A peaceful paradox

Town of Mont Royal

You know something’s up with the weather when cycling along Parc on a Sunday isn’t accompanied by the throb of tams, the smell of weed, and the accompanying sight of policemen casually ignoring it. But even if the throwing on of my favorite sweater for the first time this fall couldn’t alleviate the misery of last weekend’s drizzle, the prospect of a really long bike ride around a new part of Montreal could.

My visit to the Town of Mount Royal (TMR to locals) was preceded by tales of a mysteriously private community surrounded by fences, where children from neighbouring Parc Extension were reportedly once locked out to prevent them from trick-or-treating in TMR on Halloween. In any case, the town certainly has an eventful history.

It was founded in 1912, when the Canadian Northern Railway bought 19 square kilometres of farmland for $120,000 – a transaction now regarded as one of the most extraordinary in Montreal’s real estate history (if anyone’s keeping track). The neighbourhood is located north of Outremont, between St. Denis and the Décarie. Since 1918, TMR has been connected to downtown Montreal by a railway tunnel stretching 5.3 kilometres under the mountain; today, it’s an upper-income, predominantly Catholic community that is now 46 per cent French. That’s a huge leap from the pre-Quiet Revolution population, which was almost exclusively anglophone. Curiously, TMR is not officially part of the city of Montreal – it merged in 2002, but inhabitants voted to reestablish it as an independent town in 2006.

Approaching the town by bike, the desolate feel of warehouses and empty lots disappeared as soon as I crossed the railway tracks. All of a sudden I was in a suburb of manicured lawns, sparkling apartment complexes, and smooth streets that were a far cry from the potholes of downtown Montreal. Although another resident vote put English names on street signs (it was odd to see “Chemin Canora Road”, for example), most of the signs remain in French despite the town’s reputation as an anglophone enclave. Posters advertising Saturday’s “Festival Multiculturelle” were written solely in French (adding to the non-multicultural aspect of this, the theme was “Grande Bretagne” with food from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland). I spent a while enjoying the pause in rainfall in Connaught Park, the hub of town where the two main boulevards – Laird and Graham – cross diagonally. Although small, the park was well-maintained, with wide paths perfect for cycling. Despite the broad range of amenities (tennis courts, croquet, a playground, and a lawn-bowling green with the best-kept lawn I have ever seen), the place was deserted save for a lone girl in an oversized Barbour jacket feeding a squirrel.

I continued west, keeping an eye out for coffee shops (non-existent) and expensive houses (ubiquitous). Traffic was light, and the labyrinth of wide streets meandered along, making for many swooping-all-over-the-road opportunities. I finally emerged onto the main thoroughfare of Boulevard Graham to a very welcome sight – an open café. I was entranced from the first sight of a safe bike rack, and as soon as I stepped into the warmth, I knew it was love. The glass windows of the counter displayed an array of insane pastries, cakes, and marzipan sculptures. The waitress was speedy, the coffee was good, and the steady trickle of lunchtime business revealed a varied and friendly community that contradicted the perception of TMR as homogeneous. Elegantly dressed women, chatty old men, and even bohemian students frequented the place. I was very nearly tempted to buy a marzipan effigy of a shark smiling benignly while eating a bloody foot.

On my way home, I investigated the fence situation. The boundary along l’Acadie is certainly marked – by more than just the shrub-disguised chainlink fence. To my right were the opulent semi-mansions of Montreal’s elite, while to my left, trees did not quite disguise the peeling apartment blocks and seedy strip malls of Parc Extension. I exited through one of the infamous gates onto a treacherous stretch of l’Acadie, instantly regretting the loss of TMR’s quiet, green streets. A trip to the nearby St. Viateur bagel shop consoled me as my journey came to an end.