Four years ago, on my way home in the aftermath of a tremendous December blizzard, I found myself wandering through Snowdon, a neighbourhood in Montreal’s west end. Trudging past waist-high snowbanks, I noticed stairs leading up to some kind of apartment courtyard. Curious, I ventured in and found an odd collection of shops: a tailor, a Chinese hair salon, a Korean driving school.
Snowdon is a bit of an odd area, amorphous both in form and character, caught between different places without having much sense of place of its own. The main commercial strip on Queen Mary Road is a jumble of Jamaican hairdressers and kosher restaurants, Filipino churches and Chinese groceries. The long, straight sidestreets, unkempt like a grandfather who forgot to comb his hair, are lined by hydro poles, humble duplexes and brick apartment buildings. St. Joseph’s Oratory stares watchfully at the neighbourhood from the east.
One of the reasons for this sense of confusion is the Décarie Expressway, which bullied its way through the heart of Snowdon in the late 1960s, cutting it in half and replacing a lively streetcar terminus with a sunken six-lane autoroute. Though many of the neighbourhood’s icons survived — the Snowdon Theatre, the Snowdon Deli, the sign atop the old Reitmans department store — and were even joined by a metro station in 1985, Snowdon became one of those places that you pass through on your way to somewhere else; just another exit on the highway.
Still, Snowdon’s sense of place never vanished, it just became more obscure. After I came across the strange apartment building courtyard, I posted some photos on Spacing Montreal and urged Snowdon residents to share their experiences of the neighbourhood. The response was underwhelming; just two replies. Then something unexpected happened. Over the next four years, more than 30 people weighed in with their own detailed memories of Snowdon through the years. The most recent response was posted just a few days ago. The comment thread has become, in the words of Spacing’s Alanah Heffez, “a lively reunion among people whose experiences have overlapped in space if not necessarily in time.”
Below, I’ve selected some of the comments I find particularly interesting. Many of them date to Snowdon’s heyday in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when it was a major West End shopping district and home to a large Jewish community. Most of the comments appear to be written by members of the anglophone Montreal diaspora, which dispersed throughout North America after the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976.
In some cases I’ve split particularly long passages into smaller paragraphs for clarity.
March 1, 2009:
There was a streetcar, later a bus line that ran down a corridor between Cote St. Luc Road and Queen Mary Road. I rented a studio apartment at the QMR end of it in 1966. A crazy woman with a parrot lived next door.
QMR had a Morgan’s (later the Bay) department store. It had 3 floors. My first job was working in the basement mens/boys department. A few stores over was a Woolworth’s that had a long lunch counter and really good chocoalte donuts.
Around 1960 they dug up the entrenchment that was to become the Decarie Expressway. Before this happened there was a pool hall on Decarie called Val’s above a grocery store. The test at the time was to convince Val that your pimply face was all of 16 years of age. It was hardly a test as 12 year olds with cues bigger than they were was common. Val later opened Rosebowl Lanes on Cavendish. The old place also had bowling alleys.
Manny’s Deli was on the east side of Decarie Blvd. on QMR. Manny was supposedly in possession of only one leg although the specimen was never exhibited. I was barred once from the establishment for being drunk and bending a metal coatrack. I remember taunting a meatcutter at the front door knowing it was highly unlikely that he could leap over the counter.
The Snowden Tavern was also on Decarie Blvd. and had a brick sized window that worrried wives and abandoned children could peer through to see if the breadwinner of the family was going to make an appearance any time soon at home.
A friend of mine in high school (West Hill High), Paul St Pierre, was the assistant manager of the Snowden Theatre. I saw “Withering Heights” there with Lawrence Olivier. Rather long. Paul gave me a tour of the cavernous basement of this art deco edifice and I was amazed at how huge the place was.
Miss Snowden restaurant was almost next door where Jewish ladies ordered diet Tab with lemon.
Further north on Decarie was Blue Bonnets Racetrack (horses) and a wooden streetcar trestle. I can still vision the Cott Beverage sign by the Decarie underpass.
Still further north on Decarie were the drive-in curb service reataurants. The Bonfire, Miss Montreal, Orange Julip. Also Piazza Tomasso where Uncle Tom did his magic tricks and Ruby Foos where you could have your picture taken and have it appear on match covers. This was a watering hole for the 3 martini business types during the day and at night a gathering place for mostly Jewsish folks who wanted to see and be seen.
Still further north was the Garland (#17?) streetcar junction that would lead to every kid’s fantasy. A day at Belmont Park with the Magic Carpet Ride, the Wild Mouse and the Salt and Pepper. I can still hear the mechanical laughing lady with a turban.
March 3, 2009:
Very much liked Colin Paterson’s preceding meaty description of aspects of the Snowdon neighbourhood. I too still have preserved in my mind’s eye the views of the art deco Snowdon Theater; the Cott sign on Decarie Blvd, etc. . It’s interesting to read how non-Jewish people saw Snowdon as opposed to us Jews who experienced it as a Jewish ghetto. Certainly we experienced certain neighbourhood sites, and entertainment and commercial establishments in the very same way.
For us Jews, however, we felt especially warmed and protected by a common culture bolstered by our synagogues, our Y, our schools, our bakeries, and our eating establishments.
What for a non Jewish person may have passed for a novel and quaint eating experience, a Jewish deli represented for us a warming and radiant link and continuity with our common and communal past.
Although a fair percentage of Jews living in Snowdon in the post war 1950s were Holocaust survivors having lived through horrific times, it was a tribute to Jewish verve that all that really counted was to become a mover and shaker, be it in business or in the professions, or anywhere else. Forward looking was in the air. The ethos of drive and persistence of Mordecai Richler’s ghetto of The Main was still very much alive. I doubt that that get-up-and-go impetus and vitality still exists. A pity.
It can be said that non Jews experienced Snowdon through their “glasses” and we experienced it through ours, while living, in large part, in coexistence and tolerance, which is a wonderful tribute to the Canadian way of life.
March 9, 2009:
The Jews moved in to Snowdon in 1946 when Jewish builders bought land just North of Queen Mary on streets such as Dornal, Futon, Isabella (I lived on Fulton) and every single person on my street was Jewish. I had the best childhood in the world where you knew your neighbors and could walk to the stores by yourself and “charge it” and your parents could pay later.
I went to Iona Avenue School and it had to close for the Jewish Holidays because 99 percent of the students were Jewish.
I still visit Montreal and always go to Snowdon and visit Snowdon Deli. Unfortunately most of the stores of my childhood are now gone such as the Black and White, Levine’s Bakery and I miss them.
November 15, 2009:
I also grew up on Clanranald Avenue – in a house that my Dad had lived in basically from the 30′s. I played at Macdonald park as a kid and went to Royal Vale and West Hill.
There was a grocery store on QMR where I bought beer with my friend Margaret one Friday night – we were slightly underage at the time. The grocer said to us as we were leaving “I know you girls are buying that beer to put your hair in rollers!” (Of course we were!) He was hilarious!
Manny’s was a popular spot with my friends – always opened late – at a time when we could eat smoked meat and fries at 1.00 AM without any ill effects next day! There was a teen clothing shop on QM as well that had very cool clothes as I recall. Great trip down memory lane!
October 28, 2010:
Growing up gay in the 50′s and 60′s was pretty tough. But Snowdon wasn’t too bad for me, compared to other places I’ve heard and read about. The “annex” steps and courtyard in this photo [referring to original Spacing post] were always interesting to me as a child. Recently, however, I’ve recovered an upsetting memory about that exact spot.
One pleasant evening when I was about aged 6 I was with my father on Queen Mary, for some reason. On our way home we stopped in front of the annex steps and he said, “Stand right here and wait for me; I’ll be back soon.” I waited and waited — a very long time — but he never returned. I wasn’t sure what to do. But then I remembered that I’d been to Steinberg’s with my mom, and it was just across the street (where Metro is now). I told myself, “You know how to walk home from here. It’s not far.” And I did just that. When I arrived home, Dad was already there. “What happened to you?” I yelled. He just stared back blankly at me. I told my mom what had happened, and she said, “Oh, he probably just got to talking with someone, you know your dad, and he forgot.” I accepted her explanation and put the event behind me.
Thinking this over as a grey-haired, middle-aged man now, I’d still like to give my dad the benefit of the doubt. He was a good father. He was always kind, generous and loving toward me. But he was a man’s man. He loved hockey — all sports, really — and I guess I was a disappointment to him, since I wasn’t much interested in that. So, I can’t help but wonder about it all, and I suppose some questions will haunt me for the rest of my life: Who would leave a little kid standing in a doorway on a very public street at night? And, should I change the word “leave” to “abandon?”
February 22, 2011:
I grew up in the Snowdon areain the 40s and early 50s in an apartment called The Cosy Castle (I kid you not) on Cote Ste Catherine Road one block east of Decarie.
I remember riding the Garland streetcar down Decarie towards Queen Mary Road. There were interesting signs in the cars, such as the one that said “defense de cracher”. I had to ask my father what that meant. I think in those days the authorities were worried about the spread of TB from spit.
School-age boys used to get on the streetcar and sit in the back, where they sometimes succeeded in dislodging the trolley from the wire. The conductor would come storming back and throw the boys off the tram – it was quite exciting. In the winter, some of the streetcars sported snowploughs on the front. The rest of the year the grills on the front were called cow-catchers, though I never saw any cows scooped up. The seats of the yellow streetcars were woven rattan material. The green streetcars had a motorman at the front and a conductor at the back and there were leather straps to hold onto if you had to stand (and were tall enough to reach them).
On the 29 route to Outremont, the streamlined cream and red cars had leather seats and wonderful suspension systems that swayed as the car made turns. I had a friend who couldn’t ride on them because they made her throw up. I thought they were cool.
June 14, 2011:
Hi, all: We lived in Snowdon all through the 1960s and 70s, much of the time right on Queen Mary Rd, first at 5260, right across the street from the weird retail space in the photos above. There was once a record store on the second level — I remember buying Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman LP there (in the early 1970s). Right next door to that was the House of Wong Chinese restaurant (owned by journalist Jan Wong’s family), which shone its big green and yellow sign right into my bedroom window all night long.
At 5260, we lived on the third floor; Cape’s Drug Store was at street level and there was a ladies’ hair salon on the second floor. Manny’s deli was next door: I recall that around 1962 a smoked meat sandwich was 35 cents, hot dogs 15 cents, fries a dime, cheeseburgers cost a whole quarter. Most of my friends were Jewish kids living in fancy houses in the Circle Rd area, so, somewhat down on our luck financially at the time, we felt a bit like peasants by comparison, but I sure did have my horizons broadened.
We then moved to 5180, an apartment bulding that had a large women’s dress or lingerie shop (was that Anna Globus Hill? Can’t remember) on the ground floor. Finally, to Coolbrooke just north of Isabella. In the early 1970s, my buddies and I used to hang out at the A&W where the Dawson College building was later erected. BTW, I don’t think the big dig for the Decarie Expressway started as early as 1960, as suggested by a previous post: we moved onto QMR in 1961, and the construction of the new highway didn’t start until a couple of years later, it seems to me. I still remember they had to knock down a whole load of buildings on the east side of Decarie to make way for the new road, including a big new Royal Bank building right on the corner of Decarie & QMR. Next to that was a Dionne’s supermarket (where everybody seemed French to me; we usually shopped in the Steinberg’s across the street from where we lived and where I later got a job while at Sir George). And next to the Dionne’s was a barber shop — I went in there one day for a haircut (I must have been about 12) and saw none other than Gump Worseley sitting there getting his; he had just been traded to the Habs from New York and it was quite a thrill for a brand-new hockey fan just come over from England, as I had.
Such a lot of memories: Iona, West Hill, Sir George, then 10 years working downtown but still living in the Snowdon/Cote des Neiges area, then fleeing the separatists for 20 years in Toronto. Now I’m living in New Brunswick and it all seems so “long ago and far away” (as the song goes). John K, that verse comes, of course, from a matchbook from the Snowdon Tavern, one of which I still have, believe it or not.
October 3, 2011
My oldest memory is when they tore down the bank on Queen Mary to make way for the Décarie hole (who else remembers that when it opened, the hole had a gravel bottom, with only two 2-lane strips of asphalt — it was then closed after Expo-67 to be rebuilt with the current 3+3 lanes configuration).
We lived in one of the little semi-detached houses between the streetcar private right-of-way and Clanranald avenue between 1965 and 1970, which we rented from a very sweet rabbi who, very much unlike the typical jews of the time, was from France (and a Résistance hero; at the time, he was judge at the rabbinical court of Montréal). The house had an immense backyard, bordered by a huge appartment building. From those days, I made the notion that living in a huge appartment building must be awesome… (When, decades later, I made it to a huge appartment building, I did not dislike it…)
I recall the Kiddie Kobbler, the Morrie Heft, and the Arcade (that series of stores on the second floor near Trans-Island avenue). I never worked the nerve to look up there until maybe 10 years ago. As a kid, I always had expected something wonderful would be there, only to be disappointted at the mundaneness… The small Morgan’s store puzzled me, because my mother would spurn it and rather go downtown. Such escapades were a total delight, because we took the bus to Guy Métro, then the Métro, a real treat for someone who despised being sat in the back of the godawful Volkswagen in which both our parents gassed us with their cigarettes (you could not open the windows in the back of those sorry excuse for cars, probably the only Adolf Hitler legacy that was not stamped out by the war). From there I gained my total abhorrence for cars & cigarettes — nearly 50 years later, I have yet to light up one and to get a driver’s licence. By comparison, the bus & Métro was heaven! Smoking was forbidden and you could blissfully OPEN THE WINDOW!!!
I recall the A&P, which I found lousy compared to the Steinberg further up the road, because the Steinberg did not have the sawdust on the floor, nor the big air-conditionning units hanging from the ceiling. The Steinberg occupied only one half of the current Métro store; the other half was a Zellers. Then, one day, my mother came back really pissed-off from the A&P, her turn in the line was stolen by some “maudite câlisse d’épaisse”, so she let her caddie there and from now on, we only went to Steinberg, which was much nicer because it was all modern and nice and streamlined. We also went to the Dominion on Décarie (south of Snowdon), but for some reason, much less often.
Yes, we were french, smack in the middle of the english ghetto of Montréal. We had moved to Queen Mary road from Montclair street, past Cavendish; my father worked at the Sun Life Insurance and commuted by train to Montréal Ouest; my mother would drive with my sister and I to pick him up at the train station. When we moved, we followed that routine for a bit until my father discovered that the 65 bus, which conveniently passed right in front of the house (my mother often ಠ_ಠed away the people who would wait for the bus on our porch) went right to the Sun Life building on Dorchester. That was the last time my father ever commuted by bus until he got a job at the Université de Montréal where he had his own parking spot (from now on, he had to have his own car — my mother’s Volkswagen would not do anymore, and so started our series of Peugeots 404 – at least, you could open the rear windows).
When my sister started school, my mother got herself a job in St-Laurent, on Décarie near Côte-Vertu, to which she could commute with the 17 bus. So she decided not to have a car anymore. And having two cars was a nightmare, because there was no parking in front due to the bus stop, nor in the back (no lane). So, from then on, the question would be “Earnscliffe or Clanranald”??? I liked Clanranald better because it had those big appartment buildings instead of those nondescript duplexes which were considerably duller than the semi-detached townhouse we had…
We went to school in a private school in the Manoir, in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, to which our father drove us before going to work. Everything there was from France: the teachers, the school books and the classmates. That’s the only place that would keep us for lunch, as the public schools of the time sent the kids at home for lunch, which was a no-no because both our parents worked (a rarity 45 years ago). This is how I managed to grow french despite living in the english ghetto of Montréal, because the english were certainly above learning french. Thank god that most of those godawful people have been driven out of Québec by the Parti-Québécois!!!
In school, one of my best friends lived on Ponsard avenue, right within the “Circle” road, right accross the school, near Meridian avenue. It was always a treat to walk there after school and play in a very big house full of strange things like a dishwasher or recessed lights and things that were hot in the 1960’s… 45 years later, it’s my father’s turn to hang at one of his friends who lives near the Maurice Cullen park… (I always wondered about that little island of suburbia, camped between the Décarieish & Victoria duplexes and the Queen-Mary & Côte-Saint-Luc appartment buildings; how it came to be, who developped that so and when…). Nowadays that I often have business meetings on Grosvenor street, I take a shortcut from the Métro to there via Circle Road and the passage between Victoria & Grosvenor…
Then the unthinkable happenned. The sweet rabbi came one day to see my father, and after apologizing profusely, he asked to have his house back. So we found a duplex in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, and so ended our years in Snowdon. 6 years later, we moved to Outremont, and it was a real cultural shock to walk into a store and be served in french…
A legacy of growing up in Snowdon (and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce) is a slightly different sense of geography. The first job I ever got was running errands for a travel agency on Sherbrooke & Papineau (but in reality, at the end of the world) where whenever I went downtown, I was told that I was “going west”. I did not understand, because for me, downtown is pretty far east. Heck! even Westmount is in the East for me!!! Now, I live in St-Henri, much further down, so I can keep the same sense of geography, and I make a point of going through Snowdon most of the times I make my bike ride around the Mountain.
Tags: Montreal, Personal History, Then and Now