April 4th, 2012
Eight years ago, I was crossing Fairmount Avenue near my apartment in Montreal’s Mile End district when I noticed a strange addition to the zebra crossing beneath my feet: barbed wire. Not actual barbed wire, but a painted rendition of it along the edge of the crosswalk, half in yellow, the other half white, both colours indistinguishable from the other road markings on the street.
Strange, I thought. Is this a new initiative by the city to raise awareness of pedestrian rights? A nod to the sanctity of the crosswalk? Before I could finish crossing the street, a car sailed past me without bothering to stop.
By the time summer arrived, everyone had noticed the funny new road markings around town. Lane dividers were turned into giant zippers. Crosswalk zebra stripes became birthday candles. One crossing had become a giant shoeprint. Many of the works made brilliant use of nighttime shadows: owls stranded in the middle of asphalt during the day found a perch after dark. It was unlike any graffiti I had seen before. I wondered who had done it.
My answer came in July, when I visited Wooster Collective, a street art blog. There, I found images of the road stencils I had been walking past for month, and attached to them was a name: Roadsworth. They were accompanied by a brief Q&A.
December 29th, 2011
The neighbourhood around Marconi Avenue is a bit of a strange place. I’m not even sure what to call it. Marooned between Little Italy to the east, the CPR tracks to the south, the Outremont railyards to the west and Jean-Talon to the north, it’s a kind of urban interstitial space, not entirely industrial, a little bit residential, without a name or any real defining features. Even the street names here are strange, changing unexpectedly and duplicating themselves for no reason, like at the corner of rue Alexandra and avenue Alexandra.
When I was back in Montreal last summer, I stayed with a friend in Park Extension, so I passed through this area almost every night on my way back home. It has become somewhat trendy in recent years. Dépanneur Le Pick-Up draws a mix of hipsters, taxi drivers and neighbourhood old-timers with its pulled-pork sandwiches and good coffee. Bands that once played further south have found a home at Il Motore on Jean-Talon. These are islands of activity in an archipelago of odd things: lonesome houses, unexpected churches, former factories.
June 26th, 2011
Eight years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Montreal, living in a two-room apartment that had nice wood floors but no natural light. One morning in early December, I awoke with my girlfriend, who had an end-of-semester exam, and as we left my building we discovered a thick blanket of fresh show that had been deposited on the city overnight. I remember a few things from that day. The first was my fatigue — getting up before eleven o’clock has never been one of my strengths. The second was the sunshine, which was brilliant in a way that it can only be on a cold day immediately after a snowstorm. The third was where we went after we left my apartment and trudged north up Park Avenue: Navarino.
Wedged between a former Banque Nationale and Lipa Klein’s kosher supermarket, Navarino is a Greek bakery-café that has been run by the Tsatoumas family since the early 1960s. Originally, it was just a bakery, but in the economic doldrums of the mid-1990s, when Montreal was still reeling from Quebec’s second referendum on national sovereignty, the younger generation of the Tsatoumas clan installed some tables and started selling coffee. That appealed to the layabout bohemians drawn into the neighbourhood by the cheap rent and good food left behind by departing Jewish, Greek, Portuguese and Italian immigrants.
By the time I moved to the neighbourhood, Navarino had taken on the appearance of a well-worn dive, with a rusted 60s-style sign in French and Greek, on which stood a comely waitress holding up a cake. For years, the staff behind the counter consisted only of young women who were called Les déesses de Navarino, according to a sign taped to the tip jar.
November 3rd, 2010
Parmi vous, Mile End, Montreal
Un matin de novembre, je suis seul, et pourtant je suis ici, assis, sur la bordure de la fenêtre de ce caffè.
À entendre la rumeur matinale du quartier qui s’éveille, de ces conversations croisées qui m’entourent, qui me surplombent, qui dominent la tendresse de ma tranquillité.
À épier ces passants gelés et transis, qui traversent cette rue d’Est en Ouest, alors que ces voitures filent à toute allure, se dirigeant vers un travail obligé.
Car aujourd’hui je n’avais rien à faire, et que je n’avais pas le désir d’être seul, chez moi, par un matin si froid mais si ensoleillée. Un milieu d’automne coloré, aux arbres resplendissants, caressés par ce jaune soleil, surprenant et lumineux, en ce matin de novembre glacé.
Je traîne avec moi ces livres qui m’isolent des gens qui sont autour de moi. Je suis bien seul, et pourtant, j’ai l’impression d’être en famille. Et cette famille, qui me couvre, composée de visages inconnus, ou parfois aperçus en vitesse, au détour d’une rue, ou d’une allée.
Dans la vie des intellectuelles, le Café joue un rôle en permettant de se sentir en société. Et pourtant, la plupart des gens comme moi, amoureux de la solitude, ne peuvent évoluer en fraternité.
On s’entoure d’inconnus, pour se donner l’impression d’être écouté, complété. Et on réfléchie à nous même, se détendant au goût et à l’arôme d’un café.
Je ferme les yeux.
J’abandonne mon sourire aux caresses du soleil. Un instant d’éternité.
September 22nd, 2010
Step one: fire
When I first moved to Montreal in 2002, the city was littered with vacant lots, many of them in very prominent locations. The lots, which were filled with weeds and surrounded by heavy concrete blocks, had become as much a symbol of the city as potholes and outdoor staircases.
Since then, many of the vacant lots have given way to new buildings. But some linger on, joined by new lots created by fire. In some cities, when you hear a siren in the distance, you can safely assume it’s a police car or an ambulance. In Montreal, it’s more likely a fire truck.
Even more alarming than the high number of fires is the fact that many of them appear to be the result of arson. Four years ago, a fruiterie near my apartment was firebombed multiple times. Then the used appliance shop where I bought my fridge mysteriously exploded. After that, a popular sushi restaurant suddenly closed for renovations; an employee later told me that it had been set ablaze by someone to whom the owner owed a debt.
August 8th, 2010
Woman reading a hand-written letter in the Navarino bakery-café.
Mile End, Montreal, September 25, 2004
August 2nd, 2010
The following essay appears in the August 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine.
I still remember bicycling up Mount Royal. It was a warm summer night and there were five of us riding through the streets of Montreal, looking for something to do. Somebody suggested heading up the mountain that rises like a crouching giant from the middle of the city. The path uphill was surprisingly level but completely dark. Our eyes rendered useless, we relied on our other senses to guide us forward, listening to the gravel under our tires, the wind in the trees. The air smelled damp and earthy. I looked up at the treetops silhouetted against the bright city sky.
July 19th, 2010
Stapling a poster to a Saint-Viateur hydro pole
A Quebec Court of Appeal judge has ruled that Montreal’s anti-postering bylaw, which prohibits posters from being stuck to public street furniture, violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Montreal will now have to find a way to legally accommodate posters on public property.
We have local activist Jaggi Singh to thank for this ruling. Ten years ago, he was charged with sticking a poster on municipal property, and with the help of civil rights lawyer Julius Grey, he took his case through the court system. He was finally acquitted last week. The implications for Montreal are profound: independent musicians, artists, community groups and political movements, who have faced thousands of dollars in fines for sticking posters on lampposts and hydro poles, are now free to do what they’ve been doing for years.
Bengali poster, Park Extension
July 19th, 2010
Dairy Queen in the Petite Patrie. Photo by Kate McDonnell
Branded architecture is wrong in so many ways: it’s disposable, it’s a waste of space, it’s vulgar. So then why do I have such a soft spot for Dairy Queen’s little Swiss huts?
It must go back to the Dairy Queen at the corner of Park and Bérubé in Montreal. Red-roofed, fronted by a small parking lot and concrete terrace, it sits next to a row of triplexes in the shadow of an apartment tower — a country bumpkin oblivious to its own incongruousness. Every winter, the small parking lot out front is covered by a mountain of snow, until one day in March when the snow begins to melt and a neon sign is switched on — Ouvert — a harbinger of spring.
On summer nights, when the day’s humid heat settled in my living room, I would jump on my bike and ride south down Hutchison to indulge in a guilty pleasure. Hot fudge sundae, sometimes a Blizzard — these were my indulgences estivales. The pleasure is guilty because I knew I should be spending my money on handcrafted gelato from Havre aux Glaces, but instead I was forking over $3 at a corporate franchise that specializes in junk-food ice cream.
July 19th, 2010
Part of the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window was the way it acknowledged voyeurism as part of urban life. In the city, we’re always being watched and we’re always watching others, be it on the street, from across a café or on the web, through street photography.
I’d be lying if I said that the thrill of spying on others wasn’t part of the reason why I like rooftops. The exchange of glances on the street is replaced by a position that gives you a privileged view of everything around. I’ve never seen anything particularly exciting from a roof — it’s not like I bring a pair of binoculars — but I do enjoy catching the occasional glimpse into the normally sheltered world of somebody’s private life. Not too long ago, while hanging out on a friend’s rooftop, I was able to catch part of a World Cup game being watched on a large high-definition TV in the building next door.
Obviously I’m not alone. Peepers, a new film by Montreal’s Automatic Vaudeville Studios, takes the idea of rooftop voyeurism and builds a movie around it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m happy to see some of the rooftops I know and love featured in the trailer. At least one of the scenes looks like was filmed on the rooftop where writer/actor Mark Slutsky lives — a rooftop my friends and I have snuck up to many times.
July 9th, 2010
The Rialto Theatre is located on the corner of rue Bernard and avenue du Parc, in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. It was built in 1924 and was one of thousands of ornate movie theatres built in North America at the turn of the century, at a time when films were first entering the mainstream.
These theatres were called movie palaces — a fitting title as they were defined by an over-the-top ornamental aesthetic that evoked old world grandeur. Think limestone balustrades, wrought iron railings, gold molding and red velvet curtains. Most of the movie palaces in the 1920s were built to pay homage to architectural monuments in Europe. The Rialto itself was styled after the Paris Opera House by Montreal architect Joseph Raoul Gariepy. It has been designated as a heritage site by all three levels of government and is considered by its residents to be as much a part of the fabric of Mile End as its bagel shops, cafes and madcap personalities.
The Rialto has stood mostly vacant for the past few years, while its owner, Elias Kalogeras, looked for buyers. Kalogeras had owned the theatre since 1983. During this time it underwent a number of transformations. He purchased the Rialto with hopes of turning it into a mini-Eaton Centre, but the Ministry of Culture intervened and his plans never materialized. Since then it has been a nightclub, a concert venue, a repertory theatre, and a steakhouse. Kalogeras was confronted with many of the problems owners of defunct movie palaces faced: the difficulty of successfully filling such a cavernous space while maintaining the charm of a historic building and keeping it updated to the needs of contemporary society.
July 6th, 2010
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.
June 13th, 2010
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.
June 2nd, 2010
For the last couple of weeks, bees have been buzzing around flowers growing wild in a former industrial space that may become an unusual urban park — or a municipal heavy machinery yard.
The land is located between de Gaspé and Henri-Julien streets, immediately south of the Canadian Pacific rail tracks, with a spur jutting west between the tracks and Bernard Avenue. Its southern boundaries are marked by big buildings put up for light manufacturing in the mid-1950s to 1970s which, for the most part, are no longer used for that purpose. The rail line also gets much less traffic: CP is getting rid of its switching yards to in nearby Outremont, where housing and a new health science campus for the Université de Montréal are scheduled to be built.
For more than 20 years, the vacant land has seen more and more people cross it to get from the Rosemont metro station to the software companies and artisan space now located in the old buildings. The land is also used for dog walking and some late night revelry. Increasingly, too, the wonders of nature in an urban setting have come to the attention of people living in the surrounding area. In the summer time, the overgrown fields are full of blue-flowered chicory, tall clover, Queen Anne’s lace, wild oats and other lovely plants that flourish on the edges of development.