What Lies Below

Apparently, cobblestones under pavement in the Shaughnessy Village - work of the author, June 17th 2011

So, I was on the way to act as a photog and official note-taker at a local NGO’s AGM a few weeks back and I snapped this pic on my way to Con-U. I can’t remember if it was at the top of Chomedey, Fort or St-Marc, but it was definitely visible from Sherbrooke.

If I’m to understand this correctly, there are cobblestones under a once thick though now eroded layer of asphalt in this area. Why replace it? Why not bring back the cobblestones? Perhaps more cobblestones will result in fewer people using small residential side-streets as a Formula-1 test track.

Plus, isn’t it nicer?

Reminds me of what the Old Port looked like before they dug up all the pavement and resurrected the cobblestones as part of the late-1980s, early-1990s master renovation. At the same time they got rid of the parking lot which once occupied the Champ-de-Mars. Doing so allowed for the excavation which led to the re-discovery of the city’s old defensive walls.

I don’t think anything of valuable will be discovered below St-Marc, but the area is historic and needs a facelift. May as well start with what already lies below our feet.

Commemorating the Blue Bird Café Fire

James O'Brien, responsible for the fire that killed 37 people on Sept. 1st 1972 - not the work of the author

The Blue Bird Café and Wagon Wheel country bar were once located on Union Street, south of Ste-Cat’s on the west side, in what is now a parking lot. On Friday September 1st 1972 three young men, O’Brien among them, were denied entry to the Wagon Wheel for being excessively drunk. They left but came back with a plan only conceivable to several inebriated young men – to start a fire on the staircase leading to the upstairs club while it was packed with Labour Day weekend revelers. The fire quickly got out of hand, spreading throughout both establishments. A detailed report on Wikipedia can be accessed here.

Recently one of the many indirect victims of the disaster, a Kathleen Livingston of Brossard who lost her daughter in the fire, was found murdered in her home. I can’t imagine how awful that must be for the family, especially knowing that the Blue Bird Café Fire has almost entirely been forgotten.

Among other things, the culprits have all been paroled from their life sentences. The families of the victims were given a mere 1 to 3,000$ and the City, Fire Dept. and proprietor walked away from one of the worst disasters in the city’s history.

What breaks your heart isn’t the death toll or even the disturbing images – such as these recently posted to Coolopolis – its the fact that it could have been prevented.

Most of those who died died together, huddled in a bunch by a rear window, hoping to escape the smoke and flames. A rear exit had been locked shut, and people were trampled as the patrons upstairs rushed to the ground floor Blue Bird, itself filling with smoke and flames racing across the ceiling support beams. That the fire escape was locked would be grounds enough for the City, Fire Dept. and proprietor to be on the hook for a substantial amount, but the victims were nonetheless not properly compensated.

It’s disconcerting, but the fact that we haven’t had a fire with a major death toll since may be an indication that the city and Fire Dept. take the issue of a major fire at a crowded restaurant or club a little more seriously. There have of course been some spectacular fires since, such as the paper recycling plant that went up without any victims back on June 8th or the fire at the old Franciscan Monastery at Hope & René-Lévesque which went up in flames in February of 2010. Still, I’d hate to think that it’s the kind of thing which is bound to happen from time to time. I remember an ex girlfriend of mine telling me that Steve’s Music Store on St-Antoine was a tinderbox waiting to burn. She indicated that the interior was too cluttered, the exits not clearly labelled and that the owner had bribed the Fire Dept. to look the other way on bad wiring, lack of extinguishers, smoke detectors etc. I don’t know if its true or not, but I definitely tell people I know to always go there knowing exactly what they want, and to make the trip a short one.

I think it’s for the fact that I believe the citizenry needs to always keep one step ahead of the great threats to our communities that we commemorate the Blue Bird Café fire. A plaque is hardly sufficient, and the location of the building – in a what is now a parking lot on an unimportant side street downtown – won’t grab people’s attention. By contrast, I remember seeing a memorial in downtown Toronto dedicated to construction workers killed in industrial accidents (I think it’s near the Metro Toronto Centre) that literally stopped me in my tracks. It was bold and in-your-face, detailing the way these poor people died. Something akin to that in Montréal, to commemorate the Blue Bird Café fire, would be a good use of public funds. Effective use of installation art can drive the emotions of ordinary people, and make them care about issues that may not have necessarily occurred to them without prompting. Something like that for the Blue Bird – something like that to remind us of man’s follies and our greatest dangers and the responsibilities we share as citizens to ensure each others’ safety. Another feather in the cap of big government, I would never want to have corporate interests considered before the needs and rights of the people. If only so much influence could finally come from this tragedy. I think we all share in a responsibility to make something happen here.

Westmount Square – Five Easy Pieces

Some pics I snapped walking around Westmount Square a few weeks back.

Westmount Square - Tower 3: work of the author, June 2011

The Westmount Square complex was designed by Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1967. It is composed of two residential towers, an office tower and a large squat building with additional commercial office space, all of which is centered on a pedestrian plaza which is further linked to an underground shopping concourse. Access to Atwater Métro station is provided by means of a link which further accesses Place Alexis-Nihon.

Interior Plaza, Westmount Square - work of the author, June 2011

Back in the day, Westmount Square was a prestige address sans-pareil. It also anchored the extreme Western edge of what’s considered downtown Montréal, further providing an interesting link between the commercial aspects of the cities of Westmount and Montréal. The success of Westmount Square doubtless led to the construction of Place Alexis-Nihon’s towers in the mid-1980s, in addition to the gentrification of Greene Avenue and the further development of several high-capacity residential towers around the site. Nowadays the entire area (focused on Atwater Métro) is in dire need of a renaissance, and Westmount Square is no longer the busy beehive of activity it once was.

Interior plaza - Westmount Square: work of the author, June 2011

Evidence of this can be found in the plaza, which is starting to look a little worse for wear. It could use a clean-up, a spruce-up, new vegetation and it would be nice if the fountain was operational – something to draw people into the interior plaza, or possibly, something to serve as a focal point in the middle of the plaza to draw people’s attention towards walking across the plaza. Unlike other more successful examples, such as the plazas at PVM or Place-des-Arts, Westmount Square doesn’t seem to be able to draw many pedestrians into its centre as a means of diffusing traffic away from the street. Perhaps this is a result of fewer people working at Westmount Square, and fewer still are both employed and live in the area. One can tell by walking around the plaza that it would have at one point in the past had significantly more thru-traffic.

Métro access at Westmount Square: work of the author, June 2011

It’s fascinating to note that the site has many access points, including a Métro access on Greene Avenue and another on Wood, pictured here. I wonder if other Atwater Métro access points were developed later, or if at one point there were simply more Métro users living in Westmount. These obviously high-capacity entrances always seem to be devoid of people.

Church across from Westmount Square: work of the author, June 2011

In terms of future planning, both the City of Westmount and the City of Montréal would be wise to collaborate on a design master plan for the entire Atwater/Cabot Square/Westmount Square/ Greene Avenue area. It’s already well connected to the Métro, and has a wide variety of diverse spaces – including institutional, medical, educational, commercial and residential. That being said, the area seems to lack a major anchor, something the Forum once provided. A major cultural space in the area, coupled with new apartment or condo towers, may just do the trick, but there would have to be a sincere effort made to diversify the types of units available. In other words, concentrating on expensive condo units won’t work in and of itself. In addition, a cohesive design scheme, one that would identify the entire area as a distinct neighbourhood/community would be ideal, but again, this would require a heretofore unknown degree of cooperation between these two distinct communities.

Food for thought – most of the work is already done, but Montréal and Westmount need to keep up with the pace of development and urban renewal taking place elsewhere in the downtown. An area like this ought to be an unparalleled focal point for diverse activities and economic activity, but this won’t happen as long as development is done piecemeal, which is kinda how this area feels. Westmount Square stands head and shoulders as the true gem of this collection of tall buildings, but when viewed as part of the whole, stands out for its uniformity and coherence in a neighbourhood seemingly developed according to market whims, rather than good urban planning.