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.
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.
Laneway house, Centre-Sud
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.
Tags: Exploring the City, Laneways, Montreal