For all of the things I’ve written about exploring Montreal’s laneways, and in particular those of Mile End, there are still some alleys close to home that I have never, for reasons that are beyond me, wandered down. In fact, when I walk through the lanes near home I usually take the same ones, probably by habit, and it takes a deliberate effort to step out of my routine into something a little bit out of the ordinary.
Not too long ago, before I left Montreal, I walked down the alley just east of Park Avenue, between Fairmount and Laurier, for the first time. It turned out to be full of all sorts of interesting things: discarded furniture, potted plants on windowsills, vines drooping from hydro lines and an impressive collection of graffiti and street art.
If it hasn’t yet been made clear to my regular readers, I’m on the verge of moving to Hong Kong, maybe for only a year, but likely for much longer than that. What this means, of course, is that I’m going to leave Montreal. (I would take my beloved city with me, but the South China Sea is a poor substitute for the Saint Lawrence.) Lately, as I contemplate my impending move, I have been coming to terms with the memories I will leave behind in the city I have, over the past six years, deliberately fashioned as my home.
At night, when I lie awake, unable to sleep, my mind floats through the laneways I have strolled at night, past the mountain, its cross, the silos on the Lachine Canal, the sign blinking Farine Five Roses and down to the St. Henri bedroom in which I first lived as a new Montrealer. I think of those first nights I spent here, listening, as I lay in bed, to the sound of trains coupling in the distance. I think of the six years of memories and experiences, all of them linked inextricably to the life and landscape of the city around me.
Guy Maddin, the maker of eccentric films best known for his 2003 movie, The Saddest Music in the World, has a somewhat different relationship with his hometown. While I left the city of my birth at the age of 17, in search of a place that better suited my outlook and personality, Maddin has spent all 52 years of his life in Winnipeg, one of the coldest and most isolated cities on the continent. Now he has made a movie—ostensibly a documentary—about the city in which he has spent his life.
“Always winter, always sleepy… Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg. Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg,” he intones in the opening sequence of My Winnipeg, which is currently playing in Montreal at the Cinéma du Parc as well as at various arthouses and small cinemas around North America. In his inimitable style, drawing heavily from the aesthetic of silent films and the kitschy melodrama of b-movies, Maddin creates an image of a city propelled by drowsy inertia, its inhabitants’ attempts at escape foiled by the heavy pull of memory and nostalgia.
In the alley between Clark and St. Urbain and St. Viateur and Fairmount, Mile End
Clark Street below St. Joseph Boulevard
In the lane between St. Laurent and Clark, near Mount Royal
Montreal is one of the most dynamic and engaging cities in North America, but sometimes I wish that creativity would be reflected in its urban planning. So many corners of this city brim with potential — but much of that potential is being wasted. Consider the case of two downtown laneways: Mount Royal Place and the ruelle Nick Auf der Mar. Each could be transformed into engaging public spaces but, for the time being, they are little more than urban afterthoughts.
Mount Royal Place is named for the old Mount Royal Hotel, once the largest in Canada, which was converted into the Cours Mont-Royal shopping mall in the late 1980s. (You can tell it was named for the hotel and not the mountain because its official name, place Mount-Royal, maintains the English spelling.) It runs along the south side of the mall, between Peel and Metcalfe, just behind a row of buildings that front Ste. Catherine Street.
What makes this particular lane so interesting is that the Cours Mont-Royal faces it with terraces and retail spaces; when the mall was built, Mount Royal Place was renovated with brick paving, planters and new street furniture. It almost seemed as if the mall intended to line the alley with cafés, restaurants and shops, but this plan must have fallen through, because the terraces are empty and retail spaces are closed, occupied with shops that open only into the mall’s interior.
I’m not sure what happened back in the 80s but it’s not too late to make up for past mistakes: the city could encourage the Cours Mont-Royal and other property owners to open up new shops, install café terraces and make this a real downtown destination.
In many ways, Montreal is a remarkably heterogeneous city, and its built form is no exception. Each individual neighbourhood is distinct enough to provide the aimless walker with enough visual cues to figure out where he or she is.
Alleys, too, vary from one part of the city to the next. In nineteenth-century neighbourhoods, they’re often aimless, terminating in dead ends and unexpected courtyards. Twentieth-century lanes are more standard in their arrangement, but even then, there is a great deal of difference between them. Many of the alleys in the old town of Delorimier, on the Plateau, are surprisingly overrun with vegetation, giving them an almost rural feel; not too far away, the lush streets of Outremont are counterbalanced by narrow, denuded lanes lined by tall brick buildings.
Mile End falls somewhere in between. Compared to many neighbourhoods, its alleys are remarkably narrow, and they tend to be lined by garages and the back ends of buildings, or at least some pretty imposing walls and fences. But there’s no shortage of greenery, either, and all of this has the effect of making the lanes feel remarkably cozy and hemmed-in. Even more interesting is the clutter you find in them: discarded furniture, oddly-painted fences, street art, run-down sheds and garages — sometimes even entire houses that are hidden from the street. It’s fun to walk down the alleys and peek into the backyards and rear balconies, comparing the gardening habits of neighbours or juxtaposing messy, debris-and-laundry-filled backyards (long-time Mile End residents) with others that are immaculately-arranged and well-stocked with expensive patio furniture (finnicky suburban transplants).
Laneway between Jeanne-Mance and Esplanade, Mile End, Montreal
After awhile, even the largest city can shrink to the size of a village. On a good day, this creates a comfortable intimacy; on a bad day, it can impose a banal, oppressive familiarity. Passing through the same streets day after day, it’s easy to lose sight of the things that so charmed you about them in the first place.
I try to avoid that by wandering through Montreal’s laneways, its ruelles, as they’re known in French. To walk through them is to uncover a secret city, a stripped-down, domestic one, the lipstick and blush of its streetscapes removed. The laneway experience is defined by the detritus of everyday life: the flutter of laundry drying on clotheslines, decrepit old sheds, gardens filled with vegetables, doors and gates through which you can glimpse the lives of others.
Laneways first emerged in Montreal in the mid-nineteenth century, but they were usually found only in middle-class and wealthy neighbourhoods. Poorer areas had courtyards accessible by portes cochères, which led to small workers’ homes hidden behind larger buildings. By the dawn of the twentieth century, though, Montreal and most of its suburbs had begun to mandate the construction of laneways in new residential developments, seeing them as a solution to the city’s sanitation problems. Eventually, nearly 500 kilometres of alleyways were built.
Montrealers have made great use of them. Every week, in the warm months, dozens of garage sales and bazaars can be found in the city’s laneways, selling books, furniture and assorted junk. Three years ago, the YMCA in my neighbourhood organized an alleyway art fair that drew inspiration from those alleyway bazaars. Artists hung their paintings on backyard fences, a graffiti crew painted a cinderblock wall and somebody set up a television viewing room in an apartment building courtyard.
What makes laneways so alluring is their ephemeral nature: they change with the rhythm of daily life, never quite the same from one day to the next. There is always a new piece of discarded furniture waiting for someone to claim it; a previously unnoticed view through trees, fences, walls and wires; or a new piece of street art.
The street art, in particular, provides the laneways with ever-changing décor. Over the years, I’ve seen political statements (“25,000 Montrealers call this home” spray-painted on a brick wall, next to a drawing of a homeless man), paste-ups and graffiti and even poetry (“We walked in Lake Ontario / Up to our ankles in sour water / For the feeling of sinking, you said”). My favourite can still be seen in one of the ruelles near my apartment, where somebody has scrawled a succinct message in whimsical cursive to wanderers like myself: “I love you.”
Back in October, on one of the unseasonably warm and humid days Montreal had towards the end of fall, I was on the 129 bus heading west to Victoria Avenue when I noticed three odd streets on the south side of Côte Ste. Catherine. Unusually for streets in Côte des Neiges, which tend to be very wide, they appeared to consist of nothing more than a simple pathway surrounded by greenery.
Later, I returned to investigate and discovered that the streets I had seen were Beaminster Place, Bradford Place and Campden Place, a trio of block-long passages tucked behind Côte-Sainte-Catherine metro. Lined by relatively modern four-plexes, they were open only to pedestrians, with a single narrow strip of pavement running between lush front yards. Residents parked their cars in the exceptionally wide laneways that ran between the streets.
In Côte des Neiges, a patchwork of different neighbourhoods built at different times throughout the twentieth century, I’ve come to expect urban planning oddities. But these three “places” were unlike anything I’d seen in Montreal before. According to the city’s property records, the houses along Beaminster, Bradford and Campden were all built between 1936 and 1951. Architecturally, they’re pretty much indistinguishable from any of the 1930s- and 40s-era houses in the west end; it’s their setting that makes them so unique.
The City of Montreal’s toponymy database reports that Beaminster, Bradford and Campden places were built in 1936 by the Terrace Construction Company, part of a 48-duplex development called Cotswald Village. If these names sound twee, it’s because they were taken from villages and towns in England’s Dorset, Gloucestershire and Yorkshire counties.
This still doesn’t shed any light on the motives of the developer. Why only three streets? Were they part of a failed plan to transform Côte des Neiges into a vast English-style Garden City? Or did the Terrace Construction Company simply have modest ambitions?
Click here to see more photos of the three “places.” Thanks to Martin Bérubé for referring me to the place names database.
Abandoned laneway triplex near St. Louis Square
This summer, while wandering through one of the sidestreets between Prince Arthur and Sherbrooke, I veered off into a laneway. Expecting to find some interesting graffiti, a picturesque clothesline or maybe some discarded furniture, I was surprised to come across an entire triplex at the intersection of two alleyways. It appeared to be abandoned — windows boarded up, balconies rotting — despite its prime location.
Montreal has a long tradition of laneway housing. In many of its neighbourhoods, especially those built before the 1920s, you’ll find old houses, duplexes and even the occasional triplex in back alleys. I don’t know how they ended up there — property owners trying to squeeze more money out of their land, probably — but they add to the laneway’s sense of being a sort of secret, parallel city, where things are quieter, more intimate and a bit more mysterious. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a laneway.
So why we building any new laneway houses? In Toronto, many architects and urban designers have embraced laneway housing as a form of incremental densification, a way to add more people to existing neighbourhoods without seriously disrupting their atmosphere or urban form. Although the city has so far refused to legalize new laneway housing, it does make case-by-case exceptions to its zoning laws, which has opened the way for some intriguing bits of domestic architecture.
Laneway houses don’t have to be newly-built; they can capitalize on existing garages and sheds. Wander through the laneways of Montreal and you’ll see an endless variety of them, many with second floors. It would be so easy to convert them into tiny but innovatively-designed apartments and houses, infusing our neighbourhoods with a cheap and flexible form of housing. But nobody’s talking about it. Unlike Toronto, Montrealers haven’t had a public discussion about laneway housing. Why not?
Laneway house in the McGill Ghetto
Two-storey garage in a Mile End alley
When it opened at the end of April, 2005, the Grande Bibliothèque defied expectations when it attracted tens of thousands of people who were eager to check out its airy architecture and multimedia, multilingual collection. The crowds never let up: even today, two and a half years later, a visit to the library reveals an always-crowded place enjoyed by a large cross-section of Montreal’s population. It is, quite clearly, Montreal’s most important public building of the past three decades.
There’s just one problem: shortly after it opened, big chunks of the green-glass cladding popped out and fell onto the street below. Temporary safety barriers were erected while the library, city, borough and province all squabbled over how best to deal with the situation. Now, finally, a permanent plan has emerged: decorative planters, fences and awnings will be built around the library to protect pedestrians should any more pieces of glass fall. The work will start next spring and finish by July.
Without any renderings, I can’t say what effect this will have on the library’s architecture. It will at least be improvement over the status quo. But what I’m curious about is whether or not this will finally enable the library to deal with its western flank facing Savoie Avenue, a small laneway in between Berri and St. Denis. When it was built, you see, the library was conceived as being open to all of its surroundings. This building has no back end: there are entrances on all four sides of the building.
Savoie was given a particularly special treatment. Along with a nice entrance bearing the inscription “Vous êtes ici,” the library faces this alley with a succession of shallow retail spaces. According to promotional material during the library’s construction, these spaces were originally intended to be leased to vendors to create a book market along Savoie. Last spring, the city renovated the alley, installing attractive concrete paving stones and new lampposts, possibly in anticipation of the market.
With the falling-glass problem, that plan was shelved, but now that an awning will be build along this side of the library, I don’t see any reason why it can’t be put into action. Let’s hope that, by next summer, the Grande Bibliothèque will finally be able to live up to its full potential.