Revisiting a dark past

Soldiers stand guard in front of the Hotel-de-Ville de Montréal, October 1970

Forty years ago Montrealers were still reeling from the October Crisis, an unfortunate event in our city’s history. A terrorist organization, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) wrapped up a seven year bombing and armed-robbery spree with two kidnappings and a murder. The response was swift and exacting – partial martial law was declared in Montréal, Ottawa and Québec City, the operations of the Government of Québec were moved to a ‘bunker’ of sorts in downtown Montréal, and thousands of federal troops were deployed to guard important buildings, set up checkpoints, and assist the Montréal Police (SPVM) and the Sureté du Québec (SQ). The murder of Québec cabinet-minister Pierre Laporte would spell the end for the FLQ, as the military and security forces cracked down on the terrorist organization and its suspected sympathizers. Hundreds were arrested and detained for (on the most part) a few days. The right to freedom of assembly was never denied, even though thousands of FLQ sympathizers applauded the news that Laporte had been killed. Makes me think that those who were arrested probably had more than a fleeting sense of sympathy for the FLQ.

Regardless, on the 16th of October, the Québecois nationalist organization, the Societé-St-Jean-Baptiste (SSJB) unveiled a new monument dedicated to those who were temporarily imprisoned during the Crisis for alleged terrorist sympathies. None of these people were incarcerated for very long, they were not treated as typical prisoners, and certainly, none of them were tortured or abused in any real sense. While unfortunate, it was a necessary evil to wipe out our very own home-grown terrorist network. For a list of FLQ activities during the 1963-1970 period, check out this link and judge for yourself whether you think the actions of the federal and provincial governments were out of line.

The view from Los Angeles

View of Los Angeles' Financial District, from Getty Museum

In 1876, the mayors of Los Angeles and Montréal were brothers named Beaudry. I’m not sure how much else we have in common, though there are certainly a lot of Canadians in Los Angeles. In any event, I recently had the good fortune to spend a week relaxing with excellent company in Hollywood, and the experience, my first in ‘la-la-land’, was certainly something to write home about (though post-cards were prohibitively kitschy). Here are a few observations about life in the great western desert:

a) Los Angeles has been described as ‘a hundred neighbourhoods in search of a city’ (originally it was 72, but that was back in the 1930s, the author of the article I read in the in-flight magazine updated the quote for the new millennium). I couldn’t agree more, as the various neighbourhoods I saw had very distinct characteristics, none of which were easily shared. The disparities between rich and poor in the United States only re-enforced this view, with the constant reminder from my acquaintances out West that the dividing line between upscale bistros and Skid-Row (an actual hobo-town) was often little more than which side of the street you were on. That and the car culture only served to enhance the divisions – in essence, what’s between points A and B seldom matters, as your car is an extension of the comfort you live in. As you can expect, this is not a pedestrian friendly city.

b) The Financial District, in the photo above, is considerably smaller than I would have expected, significantly smaller and less vibrant than Chicago or Toronto. The biggest factor seems to be that very few people actually live in LA’s ‘downtown’, though apparently this is changing as some Angelino’s have been making the move into the city for the last few years. Either way it was a bit strange to see a downtown so vacant after 5pm – not unlike Calgary.

c) The public transit system is well-developed though lacking in certain areas. For instance, while we had no trouble getting from Hollywood to Santa Monica to visit the jaw-dropping Getty Museum, the LA Metro website’s trip-planning program never worked. Though this was a bit of a problem, once on-board the expressbus making its way down Sunset Blvd, we realized that once on-board it would be difficult to get lost, as the bus is equipped not only with automated stop-calls, but an interactive map broadcast on flat-screen TVs, showing riders where they are and what’s around them. Made me wonder why we can’t have the same thing here in Montréal. Once on-board it also became quite clear who takes public transit in LA, as about 90% of the on-board signage, including the TVs, was in Spanish. LA is very much a Spanish city, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn their are more Hispanics than Caucasians, so as you can imagine, there’s a fair bit of visual bilingualism. However, unlike here in Québec – where language is regulated by the state – there, its regulated by capitalism and the realities of American society. Needless to say, we received more than one incredulous look while on-board.

d) Food – all I can say is ‘Asian-American’ fusion cuisine. If you haven’t had a Peking-duck taco, get on it. That shit’s delicious!

e) View – a good friend remarked that the city was built for great perspectives, and I wholeheartedly agree. Whether on the highway, on zipping around the ‘spaghetti-streets’ of Hollywood (thanks to J. Foster for that one), in the hills or wherever, the city affords many excellent views. This makes driving around on the highways and main boulevards very exciting, and as you can imagine, Sunset Boulevard is really exceptional in this respect. I’m not crazy about car-culture, but this is one reason I would consider getting a license. Of course the varied topography of the city allows for so many spectacular perspectives, and the fact that we were in Hollywood meant the view was always pretty spectacular.

That should be it for now – more to come later.

Makes Tremblay look like Jesus Christ tap-dancing on a skateboard

Toronto Mayor-elect Rob Ford, with his mouth in customary 'open' position

With apologies to Prof. Roy Piperberg –

The enlightened citizens of Toronto have just elected Rob Ford their new Mayor. Mr. Ford attempted to do a pre-arranged interview with the CBC’s As It Happens, all the while coaching a football team. My guess is he was going for the folksy angle, but he came off instead as a bumbling fool with an utter contempt for what he probably views as elitist Toronto media.

Either way the people of Toronto now have a fool steering the city-ship for a few years; the questions are thus:

1- Has Toronto just been blown-over by a Tea-Bagger by any other name?

2- Are a lot of Torontonians wishing they had went out and voted?

3- Is Ford’s election the dark underside of the Megacity project, and is suburban Toronto really that different from Toronto’s urbanites?

I say yes to all three: a quick reminder to all our Toronto friends out there – rent’s cheap here, life is generally inexpensive, and you know you want to practice your french to meet a nice Québecois girl or guy – stop putting it off and move to Montréal already!

Worth reconsidering { No.1 }

A grainy proposal drawing for the never-built Labatt Stadium

I often wondered why Jean Drapeau poured so much money and interest into the Expos, and then one day it hit me – it keeps American eyes on us, means we’re a place worth knowing something about, and doubtlessly the kind of place one would consider visiting. Imagine the picture above beaming into homes and bars across the US of A – that’s a view, a potential team and a potential stadium that could have generated a lot of tourism money for this city, and for that reason, Montréal needs to get back into the business of baseball.

I happen to have recently discovered I enjoy baseball quite a bit, and the more I learned about the Expos, the more I came to realize the Expos were robbed of the pennant (at least) in the 1994 season.

Clearly the Big O was not the ideal venue for a baseball franchise, as the enormous stadium was generally impossible to fill, and offered those in attendance no real view, aside from the imposing enormity of the Olympic Stadium. The planned Labatt Stadium (which you can read all about here) would have had a capacity of 36,000 – roughly half that of the Big O.

Now, the site where this stadium would have been constructed is currently condo towers, though there are sites large enough to accommodate a stadium, such as between Duke and St-Henri along William in Griffintown, or at the site of the old Canada-Post sorting facility (incidentally, any re-development of the Griff should consider a ballpark, given the availability of large tracks of land owned by Canada Lands Corporation). Either way, the success of any new version of the Expos, should the citizens of this city ever make an attempt to get back into pro-ball, would be highly dependent on the stadium, its design and the view available to the spectators. A new ballpark would also create many new jobs and further serve as a potential venue for a variety of performances – in essence, a well-designed and strategically placed ballpark could act as a neighbourhood anchor, exactly the kind of thing the southern portion of the downtown could use.

What were they thinking? {No.1}

Site of a former tram-tunnel, now open-air, on the Camillien Houde Parkway

(Part of an unfortunately on-going series)

The Camillien Houde Parkway has got to be one of the stupidest ideas ever conceived of in the history of Montréal, which is unfortunate given that its a beautiful and exciting parkway. Make no mistake – I love this street, I especially love all the great memories I’ve attached to it, such as taking it to go visit my newborn brother when I was three. Unfortunately, it came at too-high a cost, and any individual in this city who is concerned about the future of our most iconic landmark should see the Camillien Houde Parkway as public enemy number 1.

Here’s why:

a) It’s named after former Mayor Camillien Houde, well-remembered for his charisma, anti-conscription related internment during WW2, the Kondiaronk Belvedere and the many Vespasiennes (adoringly called Camilliennes for decades) he had constructed as make-work projects during the Depression. He also vehemently opposed the construction of any street or boulevard bisecting Mount Royal. At the very least could we consider changing the name?

b) As you can see from the map embedded here (use bird’s eye view for best results), the parkway cuts-off access to a small, but significant, portion of Mount-Royal Park. I say significant because the ‘dead-zone’ would allow better access to the undeveloped portions of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and the parkland owned by the Université de Montréal. Thus, any discussion of a Mount Royal pedestrian and cycling ring-road would have to consider whether such a path and the parkway could actually coexist. Chris Erb of Spacing Montréal discusses the proposal for a new park on the Outremont Summit, an idea which was floated around in the Fall of 2009 and, I believe, is still very much up in the air. If anything, Mount Royal’s protected status is more tenuous than ever with the announcement of a new fenced-off condo development at the site of the former Marianopolis College, and the still as-yet unfinished saga concerning the redevelopment of the former Outremont convent. That being said, if there’s an earnest will from the populace to increase the total protected space of the mountain-park, then the parkway will have to be the first to go, since it acts more as a boundary then bisecting scenic drive.

c) As a result of the parkway, there are several large parking lots on the mountain – land that had once been raw natural forest. Given that the mountain has, traditionally, been frequented overwhelmingly by locals, and not tourists, the necessity of so many parking lots near the summits can be called into question. Especially because, once upon a time, a tram ran the length of the parkway. Reclaiming the parking spaces could be done by investing in a new tram, one which would ideally run from the bottom of Guy (placing a terminus at the corner of William in Griffintown) up to Cote-des-Neiges, dropping people off at a mountain terminus near the pavilion at Lac aux Castors (you’ll notice, a loop already exists here). This could effectively allow the rest of the parkway and the parking lost to be reclaimed as parkland.

d) The photo above demonstrates another problem – there used to be a tunnel at that exact spot. The tunnel allowed people to get from the Mount-Royal side to the Outremont side over-top, not to mention offering considerably more room for the variety of animal species native to the mountain park. Even if the parkway remains, at the very least, a new tunnel ought to be built here, to allow for the maximum level of freedom of movement.

Horse-drawn carriages at the Mount Royal Chalet, 1960s - not the work of the author.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the summit, though I think I was up there earlier this Summer. The improvements to the Peel Staircase and the access to the Olmstead Trail are excellent additions, welcoming urbanites with elegant and naturalistic entrances that fit into the idea of the sacred, leafy refuge. I remember the last time I was up there a temporary fence had been put up to divide the belvedere into two parts, though no work was being done at the time.

Still, as the city grows and the last remaining scraps of undeveloped land in the CBD is gobbled up as it will be over the next couple of decades, protecting our green spaces is going to become an even greater priority.

We should remind ourselves that, while Mount-Royal Park is indeed exceptionally large and, in essence, our own little playground, it serves a very large geographic area and further supports an inordinately large population. This is a major issue for any urban citizens of Montréal, as the city and real-estate developers frequently point out our major parks when attempting to justify the destruction of smaller green-spaces. Such as it was with regards to Parc Oxygene, a small green-space developed by community members on a piece of otherwise unusable land. The apparent ‘owner’ of the plot has told residents they can just as easily go to Mount Royal Park, Fletcher’s Field or Parc Jeanne Mance, all of which are about a block away. However, much like theatres, concert halls and bars, parks have a capacity, and overloading our parks will inevitably lead to their ruin.

Don’t believe me? Consider the 1976 St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations, which saw tens of thousands of people descend on Mount-Royal. The damage to the park and pollution from one day’s worth of festivities was more traumatic and required a more extensive clean-up than did the Ice Storm of 1998!

Public art proposal No. 1

The former Rosemont Incinerator

So I suppose this is a call for assistance. I’ve never been involved in organizing a piece of public art, but I believe an excellent example is staring all of us in the face.

As an environmentalist, I consider massive incinerators to be not only an eyesore, but a lasting testament to just how incompetent we can be. By contrast, the above incinerator is no longer active, just a massive hulk of a building no one knows what to do with.

So here’s a proposal, one which is steeped in local pop history. Attach a gigantic inflatable pink pig to the roof of the building and moor the swine somewhere between the smokestacks, an enduring tribute to (in my opinion) the most original music-group of the last century, Pink Floyd.

The story goes like this: sometime in the late 1970s, my guess would be in support of Animals (no less!), Pink Floyd were performing at the Big O, back when international supergroups still sold-out massive arenas, as much a spectacle in and of itself as the show up front. Regardless, somewhere during the set, a demented fan began trying to scale a chainlink fence near the stage, idiotically shouting ‘play money’ or something like that. Pink Floyd was well-known for politely asking their adoring fans to, in essence, be cool, while they were performing their increasingly complex sonic masterpieces. An enraged Roger Waters tried in vain to quiet the disruptive crowd before finally spitting on the fence-sitter. I’ve had this story corroborated by my friend’s dad who was at the show.

From this unfortunate event sprang the basic idea behind The Wall, as Waters was feeling increasingly disconnected from his fans. A more enduring tribute I could not imagine, as we have a ‘half-Battersea‘ just waiting to be put to good use. Despite the incident in Montréal in 1977, witnessed by an estimated 80,000 people, Pink Floyd remains consistently ranked as one of the most popular music-groups in Québec.