Culture  Bursting the bubble: Where everyone knows your name

Thinking twice about the Outremont microcosm

At some point in my adolescence (I’m guessing early teens), I’d gotten it into my head that urban sprawl could be understood as a collection of distinct, interconnected villages – not the denaturalized mess I’d previously thought of it as. The idea, I suppose, was to re-imagine my surroundings into something romantic – almost Hellenic – the size of which I could wrap my head around, maybe even hug. And as with most comforting ideas, it stuck.

So you can understand how unnerving it’s been to read Bursting the Bubble these past few months, as its writers kindly suggest I grow up and abandon my idyllic fancies. The city they depicted was strikingly uniform. From east to west, they’d described the same decaying duplexes, the same gentrification, and the same cheap breakfast joints.

Needless to say, it wasn’t Montreal the way I’d gotten used to seeing it. There had to be some evidence of the city existing as a sum of organic parts.

Then I remembered Outremont, a perpetual safe-haven for all things snobby. Having spent a good third of my waking life in this enclave of French expatriates and Hasidic Jews – attending school, working various jobs – I’d forgotten how fascinatingly alien this part of town could be to new-coming Montrealers, the sense of otherness it exudes.

Vaguely put, Outremont is more of a microcosm than any simple neighbourhood, those living there preferring to stay put rather than ever venturing out. It’s roomy enough that they don’t need to: roughly speaking, it’s enclosed to the southwest by Cote St-Catherine, to the north by Van Horne, and runs east up to Parc. From the looks of it, you wouldn’t identify it with the rest of our city – and rightly so, until the 2002 merger.

Subtly colourful townhouses line its richer streets, tucked away behind lush greenery and rows of German cars. Its principal arteries – streets Bernard and Laurier – display an effervescent liveliness, in winter as in summertime, as the decked-out elderly folks and exuberant youths shop its boutiques, flaunting their luxuries in some of Montreal’s most reputable restaurants.

The little differences, too, point to a parallel universe of chic. Over there, they don’t have Provigo or Metro. They shop at “5 Saisons.” They don’t get ice cream at Dairy Queen – they eat sorbet at “Bilboquet.” Video rentals? They do those, but at “Passeport Video,” not at Blockbuster or Movieland.

Everything in Outremont, from the aesthetics to its inhabitants’ state of mind – not to mention its total lack of bars – is strikingly consistent, hinting to some underlying dynamic, one I wasn’t aware of until recently. It’s subtle, sure, but the signs are there for those who’re looking – most notably, its inhabitants’ effortless indifference to the cultural trends that reverberate through the rest of North America.

Its youth, for instance, shrug at the sight of hipsters, cherishing their own invented forms of social capital infinitely more. In that sense, it’s evocative of pre-Internet American indie culture, the popular kids having defined “cool” in their own image. Oddly enough, that implies an unlikely gangsta-gentleman thematic: a certain Victorian sense of decorum, matched to an altered French patois – N.W.A. by way of Jacques Brel – and a ready willingness to display often impressive street connections. Like everything else in the borough, it all points to a thoroughly constructed reality, an effort to inject self-importance into an otherwise protected existence.

It’s a drive that exists strongly within the richer strata of the township – in which we find famous Quebec entrepreneurs, retired politicians, and worn-out songsters – and stronger still in those budding beneath them. For the latter group, Outremont stands as an admission of defeat: the recognition that, short of achieving real renown, they nevertheless enjoy sharing space with those who have.

It’s that very sentiment, I think – this sort of significance by association – that’s responsible for the insularity, and this dynamic I could only describe as Cheers at village-scale, where everybody knows not only your name, but your livelihood and reputation as well. That the Outremontains keep to themselves is no indication of disdain; they’ve simply become unaccustomed to – and perhaps apprehensive of – walking the streets unacknowledged.

The obvious question, then, is whether this form of self-aggrandizement – where opening a boutique fetches you the sort of fame that’s usually reserved for astronauts and serial killers – merits any castigation. But, in essence, they’ve signed onto their rules, and they’re leaving us alone. At very worst, I can only see them harming themselves, settling for quiet notoriety over their realized ambitions. And – oh boy – what a shame that is.

Meanwhile, I’m left soaking in irony: if Outremont testifies to the existence of villages within cities, it’s certainly not for the reasons I’d imagined. It seems, then, that there’s nothing wrong with neighbourhoods bleeding into each other; it’s simply a fact of Montrealers getting along.