, the city announced that it would spend $50,000 to polish Park Avenue and emphasize its Greek heritage. Flowers would be planted, more benches installed and banners erected. I guess this is the fruit of those efforts (and dollars). Unfortunately, they reek of compromise — the worst kind of compromise that is unsatisfying and underwhelming to everyone involved. For years, Park Avenue’s Greek merchants have pushed to have the street declared a Greektown or “Quartier hellenique” that would have the same symbolic value for Montreal’s many Greeks as Little Italy does for its Italians and Chinatown for its Chinese. More importantly, the merchants reason, it would be an opportunity to consolidate their resources, promote the street and draw more outside shoppers.
After a brief spate of investment in what might be called “ethnic infrastructure” — former mayor Pierre Bourque’s administration invested heavily in sprucing up Chinatown and Little Italy, and it built new community-themed parks like Portugal Park on the Plateau and Athena Square in Park Ex — the city has shied away from recognizing the city’s ethnic and cultural communities in any significant manner. The idea for a Quartier hellenique on Park Avenue is just one of several ethnic theme districts that have been proposed by shopowners in recent years. In the area around Jean Talon and St. Denis, where dozens of Vietnamese-owned businesses are located, one merchant has advocated the creation of a “Vietnamville.” North African businesspeople on Jean Talon east of St. Michel are now pressing for the creation of a “Petit Maghreb.” Each of these movements has been met with the same indifference from city officials.
In 2006 and 2007, though, mayor Gérald Tremblay’s attempt to rename Park Avenue angered so many people that his administration is still cleaning the muck off its face. City Hall must have felt that it had political capital to regain among those who had protested loudly against the name change, so it committed itself to investing more heavily in Park Avenue. Many took that to mean than it would finally support the creation of the Quartier hellenique but, as the $50,000 it has decided to invest in flowers and benches indicates, it is simply not willing to go that far.