I’ve already left Montreal, but I still walk down Park Avenue in my mind. I start at Van Horne, the symbolic last street before the Canadian Pacific Railway overpass and the industrial area to the north. On the long block southward to Bernard, I pass a new Hasidic synagogue, a laundromat with Spanish signs owned by an Indian family, Greek social clubs, a mysterious bar called Club Sahara, a cluttered radio-parts shop, and several more hard-to-define stores that survive from year to year despite having no apparent customers.
I was only on the street for five years, but my life on Park Avenue is inseparable from my life in Montreal. I spent the bulk of my time in its shops, its apartments, its restaurants, venturing onto its sidestreets the way a fi sh swims up a river’s tributary. Park Avenue was born in 1883, when a broad road was built along the eastern side of the newly-opened Mount Royal Park, leading north into what was then Montreal’s suburban fringe. Twenty years later, in 1903, the Number 80 streetcar began rumbling up the avenue, past a burgeoning collection of triplexes and apartment buildings, many of them capped by fanciful cornices and decorative elements that often included maple leaves and beavers. Banks, those imposing anchors of middle-class prosperity, stood at nearly every corner.
Initially, middle-class English, Irish and French Canadians called Park home, along with a growing number of Jews. After World War II, however, many of those original inhabitants left for newer, more suburban neighbourhoods, and were replaced by a mix of Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, Chinese and Hasidic Jews. Residential portions of the street became progressively more commercial as carpet shops and souvlaki joints opened on the ground floors of apartment blocks.
After thriving in the 1970s and 80s—one of its nicknames was apparently “Double Park Avenue”—Park fell on hard times in the early 1990s. The Rialto, a gorgeous cinema whose façade was modeled on Garnier’s opera house in Paris, closed down. In the depths of the mid-90s recession, nearly a quarter of all retail spaces on the street were vacant, and drugs and petty crime became a problem. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the street revived.
Bernard is where Park’s main commercial strip starts. On one corner stands a kosher dairy restaurant named Milk ’n’ Honey; another bakery across the street is owned by Cheskie, an affable Hasidic Jew from New York who makes delicious black-and-white cookies, perfect hamantaschen and decadent rugelach. Not far from the corner stand two rival fruiteries. One, Harji’s, has been around since the 1970s, when it was opened by Muslim Harji, an Ismaili Muslim who fled Uganda after Idi Amin ordered all Asians to leave. Almost next door, separated only by a stationery store and copy shop, is the much larger and much more recently-opened Fruiterie Mile End, overseen by a Pakistani man that everyone calls Bob.
In 2005, Harji and his wife Nevin decided to retire, and they put the store up for sale. After a procession of shady people offered to buy it, they decided to sell it to Balachandran Sinnathamby, a towering, friendly Sri Lankan man. He hadn’t put in the highest offer, but the Harjis trusted him. Sinnathamby made quick work of renovating the store, but then something unexpected happened—it was firebombed. Then, several months later, the day before it was slated to reopen, it was bombed again.
The afternoon after the second bombing, I came across Nevin Harji standing in front of her former store, looking distraught and wielding a sign: Why? Bombed twice?? Who doesn’t want us here?? I peered inside the shop, past the shattered windows, at a torched interior. The next day, the windows were boarded up and somebody had taped a poster to the wood. People who do want you here, it read, followed by a collection of signatures and messages of support that grew larger with every passing day.
Not too long ago, shortly before leaving Montreal, I stopped in to buy some bananas at Harji’s old store—rechristened Bala’s, in honour of its new owner.
“Did they ever catch the people who were trying to bomb this place?” I asked the slight, stern-looking woman behind the counter, who had a red Hindu tilaka painted on her forehead.
“No,” she said. “Five times it happened. Five times! Last time someone came to set fire to the awning, but the owner was in store, he ran out and called police. But the man came back after police left and tried again!”
I asked her when the last attempted bombing took place.
“One year ago. We pray for no more,” she said, gesturing to a shrine above the counter, on which sat several portraits of Hindu goddesses, a Catholic saint and Jesus.
Harji is still fondly remembered by people in the neighbourhood. Two years ago, when he cycled from Cape Town to Cairo with his daughter, some Park Avenue businesses proudly displayed newspaper clippings of his adventures. A few weeks before leaving town, I saw him walking down the street when he was stopped by two large Hasidic women pushing strollers.
“I haven’t seen you in ages!” one of them said in a nasal Yiddish accent. “You look better than ever. You look younger!” Harji beamed.
Soccer championships are a big deal on Park Avenue. Greece’s upset victory over Portugal in the 2004 Euro Cup launched ecstatic, spontaneous parades of blue and white flags, cars and pedestrians up and down the avenue. Since then, three new flag shops have opened up in the neighbourhood. Flags for dozens of countries festoon the balconies and windows of surrounding streets. Nobody wants to be left out: during the 2006 World Cup, the Chinese owners of Dépanneur Weijia hung a People’s Republic flag from their shop door, despite the fact that China had failed to even qualify for the championship.
What unites all of these disparate cultures, ethnicities and immigrant groups is the street they share. This became particularly evident in the fall of 2006, when the mayor of Montreal, Gérald Tremblay, announced his intention to rename Park Avenue after his late friend and political ally, former premier Robert Bourassa. He was met with a wave of indignant outrage. Posters reading “Save Park Avenue” and “Sauvons l’avenue du Parc” appeared on shop windows and lampposts up and down the avenue.
When members of the Bourassa family itself expressed reservations about Tremblay’s project, the mayor saved face by passing the motion—then immediately shelved the idea. (Incidentally, Tremblay wasn’t the first mayor who tried to rename Park: in 1937, Camillien Houde’s administration proposed rechristening it Guglielmo Marconi avenue, after the inventor of the telegraph. His message didn’t get through either.)
It is easy to understand why so many people, then and now, become infuriated by such notions. The history of Park Avenue is the history of immigration and diversity in Montreal. For people who have come here from overseas, escaping poverty, persecution or worse, the street is not just a street, it is a watershed moment in their lives. A note written in the guestbook of an exhibit of Park Avenue photos, organized in the depths of the renaming controversy, evokes this:
My name is Helen Segal, née Singer. I am 73 years old. I lived all my life, until I married, on Edward Charles St. As a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, every Jewish person who lived anywhere above or below Park Ave. would parade down Park from Bernard to Mount Royal and back again on Rosh Hashanna. We would wish each other “Shana Tova.” We did this for years and years and this memory is one I will never forget and always associate with Park Ave.
A name is more than just a name: it changes how you perceive a place. With all respect to the man himself, Avenue Robert-Bourassa sounded forced. Not a place new Canadians would willingly call home.
South of St. Viateur, I continue my walk past the Seventh Sandglass, an informal (read, unlicensed) bookstore run from a semi-basement apartment. Down past Laurier, I stop into PA Supermarket (the PA stands for “Park Avenue”) to test the fruits and observe the weekend rush. At Villeneuve, I pass Maria Vlakou, a self-described “poetess” who sells dishes, furniture and odd trinkets on the sidewalk every weekend.
Past Mount Royal Avenue I reach Park’s namesake: two parks, Jeanne-Mance and Mount Royal, that straddle the avenue, holding it down like a heavy green anchor. Every Sunday, for no particular reason, thousands of people descend on the park to buy and sell trinkets, have a picnic, play soccer, lie in the sun, participate in a fantasy medieval battle, do strange hula-hoop exercises, and listen to the tam-tams—an unorganized weekly gathering of drum-players that surrounds the angel-capped monument to Sir George-Étienne Cartier.
Around eight o’clock in late May, the spring still warming up for summer, the sun sets straight up Park Avenue. As the shadows stretch ever longer towards you, it’s possible to walk into the sunset—past the Haitian taxi driver’s hangout, past the Hasidic Jewish linen store, past the Chinese dépanneur—and imagine yourself a cowboy leaving town. Or maybe just going home.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2008 edition of Maisonneuve.
Tags: Mile End, Montreal, Park Avenue, Streetlife