Montreal – Horizon 2000

Fascinating clip I found on the YouTubes called Montréal Horizon 2000. Its a promo piece for the 1967 City of Montreal Master Plan, otherwise branded as ‘Horizon 2000’. Put together by the city’s planning department, this film, and the plan from which it is derived, plots the development of the city from the Summer of Love to the dawn of a new century. At the height of Expomania, as one might imagine, the plan was bold and ahead of its time. That said, after watching this clip you’ll realize much of the plan would end up getting realized anyway, though perhaps to not as large of a scale and not always to our collective advantage (spoiler alert – they figured our highways would be over-saturated, quel surprise).

The plan clearly has one major goal in mind – population growth, with a targeted population of seven million souls by century’s end. Mayor Jean Drapeau and Chair of the Executive Committee Lucien Saulnier were elected into office in 1960 largely on a ‘one island, one city’ platform and during his time in office the communities of Saraguay, Rivières-des-Prairies, Saint-Michel and Pointe-aux-Trembles were voluntarily annexed into the city of Montréal. Horizon 2000 points to a future city that would occupy all of the island, inasmuch as the South Shore and Laval, with economic influence and a commuter zone stretching towards the borders. A city of seven million in thirty-three years, starting from almost three million in Greater Montreal at the time.

They estimated thirty some-odd years to more than double in size.

They were optimistic, but on the whole the vision and plan of the Drapeau administration (and it’s insufferably uninspired quasi-extension under Bourque) at the very least realized growth through annexation. Though we now know forcing annexation on independent communities through provincial government initiative is extremely unpopular, it shouldn’t prevent the city of Montreal from pursuing voluntary annexation now or in the future. The thinking goes that over time, the larger tax pool of a larger city (and the efficiencies that would come with service standardization and streamlining throughout the metropole) would permit the city to offer better bang for the collective buck. It seems clear to me Horizon 2000 looks forward to the annexation of bedroom communities and commuter suburbs to enrich the public purse, redistribute zoning for maximum economic impact and operational efficiency, and further still to ensure the city on the whole maintains a diverse and balanced local ecology. And their boldness vis-a-vis annexation might be explained by the view that the suburbs were mere extensions of the city made possible by the city’s investment in local transit and traffic infrastructure.

Suffice it to say, the city planners of Montreal in 1967 may not have anticipated much if any opposition to the growth of Montreal at the expense of the political sovereignty of the tiny farming villages that constituted the rural belt around the city. I assume they figured few in the year 2000 would be going around calling themselves a Lavalois or Pierrefondsienne.

The plan anticipates a wide variety of issues and considerations a much larger city would doubtless have to contend with. Congestion, environmental degradation, access to public education, health, social and civic services, representative democracy, sustainable economic growth and general viability were all primary concerns for the authors of Horizon 2000, who seem to anticipate a larger city-proper might actually have the financial means to properly address and triumph over these problems.

Despite the various socio-political factors which stalled our growth and development, the city grew in some of the ways anticipated by Horizon 2000 (meaning, to me at least, that it’s worth re-investigating this plan in particular should we ever got our act together to build a bigger and more significant city).

Unfortunately we’re starting to occupy as much space as was once deemed large enough to hold twice our number. Suburban sprawl is one problem, but a larger problem might be our inability to increase density in extant suburban areas. We occupy an inordinate amount of space.

While we’ve managed to develop an enviable public transit service, it’s far from the elegant and sophisticated ‘grand social equalizer’ envisioned for a more egalitarian future. While comprehensive, what we have isn’t nearly as large as the system that was conceptualized to move so many more people (and as you might suspect they expected much larger Métro and commuter-train systems as a matter of fact necessity), further expecting the highway system they were designing at that time to be as over-loaded as it is today.

In any case, take a gander, seems interesting enough.

It makes me wonder what kind of master plan we have today. The nearest example I can find is the Montreal 2025 plan (which for some -cough- inexplicable reason default opens to its English-language page), but this is nowhere near as bold or as driven as Horizon 2000.

Sure it’s aesthetically more appealing to most (especially when you compare 3D renderings to the grainy 60s modern film styles of the video above) but unlike Horizon 2000 (an actual plan which was pursued despite some major and unforeseen economic problems), Montreal 2025 is little more than a list of private residential and commercial projects and provincial or federal development initiatives. The city doesn’t have a reason or a goal, even such a simple goal of becoming a bigger city.

Food for thought – does this city have a project? If not, why not? And why don’t our apparent leaders share their visions with us?

In a video like the one above you see an example of a city that respects itself and takes itself seriously (this would have been expensive in the late 1960s, and keep in mind this is just a promo piece for the actual written plan). It confronts the big problems that can come about with big dreams in a straightforward manner, and further still it suggests confidence in our ability to overcome the difficulties of growth to produce an world city sans pareil. Montreal 2025 is hardly such a plan.

It occurs to me that too few of those who have thrown their name into the ring to run for mayor – as though it were nothing more than a popularity contest – have any idea what this city’s goals ought to be, and worse still would be loathe to spell anything out concretely for fear they can’t meet their commitments. None of the popstar candidates whose names have been batted about have a plan at hand.

It wasn’t too long ago this would have been considered the bare minimum. Perhaps our standards have fallen.

Ah, the good old days…

This is a keeper.

Back in the late 1980s there was a TV program called Caméra 88 (which aired on I’m not sure what – guess I’ll ask Fagstein) which was running a kind of early 48hrs type game, albeit with a more local focus and a shorter running time.

Anywhootenanny, apparently Montrealers were as bored with themselves back then as we are today, and Montreal’s basic offerings for entertainment and leisure may have felt a bit stale even to locals twenty-five years ago. City’s with major tourist draws always tend to make the locals a bit cranky, as though they themselves have not delighted in the city so many tourists go gaga for. I get that feeling time and again, like I’ve seen it all, but I’m a creature of habit who’s easily entertained.

Enter Caméra 88 which decides, all the way back then, that they need to ‘shed some light’ on Montreal’s otherside, it’s ‘underground’ as it were, as if to learn the locals a lesson – what do they really know about Montreal? It’s almost as if this episode was anticipating Kristian Gravenor’s Montreal: the Unknown City, a kind of Hipster bible popular amongst Ontario ex-pats who settled here to get a cheap and dirty education right up until the economy sank.

Well this mini-doc would certainly appeal to Hipsters. For one, the ‘tour guide’ Errol or Harold, seems to be the quintessential proto-Hipster, washed up on our shores from what was doubtless a less open minded community in the United States. He takest he camera crew to visit some of the various odds and ends that made late-1980s, early-1990s Montreal a lot of fun.

Second, there’s a fair bit of urban exploration going on, as our host somehow manages to finagle his way to the top of the Université de Montréal’s phallic tower and and later visits a squat. Back then the sensation that we had fallen behind was not only sinking in mentally but further, manifesting itself in a whole lotta urban decay, traces of which can still be seen strewn somewhat helter skelter along the downtown’s southern fringe.

Third, and here’s the icing on the cake, our intrepid host takes us what then passed for seedy entertainment (like going to a, gasp, heavy metal show at Foufounes), or getting your car washed at the erotic car wash.

Perhaps my older readers could fill me in – did we all get a little strange back then? I seem to recall a proliferation of strip clubs with video arcades on the ground floor, teen prostitution rings, Jo Jo Psychic Savard, street-side erotic photography studios, a lurching Serbian strongman who pulled buses with his beard and a whole lot of other stuff seemingly all coming to fore back then.

The episode also features a Hare Krishna dining experience, a dépanneur proprietress who served her clients in a Playboy Bunny outfit, a restaurant that provided psychic consultations between the third and fourth course, oddball vendors and ‘hands-off voyeurism experiences’ that pushed the limits of social acceptability a quarter century ago.

Suffice it to say, this mini-doc is kind of adorable. In retrospect I think we really are a far more conservative society than we like to admit if this is what passed for ‘scandalous’ twenty some-odd years ago. It’s comparatively quite tame.

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.