Destroying the Old Port – Historical Perspectives

Knocking down the Old Port - late 1970s, not the work of the author.

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend spending some time in the Old Port this Summer, and specifically a walk along Rue de la Commune. Enjoy a nice meal on an outdoor terrace, walk along the Harbourfront Park and take in the wide variety of activities available in Montréal’s Old Port during the peak Summer tourism months.

And remind yourself as you look out over the water towards Ile-Ste-Helene, the Casino, Habitat 67 or the Jacques-Cartier Bridge that once upon a time – not too long ago in fact – you couldn’t see any of it, because the Port of Montréal was still fully operational in the sector currently known as Vieux-Montréal.

As the photos here demonstrate, the Old Port was once the port, and the area currently occupied with restaurants, boutique hotels and galleries was once highly industrial/commercial. All those sweet lofts you now covet were once working-class housing, and the port had a bit of a reputation for being a seedy, run-down part of an old city falling apart at the seams. Consider the size of Grain Elevator No.5, and imagine three elevators of a similar size, not to mention cold-storage warehouses and functioning piers and all associated logistical equipment, ripped out from their moorings and cleared away. Though this was doubtless a smart move for the city (as more modern port facilities were constructed further East and the area once occupied by the port was turned into one of the classiest neighbourhoods in the city), it nonetheless had a deep impact on the psyche of local inhabitants.

Approaching Montreal's port - late-1960s, early 1970s; not the work of the author.

Here’s where dates are key. The renovation of Montreal’s Old Port and the relocation of the commercial seaport took place in the late 1970s. It involved cooperation between three levels of government with the Fed leading, as the Port of Montréal is a crown asset. At the same time – the same year in fact – the much dreaded economic reaction to the election of the PQ in 1976 was beginning to manifest itself. The Péquistes were talking Bill 101 and an eventual Referendum, and some major corporations once headquartered here pulled up their roots and shipped off to Toronto (In 1978 it was the Sun Life Insurance Company, once a major white-collar employer). The near simultaneous destruction of much of the industrial component of the Old Port signified, for many, an irreversible turn of fortune – a Montréal equivalent to Cleveland’s infamous Cuyahoga River Fire.

Cold Storage warehouse and other port facilities - 1958; not the work of the author.

FYI – if you want a local blues-rocker’s take on this era in city history, check out Walter Rossi’s “Down by the Waterfront”; off of 1980’s ‘Diamonds for the Kid’ – scroll over to read the lyrics. I can’t say for certain it’s about life on our particular waterfront, but from what I’ve heard and read, life was a bit different back when the Port actually emptied directly onto de la Commune. Consider that Montréal’s role as a major transit point in international smuggling operations has pretty much maintained itself since before the War – it’s just that back before the mid-1980s, most of that smuggling was going on where currently American tourists go to get a taste of Europe on the cheap. Dig?

Moving the port facilities further East was obviously a wise decision, as the expansion allowed the Port of Montréal to develop into North America’s premiere inland port. In fact, I’d even go so far to say it made the Saint Lawrence Seaway somewhat obsolete, as ocean-going vessels can now easily dock in Montréal and transfer their cargo directly onto waiting trains, access the oil terminals and have access to larger spaces and more modern equipment to unload cargo containers. Moreover, by moving the port to a more or less dedicated industrial area, away from the city and next to a major military base, cut off from residential area by better zoning, rail lines and Boul. Notre-Dame Est probably did quite a bit to remove, if not eliminate some the seedier elements associated with major port cities from the picturesque Old Quarter.

Old Port Police HQ - demolished in the early 2000s; pic from late 1970s, not the work of the author.

I think one of the biggest problems we had with regards to our Old Port redevelopment (read this neat 1979 Montreal Gazette article about planning for the new Montréal Harbourfront), was that there was a lull period throughout most of the 1980s as the old was removed, the ground de-contaminated, the area re-designed etc. It seems as if the Drapeau & Doré administrations didn’t adequately communicate the Old Port redesign scheme as a major investment with guaranteed returns, at least not well enough to counter the growing perception that Montréal was becoming a washed-up second city.

Part of the problem may have had to do with the fact that ‘harbourfront/dockside/portlands’ renovations were a kind of weird 80s and 90s urban-planning technique designed to ‘re-invigorate’ failing American rust-belt cities, most of which kind of came up flat. I think Montréal succeeded wildly, though it shows – when you walk around the Old Port ask yourself who works there in the off-season. It still has a viable economy besides tourism, and has been re-integrated into the urban fabric, quite expertly in fact. Consider the types of services, spaces, places and institutions in the Old Port – this is now a place to live, work and play. Few other cities have been able to rehabilitate such a large area on such a grand scale; how much money has been invested into the Old Port and Old Quarter since the mid-1980s? I can bet you it probably dwarfs what was spent on the Olympics.

It’s unfortunate that, as a result of our extremely successful port renovation scheme, we lost this:

Market scene from Place Jacques-Cartier; 50s or 60s? not the work of the author.

And it’s also kind of amazing that we did, given that so many other cities went with conversions of old port-side warehouses and storehouses into international markets – think South Street Seaport in NYC, or Faneuil Hall in Boston. And given how successful other markets have become in Montréal, you’d figure there would be an effort made to rekindle a bustling Old Port market. I’d love to see small motor boats coming in from up and downriver with fresh produce. Actually, I’d get a huge kick out of it. Imagine the people watching you could do! Imagine how much more life it would breathe into the port, and how many more Montrealers may go there – tourists be damned.

On a final note – there are two elements of port life I would like to see reintegrated into the Old Port, and I can imagine it would allow for an interesting and distinct character. For as nice as it is, the Old Port still seems a little too dependent on tourist dollars to keep going – at certain times of the year, let’s face it, the Old Port can be anything but hospitable, with much of Rue de la Commune boarded up until the Spring. I’d like to see actual sailors, people from all over the world, enjoying the Old Port and utilizing it as anyone may use a city, but there is a lack of affordable hotels in the area, as pretty much everything is geared towards wealthy American and European tourists. If this was altered slightly, and additional services for sailors were located in the Old Port, it would add a degree of authenticity (which can’t hurt) that may translate into additional sources of steady income for the Old Port as a neighbourhood and community.

As it stands right now, the Old Port is a bit of an oddity in Montréal. It’s gorgeous, it’s antique, it’s wealthy and fun. But there are parts which still seem a bit off – is it weird to have a playground in your front yard? The fact that there is no so little actual port activity in the Old Port gives it a Disney World pseudo-realistic feeling. What if a ferry terminal and a dedicated cruise-ship pier were built, and the Old Port reprized its role as a major transit point? I can imagine the Old Port would acquire a degree of cachet heretofore unknown, one it could potentially bank on. Not to mention that there is a potential gold mine in opening up the Old Port, with its remaining facilities, as a new passenger transit hub. Today there are no ferries between Montréal and say, the South Shore, or West Island, or anywhere else accessible by water. There are very few cruise ships, and a lack of investment in new facilities will prevent Montréal from becoming a major cruise ship tourist destination (and if you’ve ever been up or down the Saint Lawrence, you know why that’s kind of ridiculous).

I mean who wouldn’t want to sail into this:

The view from 1994. Pretty much the same as it is today; not the work of the author.