Laneway Observations

NDG laneway

Unpaved alley, central NDG

Earlier this summer, Susan Semenak, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, emailed me about a story she was doing on Montreal’s laneways. “I spent a large part of my childhood running around a grassy laneway behind 7th Ave. in LaSalle,” she wrote. “I love the other stories that laneways tell about a city.” She asked me some questions about my own memories of laneways, as well as my thoughts on what make them different from lanes in other cities, and she used some of what I told her in “Hidden Neighbourhoods,” a nice feature that was published early last month.

At the risk of being self-indulgent, I’ve decided to reproduce my long, rambling answer to her questions below.

NDG laneway

Alleyway intersection, Mile End

I have fond memories of the alley behind my apartment on Park Avenue. It’s really long, going for the length of that big block between Bernard and Van Horne, and always busy. Hasidic kids would ride their tricycles around in circles or play jump rope. There was a synagogue that backed out onto the alley and on Friday evenings you could hear people praying. There would also be parties during Purim. My neighbours were great. The smoke from their BBQs would drift up and down the lane. Next door there was an old Greek couple that grew tomatoes on the roof of their garage. Lots of people who walk or bike down the laneway too, to avoid the traffic on Park. There’s always be lots of laundry drying outside, which can be so relaxing to look at on a sunny, breezy day. It was idyllic.

Of course it got pretty disgusting in the winter when the snow mixed with months of garbage. I remember slipping on a dead fish that some alley cat had dragged out of a garbage bag left my the fishmonger a few doors down from my place.

The other laneways in Mile End, behind streets like Waverly or Esplanade, are much narrower and they have a quieter, more intimate feel. There’s always a lot of great street art and some great old sheds and backyard fixtures. I often prefer to walk down the alleys instead of the streets because there’s always so much to see. Evenings are the best when you can see people on their balconies or hear them having dinner in their backyards.

Each neighbourhood in Montreal seems to have its own distinct alleyways. You could almost tell neighbourhoods apart just by looking at the lanes. There are some alleys in the eastern part of the Plateau that feel almost rural because places there have such deep backyards. In parts of NDG or in the east end, like Mercier, there are still lots of unpaved alleyways, which really makes me think I’m in the country. In Outremont it’s the opposite — as leafy as the streets might be, the alleys are very narrow and there’s nothing but brick and concrete.

NDG laneway

Laneway house, Centre-Sud

NDG laneway

Alleyway bike co-op, Mile End

Beyond the alleys in Mile End, I think the laneways in the McGill Ghetto are some of my favourites because there’s little houses hidden in them. In fact there’s one just off Durocher and Prince Arthur that has two gorgeous little cottages that look like they were plucked out of some small town. My favourite laneways always have things hidden in them, little surprises that reveal new things about the city or the people that live in it. I also like the laneways in the Latin Quarter for that reason. They contain an entire neighbourhood of houses and businesses that are hidden from the main streets.

Since they differ from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, laneways say a lot about how that part of town developed. The oldest parts of the city have really incoherent laneways, they were meant to give access to stables and secondary houses and they usually didn’t go through the entire block. The neighbourhoods built in the 20th century have a more rational layout, with lanes that were clearly meant to replace some of the activity on the street, like garbage collection, deliveries and so on. Of course many of those lanes are too narrow for today’s trucks so they don’t serve much practical purpose anymore.

Montreal’s laneways are very different from those in other cities. There’s a huge diversity just within Montreal; other cities seem to have more homogeneous lanes. Most of Toronto’s are a lot less interesting, for instance, since they’re mostly lined by garages. (That said, there are some fantastic laneways around Chinatown and Kensington Market that are filled with cute Victorian rowhouses.) In Vancouver, there’s a contrast between the old downtown alleys, which are gritty and mildewy (and often filled with people smoking crack or shooting up) and the alleys in other parts of town, which are very spacious. Vancouver alleys have these huge dumpsters and there’s a whole sub-culture of dumpster diving that you don’t really have in Montreal.

Here in Hong Kong, there are lots of small businesses inside the alleys, which are aren’t wide enough for cars to pass. There are alleyway barbershops, bookstores, watch repair shops.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday September 03 2009at 07:09 am , filed under Canada, Public Space and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Laneway Observations”

  • J. says:

    A lil’ off-topic but this post reminded me of this:

    I always found it interesting that in “pop culture” mediums such as tv and movies portrayed Big cities like New York to have alleys. And they were always dangerous places to be filled with pimps, thieves and random mayhem. However, I have yet to find one alley in the big apple. Most of the city blocks in the city are lined brick to brick with buildings.
    However i’m glad MTL has such an iconic feature to its landscape!

  • C. Szabla says:

    Manhattan doesn’t have “official” alleys as such, but there are sometimes gaps between and behind buildings that function in more or less the same way.

    New York really could have used them, though. The rotting piles of garbage bags that line the streets every evening aren’t exactly the most pleasant aspect of living there. I suspect deliverymen would prefer them over the sidewalk hatches and steep steps they have to use to get to stores’ and restaurants’ storage cellars, too.

  • Nick says:

    Thanks for the memories. The Mile-End pics remind me of my father’s printing shop on Park, between Fairmount and St-Viateur, just south of Milos and north of the then Champion billiards and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The shop was there from late ’60s to late ’90s, a third of a century.

    We used to load and unload stock in the back lane, through a garage door. Working in the shop, we’d freeze our butts in the winter during a delivery. The lanes were a mess in the snow. With the speed bumps added later, it became even harder to negotiate the lane.

    I got my share of parking tickets leaving my car there and dashing into the shop to pick up or drop off something.

    There was a parking lot beside the shop on the north side, but since filled with condos.

    This past summer I noticed a vestige of the lot: a right-turn arrow sign on the opposite (west) side of the street aimed at traffic leaving the lot, that the city forgot to remove.