When the stretch of Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village was pedestrianized for two and a half months in the summer of 2008, it was accompanied by a strange policy that forced the street’s bars and restaurants to serve only Labatt beer products on their outdoor terraces. Merchants were unhappy and for good reason: it was summer-long corporate takeover of public space. (I said as much when a journalist for the Globe and Mail called for my opinion — ah, my glory days as a local pundit.)
Things have mellowed out since then. The Labatt-only policy was scrapped and car-free summers are now a well-loved tradition in the Village. What’s especially remarkable is that, unlike Montreal’s other street fairs and festivals, which ban car traffic for a few days or weeks at a time, the Village pedestrianization lasts the entirety of the summer — day and night, rain and shine. I think it owes a big part of its success to artist Claude Cormier, who draped 200,000 pink baubles over the street in 2011. Les boules roses proved so popular they returned the following year, and they’re poised to make a comeback this year, too.
The pink balls work because they create a sense of enclosure. One of the problems pedestrian streets face, especially in a car-dependent North American society, is that they often feel empty and sapped of vitality. You don’t realize how much space cars take up until they’re gone; a street that seems narrow when it’s filled with traffic, like Ste. Catherine, suddenly feels vast when the asphalt is clear. The baubles counteract that by tricking the mind into thinking the space is smaller and busier than it actually is. Plus they’re fun. And, you know, gay.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel pretty extensively over the past few years. There have been sunny mornings in Munich, cold winter treks through Seoul, sweaty nights in Bangkok. Yet for all the cities I’ve encountered, all the streets I’ve walked, I still think Montreal is one of the most enjoyable places in the world to explore. There’s something about the eclectic architecture, untamed vegetation and weather-worn surfaces — brick, wood, stone, concrete — that gives it a particularly satisfying depth of experience. The fleeting light and changing foliage of fall brings out the best of these qualities, adding to them dimensions of sound (the crackling of leaves underfoot) and smell: wood smoke on chilly evenings, the musk of decaying foliage.
Every day from spring to fall, a scene reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s most famous painting is reenacted next to the Lafontaine Park pond in Montreal. It’s as much of a scene as any bar or café: teenagers flirting, sunbathers bathing, les ostie de gratteux de guitare strumming their guitars.
Thinking back to my most recent visit to the park, in late October, and looking at Seurat’s painting, I wonder what particular alchemy leads to a place becoming a natural gathering spot for loafers and loiterers. English Bay in Vancouver, the southeast steps of Union Square in New York, Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath — is all it takes a slope and an open view? Or is there another ingredient?
Last week, the Archives de la Ville de Montréal uploaded a short series of photos taken on August 25, 1969, around Ste. Catherine and Sherbrooke streets. I’m always a fan of vintage street photography, especially from the relatively recent past, but these struck a real chord with me for one reason: it was on that day, 33 years later, that I moved to Montreal.
I remember it more vividly than I remember any day last month. It was a typically hot and sunny late-summer day, a bit of haze in the air. After taking a taxi with my family to my new apartment in St. Henri, I set out for a walk that took me along Ste. Catherine Street from Crescent to St. Denis, then up past St. Louis Square and onto St. Laurent, before heading back downtown.
A friend once remarked that Montreal might be a city of 3.5 million people, but in the summer, “it feels like it has 10 million.” Coming from sleepy, suburban Calgary, Montreal’s summertime charge was electrifying. The city had yet to shrink with familiarity; it felt enormous. People, music, traffic — I passed through four separate street fairs on my walk.
I took plenty of photos that day. What strikes me, when I look back at them and compare them to the 1969 set, is how little has changed. The fashion is different and the neon has mostly disappeared, but Montreal’s essential character — a special kind of insouciance — remains intact.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard, Montreal, Spring 2011
Urban design proposed for the boulevard, February 2012
Last year, my team and the planning service of Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles borough worked to rethink the design of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard. It is located east of downtown Montreal, where it crosses old districts from the early 1900s and suburbs from the 1960s. It was planned for 2,200 cars per hour, but only 700 cars per hour use it at its peak. In other words, it poses a considerable challenge.
This five-kilometre boulevard starts in the old urban district, bordering the St. Lawrence River, then passes through a commercial area typical of the 1960s, before furrowing through an industrial park, crossing a future train station and then ends up against the Rivière des Prairies in the far east end of Montreal.
Our project evolved for a few months, then was presented to merchants who now fear an economic slowdown caused by an increased risk of congestion on the boulevard. They basically see the projet as a very bad opportunity for them.
If you live in Montreal, you’ll eventually be asked the question: “Which way is the underground city?” You will probably be walking along Ste. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping artery, where H&M and Zara jostle for space with strip clubs and hot dog joints. Or maybe you will be making your way through the lunch-hour crowds at McGill metro, the city’s busiest subway station. Either way, some puzzled visitors clutching a free tourist map will ask you a question that you will find particularly difficult to answer. The best you can do is to point them to the entrance of the nearest shopping mall or metro station and explain, “It’s there, but it might not be what you imagine.”
One of the first things any tourist guide to Montreal tells you is that the city is home to a 32-kilometre network of shopping malls, office buildings, apartment towers, cultural centres, universities and civic institutions connected by subway lines and a sinuous network of underground passageways. On those brutal winter days when the the thermostat plunges below -20 degrees Celsius, you can go to work, watch a movie, buy a baguette, attend a concert, go skating, visit the library and finally return home, all without venturing outdoors. Somehow, though, the underground city has taken on levels of meaning outside Montreal that it never quite achieved at home. Tourists seem to picture a Willy Wonka wonderland of enterprising Oompa Loompas untouched by the light of day. Locals are nonplussed. For them, it’s a way to get from one place to another. When the journalist Fabien Deglise wrote a book about the underground city, he called it Montréal souterrain, sous le béton, le mythe. Underground Montreal: the Myth Beneath the Concrete.
Make no mistake, however: the underground city is more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, “underground city” is a bit of a misnomer, since many parts of the network exist above ground. It’s really an indoor city, a kind of interconnected, three-dimensional space. “Underground Montreal is an amalgam of grey tunnels and bright avenues, of escalators and indoor squares populated by fast food and shops of all types,” writes design critic Emmanuelle Vieira. “This city in successive layers is incoherent, imperfect, but it holds its own. It is the image of own own society: lively, diverse and creative, linked intimately with the culture of consumption.” It also the unlikely triumph of modernist ideals that long ago fell by the architectural wayside, only to now be reconsidered and—in some cases—rehabilitated.
One of the defining features of Montreal’s cityscape is the abundance of vacant lots. Weedy, gravelly blocks of land, they can be seen in every neighbourhood, in some areas on every street, delineated by rows of misshapen concrete blocks, like boulders left behind by the retreat of urban development. (The concrete blocks, required by municipal law, serve to prevent illegal dumping.) Ten years ago, as the real estate market boomed, many of the lots were transformed into new apartment buildings and hotels. Streetcorners defined by the absence of buildings were reworked into the urban fabric.
Despite the progress, however, new vacant lots are still being created. Part of the reason is the alarming tendency for Montreal buildings to burn down. But mostly it comes down to a lack of foresight by City Hill and a far too cosy relationship between politicians and developers. It’s never hard to find an example. Here’s a recent one: the block of St-Laurent between Ste-Catherine and René-Lévesque.
For decades, this stretch of the lower Main was seedy but lively, and it embodied the schizoid character of Montreal’s downtown core. Under the elegant gaze of the Monument National marched a procession of strip clubs, peep shows, restaurants and dive bars, as including some venerable institutions: Canada’s oldest Middle Eastern grocery store, founded in 1903; the Montreal Pool Room, which had served classic Montreal-style hot dogs since 1912; and Café Cléopâtre, a classic strip club with a flair for the burlesque. It was grimy and past its prime, but it worked in that typically ragtag Montreal way. It was a place where you could get a steamed hot dog, attend Pecha Kucha Night, spend your change on a peep show, buy some smoked paprika and stumble out of a Club Soda concert at midnight — whatever.
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.
The temperature was edging below zero when the first drug dealer approached. “You want something?” he asked, peering at us from under the hood of his jacket. We said no and he wandered away, casting us a suspicious glance over his shoulder. Soon, half a dozen men were eyeing us. “What you doing here?” shouted a man with a Jamaican accent.
To be fair, we were on their turf. If you’re waiting around the Sir George Étienne Cartier monument at nine o’clock on a cold October night, you probably aren’t there to enjoy the view of Mount Royal. We could hardly pass judgement, since we were waiting for our friend Boris to meet us for an illicit activity of our own: a campfire in the middle of the city.
The steep, densely-forested east slope of Mount Royal is a peculiar place. There’s a spot about halfway up that is so well sheltered by rocks and trees that patches of winter snow can last until June. Walk into the woods from Park Avenue and it never takes long to feel as though you’ve somehow been transplanted to somewhere in the Laurentians. The illusion is even more pronounced at night, when raccoons rustle in the bushes and rock outcroppings appear unexpectedly in the dark.
Of course, the city never disappears completely — the faint rumble of traffic, the wail of an ambulance. The sky is so bright you don’t even need a flashlight to see your way through the woods. That’s exactly what makes a nighttime trip up the mountain so exhilarating, because you’ve managed to escape the city without actually leaving it. And really, what else are you going to do in the woods at night? It’s only natural to make a fire.
When Boris finally arrived, we said goodbye to the dealers and made our way into the forest, armed with various essentials: flashlights, beer, marshmellows, mulled wine. Boris knew a perfect spot for a fire, a small clearing on the edge of a short cliff. I’m still not sure how we found our way there — the part of your brain that identifies two-for-one pizza places and dépanneurs as navigational landmarks can apparently do the same for trees and rocks — but it didn’t take us long to arrive. I made quick work of unpacking the beer while others scavenged for firewood.
In the middle of the 1980s, after lobbying from businesses and Chinese community leaders, a series of decorative gates were built to mark the various entrances to Montreal’s Chinatown. One of these is found at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Jeanne-Mance, the western end of the district. But to me, the real signal that I have entered Chinatown is when I pass beneath the Wing’s Nouilles Chinoises neon sign, one block east at Côté Street.
The Wing Building is the oldest surviving structure in Chinatown, built in 1826 and designed by James O’Donnell, who had moved to Montreal from New York to oversee the construction of a somewhat more illustrious project. Over the past 186 years, it has served as a military school, paper box factory and warehouse, according to Barry Lazar and Tamsin Douglas’ Guide to Ethnic Montreal. These days, the building is known for a distinctly eggy smell: this is the main supplier of fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants across eastern Canada.
The first time I came across Miss Villeray, she was looking a bit worse for the wear, holding fort above a neighbourhood bar that had seen better days. In 2008, the bar was sold to an ambitious entrepreneur who fixed it up without throwing away the original decor. It’s now a haunt for Villeray’s trendy thirtysomethings. Not my crowd, but I always appreciate the fact that Miss Villeray was restored to her former glory.
My love affair with Bixi remains undiminished. This despite the wear-and-tear its popularity has caused — I have been left frustrated by broken docks and bikes on more than a couple of occasions — and the fact that accessibility on the fringes of its service areas is a bit spotty. (It’s no fun to bike home to Park Extension at 3am only to find out there’s no docking spots left at Parc metro, the only Bixi station in the entire neighbourhood.) I love the convenience of being able to cycle without worrying about a bike, the heft and stability of the big Bixi bikes, and even the name, which rolls off the tongue so easily and can be used as both a verb and a noun.
While Bixi has made cycling an even more assertive part of Montreal life, this was a bicycle city long before the first bike share stations opened in 2008. It’s one of the only places in North America where you see lots bikes used not only by students and cycling enthusiasts, but also by parents with children, deliverymen riding specialized three-wheel bikes and people hauling stuff around. I’ve put together a handful of photos, mostly taken last summer, of Montreal by bike. Take a look.
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.
Alfred Bohn arrived in Montreal from a small town in Germany fifty-three years ago. He lived with his wife Hannelore in an apartment on Clark Street just above Prince Arthur, next to two other European couples. The six of them used to spent their free time wandering around the city, taking photos of their new home.
Bohns is now 78. Over the past four months, he has dredged up more than a hundred photos taken between 1958 and 60 and posted them on Flickr. Many were scanned from colour 35mm Kodachrome slides. Developing the slides back in the late 50s cost Bohns no small portion of the two dollars he earned every day working at a hatmaking shop on Mayor Street.
“We’d spend our days walking and walking because we didn’t have cars and we all lived in the same area and we all had empty jobs,” Bohns tells Kristian Gravenor, who has a brief but detailed account of Bohns’ adventures in photography at OpenFile.
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.”