A Five Point Plan for Montréal

Downtown Montr̩al at Dusk, 1964 РArchives de Montr̩al

A colleague and I were having a conversation about efficacy and efficiency in communications and recommended I try a thought exercise wherein the purpose is to reduce complex ideas into bullet points, or even solitary though immediately accessible words. I decided to apply the idea to answer a question friends and family ask me from time to time; if I were so fortunate to be mayor of our fine city, what would be my plan?

So here it is in eight words. Here are five goals I’d like to attain for the purposes of making this city greater and better than it currently is.

They are in no order of priority, I’d seek to accomplish all concurrently and there’s a strong focus on using some Keynesian economic ideas so as to make our local economy stronger than it is. I’m trying to point out the ways progressive policy may in fact be good for business in some cases, and there’s definitely a strong social empowerment focus. That said, here they are:

1. Free University
2. Street Vendors
3. Green Belt
4. Métro
5. Expos

Soviet Passenger Liner docked in the Old Port, 1964 РArchives de Montr̩al

The Free University wouldn’t be free in terms of cost, but it would strive to be far more accessible than our current four major universities. Call it a ‘no-frills’ university for the citizens of Montréal, using rented commercial space and/or otherwise unused heritage institutional buildings the city doesn’t know what to do with. The full-time cost of tuition per semester, not including books and stationary, would not exceed 750$. Funding would be derived through the rebated tuition, corporate sponsorship & advertising rights but the city would strive to operate this school for the citizens, as municipal tax-revenue would also be required. Students would have access to rent-controlled housing in the urban core guaranteed and inspected by the city, in addition to part-time employment opportunities through the city. In lieu of on-campus retailing, students of the Free University would instead receive a local equivalent to the Student Price Card to help sustain local independent businesses, in addition to a rebated transit card. Additional sources of income for the school could be derived through a university trust fund administered by the city, an annual lottery and/or the widespread implementation of city-owned vending machines wherein a portion of the profits/sponsorship could finance the school’s operation. The point is to build a new university that has as its primary goal the mission to allow the very poorest amongst us a way out of the perpetual bondage of low pay and no options via higher-education. I can imagine such a university offering classes at all hours to accommodate those who must work while they study, and frankly, so be it, it’s good for business inasmuch as its good for our general well-being. It would create a modest number of well-paying jobs for local academics, not to mention provide a working solution to our on-going problems with accessibility to higher education. A free university for a free society.

Tour de la Bourse under construction, 1964 РArchives de Montr̩al

I’ve made my point about street vendors before – it’s not about whether or not I can buy street meat at quarter to four in the morning after a night of raucous partying. It’s about re-investing in the small-enterprise foundation of any city’s economy, and we’re certainly not helping ourselves by making it prohibitively expensive to get the smallest of businesses going. As far as I’m concerned, most public space should be open to small-scale, regulated commerce, and opening up our city to small business will invariably act as a major source of stimulus to our economy in general. It will drive competition, stimulate the ‘creative class’ and provide numerous opportunities for people who can’t otherwise access large sums of capital. The city would take it upon itself to build stylish kiosks and rent them out to entrepreneurs, and expand on a program already instituted in our Métro system for vendors of knock-off handbags and cell-phone cases. Ideally, we would endeavour to develop more public markets and allotted space to the myriad small-scale entrepreneurial activities our city should be able to provide. It’s time to do away with old prohibitions and bylaws that have outlived their utility. Other perks to this plan would include the obvious, such as convenience and variety of services available, to the more subtle, such as the crime-deterring presence of well-lit kiosks, karts and the like staffed by motivated entrepreneurs scattered throughout the city on a nearly twenty-four hour cycle. This is ‘the ballet of the streets’ Jane Jacobs was on about – human scale enterprise and human-scale business relationships, the presence of which allows for cleaner and safer streets and an undeniably stronger general cognizance of being part of a society. Can we really be capitalists if we live in a city which has ‘outlawed’ the smallest and simplest forms of commerce? Let this city become a bazaar, let markets flourish, and let’s empower the working classes to own and operate independent enterprises. Business for all.

Downtown viewed from over Lafontaine Park, 1964 РArchives de Montr̩al

The Green Belt plan is an idea already floating around that has the potential to stimulate our local economy in unexpected ways, but is all too often merely presented from a preservationist, rather than conservationist, perspective on the environment. We don’t just need to see more ‘green’, our nature parks have a job to do, we must have functional green space. By increasing the total amount of protected wilderness and green space in the metropolitan region (and for simplicity’s sake let’s just focus on the archipelago for now), we can provide endless amounts of work for our city’s large snow-clearance, landscaping and paving companies. Here’s how. More green space means more retained groundwater which means more precipitation year-round which means snowier winters. Think back over the last few years, we’ve had some monster snow-storms, but our winters seem to be increasingly dry while also getting colder, chillier. Lack of precipitation in winter means a lower water table come spring, which means less water for local agriculture, summer watering bans, and subsequently heat waves. We can seek to protect and develop wetlands in and around Montréal as a new Green Belt (limiting low-density development as a consequence) specifically to address this problem and to provide numerous jobs, year-round, as a result. More green space means our city would breathe easier, be healthier, have access to camping facilities and it would look better too. Within the urban core, it could take the form of a green streets and park-like alleyways, rooftop gardens and urban agriculture, perhaps even the construction of new urban parks. Outside the urban core, the Turcot Yards/Falaise Saint-Jacques, the quarries and the refinery lands could all be systematically converted back into wilderness – a new set of lungs for the city.

Cit̩ du Havre, 1965 РArchives de Montr̩al

Métro expansion should be an absolute no-brainer, and it’s idiotic we actually suspended Métro expansion because the province didn’t want to pay for it anymore. Can our city not secure investment by itself? I propose 100 stations in 20 years, with a rate of five new stations per year, across extended existing lines and wholly new lines. 100 stations in 20 years would be akin to rate of station development we had in the 1960s through to the 1980s. This means that in twenty years time the entire Montréal Archipelago could be covered by the Métro, not to mention parts of the North Shore and most of the South Shore as well. By that time I can imagine all the airports would be connected and the system would run all day and all night – why not? No part of the metropolitan region would be more than a single short bus ride to a station. The whole metropolitan region would be covered, and this would be immensely beneficial to all citizens. Expansion means more riders and increased revenues. The Métro begets status, permanence and numerous business opportunities with each new station. Consider the costs associated with owning and operating one or more automobiles today in Montréal – the costs are very high and cars don’t last very long in our climate. Imagine the money we’d all save with just such an expanded Métro system? This benefits the citizens inasmuch as the corporations and companies who will be asked to invest in development.

And we need professional baseball not to the detriment in popularity of any other sport, but rather because it maintains our status as a significant American city. We forget that baseball isn’t just popular in the United States, but in the developing economies and markets of the Caribbean and Central America, not to mention Mexico, our often ignored NAFTA partner. Broad-based American attention means tourism stimulus, cultural exchange and the possibility for new business and commercial activity. Yes, it’s a prestige investment, but it’s also valuable entertainment and diversion in addition to being a popular sport and pastime. Another major entertainment venue in the downtown core benefits everyone and acts as a point of geographic economic stimulus, and it seems as though the major nail in the coffin of the Expos was not the skill of our team but simply that market forces demanded a downtown ballpark and we failed, as a city, to recognize that requirement. A recent study suggests that if Canada’s economy continues to grow, we may be able to consider other professional sports franchises as well. Is it me or do you find it odd that the city that educated the man who invented basketball doesn’t have its own professional team? Investing in pro sports would go hand-in-hand with a civic investment in healthy living and active lifestyles. And then there’s the pride issue – bringing a beloved team back from the dead would be an epic win.

I’ll admit the explanatory paragraphs were far from succinct, but nonetheless, it’s what I came up with.

What’s your vision for the future of Montréal?

Phases of Development – Part One {1880-1930}

A sketch of Montréal from Mount Royal, looking Northeast, with Parc Avenue and Fletcher’s Field in the foreground

Given the expected transformation of the urban core over the next five years, I thought it might be neat to take a look at other broad phases of urban development in our city’s history, to see if we can establish some common threads over multiple generations in an effort to better determine what Montrealer’s look for in city design, what endures and retains an on-going air of sophistication. I figure that which survives is indicative of what our society sees as an ideal, and can thus serve as guide for development moving forward.

So let’s go back to the period 1880-1930. This is a crucial era in human history and constitutes the first era of modern development of our city. If we could visit this era we’d find that though life would no doubt be different in many ways, it wouldn’t be alien to us, and the pace and offerings of urban life may very well be quite relatable. Any further back in time and I feel life could no longer be described in modern terms. Consider that radio, telephones, airplanes, automobiles, long-distance telegraphy, transoceanic cables, cinema, mass transit, ecological conservation, urban preservation, city beautification and public hygiene all truly came of age in our city during this period. Modern conveniences and public expectations of the municipal government took form in this time to a degree we’d find acceptable and available communications and transport capabilities allowed both to be comparatively quick and efficient. Granted there were no satellites nor the Internet, no smartphones nor Métro, but we had systems in place that would ultimately serve to birth these technologies later and occupy their place back then. And given that Montréal was Canada’s economic metropolis at the time, we got to try these technologies early on, and then develop them according to our needs first and foremost.

View of Montréal from the roof of the Windsor Hotel (circa 1878), looking towards Griffintown & Victoria Bridge

The city of 1880 had a population of roughly 140,000 people and by 1930 this number would grow to 818,000 with a total of over a million living on-island. The city in 1880 would have been very compact, not extending much further than current Ville-Marie borough. Between 1880 and 1930, Montréal acquired the following communities through voluntary annexation: Hochelaga (the Ho in HoMa), Saint-Jean-Baptiste (part of the Plateau), Saint-Gabriel (part of Point-St-Charles), Cote St-Louis (again, part of today’s Plateau), Villeray, Saint-Henri, Sainte-Cunégonde (Little Burgundy/Atwater Market area), Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (part of CDN), de Lorimier and Saint-Louis (north-east & Parc-Ex respectively), Rosemont, Ahuntsic, Cote-des-Neiges, Longue-Pointe & Tetraultville (Eastern East End), Bordeaux (in today’s Saint-Laurent), Saint-Paul & Ville-Emard (today’s Sud-Ouest Borough), Notre-Dame-de-Grace, Sault-aux-Recollets (northernmost part of Saint-Laurent Blvd.), Cartierville (between Ahuntsic and Saint-LaurentSaint-Laurent) and Maisonneuve (the Ma in HoMa). Then, we stopped all annexations for over thirty years.

McGill and Saint James Street, way back in the day…

During this fifty year period Montréal expanded its residential tax base to eventually reach the 800,000 population mark in the early 1930s, all the while building its first skyscrapers and transforming the urban centre into the transportation, communication and commerce hub it is today. Large areas were specifically purposed for medium-density residential housing, and it is during this era that a vast majority of Montréal’s current urban housing was built. The venerable and iconic duplexes and triplexes were primarily built during this time, as many of our celebrated and prestigious parks came to be, such as Mount Royal Park (1876), Parc LaFontaine (1874), Dominion Square (1876), Maisonneuve Park (1910), the Montreal Botanical Gardens (1931), Parc Jeanne-Mance (1880s) and Parc Jean-Drapeau’s predecessor, first used by the public in 1874. This era effectively birthed what we know today as the City of Montréal’s urban core and first-ring suburbs, with the obvious exceptions of Westmount and the Town of Mount Royal. The Montréal of tourists and business, universities and super-hospitals, landmarks and institutions, attractions and festivals, all takes place in this area and has since that time. Land usage is high in this sector, density is high to medium for the most part, and the majority of citizens live in this area established up to 1930. In this respect, not much has changed from how and where Montrealers live their urban lives in over eighty years.

Curiously, Ville-Marie borough has been de-populated since 1930, owing primarily to slum clearance initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the construction of massive office towers and re-purposing of land for parking lots up into the 1980s. This trend is beginning to turn around with the many new residential condo towers promised under the Tremblay administration, in addition to the many repurposed 19th century industrial properties in the urban core. That said, the population of Ville-Marie borough is currently only at 78,000 people.

Rue de la Commune, early 1900s

The city back then was completely and thoroughly focused on the port and railway networks which define the borders of today’s Vieux-Montréal and Vieux-Port de Montréal areas. Saint-Hubert airport, the city’s first, would not begin operations until 1930, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that commercial air travel became affordable for most citizens. As such, a considerable amount of commercial, corporate and industrial activity would have taken place in a comparatively small area where proximity – between work, play and rest, the port, canal and the outlying train stations – would have been crucial. Consider things aren’t so different amongst the expectations of today’s urban citizens, and this is chiefly responsible for the city’s success at steady repopulation over the last decade.

Rue de la Commune, far from being the quaint Old World tourist promenade it is today, would back then have been a primary location for wholesale and warehousing activities, not to mention all commerce and regulation pertaining to our vital port operations. It was in every sense a massive market, as it had been for a hundred years prior, and was a dangerous and somewhat sinful part of town at certain times in the day. In fact, the entire area currently known as the Quais du Vieux-Port tourist area was back then a series of grain elevators and cold storage facilities, all very much in operation well into the late 1970s, by which time they were declared obsolete and replaced with new facilities in the East End.Place Jacques Cartier and the Champs de Mars served a far more vital purpose – as the city’s chief public market, leading an expansive collection of such markets throughout the urban core (many of which would be re-built or renovated with 1930s Keynesian-style ‘make-work’ stimulus funding). Again, proximity to farmer’s markets offering locally-grown high-quality market fair have transformed parts of the urban core, and a re-investment by the city in such facilities is demonstrably beneficial to the attraction and retention of urban property owners today.

A public transit network, comprising tramways and later, trolley buses and then diesel buses, would carry hundreds of thousands of people every day throughout this urban area, as we can see in the comprehensive MTC route plan pictured above. It is during this era that the first Métro proposals were floated around given the saturation of the existing infrastructure. Still, it worked and worked well, offering thorough coverage of the city for a modest fare.

Saint James Street, predecessor to Bay Street РMontr̩al circa 1910

Trams were focused on the Craig Street Terminus, roughly the site of today’s Place-d’Armes station & Palais de Congres. Major train stations of the era included Bonaventure, later replaced with Central Station in its current location, Windsor Station, Gare Viger, Dalhousie Station, Westmount Station and the Park Avenue Station, forming a ring of railway stations in and around the city, many of which were directly accessible by the trams. The Mount Royal Tunnel, completed in 1911, would allow for the eventual development of the Garden City styled modernist suburbs further to the West along the Canadian Northern Railway corridor headed towards Ottawa. It is within the area bounded by these traffic, transit and transport systems that our modern city grew.

Not the work of the author – taken before the renovation of the Square in 2010-2012

Tall buildings built during this era included the very first, New York Life Insurance Building (1887) and Aldred Building (1931) both excellent examples of over-riding design concepts vis-a-vis large corporate and commercial ‘landmarks’ constructed at the time. They can be described as hierarchical and paternalist – buildings of the epoch (but especially those built and conceived of in the 1920s) tended to put gather people of a similar pursuit in one place and integrate necessary services for the prospective tenants, with the power and prestige of the individual rising in accordance with the floor of their office. In the case of the New York Life Insurance Building, it’s top floors were dedicated to the largest private law library in all of Canada at the time of construction, and as such the majority of the volume was rented to the establishment law firms of the day, with commercial insurance and banking services at the base. The Aldred Building was designed and conceived as a property for the Aldred Company, an international financier that sought an iconic property for the historic though often over-crowded Place d’Armes.

Bell Telephone Building on Beaver Hall Hill

Other examples of note which left lasting impressions on the urban tapestry were the Bell Telephone Building and Annex (1929), occupying an entire block and fronting onto Beaver Hall Hill, signalling the transition from a ‘downtown’ below the hill to one increasingly occupying prestige properties further ‘uptown’. This process would be completed in the 1960s with the near total abandonment of Old Saint James Street in favour of the new mega projects going up in what can now be described as the Central Business District on René Lévesque Boulevard. This building served as Bell’s head office, the veritable brains of the operation – a massive switching facility – was integrated into the complex by means of the Annex facing University, completed a few years afterwards. In this single edifice one could find the company’s institutional memory, it’s research & development component, it’s brains, heart and soul – all under one roof. It included a company club, a restaurant and cafeteria, a convenience store and medical offices for employees, in addition to employee lounges. En lieu of stock options and a parking spot near the building, this was a pretty good set-up for the corporate climbers of the day. Other head offices of similar concept designed in this era include the Sun Life Building (completed in 1931) and the Royal Bank Building (1927).

This era also witnessed the development of very large block-sized constructions, such as the Dominion Square Building (1930), featuring mixed use office space, parking garage and a shopping arcade and subsequently dominating a public square (you can also consider the head office of the Canada Cement Company on Phillips Square. There was also a tendency to group activities together under a single building, such as the Guy and Drummond medical Buildings (again, here with specialized services for pre-Medicare health services, such as large elevators, incinerators, and even facilities to conduct small operations). There’s also the oddball case of the Architect’s Building (completed in 1930 and demolished in 1955) which as you might expect contained the offices of several prominent architectural firms, including the offices of Ross & Macdonald. Finally, several prestige mega hotels were developed during this time to reflect Montréal’s growing international standing. Hotels such as the Queen’s (1885), Windsor (1878 & 1906), Ritz-Carlton (1912) and Mount Royal Hotel (1922) were all built as highly integrated facilities, including banquet and reception spaces that were frequently host to Big Bands of the era, restaurants and other diverse services.

It seems as though the primary focus of many of these comparatively massive projects was integration of one kind or another – integration to bring the general public into interaction with a space, integration of services for the workforce, for tourists inside landmark buildings, a high-degree of connectivity between the work, play and living environments, and above all proximity to everything you could ever need between office and home.

I could go on at length about the development of universities, hospitals, schools, theatres and other institutions during that time, to say nothing of the grand department stores, but I don’t think it would add anything to what I view as the fundamental driving concept behind construction of that era. They were designed to last because the plan was to create an individual affinity for the building as a result of the conveniences it offered, to associate a building with a space and functions. Unlike later eras which focused on malleability, rental potential and generally speaking the seasonal influences of style and fashion, this era produced the first phase of modern urban high-density permanence. Though re-purposing would have seemed unlikely to the architects of the day, it’s ultimately a surprising testament to the enduring sophistication of these properties that help keep them alive.

Food for thought indeed. How enduring are our more modern creations?

Ilots de Fraicheur

It certainly looks green enough…

It’s too hot, and too dry, for far too long.

Not just here, it’s a phenomenon that affects many large urban areas throughout the world. But its universality is no reason to ignore it. Montréal’s not as green as it seems, and our local environment could be improved through very straightforward improvements to our ecological vitality.

Big cities can aversely affect the very same ecosystems that birthed sustained human habitation (and by extension, the city itself). In other words, a city’s design, regulations, and ecological sustainability – or lack thereof – can have rather profound effects on the city’s long-term viability. Consider Centralia Pennsylvania, or even Cleveland, whose river famously caught fire as a result of contamination by massive quantities of industrial pollutants. You don’t invest in cities that aren’t healthy, and the vitality of a city’s ecosystem and environment in general serve as a metric by which to determine a city’s health. Green cities are more than merely arboreal, they foster a close link between the citizen and their geography, climate and environment. Green cities beget green citizens, healthier citizens. Clean air and water should not be taken for granted, and that we think ours to be better than most is no reason to shy away from what I can only describe as a much-needed ecological audit. How clean is it really?

And why do people living in areas close to large industrial operations die younger than the average? How much does soil contamination drive up the costs of water treatment? Or how low does it drive adjacent property values?

Are we adequately considering these issues as we continue to build and move forward?

Sometimes I think our problem here is that the city seems so green, we don’t really think too much about the quality of our environment. Do we have the best quality air? Do we have access to clean, locally grown food? Why isn’t every alleyway a ‘green alleyway’? Is it me, or does the weather seem to be getting generally less predictable? (not to mention falling into patterns that seem to lead to regular environmental problems, like flooding and drought, heat waves and deep freezes). Why do I feel like my city is good at green washing and not much else? Oxidized copper domes and green tinted glass certainly drive the point home aesthetically, especially given their rather strategic locations on leafy public parks and squares, or with the ubiquitous mountain foliage serving as backdrop to our modernist skyscrapers, but the numbers aren’t very encouraging and the very real ‘de-greening’ of our local environment may have far-reaching consequences – higher power consumption, increased wear and tear on city infrastructure, a more destructive local carbon footprint, inclement weather and all that flows quite literally after it, etc.

This is why we absolutely cannot afford to further ignore our local water-table and why we absolutely must re-develop local wetlands

I found an interesting piece listed on the excellent the Montreal City Weblog from the Journal de Montréal on the growing problem of surface heat retention in the Montréal region and the need for new ‘Ilots de Fraicheur’ or large green spaces to refresh our air and water. This may seem like a trivial piece of environmental science, but consider the very real effects of high heat retention in urban areas – heat waves in Europe in 2003 are estimated to have killed 70,000 with 15,000 in France alone. This is not through drought causing starvation (though of course it does in many developing nations), but simply people over-heating in any number of ways and succumbing to the strain of sustained high temperatures on the human body. We rarely think about how destroying available green space in an urban context may in turn have rather drastic local environmental consequences, yet we’re apparently aware that the destruction of wetlands in our biosphere (as an example) is directly responsible for high heat retention and low ground water retention. The science is clear but we refuse to acknowledge just how crucial environmental development may be so as to provide a superior quality of life moving forward. City infrastructure needs to be repaired, but might not be so maintenance prone if our weather was generally more cooperative. We have the tools and intellectual capital to effect real change in this respect. In other words, city beautification must evolve into urban environmental engineering.

I can imagine the reduction of available green spaces in the city (about 20% in fifteen years) may be quite directly responsible for a worsening local ecological situation. This isn’t rocket science. Water levels have been low this summer, leading to watering bans, but more significantly I can remember having this problem last year, and the year before last, etc etc. Without sufficient ground water our weather gets weird, unpredictable. That the soil dries up may not be so much a concern for urbanites but given the agricultural backbone of our region, we’d be wise to think beyond our borders, as this impacts our ability to purchase locally grown food for decent prices. Poor harvests lead to farm foreclosures and purchase by large agro-science firms like Monsanto, something Québec and Montréal could do without, not to mention fewer options at our beloved local markets. It’s all highly integrated, and we know with a degree of certainty that in order to turn this negative trend around, we would be wise to develop as much new green space in the urban core as possible, while reducing needless low-density residential development as much as possible. Thus, we need more parks, wetlands, green alleys, green roofs, urban agriculture and additional city-sponsored ‘no development’ zones. Only our city has the financial means to improve the region’s ecosystem en masse and in one shot; neither the province nor the federal government seem overly interested in such things. Thus it can no longer be effected as band-aid solutions or otherwise left to the limited resources of the philanthropic side of the citizenry – we need a master plan and tax-revenue to address this problem.

The City of Montréal published this guide to our seventeen largest nature parks; the total area comes up to just under eighteen square kilometers. The island’s total area is 499 square kilometers, making preserved green space a little less than four per cent. There’s a good chunk of preserved Montréal wilderness out at the Western tip of the island, but this is outside the city’s territory, and so far simply waiting to be built upon. This stretch is just about the last place you’ll find wild deer on the island, and Charest has promised to build a new urban boulevard right through it. Though it’s been described merely as providing a much needed additional North-South conduit between residential areas and the highways, the fact remains that there has been talk of using the route to connect Highways 40 and 440, through Ile-Bizard and Laval, for some time. Land to the West of this proposed boulevard would likely quickly open up to additional low-density residential development, something the West Island already has in spades. Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep some green?

This should be greener…

And all the while we continue planning the destruction of what remaining wetlands and large green areas we have left. As the on-island population inches closer to two million people we’ll need to increase urban density if we want to save the vital forest and swamps that regulate the local water table. A proposed ‘green-belt‘ around the island is encouraging, but doesn’t seem to feature much if any real green-development in the most highly urbanized areas. I don’t think this is entirely a problem to be contained, geographically, as it is one which must be addressed from within.

Like I said, we need a master plan.

For a city apparently so forward thinking, we’re considerably retarded in terms of instituting broad ecological regeneration. If we don’t get on this soon, we may pass a threshold from which we cannot return. Bad environments have sunk many cities, in this country as well as the States. I don’t think we can afford the downturn in investment that would surely come from a major environmental disaster – don’t forget, our city almost had to be evacuated during the Ice Storm. It was too close a call for my personal comfort.

Shakespeare in Cabot Square

Cabot Square in the Fall – not my work

How fortunate my mistake.

I was originally supposed to see Repercussion Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew in Verdun, but had mixed-up the dates. Seeing how few dates were left, I proposed Friday August 3rd, in Cabot Square. It would be a nice way to cap off the week, and a picnic was planned for the occasion.

But wait – Cabot Square? Come again?

They can’t be serious!

My previous encounters with the summer delight that is Shakespeare in the Park had been in the broad green expanses of Westmount Park and NDG Park, places I assumed had been designed with outdoor theatre in mind. Cabot Square is run-down, the whole area is, and the park is typically filled with a wide assortment of people living on the edge doing their edgewise living. It’s far more a public square than park, as the design supports pedestrian through-traffic. There’s not much grass and you’d be wise to watch where you sit – broken beer bottles being the least of your concerns. It isn’t pretty, and I wondered whether the busy and hectic backdrop of entertainment complexes, bus stops and a hospital would, combined, have a detrimental effect on the quality of the performance?

I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I’m delighted to see just how effectively urban public theatre can quickly and rather decisively transform an otherwise unsightly part of town. Despite the background noise and the limitations of the space, Repercussion Theatre did an exemplary job entertaining well over a hundred enthusiastic spectators. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that they came mentally prepared for the site, something I found rather fascinating, and knew ahead of time to expect the unexpected and unpredictable. Good on them too, it worked quite well. Perhaps these are just the hallmarks of talented actors, but I digress.

The set itself was minimalist and easily transportable, and stationed on the slightly more spacious eastern side of the square, with the majority of the audience seated in collapsable chairs by the Cabot monument. This left a fair bit of open space undisturbed by the performance, and kept it disconnected from the busier western side (where you’ll find several more bus stops and the always boisterous Métro entrance). With the position of lights, seats, picnic tables and a couple fold-down tents, the area for the performance was clearly delineated without requiring any actual obstructions, such as fences, folding tables or security guards. In this way, it was far more inviting than it might be otherwise. That said, there are risks involved, such as having the performance disrupted by yahoos running amok in the city. But hey, c’est la vie. Excellent actors make all the difference.

I met a few friends after a long day of work, all of us well-dressed and keen to participate in a moment of public culture. We sat down stage left and enjoyed a sumptuous picnic of fine Indian cuisine from Thali and a nice Portuguese white wine whose name escapes me at the moment. Joining us was probably the best behaved racing hound I’ve ever met; didn’t make a sound the entire time and seemed to be legitimately relaxed around so many people. The show got off without a hitch and it was immediately apparent that this was a well-oiled machine, having done more than a dozen earlier performances. I recognized several actors off the bat, having somewhat come up in the milieu of Montréal’s Anglophone theatre community. And on that note, Repercussion does excellent work and I’m glad to see that despite the many difficulties experienced by this community over the years, it nonetheless keeps itself going with vibrant well-executed productions and talented actors. We’re rather fortunate in this respect.

The eruption of amplified human voices at ten past seven got the temporarily re-located public drinking enthusiasts going early, and shouts coming from the edge of the square would occasionally compete with the dialogue, but never enough to trip anyone up. Halfway through the first act one of these enthusiasts approached the stage enquiring ‘you wanna kill somebody? you… you… wanna kill some buddy, eh?’

All of a sudden an audience member appeared by the drunk’s side and seemed to be going in for a kiss. His hand was on his shoulder and he seemed to be whispering to him, and after an initial protest the intrepid spectator reached further down for his waist. He quickly silenced the drunk and got him to move away without a fuss. I would find out later the spectator was in fact just that, an average citizen watching the show who had the wherewithal and requisite gumption to prevent a greater disturbance. I was quite impressed to say the very least. Suffice it to say if you think I get a kick out of organized citizens reclaiming urban space, I’m certainly overjoyed to see the disorganized amongst us stepping up at the crucial moment to assist in prolonging the reclamation of urban space by the citizenry.

Discussing the matter after the show with our intrepid peacemaker, he remarked how much more authentic a setting Cabot Square really is for this kind of entertainment, as compared to the manicured lawns and genteel manners of other public spaces used in this year’s production. It dawned on me at the moment that Cabot Square was rather apropos. Much like back in the 16th century, the people brought their own chairs, booze, food, dogs, whole families etc. and occasionally people would rather impetuously interfere with the goings on. Midway through the second act a fistfight occurred just behind the stage – no actors were harmed during the production though despite some rather raucous slapstick between local mainstays Alex McCooeye (Petruchio) and Matt Gagnon (Grumio). Kirsten Rasmussen delivered an excellent performance as the intensely independent and free-spirited (if somewhat overly scandalized) Katharina, and her well-timed command of Shakespearian double-entendres and innuendo gave way to excited bursts of laughter from parents with unknowing children in tow. Shakespeare, when un-Disneyfied, can be immensely entertaining for all ages and has always seemed to me to reveal itself to be increasingly complex, intricate, as one’s command of the English language expands and evolves. Repercussion’s cast paid a loving tribute to the Bard in this respect, and it was very well received from all in attendance.

I definitely want more of this.