Culture  Under the Olympian shadow

“So the shaping spirit of work / can make a town…”

This sentiment, expressed by Montreal poet Louis Dudek about his hometown, is particularly evident in the eastern neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, or HoMa for short. Known by most McGill students (or at least myself before my bike tour) solely as the neighbourhood containing the Olympic Stadium and a particularly expansive Village des Valeurs, HoMa has a strong working class character very much apparent in its streets.

Cycling east along Ontario, two factors immediately distinguish the beginning of HoMa: a large metal archway at St. Germain announcing the beginning of “Promenade Ontario,” and the wonderfully delicious, Kris Kristofferson-praised smell of “somebody fryin’ chicken” and bread being baked. Despite wanting to swivel my head around to take in the sights and sounds of the unfamiliar neighbourhood, the increasingly treacherous potholes and the threat of marauding pedestrians forced me to keep my eyes on the road. The Promenade Ontario, stretching from St. Germain in the west to Pie IX in the east, is an enthusiastic 10-or-so block strip full of working class eateries, bakeries, and butcher shops, teeming with activity and noise.

Upon entering the promenade, an elderly man carrying his groceries stepped off the pavement and onto the street in my path, watching for a break in the traffic to cross the street. Looking my way, he stepped back on the footpath to allow me to pass. I waved to show my gratitude and his scowling old-man face exploded into a broad toothy smile as he waved back, welcoming me to his neighbourhood. While my embarrassingly weak French prohibited me from having enough confidence to ask anyone about their strongly Bloc Quebecois dominated community, this man’s friendliness typified the general atmosphere of the community. My Hartford Whalers jersey seemed to endear me to the area’s old-school hockey fans, eliciting shout after shout of support for my team.

All along the promenade, amidst people shopping (although not in the sleek, expensive way that’s common downtown), there were gangs of unsupervised young children running in and out of the crowds, little boys throwing water balloons at little girls (particularly cruel in the colder weather, I thought), and thoroughly enjoying their freedom. The kind of community safety and closeness that’s so common to working class areas, yet also so peculiarly unique to them, was clearer here than in most other parts of the city I had been to.

As I got closer to Pie IX, I could see the bizarre slanted tower of the Olympic Stadium stretching up above the smokestacks and the neighbourhood’s rooftop water towers. A greasy-spoon diner called “Restaurant Olympic” alluded to the sense I had that HoMa is still coming down from the glory and grandeur of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, as is the city in general, it seems. Turning around after basking in the crumbling majesty of the stadium, I headed south toward the river. Meandering in and out of densely residential streets, I stopped suddenly at a T-junction at the intersection of Jeanne D’Arc and Notre-Dame and gawked at the massive Lantic sugar factory, completely blocking any view of the river. I found a heavily used bike path that weaved among factories, both decaying and functioning. Looking west along Notre Dame toward the skyscrapers of downtown, I decided that it was dark enough and headed for home.