North Toronto Memorial Community Centre
Here in Hong Kong, rooftops are very functional, used more or less like an extra room in the house: for storage, laundry, recreation. In the past, rooftops were the cheapest places to live, and multiple families would crowd into shanties built on top of walkups and even highrises. Some of those illegal structures still remain. In March, when I visited Kwun Tong to get a new pair of glasses, I peered down from the open window of the twenty-first floor of the optometrist’s building and saw laundry hanging out to dry on the roof of a large industrial building below.
New York is another place where rooftops are put to good use. Gardens and terraces are abundant and, in Brooklyn, Rooftop Films fashions makeshift cinemas from the rooftops of old factories and other buildings. Back in 2005, Rooftop Films visited Montreal, and I attended their screening of several short films atop the TÉLUQ building at Henri-Julien and Villeneuve. Watching movies on a roof is a peculiar experience that combines the communal exuberance of an outdoor concert or film with the voyeuristic thrill of lurking about on roofs.
For a city with such an abundance of flat roofs, Montreal does remarkably little with them: there’s a smattering of roof decks, the occasional swimming pool and a handful of green roofs. For the most part, though, rooftops in Montreal were not designed to be used in any meaningful way, largely because of the city’s climate. Covered in a layer of gravel, the roofs typically slope inwards to encourage the accumulation of snow, which acts as a kind of insulation during the winter months. There isn’t much up there beyond chimneys, vents and skylights, which allow light to reach rooms with no exterior windows. What Montreal’s rooftops are particularly good for, however, is sneaking around. The iron ladders and spiral staircases of back alley fire escapes are the gateways to a secret world, a playground above the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians where quietude and surprising vistas can be found.
Last November, on a nighttime expedition to acquaint ourselves with our neighbourhood’s roofs, my friend Rossana and girlfriend Laine ended up on top of the St. Viateur Bagel Shop. It didn’t take long for us to decide that it was our favourite rooftop in Montreal: greeted by the silhouette of St. Michael’s Church, we turned around to see the even larger shadow of Mount Royal set against an amber sky. The smell of freshly baked bagels wafted up from a courtyard between the bagel shop roof and the apartment building next door.
Kristian Gravenor is building himself a reputation as Montreal’s foremost expert on phone booths. He explored their history in Montreal in a recent Gazette article, from the first wooden booths installed in hotel lobbies (“Each wooden telephone booth looked like a confessional, your very own downtown cabin — as they say in French — where you could blab all day for just a few cents”) and on city streets.
News of the phone booth’s decline has made it into just about every North American publication at some point or another, but Montreal, which has one of the lowest rates of mobile phone use in Canada, has been slow to shed many of its booths. You can still find a few near most major corners, despite mayor Jean Drapeau’s attempt in the 1970s to rid the city streets of payphones, along with newspaper boxes and mailboxes.
My own corner phone booth stands near Park and Bernard. Back before I had a cell phone, it was a convenient place from which to call when the power was out, or when I failed to pay the phone bill and Bell cut off my service. Ever since Bell raised payphone rates to 50 cents per call, though, there hasn’t been much point in using it. In fact, when I pass by, the only people who seem to use it come from the adjacent “massage” parlour, which is open until 4am daily and employs masseuses who seem to work only in bra and panties.
Biking around at night is a uniquely satisfying experience. You begin to feel ownership as you pass through shadows and empty streets: for once, you have the city all to yourself, and it becomes a fantasy landscape, a blank slate for adventures and flights of fancy.
Earlier today, while poking around the National Film Board’s online archives, I came across a film that captures this experience. The Tomorrow(s), a short video by Gabriel Allard Gagnon, André Péloquin and Guillaume Marin follows the musician Matt Fuzz as he rides his bike through nighttime Montreal. “Through the street lights and cityscape the urban elements begin to answer the beat of his Game Boy-made music, and fluid forms of reality bubble to surface,” reads the synopsis.
For the next month or so, I’ll be staying in a village on Hong Kong’s Sai Kung Peninsula named Tai Po Tsai. Tucked between Razor Hill and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, it’s a likable little place of narrow lanes and typical village houses. Although it is traditionally home to members of the Wan family, it feels a lot more cosmopolitan than most villages, probably because of its proximity to the university and a large television studio.
One of my favourite things about Hong Kong is its geographic diversity. In an area of just 1,100 square kilometres — about twice the size of Montreal Island — you’ll find astoundingly dense urban areas, rural villages, country parks, mountains and dozens of islands. The islands are particularly noteworthy. Traditionally home to fishing villages, many are now laid-back escapes from the stress of city life, car-free and connected to the rest of the world only by ferries and the damp sea breeze.
Earlier this year, when I was last in Hong Kong, my girlfriend and I caught a late-afternoon ferry to Cheung Chau, a small but densely-populated island. Its name means “Long Island” in Cantonese and, on a map, you can spot it by its barbell-like shape: two chunky and misshapen pieces of land linked by a narrow isthmus. The ferry from Central, which takes about 30 minutes, brings you right to the heart of the isthmus, on which the bulk of Cheung Chau’s population lives. On one side is a busy fishing harbour; on the other, a sandy beach.
The first thing you notice about Cheung Chau is the lack of cars. The island has been inhabited by centuries and most of its development has taken the form of tightly-packed buildings, few of them taller than three stories, set along narrow, winding streets. Pedestrians and bicycles rule the island; the only motorized vehicles are little gas-powered trucks used by the fishing industry and tiny electric police cars, fire trucks and ambulances. Coming from central Hong Kong, where bikes are used only by deliverymen, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a community where they form an essential part of daily life. Hundreds of bikes are parked all along the waterfront promenade, and nobody bothers locking them, presumably because there’s nowhere a thief could take them; anyone caught surreptitiously loading bikes onto a boat would probably be viewed with suspicion, to say the least.
I guess these would fall into the “found objects” category of street art. I came across them nearly across the street from one another: the comics at the entrance of an alley on St. Viateur, between St. Urbain and Waverly, and the soccer cards on the window of a bus shelter at St. Viateur and St. Urbain.
Christ Church Cathedral
Before it evolved into Montreal’s main downtown shopping strip, Ste. Catherine Street was the backbone of an affluent residential neighbourhood stretching west of Bleury Street for nearly two miles. This period is reflected in the small handful of nineteenth-century churches that still dot the street, two of which, Christ Church Cathedral and St. James United Church, now find themselves in the heart of the main retail district.
St. James opened in 1889 as the largest Methodist church in Canada, with room enough for 2,000 worshippers, but by the time that Canadian Methodists merged into the United Church, in 1925, the cost of maintaining such a grand structure was too much for its congregation to bear. Two years later, the church built a two-storey commercial block in front of its façade, obscuring most of its beautiful Neo-Gothic features but providing an important source of revenue. A gabled entrance in the middle of the block, marked by a red-and-blue neon sign, led into the church.
Just down the street, Christ Church, Montreal’s Anglican cathedral, was faced with similar financial difficulties at the end of the 1980s. It came up with an even more inventive solution: lease the space behind and underneath the church to a private developer who would build a shopping mall and office tower. The church, which was completed in 1859, was suspended by a series of concrete pillars and beams as the ground underneath it was excavated for the underground mall.
Enabled by technology that would have been unavailable in earlier decades, Christ Church was able to incorporate commercial use into its grounds in a more sensitive way than St. James. But, despite its obvious shortcoming, I actually enjoyed the layers of use, texture and appearance created by the commercial block that was built in front of the church. Every time I walked past it, the sight of its two towers rising above the grimy Ste. Catherine Street shops was a revelation; the neon sign hanging above the sidewalk, meanwhile, added a bit of idiosyncratic Gothamesque sleaze that fit perfectly with the Gothic aesthetic of the rest of the church.
Not everyone saw things like me, though, and in 2005, work began to dismantle the centre portion of the commercial block, exposing St. James’ façade after nearly 80 years. The resulting arrangement is certainly pleasant, and the church is now fronted by an attractive square bracketed by the corner remnants of the 1927 commercial building. Still, it seems a bit conventional, and I can’t help but miss what was there before.
St. James United Church