Culture  Unmaking Montreal

To move forward, the city needs to correct its mistakes

The first time my mom let me ride a bike more than a few blocks away from my NDG home, I raced down the dangerous hill on St. Jacques to St. Henri, a new world dominated by ancient brick tenements, abandoned factories, colourful row houses, and busy freight railway tracks. The post-industrial landscape held a strange sort of enchantment, a palpable nostalgia available even to an observer with no connection to the area’s past. Having moved from suburban East Vancouver a couple years before, I was still used to lawns, stucco cottage-type houses, wide streets, and a general feeling of prosperity. I remember my first real bike trip through the city as the first time I understood the value in Montreal’s aesthetic.

For a city in North America, Montreal is remarkably aware of its own architectural value. Perhaps that’s because it’s older than Vancouver and Toronto, more densely built, at once grander and more decrepit. Now, the city’s physical charms are a primary tourist draw, benefiting Montreal and its citizens with millions of dollars of revenue. The abundance of whimsical vernacular architecture reinforces the cliche of Montreal as a ‘Latin’ city, with an appealingly laid-back, hedonistic culture.

Other aspects of the city don’t inspire as much pride. Our downtown, pockmarked with parking lots, boasts a few big-city skyscrapers among older row-houses, but suffers from an overarching trend of architectural mediocrity. Some cities were lucky enough to undergo minimal development during the most destructive phase of “urban regeneration” in the sixties and seventies. We were not so lucky. Jane Jacobs, who fought the powers-that-be in New York and Toronto to stymie the construction of superhighways across the city core, never lived in Montreal. From the fast-crumbling Turcot interchange, to the vast, useless space of the Olympic complex, Montreal bears the bruises of mid-century monumental folly. Bringing these areas back to the appealing, human scale that locals and tourists value in the Plateau, for example, will require billions of dollars and a lot of smart, citizen-oriented development thinking.

Unfortunately, Montreal suffers from a municipal government that is inefficient, corrupt, beholden to certain interests, and mired in the urban design theories of the past. Take, for example, the haphazard development of the Quartier des Spectacles. Designed to nurture the city’s cultural industries – in part a reaction to the loss of manufacturing and other traditional economic providers – the Quartier centralizes a couple of the city’s larger festivals, like the Jazz fest and Just for Laughs. But has it really become the city’s destination for culture? With Osheaga and Piknic Electronik on St. Helen’s Island, and the contemporary music scene up in the Plateau and Mile End, why was the area around Place des Arts selected for millions of dollars of investment?

The venture is characterized by a continuation of the same sort of thinking that wrecked the city’s physical environment in the sixties. The desire to define a district by a particular function, to be determined by government, smacks of Le Corbusier’s dreadfully stale city models. Although the city has created some appealing public spaces, the destruction of buildings, including much of the lower Main, has left the area with more empty lots than it had before.

Rather than embarking on ambitious new ‘great projects’ to support arts and culture, the municipal authorities – when not attempting to clean house – should focus on removing obstacles to neighbourhood development, and facilitating hubs of artists and entrepreneurs through subsidized spaces and studios, rather than shiny architecture.

Until ten years ago, there was an elevated interchange at the intersection of Pins and Parc. An absurd ten lanes of car traffic converged on Parc. Access to the mountain was restricted, and the downtown district and the western Plateau were spacially divided by a wall of concrete and fast-moving vehicles. Totally hostile to pedestrians, the interchange posed a huge obstacle to the neighbourhood’s development into the walkable, appealing area it is today.

Many other examples of bad urban planning persist across the island. Between the Old Port and downtown lies a massive trench containing the Ville-Marie expressway. A tear in the urban fabric, the trench is surrounded by a layer of empty space and abandoned buildings, which eventually give way to the more contiguous areas of Old Montreal and Chinatown. The Turcot expressway casts a neighbourhood-sized shadow in which almost nothing lives or grows. Rosemont and Hochelaga are cut off from the Plateau because of a lack of safe pedestrian crossings of the rail line that defines the north and east borders of the neighbourhood.

The reconnection of our core urban districts will have a positive effect on the city’s economy, liveliness, and aesthetic value. Unlike the creation of new single-vocation districts, the effects of this sort of targeted redevelopment – or ‘undevelopment’ – are multifaceted and highly positive for the surrounding area.