Historical Perspectives on the City – Bishop & Ste-Catherine’s

The view from yesteryear, Ste-Cat's & Bishop, which was whited-out of this pic - not the work of the author, but apparently the work of a militant anti-Anglo xenophobe

My guess is that this pic was taken back in the early-mid fifties, though someone with an eagle-eye for cars would know better than I.

Is it me or are there a fair number of buildings still standing along this stretch?

Doesn’t seem like its changed too much, save for what you’d see in the background.

Parc Oxygene: the Small Cause & the Cost of Community

Protest signs facing onto Parc Oxygene

This article was originally published on the Forget the Box news collective a few days back. In fact, it’s one of my first ‘assignments’ as a writer. Neat eh?

Have you ever seen a really small rally or demonstration?
Like the kind where you instinctively ask yourself whether those gathered may require the services of a new communications director?
Or feel compelled to determine exactly which crackpot idea would lead to this small congregation? “What’s so ‘special’ about your special-interest group”, you may ask yourself, for shits and giggles.
In Montréal you’d be hard pressed to go a day without some kind of protest, rally, vigil etc. somewhere in the city – public demonstrations are a key element of civic life, and Montrealer’s are generally proud and active members of their community, and thus inclined to participate. That being said, and with our many infamous riots and other major public gatherings well in mind, we must keep in mind that the day to day demo in our city is typically a small gathering, attended by only a handful of people. You’ve doubtless seen these quaint affairs, and perhaps have even had a laugh at their expense. After all, there are no small civic demonstrations – or at least not as far as the TV cameras will show you. There are only large potential threats to internal security, marauding black-masked anarchists and an endless parade of indolent, self-righteous students in attendance at these events, right?
Last Saturday I had the pleasure of taking in a small demonstration. There were only a couple dozen people in attendance, but this was not a rally in which the force for change would be measured in mere attendance statistics. Few ever are. Change is effected by concerned citizens who work tirelessly, and too often without any recognition, to achieve altruistic goals. On Saturday I got a chance to meet some of these people, and as result of my meeting I’d like to state that I believe in their cause and would further like to see their wish realized.
That wish, incidentally, is to see a small, unusable plot of land that has been turned into a park recognized and protected for what it is.
The saga of Parc Oxygene goes all the way back to the very heady days of the 1960s. Back then Parc Oxygene didn’t even exist, largely because the adjacent La Cité apartment complex was still nothing more than an architect’s proposal. The La Cité development was a testament to inefficient government planning, unscrupulous real-estate developers drunk with power and served, for these reasons, to galvanize public opinion into a cohesive protest force. The Milton-Parc Citizens Committee was formed to stop the development and protect the community, which in turn would lead to the creation of Save Montreal, Heritage Montreal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and our city’s generally more enlightened approach to urban redevelopment and architectural conservation. While the MPCC wasn’t able to stop the project completely, they were able to scale it down to about an eighth of what was originally planned. Subsequently, the MPCC grew into a major community organization, and today they protect the interests of the residents of more than 600 rental units in the area, not to mention many local small businesses. Take a trip to the corner of Milton and Parc and take a seat at any of the three cafés on that intersection (I prefer the Second Cup for its massive terrace and, no joke, the community of regulars) and watch the world go by. Clearly there is a community here, and the streets dance with the movement of people carrying on their day-to-day. It is a fascinating vantage point on the city, one I’d highly recommend to tourist and seasoned boulevardier alike. Consider that all this activity takes places in the shadow of the massive housing, retail and office complex that is the La Cité development. Over the years the community here has demonstrated its resilience to massive urban renewal projects and has managed to get along despite the alterations that occurred over forty years ago. Perhaps time truly does heal all wounds…
Despite the scars, the neighbourhood has managed to stimulate its own renewal, and as you can imagine, land value in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood, not to mention the adjacent Quartier Ste-Famille and McGill Ghetto areas has skyrocketed. What is curious is that the present threat is not from mega-projects, as it was back in the 60s and 70s, but by small, discreet condo projects, aiming to jam postage-stamp condos into alleyways, overhangs, courtyards and any other small tracts of land which may be available in a given area. We’ve benefitted as a community from the laws that enforce building height and massing restrictions, inasmuch as we’ve benefitted from an as yet un-satiated condo market that has until now largely focused on recycling old factories. But there are only so many old buildings that can be converted, and it’s for that reason that the MPCC suddenly finds itself once again dealing with La Cité’s legacy. A residual plot of land from the project’s construction, declared unusable by the city (yet somehow there’s a claim to ownership, complicating issues), and since converted into a pleasant little green-space, aptly named Parc Oxygene, perhaps because people so often forget the free resource provided by flora.
The park was an initiative of the residents of this close-knit community, as it had previously been used by taxi drivers revved up on thoughts of F1 glory and quick shortcuts through a dense part of the city. Frankly, before it was taken over by the citizens, it was bare, barren and dangerous. And of course, being an open space connected to the alleyway meant that it was frequently filled with children during the day and the homeless at night. Far from ideal for all parties concerned. When residents asked the City as to what the status of the land was, they were told that it could not be developed, and was thus unusable for this purpose. Too bad for the proprietor, but this proved to be a major boon for the community, as the locals quickly pooled their resources, planted flowers and shrubs, created a little path, and gave something directly back to the community. Feel good altruism at its finest.
Unfortunately, the reason for this rally in particular was to remind the public that this space exists, and that, as almost all green space is these days, it is under threat of redevelopment into – wait for it – condominiums. Eight at four hundred grand is the estimate, wedged onto a plot of land no larger than the floor-space of a typical Victorian row house. And poof goes the park in the process.
Though the City is still adamant that the land is unusable, the owner has a team of lawyers apparently working round the clock to find a solution to this project in Quebec City of all places. This seems doubtful, likely little more than intimidation. At the event on Saturday, the owner’s wife showed up and told people to ‘get off her lawn’.
Think twice about the next small rally you pass, as the cause may be righteous and more practical than you think. Small community involvement never catches the public’s eye, but they are still a vital and important tool and element of our civic lives. And who cares if the issue at hand isn’t good enough to be on the six o’clock news – if it affects you or your community, then it is your responsibility to stay informed. Of all the anxieties expressed at this gathering, the one that struck me was the feeling of hopelessness experienced by those who overhear a popular and preachy discourse pertinent to the merits of preserving the diversity of the urban environment. It’s a great game to talk, but too few walk it. So think too about your day-to-day access to green space in this city, and consider that Montreal is in no way a leader in this respect. Citizen access to public green space is still embarrassingly low in Montreal by international standards. Our access to condos is thoroughly unencumbered, by contrast.

Coda –

In retrospect I find this story slightly disturbing.

Our desire for the free market to remain ‘unencumbered’ by government imposed restrictions is in actuality a desire by private interests (in essence, no different than you or I, except with investment capital & lawyers on retainer) to not be held down by any societal responsibility, to cut themselves off from the collective for a brief moment to give themselves an unfair advantage over the interests of their fellow man. Consider when the owner’s wife shows up to curse us out and call the cops, telling demonstrators and members of the community to get off her land, she was also demonstrating – very clearly mind you – that she did not consider herself to be in any way integrated with other members of her society. She may even tell you as much to your face, for spite.

She didn’t recognize that all citizens are fundamentally united, chiefly via taxation and the specifics of our citizenship, constitution and charter, and that her imposition on others by refusing to realize this is far, far greater than the imposition she feels by recognizing her tacit claim to land ownership may be worthless given a decision made in favour of the interests of the collective.

What kind of sick society would have you believe you belong to a collective, tax you accordingly to provide for the whole, and then turn around and accord special interest arrangements to put some above the great mass, for their myopic, individualistic and ultimately financially-driven motives?

Standing even among a couple dozen like-minded people demonstrating their belief that the interests of the collective always outweigh the interests of the Howard Roark crowd is sufficient enough for me to see what’s right here. While city’s across North America build modern tenements in the form of postage-stamp condos on every square foot of ‘apparently available’ land, the delicate balance that was achieved so well in Montreal becomes threatened. Make no mistake, there’s a reason we have so many great neighbourhoods in this city – it wasn’t an accident, it was planned. Parts of this city were designed and built by some of the finest minds in the business – other parts were influenced after the fact. It’s part of our legacy as the first Metropolis of Canada, and we damn well better fight to keep it. I find it difficult to believe the social-cohesion of this city isn’t at least in part a result of excellent neighbourhood design and cohesive community planning and management. I can’t imagine what this city would look like and how it would feel if we allowed all the Fatal’s of this world to do whatever they felt with every scrap of land illegally transferred into their ‘ownership’.

Suffice it to say, if free-market capitalism in action seeks to destroy a community green space, then I’ll take socialist city-planning any day of the work-week.

In case you forgot; Arcade Fire free show Sept. 22nd

Arcade Fire at Rock en Seine, 2007 - not the work of the author.

So I finally had an opportunity to listen to Arcade Fire’s latest album. Yes, I’m aware the Suburbs came out some time ago and they all already won the Grammy for best album. What can I say, I like taking my time and waiting for an ideal moment to sit down and really get into an album. There can be no interruptions, nothing to take away my focus.

This past weekend I had the opportunity – specifically on SUnday, when there wasn’t much to do given the tailed of the hurricane.

And as if it needs to be said once more – with gusto – The Suburbs is a truly fantastic album. Made me weepy at one point, and made me remember long car rides with my parents some twenty years ago. Kudos Arcade Fire, for awakening some very pleasant memories. If you haven’t given it a listen yet, go out and get it on vinyl.

Or, wait until September 22nd and see them live at Quartier des Spectacles.

Sweet Zombie Jesus, I really can’t wait.

Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is perhaps my most favourite song of all time. What can I say, I know I’ve said that a lot, and I meant it each time.

Hope to see you at the show.

The Pit Before Place Ville Marie

Intersection of Mansfield & what was then Dorchester, looking North. Place Ville Marie had yet to be built - not the work of the author for obvious reasons.

Now that I’ve moved closer to one of my favourite Montréal icons, I feel compelled to remind people that before PVM, Montreal featured a massive open trench close to the heart of the city. In fact, before CNR and the City entered into an agreement to redevelop the entirety of CN lands south of the Mount Royal Tunnel (a process that took almost a half-century to complete), Montreal was hopelessly scared by this gigantic hole.

The gaping hole on the urban tapestry was as a result of the Mount Royal Tunnel, constructed around the turn of the 20th century to allow an efficient and direct northern rail connexion to the new heart of the city. The Canadian Northern Railway, half of CN’s predecessors, built the Town of Mount Royal as a model garden suburban city, boasting its rail connexion to the city centre as its chief advantage – imagine that, excellent public transit access as a major selling point for a massive residential development, about a hundred years ago! Profits from the residential development allowed the CNR to expand by leaps and bounds. Even more impressive eh? Makes you wonder why we don’t do this anymore.

Plan of the new community of TMR & Mount Royal Tunnel - circa 1912

I suppose planning on this magnitude was more common back then. In any event, as successful as the project was on one side of the mountain, it left a pretty bad fissure on the other, which over time grew notorious as a preferred location to commit suicide. As grisly as that may be, it was also provided a near constant drone and a considerable amount of air pollution, and as you can imagine, helped precipitate the residential demise in this part of town. As the city expanded beyond the urban constraints of the Old Quarter and began moving up the hill, urban redevelopment succeeded in gobbling up a good portion of the Square Mile in the process, as the large estates and institutions of yesteryear’s mercantile elites were transformed into the modern yet mature city we have today. PVM stands out, in my eyes, as the principle focal point of Montréal’s dense urban core.

The PVM development was part of a larger CN master plan which included the development (in chronological order) of Central Station, the CN headquarters and original ICAO complex, the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Place Ville Marie, the Terminal Tower (800 Boul. René-Lévesque) and Place Bonaventure. A later development would come with the Place du Centre and McGill College revamp of the 1970s and 1980s, entrenching these lands as a new societal centre for the City. Suffice it to say a lot of paths cross here, so it was natural to work the site into a larger traffic master plan.

And imagine all that was here before was an open void. Seems almost otherworldly to me, and very hard to imagine as I lay out on my roof at nights watching the grand beacon announce our presence to all points within a fifty kilometre radius at eight-second intervals. Very hard to imagine indeed.

Montreal’s Infrastructure Storm – Public transit to the rescue?

MTQ proposal for the revamped Turcot Interchange - not the work of the author

A Montreal Gazette article from August 25th 2011 detailed what is being described as a perfect storm of simultaneous, overlapping infrastructure projects which may ‘paralyze’ transit on island and in parts of the metropolitan region by 2015, less than four years from now. Among other projects, the controversial Turcot Yards & Interchange renovation project (read a great Walking Turcot Yards post here), the renovation of the Ville-Marie Expressway, the Champlain & Mercier Bridges and the Lafontaine Tunnel renovation are all to overlap by 2015. Experts gathered recently for the Ecocité Conference at the Palais des Congrés issued a statement, saying the City, Province and Federal governments must cooperate not only on major infrastructure repairs, but must also invest in a major re-investment in Montréal’s public-transit systems, so that they can be effectively used to minimize the impact renovations will have on the traffic requirements of a major city. In other words, public transit ought to be the tool used to negate massive gridlock, and provides a fantastic opportunity to get many more Montrealers hooked on the greener way to travel.

While the MTQ and City continue to argue about land-expropriation and the design of the new Turcot Interchange (read this fascinating Spacing Montreal article on the City’s space-efficient circular design), the major spans on the Saint Lawrence crumble, as does the Ville-Marie Expressway, and the traffic disruptions from regular infrastructure repairs and maintenance have already led to varying degrees of small-scale economic damage throughout the region.

In other words, we don’t just need to execute major renovations, but need to renovate with minimizing maintenance clearly in mind. Systems need to be designed with preventative maintenance as opposed to reflexive, piece-meal maintenance, much in the same manner as aircraft are maintained (and its for this reason that some aircraft models have exceptionally long lifespans of over 50 years). Thus, this perfect storm may also be a perfect opportunity to include wide-scale preventative maintenance measures streamlined across the board – after-all, these project are all exclusively within the realm of vehicular traffic, so there’s bound to be a significant amount of capital-cost overlap as well.

What’s significant here is that there are an exceptional number of vehicular commuters here in Montreal, on average spending about 30 minutes commuting to work each day. Two and a half hours on average spent driving to work – what a horrible waste of time! In Montreal, much like Toronto, about a quarter of vehicular commuters spend more than 45 minutes in traffic. The idea is that Montreal commuting times will increase dramatically by 2015 (and I can imagine, incrementally increase until then) as these projects wreak havoc on our local transportation infrastructure, which is heavily focused on individual usage of automobiles. Ergo, a new Transit Alliance proposes that the public transit system be expanded to accommodate people inconvenienced by the traffic disruptions. Unfortunately, according to one StatsCan study, about 82% of commuters who use their cars to get to work have never considered using public transit to get to and from work, whether its available or not. The typical justification given is that it is inconvenient.

I suppose that may be the case for a great many people in a number of cities across the country, but Montreal is well-known for its considerably advanced public-transit system. Over a million rides are taken each day on the Métro, which is a significant ridership level for such a comparatively small system. But despite efforts by the STM and AMT to expand lines, introduce new and improved equipment, and a host of suburban transit systems expanding access to Montreal, it is still exceptionally difficult to convince people to give public transit a try.

What’s particularly maddening is how residents of the West Island have been clamouring for a Métro extension to either the Airport or, in many more cases, Fairview shopping centre, for some time, and yet refuse to recognize this is unlikely to happen as long as the West Island communities maintain their hostile isolation from the rest of the Metropolitan Region. What’s more, it is the residents of the West Island who, for the most part, drive into the city, and are in turn responsible for a good deal of the traffic congestion. It’s a vicious circle of inactivity and futile fist-waving, and I personally find it a bit of a piss-off that West Islanders in general seem to consider using public transit as something diminutive, as though the buses are only designed to serve the hired help and the pre-license teens.

My justification for that previous statement is rather straightforward – if West Islanders, or any other community for that matter, wanted better public-transiot access, they’d pony up the bill, which is high and heavy no matter which way you cut it. Yes, the communities who have access to the STM pay for it in part, but the City is clearly footing the lion’s share of the bill.

I agree fully with the Transit Alliance’s proposal in principle, but it is unrealistic that the three levels of government will provide adequate funding for both the major road and bridge work in addition to the costs of new tram and train lines, Métro extensions etc. The City must take a more proactive approach and find methods to finance the extension of these systems without government support. Moreover, it must be clear to the Citizens that after these renovation projects are complete, a better maintenance scheme will be in play and the total number of road/bridge users will decline dramatically. In other words, the City must market the hell out of our new improved public transit system to get ridership into record-breaking numbers.

On a final note, have you ever wondered how Mayor Drapeau financed the initial Métro system?

Many people think that Expo some paid for it. It did, but after the fact. Initial capital came in from City Hall auctioning off the building rights atop the Métro stations. As an example, the Blum Building (currently Concordia’s Guy-Metro building), was one of the first such projects, wherein the developer paid good money to have an office tower with direct access to the station, and the rental retail properties on the commercial sub-levels were an added bonus. Imagine what we could do if we wanted to expand to all corners of the island?

Public transit needs to be sold to the people as an investment for future economic growth and current stimulus in the construction and services sector. It needs to be marketed as the self-perpetuating economic engine, open and available to all at a reasonable price, offering access to everywhere. Streamlining all metropolitan public transit services and instituting a ‘one-system, one-region, one fare’ policy may encourage new riders, but not in the same wide-reaching manner large-scale city-driven development will. A Métro station for every neighbourhood would not be a difficult thing to accomplish.

Consider the social cohesion and sense of community that is provided every day by frequenters of a ‘community station’ and ask yourself, with everything else in mind, whether we can afford not to do this.

Call your councillor.

Rick Perry is a dangerous lunatic – and wants to be President

This is a priceless video of Rick Perry stumbling through a very straightforward question about why he supports abstinence-only sex education despite its proven track record of failing miserably at preventing teen sex and numerous unwanted pregnancies. Perry is responsible for encouraging this type of sex-ed, and now Texas has the third highest rate of teen pregnancy amongst the fifty United States (and what the hell, let’s throw in the USA’s many dependencies, districts, governorships and other scraps of the American Empire for good measure). It’s insane unless its purposely malicious, doubtless a vital component to the manipulated self-perpetuating and clinical poverty which permeates the American working class. It is despicable no matter what way you cut it, and let us not forget that the literal definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over agin, each time expecting a different result.

Is it any wonder this man is also responsible for 230 executions and counting, not to mention five specific cases in which it was more important to satiate the governor's bloodlust than overturn a wrongful conviction. Is it me, or is this asshole a hopeless train wreck of a man?

Which in turn begs the question, why the fuck is he even in the running?

To say he’s a George W. Bush clone in and of itself is overly simplistic. I’d argue instead that he’s being very carefully coached, doubtless by the same individuals responsible for coaching W and Ray-gun Reagan. What this means with regards to the November 2012 US federal election is anyone’s guess.

The fact that people are guessing is pathetic, but that’s another issue I suppose.

In any event, keep in mind as Canadians, as citizens of the world, we will have to deal with whatever catastrophe this guy’s responsible for.

Sleep well – this man may soon have a finger on the nuclear trigger. Given his track record what with executing individual human beings, how do you think he’ll manage the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth?