À l’heure des marchés

Kate McDonnell points the way to a promotional magazine published in 1964 to attract tourists to Montreal. It’s partly a snapshot of Montreal in the mid-60s, but also in large part an example of how the city was being branded and its image constructed in the years leading up to Expo 67.

The text is bilingual, but the English articles are often a perfunctory approximation of the French versions. There’s feature stories on the Museum of Fine Arts (“a bustling community centre for Montreal’s two cultures”), the booming business district (“the driving force of all Canada”) and the artificial islands being created for Expo (“the raising from the waters of new land in Man’s world”). Everything is written in a smart but unwaveringly optimistic language that comes across today as quaint and naive.

In 1964, Montreal was still on the cusp of modernity, its metro system under construction, its iconic skyscrapers still being dusted off. While a number of articles trade in the “France in North America” cliché that has served Montreal’s tourism industry since the birth of modern tourism, there’s more focus on the brute commercial and industrial marvels of a city that was still in its economic prime. In today’s tourist literature, the romantic French clichés remain, but any talk about train building and highway construction has been replaced by fuzzier praise for the city’s creativity and innovation in music or design.

There was one big surprise in the 1964 magazine, though: a feature on the city’s public markets, which I had always assumed were frowned upon by 1960s municipal authorities. Jean Drapeau was no fan of the markets; he had some of them demolished before Expo in an effort to clean up the city’s image. Yet here they are being praised as places where “city dwellers return to the soil”:

It is in the public markets that many Montreal housewives, disdaining the chrome counters and bright packaging of the supermarkets, still do much of their shopping. Here, there is no freezer, no cellophane, no cash register; the housewife can test the firmness of fruit and vegetable with her fingers before making a purchase; here, she can bargain for a better buy.

The article is accompanied by a photo of a crowded street market outside the Saint-Jean-Baptiste market building, demolished shortly after the magazine was published, as well as a photo of several men handling live chickens. In the decades that followed, Montreal’s markets entered into a period of precipitous decline, dwindling in number from nearly a dozen to just two.

The decline stopped in the 1990s, when several abandoned markets were revived, though only as a shadow of their former selves. With more focus on healthy eating and locally-produced food, the markets once again became popular destinations for a wide range of Montrealers, but increasingly more as lifestyle destinations rather than places to buy everyday meat and produce. Modernity of a different kind, I suppose.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday March 27 2010at 01:03 am , filed under Canada, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “À l’heure des marchés”

  • Interesting. I wonder if the discussion of public markets is meant to be a sort of euphemistic apology for them existing in the “city of the future,” a sort of preemptive refutation of criticism that the city wasn’t really living up to that label.