This is why we can’t have nice things – Cabot Square Edition

SPVM squad cars in Cabot Square - 2013
SPVM squad cars in Cabot Square – 2013

A couple of nights back I was having a smoke in Cabot Square, arguably our city’s most dysfunctional public place, before a flick at the Forum. I think Cabot Square could be a great place, but a number of changes would have to be made, both inside and out.

As I was strolling around in the rain I noticed there was scarcely any grass, just lots of mud, gravel and poorly defined walkways. Immense and surprisingly deep puddles gave way to muddy tracks – who the hell had been driving through the park? It’s no wonder the park’s in such poor shape – someone’s been driving through it.

A couple of hours later I emerged from the Forum and got my answer – squad cars. I took the photo above, apologies for the poor quality.

I’ve seen the SPVM pull this manoever before. In lieu of parking the car and patrolling on foot, they drive through. More efficient I suppose, but it tears the shit out of the lawn/grass/paths/everything. When I was taking the pic two squad cars had lined up their driver’s side windows in the way cops do to maximize their field of view. I’ve seen the same at Place du Canada and in the middle of Place Emilie-Gamelin.

Cabot Square is one of those places that just doesn’t seem to work. Most people avoid it if they can, as it’s often overrun with drunks, addicts, pushers and a hodgepodge of local loonies. It’s poorly maintained and in the centre of an urban neighbourhood in a prolonged transformational phase. It hasn’t been renovated in a while and there’s no plan in place to fix it up (to the best of my knowledge), yet the city continues to dump seemingly unwanted sculptures there.

On the rare occasion the space is empty you can appreciate it for what it might be. It’s not hard to imagine what it would look like if the pathways were well defined, the square well-lit, with fresh, thick grassy areas, benches and picnic tables. It’s still located in the middle of a very active urban pole – there’s no reason it should look this bad and function so poorly.

But then again, we don’t treat it very well.

The cops shouldn’t drive their cars through it – it’s disrespectful, it’s actively ruining an already marred public space.

What I find ironic is that the cops who are doing this are ostensibly doing so to get the bums, drunks and roving bands of teenagers out, as it’s perceived that those groups are responsible for the damage to the square. And in the process render the space somewhat inaccesible. Who’s going to go relax on a bench next to some squad cars?

What I find odd is that Montreal police don’t apply the methods they use to patrol Carré St-Louis as they do Cabot Square. The two public spaces are somewhat similar in terms of size and design and have reputations for being a touch seamy.

But for the most part the worst you’ll have to deal with in Carré St-Louis is some young punk wannabe pushers and a couple of loud, moany drunks. Cops come by on those ridiculous tricycle Segways and bikes. There’s something disarming about police wearing bicycle helmets… I can imagine it sets a better tone of mutual respect. Such is not the same in Cabot Square, where police have been known to apply a lot more muscle, if not batons and aggressive overtones.

Sometimes I wonder whether if the difference lies in the predominance of homeless Aboriginals in Cabot Square – police in this city have always dealt with homeless Aboriginals poorly. You don’t see too many hipsters getting kicked to the ground in Carré St-Louis for drinking in public.

Cabot Square has a few other problems which, if corrected, could allow Montreal police to survey the area just as well, but without having to drive through park to keep an eye on things. If the space is ever renovated I’d hope they consider giving it the Dorchester Square treatment, which is to say better lighting and well-defined pathways to say the least. The city also elected to reduce the total number of trees in that square during it’s 2009-2010 renovation, an unpopular move that ultimately allowed for better lines-of-sight across the square.

Cabot Square could benefit from a similar makeover, as it has a rather thick hedge and decorative metal fence obscuring the view across it from nearly all points. Same story with the clutter of ill-lit and poorly placed sculptures and the bus shelters scattered around the square’s periphery. Further isolating the square from its environment are the two pavilions on its western edge; I’ve never seen the vespasienne open and the Métro access kiosk acts more often than not as a daytime make-shift homeless shelter. Together they form a kind of a wall.

Removing the hedge and decorative fence would certainly help things out a bit, as would removing some of the trees – there are so many in the square the grass doesn’t stand much of a chance to grow. The STM kiosk is massive and doesn’t nearly hold the same amount of daily traffic as it did thirty some odd years ago. It could be replaced with a Hector Guimard styled Métro entrance, as we have in Square Victoria, allowing a significant obstruction to be removed and effectively replaced. Running some kind of service from the vespasienne would also help things along, namely by bringing space-conscious small-business owners into the public sphere, not to mention the potential customers. The vespasienne in Dorchester Square is home to a bistro that seems to be doing alright – hard to imagine the same couldn’t be the case in Cabot Square.

Another issue – the bus shelters. This one’s a bit of a head scratcher as I can’t quite figure the rationale behind building many small shelters when the STM used to have one large shelter that served all the many buses stopping at the terminus. Whereas many smaller shelters invariably become public toilets, one large shelter could feature a public restroom, security and a control booth. Moreover it could be heated. Why the larger terminus building was demolished is a total mystery to me.

Final thought, and I know I’ve said it before, but I really hope Dawson ends up occupying the Children’s Hospital when it eventually moves to its new home at the Glen Yards campus. If this were to happen, Cabot Square would transform rather quickly as it became a satellite of the college’s campus, a backyard of sorts. Even though this in and of itself might not get the city to renovate the space, at the very least the presence of a lot of students will make it a little more inviting and result in the space being used a little more than it currently is.

5 thoughts on “This is why we can’t have nice things – Cabot Square Edition”

  1. At least someone is trying, by bringing art into the space. I’m doing research on the artist, apparently he has donated the statues to other parks in the city, but they got vandalized, no vandalism yet, how long have they been there for anyone know ?

  2. Jack Layton didn’t turn his office into a homeless shelter but as a City Councilor, he did make a lot of effort to establish more facilities for home less people, based on the idea of the society’s responsibility to re-integrate homeless people. Your idea to make a homeless shelter near Cabot is fabulous , but I don’t see it coming in the near future with the provincial government which has scrapped the program like ” housing first “. A women’s shelter I have been involved for many years heavily rely on donation. I don’t believe that either municipal or provincial government has any coherent idea/plan to solve our ever-growing homeless problem. Frankly I don’t think they even care.

  3. This isn’t Michael Ian Black by any chance is it? :)

    I’ll grant you it’s not nearly as bad as some might think, and that it has improved. But the homeless problem here, and in other public spaces, needs to be addressed and corrected.

    Personally, I think the city should either acquire a soon-to-be decommissioned hospital, or some other kind of institutional property (like a former convent) and turn it into a kind of homeless hotel. I don’t think people should have to live in the streets, so as I a society we shouldn’t permit it, and offer a shelter and rehabilitation facility capable of turning our homeless into productive members of society (or institutionalized should the case merit it). Our city has quite a lot of space ideally suited to this purpose, and if I recall correctly, Jack Layton turned City of Toronto office space into a large-capacity homeless shelter. The city has a responsibility to get people out of our parks and plazas and into proper shelters, and then help re-integrate them into functioning society. Whatever the cost, it’s worth it. Getting the homeless off the streets will improve the quality of our public spaces inasmuch as our quality of life, real-estate values etc.

    I’ve seen Shakespeare in the Park at Cabot Square. The play was twice interrupted by the square’s locals – one time a fistfight and another a drunken man asking the actors if they were going to kill him. It was remarkably authentic Shakespeare.

    I’d take down the fences, the hedge along the edge, about a fifth of the trees, all the glass shelters that stink of piss and the Métro kiosk.

    I think one large heated bus shelter, tastefully designed with a strong over-riding natural aesthetic, should be located on Lambert-Closse where the old Atwater Terminus once stood. Concentrating people and STM employees in one place is a better way of maintaining good-looking, well-functioning facilities. It’s also offers better security and safety for STM passengers and people in general. The Métro kiosk is useless, IMHO. Demolishing it and replacing it with an Art-Nouveau entrance would be both tasteful and far less of an obstruction.

    The square could use better lighting and new fixtures (benches, garbage cans, picnic tables, paths, flower beds etc etc) and little less clutter. Normally I wouldn’t support chopping down trees, but I can make an exception here – it looks overgrown, something which is inappropriate for a large urban square that ought to be attracting a greater degree of use.

    One idea – open market. There’s a large, new urban population living in the Shaughnessy Village area. I think a market, even if it’s just a small temporary one (such as at Mount Royal station), would be a boon to the square, post-renovation.

  4. Actually, for as long as I remember, the square was very isolated. Because of bus shelters and/or fencing, at least from St. Catherine Street, access was limited. That seems to be the origin of the current problems, it was there but behind a wall.

    That seems to be when the current inhabitants moved in. Yes, there were things like The Old Forum and then shelters in the vicinity, but with no average citizens interested in the park, the others took it over.

    The city even realized it, since there was some work to fix the problem. It became more accessible. I can’t remember when , maybe 20 years ago, maybe when the Old Forum stopped being for hockey.

    The problem is, the others remain. It’s not because there are homeless people, but the drugs and the panhandling. I remember going out through that Metro entrance at one time, and some guy insisting that I owed him money, so I never use that exit.

    Actually, the general area has improved. Once upon a time it was impossible to walk along The Forum side without someone offering drugs, but that’s now long in the past.

    Some group in the neighborhood, and the Atwater Library have organized events in the park, trying to reclaim it, but ther really isn’t anything in there to be worth the effort.


  5. As you know Carré St-Louis is getting a face-lift now. Unlike Cabot, Carré St-Louis is a whole package : rue St.Denis, the beautiful Victorian houses around it, all kinds of artists who live and lived nearby and Prince-Arthur. Because of this, I guess it’s a lot easier to get money from governments for the face-lift than Cabot. As far as I can see, Cabot doesn’t have enough elements for beautification. At this moment, Dawson’s possible move-in seems to be only practical solution for that neighborhood.

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