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.
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 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.
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.
April 22nd, 2010
The following essay appears in the April 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine. The same issue also contains my feature-length profile on Hong Kong’s “tree professor,” Jim Chi-yung. The magazine can be found at major bookstores throughout the city.
In my neighbourhood, I know exactly what language to speak. At Jean-Coutu (the drugstore), Nouveau Palais (the corner diner) and Première Moisson (the upscale bakery), it’s French. At Zoubris (the copy shop), Cheskie (the Jewish bakery) and Club Social (the Italian café), it’s English.
But in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, on the other side of town, I’m lost. I know the neighbourhood is mostly English-speaking, but I don’t want to offend anyone. So before walking into the clothing store, I decide to take the safe route and speak French. Turns out it was the right decision. The owner was francophone.
Nothing is simple when it comes to language in Montreal. The city’s history has made it one of the most linguistically contested places in the world, but far from being a hindrance, it gives it the kind of powerful creative charge that can only come from cultural friction.
February 3rd, 2010
Croisement sur Park Avenue, 2009
C’est mon premier hiver. Si j’y survis, je fêterai ma première année passée à Montréal.
22h30. Bus 80, direction Nord. Il est là, je l’attend. Place des Arts. Froid intense : trente-cinq degrés sous zéro, avec un vent qui fouette à faire tomber les larmes.
L’engin reste sur place, adossé à cette promenade des festivals dont je ne comprends ni le sens, ni la dimension. Ses lampadaires galactiques imposent leurs courbatures lourdes sur la ville, éclairant railleusement un tas de neige géant. Un no man’s land. C’est bien. Et puis le MACM, chapeauté par un cube imposant et sombre, qui tiraille les lumières rouges dans un mouvement apaisant.
January 23rd, 2010
DCORBEIL | Plaisir incandescent, 2009
« Fin d’après-midi de juillet. Soleil qui glisse lentement vers le nord-ouest – typiquement montréalais – que je regarde par la large porte qui s’ouvre sur la terrasse.
J’y trouve une amie, française de passage à Montréal, brûlant cigarettes sur cigarettes en étirant de longues conversations oisives à son amoureux sis en mère patrie.
J’étire le cou d’un centimètre supplémentaire : le ciel est mou. Vaste toile orangée qui découpe les clochers du Mile End.
Je retourne à la cuisine.
January 16th, 2010
Don’t think I’m above posting photos of cute puppies I see on the street.
December 14th, 2009
The Montreal Gazette reported this weekend that the Hasidic community in Outremont and Mile End is suffering from a housing shortage. In 2002, there were about 4,200 Hasidim in the neighbourhood; today there are more than 6,000. Rising property values mean that many new Hasidic families are finding themselves priced out of their own Montreal heartland. Apparently, the hunt is on to find a new neighbourhood with suitable and affordable housing.
If the Hasidic community does move on, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Jewish community has come and gone. The entire swath of city from Chinatown right up to Little Italy is littered with former synagogues that were abandoned when the original Jewish community moved west. But it wouldn’t be a good thing if the Hasidim leave.
First of all, a Hasidic exodus would be a disaster for Park Avenue’s economy. Hasidic Jews make up more than 25 percent of Outremont’s population, and even they have their own Yiddish bookstores and kosher eateries, they still rely on non-Hasidic businesses for everything else, like drugs, hardware, stationery and fresh fruits and vegetables. Most of those shops are on Park Avenue; imagine the impact if they lost a quarter of their business.
July 14th, 2009
Photo by Arianys León
Twice a year, a few weeks before and after the summer solstice, the setting sun aligns perfectly with the east-west axis of Manhattan’s streets in a phenomenon that has been dubbed “Manhattanhenge,” a reference to the way the sun aligns with Stonehenge during the solstices. It got quite a bit of attention this year, especially around its first instance, on June 1st. Sunday marked its second occurrence and there are Flickr photos to prove it.
Even though Manhattanhenge has been rather grandiosely described as a “unique phenomenon in the world, if not the universe,” it is replicated to some extent in other cities. Last month, Spacing Montreal’s Émile Thomas speculated that Montrealhenge might happen each year on June 12th. But the same effect is achieved almost every day: one of the things I miss most about Montreal is the way the sun sets in alignment with the city’s north-south streets, such as Park Avenue or St. Laurent, which pierces them with long bands of evening light. I would often walk up Park just as the sun was setting, admiring the long shadows and pillowy softness of the light.