July 6th, 2010

Crossing the Tracks

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Lately I’ve been listening to one of my favourite Jean Leloup albums, La Vallée des Réputations, which was released in 2002. It’s folkier than most of his previous albums, a feel captured perfectly by its cover image of Leloup walking down some railroad tracks, guitar slung over his shoulder.

The railway in the photo happens to be the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks that run along the top of Mile End, a few blocks from Leloup’s apartment and a block from where I used to live. The tracks serve as a neat boundary for the neighbourhood, dividing it from Little Italy, the Petite Patrie and the nameless industrial area to the north. To cross them, you have a choice of three underpasses: one on Park Avenue, one on St. Urbain and one on St. Laurent.

Of course, that’s if you decide to cross them legally. Most people don’t bother with that, choosing instead to duck through one of the many holes that have been cut into the chain-link fence along the tracks. It’s quicker, but it’s also a lot more interesting. As the blog Mile Endings puts it so wryly, “If you follow the paths to the chain link fence there’s a hole, and if you step through that, you end up someplace else.”

That “someplace else” is neither here nor there, a parallel universe that exists within the city but is in some ways not a part of it. (Every so often, a deer or some other oblivious animal will wander into the city via the railway, realizing only that it has ventured far away from home when it veers away from the tracks and gets lost in the streets.) Insects buzz in the tall grass growing next to the railroad, the air is sweet with greasy metal and wood railway ties. You can walk along the tracks and feel like a drifter.

The railway’s sense of in-betweenness spills over into the old warehouses and empty lots along the tracks. One field is home to the Champs des Possibles; another is the site of impromptu dance parties; another is filled with sculptures made by the artist Glen Lemesurier from old train parts. This is a working railroad, but just barely — only a few trains chug through here every day.

People have been crossing the tracks for years, but in recent months, the CPR police have reinforced fences and slapped anyone they see entering the railway with a hefty fine. That prompted a backlash, and people in the neighbourhood are fighting for a level crossing that would allow people to cross the tracks legally without going into the underpasses.

If that happens, I’ll miss the old informal arrangement. Though a level crossing would be infinitely more preferable than the dank, pigeon-shit-filled underpasses with racing cars and narrow sidewalks, it would offer only regimented access to the tracks and no chance to experience the thrill of stepping through a fence and ending up somewhere else.


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