June 13th, 2010

Plus ça change…

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

Kate McDonnell pointed the way to some Flickr photos recently uploaded by Michel Gravel, a photojournalist for La Presse whose career has spanned more than 40 years. Many of the photos are street scenes from Montreal in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. What amazes me is how Montreal’s essential character has remained intact despite the fact that it has changed in so many ways — physically, demographically, linguistically, politically — in the past few decades.

The above photo of people lining up to board a bus in a winter snowstorm is a perfect example. When I noticed that the bus was the 80 — the same bus I took up and down Park Avenue every day for years — I started looking for clues as to where on Park Avenue the photo was taken. None of the signs were familiar, nor were the two buildings on the left. After a few seconds, though, I recognized the building in the middle distance as the block at the corner of Park and Bernard, home to Cheskie’s and the dépanneur where I bought newspapers, beer and monthly transit passes. The buildings on the left have been radically made over, but the three businesses visible in the photo — a hardware store, a restaurant and the corner dep — remain, just with different names and owners.

Gravel captured other scenes that are instantly recognizable today: orthodox Jews walking around Mile End, laundry hanging heavily over a laneway, L. Berson and Son’s tombstone workshop, riots, fires, people sweating it out during a heatwave, the dépanneur tricycle.

Of course, there’s plenty that demonstrates just how much has changed after all. For one, there’s Ste. Catherine lined by movie theatres and neon signs, all of which are gone today; newsstands, which were banished by Jean Drapeau; live chickens in the markets.

As with the photo of the bus stop in the snowstorm, however, most of the differences are exceedingly subtle. In the below photo, taken in 1965 at the corner of St. Viateur and Waverly, the greystone building at the far right has lost its cornice and balcony, the kosher deli is now a florist and upscale chocolaterie, and there’s a mural where the Buckingham ad once stood. There’s also more trees — Montreal seems far greener today than it was in the past. But the triplexes are still there, as are the hydro poles, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few kids playing at the corner.


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