Deurbanization in Montreal’s City Centre

Peel looking South towards the CN Stockyards - late 1970s. Photo credit to La Presse
Peel looking south towards the CN Stockyards – late 1970s. Photo credit to La Presse

I came across the above photograph browsing Flickr a while back and was struck what an excellent representation it is of the deurbanization of Montreal’s city centre – there was once a rather vibrant community south of Saint Antoine Street. The photo above is taken about halfway down Peel Street south of Boul. de la Gauchetiere. Just out of frame along the sidewalk at left is Place du Canada. On the right, Windsor Station, which at the time was still being used as a train station. On the other side of the intersection, the Le Coloniale tavern, and further down the block at the corner of Saint Jacques, the Queens Hotel, just before its abandonment. It would be demolished in 1988 as it was infamously judged to be on the verge of total structural collapse. Richard Bergeron often remarks how he watched demolition crews slam the wrecking ball into the walls three or four times before it would even start to give. The Queens Hotel had a capacity of 400 rooms, was a heritage site and anchored an entire city block of myriad smaller buildings of diverse styles, as you can plainly see in the photo above. Further down the block the CN Stockyards, also nearing the end of its utility and presence in the urban environment. Further still, one of the areas once numerous industrial operations. This photograph was taken just over thirty years ago, at a time in which many Montrealers were only just beginning to bemoan the loss of economic status as a consequence of the deindustrialization of the area colloquially referred to as Griffintown.

Google Street View of Peel Street looking south towards ETS
Google Street View of Peel Street looking south towards ETS

Fast forward to today and you see how deindustrialization has led quite directly to a kind of strange deurbanization. The block where the Queens Hotel, La Coloniale tavern and numerous other buildings once stood is now a parking lot. The lot where the Bonaventure train station (and later CN Stockyards) once stood is also empty, while the industrial concern has been converted into the ETS engineering school. The former Planetarium in Chaboillez Square is abandoned, as is the behemoth former Dow Brewery just out of frame of the screenshot above. Everything beyond is being prepared for an assumed mass of condo and loft dwellers, and in this respect Notre Dame West seems considerably renewed, but the space allocation given to the planned amalgam of single and dual occupancy residential living in the Griffintown sector is so high that it will be impossible to regenerate a viable sense of community. Consider what the area you see above is supposed to become a doorway of sorts to a vast neighbourhood in the very centre of our city. It neither looks nor feels anything like the identifiable neighbourhoods of our city; it’s been deurbanized to be repopulated with branded living ‘urban chalets’ or some such nonsense, with commerce limited largely to corporate chains. I have my doubts a condo ghetto of such a massive size as is being proposed for Griffintown, with no planning input from the city whatsoever, could possibly become a real neighbourhood in any tangible sense. Suffice it to say I think the city should be heavily involved in every step of the area’s redevelopment, specifically mandating the limitation of block-sized projects, while promoting more small-scale residential and commercial developments.

The yellow boxes represent some of the most heavily depopulated areas of the city.
The yellow boxes represent some of the most heavily depopulated areas of the city.

Consider this vantage point on the same area of the city from 1947. I’ve pointed out the Sun Life Building, Windsor Station and Gare Central for reference.

The area is it stands today.
The area is it stands today.

And how it looks today – many, many more parking lots, far fewer small and medium sized buildings. Too many empty lots and comparatively large empty buildings. Wasted space. Highways and viaducts joining together as a massive wall neatly slicing Griffintown and the Sud-Ouest off from the downtown. There’s a lot of potential here, but any desire amongst the citizenry to use this space responsibly (so as to develop a cohesive and sustainable community) will necessarily require direct city involvement. Someone needs to develop a master plan; this area could support thousands of new residents if developed properly.

Portlands in Montreal - 1947

Here we get a better idea of what drove the urban scheme back in the 1940s, when this area immediately south of the current downtown supported a far, far larger population. As you can see there was once a considerable port function located west of the Bonaventure Viaduct, where the Lachine Canal joins the Saint Lawrence River. Top left you can see the passenger platform at Windsor Station and the stockyards further south. In the centre of the photograph, where the short-lived Canada Post mail-sorting facility once stood, you can see the collection of docks and piers that supported the grain trade. Bottom centre and towards the bottom right corner, the vast CN yards in Pointe-St-Charles. This was the epicentre of the nation’s trade in bulk resources, where rail met steamship, a twenty minute walk south from Place du Canada. A disproportionate amount of heavy industry was concentrated here, as was a considerable working class population, and enough diverse office space to manage the whole affair.

For a very long time this space was closely associated with the economic strength of an entire nation. Such common psychogeographic associations can have a profound social effect; when this area began its transformation in the 1960s it was interpreted by the public almost as though the city’s economic guts were being torn out. The reality was that maritime transport, port facilities and rail infrastructure was undergoing their own transformation, and the large-scale projects favoured by the Drapeau administration made the change all the more dramatic. The photo at top shows the area when it had already large been depopulated; within ten years it would be largely deindustrialized as well.

Screen Shot 2013-06-01 at 11.06.18 PM

And here it is again as things stand today (actually, I think this flyover took place in two parts, one in 2004 and another in 2007, but it’s close enough). There’s still a lot to play around with – a diverse quantity of existing buildings (which if older than fifty years ought to be considered for preservation) and myriad different sized lots. If necessary some should be purchased by the city and divided up to encourage more human scale developments, as I fear far too much of this space will be allocated to condominium projects that all too often become self-contained urban gated communities. I wonder sometimes if it wouldn’t be wise to knock down most of the large-surface area light-industrial buildings to give the area a ‘clean look’ for redevelopment. In any event, I digress, just some food for thought. I’d like to see more before and after shots of the city where empty streets and mega-block constructions get replaced with something that actually looks and feels like a balanced urban environment.

One thought on “Deurbanization in Montreal’s City Centre”

  1. What you erroneously refer to as the “Stockyards” was in fact the Bonaventure freight terminal. The Stockyards, a facility for storing, selling and trans-shipping livestock, were on located Mill Street a couple of km south (around where the Costco is today). Some of the buildings are visible in the historic aerial photo.

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