October 8th, 2011
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.”
September 29th, 2011
Alors que les débats sont parfois lourds dans l’administration municipale lorsque vient le moment de voter des budgets d’aménagement, l’on constate qu’en quelques années, Montréal a réussi à altérer l’image de plusieurs de ses rues commerciales avec des idées simples et peu dispendieuses.
Après avoir passé les derniers mois à débattre et à préparer des projets de réaménagement de l’espace urbain et des rues de Montréal, nous avons constaté que trois éléments ont eu un impact réel sur la qualité de nos rues, à savoir l’implantation de terrasses sur les trottoirs (qui créées des milieux de vie animés), la multiplication des plantes et autres éléments de végétalisation de l’emprise (la plupart des éléments étant temporaires et versatiles) ainsi que le changement culturel chez les montréalais, à savoir le raisonnement selon lequel désormais on ne peut plus accepter que la rue soit un simple axe de circulation des biens et personnes.
Ici quelques exemples de la rue Dante, qui semble désormais un petit jardin en pleine ville et où les terrasses et plantes rappellent finalement la douceur de la Méditerranée…
September 10th, 2011
“Tribute in Light,” a September 11th memorial, seen from Brooklyn.
Photo by Chris Arnade
It’s almost Mid-Autumn Festival here in Hong Kong, a time of year when people gather outside to light lanterns and stare up at the full harvest moon. As with all Chinese festivals, there’s a story behind it — in this case, a woman is said to have swallowed a pill of immortality and found herself stranded on the moon, which happens to be home to a rabbit — but mainly it’s an excuse for families to play outdoors at a time when they’d normally be watching TV at home.
Mid-Autumn always reminds me of another story, which comes from the Logo Cities project a few years back. Late on a winter night, a young man was out in downtown Montreal when he remarked upon an exceptionally low-hanging moon, only to realize a second later that it was actually the corporate logo on the top of the Complexe Desjardins. The same thing happened to me when I was in Montreal earlier this summer — “Wow, the moon is low tonight,” I thought. There’s something about the white and green colours of the logo that is surprisingly lunar.
There’s always a lot of talk about the way that urban light pollution obscures the night sky. Looking up at night, I’m lucky to see a few stars, but at this latitude, I should be able to see the entire sweep of the Milky Way. Instead, there’s the moon — and all the artificial sources of light that serve as false moons. Sometimes, when the sky is exceptionally hazy, the sun is so weak that it, too, begins to resemble the moon, small and weak enough to stare at with the naked eye.
August 14th, 2011
The modern bicycle was invented in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the “safety bicycle” was introduced in the 1890s that cycling really caught on. The new bikes featured chain-drive transmission, pneumatic tires, a metal frame and two small wheels of equal size; they were exponentially more comfortable than the bulky, bone-shaking dandy horses and velocipedes of earlier eras. Their innovation led to cycling’s first episode of mainstream popularity.
More and more city streets were being paved, and with the Model T still a decade away from production, the only things that newly-minted cyclists had to worry about were pedestrians and horse shit. The map above, pulled from the collection of the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec by Spacing Montreal’s Alanah Heffez, shows a collection of bike-friendly streets and roads in turn-of-the-century Montreal. The emphasis is clearly on recreational cycling through the countryside — most of the island was still undeveloped back then — but it suggests the extent to which cycling was seen as an attractive way to get around.
Things changed in the twentieth century, of course. Like most cities, Montreal became more and more oriented around the automobile. Cycling never quite died out the way it did in other cities, and it enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after the 1970s, but it was still a distinctly eccentric way to get around. Even when new cycling infrastructure was built under the Jean Doré administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t clear whether it was built with the intent to facilitate cycling as recreation or transportation. Plenty of people got around Montreal by bike, but it wasn’t until very recently, when the number of cyclists and cycling infrastructure reached a kind of critical mass, that cycling became a widely accepted way of moving around the city.
Last month, I returned to Montreal for a couple of weeks and I made great use of Bixi, the city’s expansive bike-sharing system. Bixi is now in its third year and the honeymoon it first enjoyed with the public is clearly over; in recent months, the local newspapers have been filled with stories about discontent over broken bikes, a budget shortfall and new advertising panels on each bicycle. Yet the system remains vastly popular: its ridership has grown by 40 percent this year alone, with two million trips taken halfway through the cycling season.
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.
June 13th, 2011
Posters for cultural events in Montreal. Photo by übung
Real estate posters in Hong Kong. Photo by Damien Polegato
Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.
June 5th, 2011
On a bright summer day in 1996, Kate McDonnell was wandering through an alley in the eastern Plateau when she spotted the remnants of a hand-painted tobacco ad on the wall of an old triplex.
Fifteen years later, Kate ventured down the same alley and, sure enough, the ad was still there, a bit more faded than before but otherwise intact. Unfortunately, the bottom of the ad is now blocked by the tall wood fence of a terrace built on an adjacent garage.
June 5th, 2011
The Montreal metro being built under de Maisonneuve, early 1960s
For a long time, the boulevard de Maisonneuve was one of my least favourite streets in Montreal. It was built in the 1960s by linking and widening four distinct streets: de Montigny, Burnside, St. Luc and Western. The final product was a Frankenstein’s monster of crudely-stitched appendages and half-healed wounds.
In the east end of downtown, near Place des Arts, the street curved through a landscape of parking lots and weedy terrains vagues. Further west, it sliced through blocks of greystones and apartment houses, creating a sad streetscape of crudely amputated buildings. Although the metro runs underneath, de Maisonneuve’s primary objective has always been to funnel cars through the city centre, and it was never very pleasant to walk along its narrow sidewalks. The push for automotive supremacy went so far that the road was tunnelled straight through the lobby of an apartment building whose owner refused to sell to the city.
Then, in the mid 2000s, things began to change. The real estate market awoke from a decade-long slumber and new apartment towers rose along the central stretch of de Maisonneuve. The city widened sidewalks and planted trees. Further east, in the Quartier des Spectacles, the 1960s-era curve was straightened, slowing traffic and creating space for some whimsical new public spaces. The renovation of Norman Bethune Square near Concordia University gave the western stretch of de Maisonneuve a prominent facelift. In 2008, a lane of traffic was taken from cars and given to bikes, which immediately gave the hodgepodge street the kind of singular identity it had always lacked.
May 29th, 2011
I’ll be returning to Montreal for a visit in late July — the same hot, humid time of year I left for Hong Kong three years ago. Though I’m happy to be going back, I wish I could be there for those first exuberant days of spring and early summer, before seasonal amnesia sets in and everyone takes the warm weather for granted.
May 6th, 2011
Jane Jacobs died five years ago and fans of cities and the celebrated, iconclastic urbanist have been remembering her contribution with walks through neighborhoods around the world since 2007.
This coming weekend, May 7 and 8, enthusiastic city lovers in more than 150 cities around the world, from Toronto to São Paulo, will lead Jane’s Walks. The free tours are given by volunteers who love their cities, and want to share their secrets and pleasures. Check out the website for a walk near you.
The above picture of the Parc du Portugal in Montreal’s Plateau district, which was saved from urban renewal by Portuguese immigrants who restored the small houses in the working class area with love, sweat and community financing. It will be the starting point for the walk I’ll be leading, beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday (in English) and Sunday (in French).
Each bench in the park is decorated with ceramic tiles by Quebec artists of Portuguese origin. The first bench sits on the east side of the Main, near Bagg Street. It commemorates Dom Diniz (1261-1325), the poet monarch of the young kingdom which had just shaken off several centuries of Muslim rule.
From there the series passes through the centuries as it follows St. Lawrence north. Portugal’s bard Luís de Camões (c 1524-1580) is represented with “E se mais mondo houverá, lá chegara”–”if there were another world, they would have found it.” Fitting words from the author of an epic about how the Portuguese led Europeans in the exploration of the world.
April 11th, 2011
Election signs in Calgary, 2006
Canada is in the midst of yet another federal election, one that will, if the current trends hold steady, result in a third minority government for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. It’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. But even the most delicious truffle looks like a turd, so things might still turn out well, especially if Canadians finally wake up and grow tired of having a petty tyrant as prime minister.
In the meantime, my friend Cedric Sam has created a pretty good way to kill time: Google Maps of 2008 federal election results based on data from each and every polling station in the country. Since each polling station serves no more than a few hundred voters, the level of detail is extraordinarily precise, especially in dense urban areas. You can check it out at the website of the Montreal newspaper La Presse, which has published the maps in English.
Sometimes the maps can be surprising. Who knew that the well-heeled streets of Outremont held so many NDP supporters, while the immigrant-dominated, working-class north end of Côte des Neiges was so heavily Liberal? Other times, it looks exactly the way you would expect: in Edmonton Strathcona, the densely-populated streets around Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta voted NDP, while more suburban areas to the south and east voted Conservative. (The NDP won in both Outremont and Edmonton Strathcona.)
2008 results in Outremont, Montreal
April 5th, 2011
Jean-Talon Station’s southwest exit in 2010
Rendering by MileEnd Design
The southwest exit of Montreal’s Jean-Talon metro station — a small but interesting specimen of contemporary architecture — is situated along Jean-Talon Street, at the end of a huge parking lot and between some commercial strips in need of renovation. In that situation, we can hardly tell the difference between the street itself and the parking lot; the sidewalks are invisible.
And yet this is the main exit one uses to reach Jean-Talon Market, one of the most famous landmarks in midtown Montreal. And the area’s density means that Jean-Talon is also a street often densely packed with commuters.
As part of a design exercise, we’ve been thinking about how we could transform this area without investing a significant amount of important resources, and in what way this could be done in the short term.
The simple solution we provide here is an outdoor café and terrace, where people could simply stop by for a drink or have something on their way to the office. The design of the public space suggested, using trees, plants and some furniture, helps structure the street itself. It is, as you can see, a basic concept that we prepared quickly to use as an example.
In light of this solution, do you think Montreal — or other cities — ought to invest resources in some similarly simple transformations ? Could our quality of life be significantly upgraded by little more than such simple urban design?
March 28th, 2011
This week’s photo — a diptych — comes courtesy of Montreal photographer Jeanine Caron.
Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.
February 28th, 2011
I’ve been looking through my old photos lately and discovered many that have never seen the light of Flickr. These were all taken on cold days in January and February 2005. There’s something about the crisp blue skies that makes me yearn for the sharp, dry chill of winter air, but only for about five minutes.