The Mordecai Richler Monument to Municipal Illogic {Part Deux!}

The Mordecai Richler Memorial Monument to Municipal Inefficiency and Waste
Not only does it have nothing to do with Richler, it’s not actually a gazebo.

The renovation of the Pavilion Mordecai-Richler, as it may one day be known, is now estimated to cost $535,000.

In April of 2014, costs were estimated at about $370,000.

This week, Mayor Denis Coderre asked the executive council to green-light the budget increase. He justified his request by indicating previously unforeseen issues relating to the removal of lead paint in the original structure, in addition to problems with the roof and foundation, necessitate the cost increase.

In the spring of 2014, the city paid Beaupré-Michaud over $57,000 for an architectural study and proposal for the pavilion, which Mayor Coderre has repeatedly vowed to complete. His determination stems from a desire both to acknowledge a great local talent inasmuch as to demonstrate he can accomplish what his predecessors failed to do (a common theme throughout the Coderre Administration up to this point).

Over the past few weeks Coderre has relied heavily on his determination to complete the project as the underlying justification for cost increases and delays. In sum, he’s indicated that the project will be completed regardless of the final cost simply by virtue of the fact that it must ‘have a certain dignity’ in light of the structure being named after the late author and public intellectual.

On August 26th Coderre indicated the project would be completed ‘by next month’.

I reached out to Coderre’s press attaché to find out why the city considers this a heritage site, how much had already been spent on the project, whether there was a public budget available, when the city became aware of the lead paint issue and whether an environmental assessment had been completed.

So far no reply. This is to be expected of course, as I’m certain the mayor is inundated with calls and emails from concerned citizens inasmuch as the media.

A quick side-story to illustrate the speed and efficiency of municipal government communications: a couple of weeks ago I was doing research on a story that ultimately went nowhere concerning the use of leaf-blowers. My question was simple: does the city have any bylaws concerning the operation of leaf-blowers? I contacted the Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough office and an administrative assistant (a self-described ‘temp’) told me he didn’t know but would look into it. I then contacted CDN-NDG city councillor Magda Pompeanu and left a voicemail, following that up with an email, asking the same yes/no question (Pompeanu represents the district from which the initial complaint stemmed). After several hours an individual claiming to be the borough manager contacted me and told me he was looking into the matter, and would get me an answer as soon as possible. I pressed him: it’s a yes or no question after all. He said he wanted ‘to be certain he got me the correct information.’


I then reached out to recently re-minted NDG city councillor Peter McQueen, who represents my district. He was quick to get back to me, 15-20 minutes tops, and said that he was pretty sure there were none on the books but that there would be rules concerning use of landscaping equipment during normal business hours and acceptable decibel levels. Pompeanu got back to me about a week later, confirming what McQueen had said.

As far as I’m concerned the administrative assistant should have a working knowledge of the borough’s basic bylaws. It shouldn’t take two city councillors and a borough manager to get an answer to a yes or no question, but I digress.

Back to the Mordecai Richler pavilion.

Since Coderre’s August 26th announcement he’d complete the pavilion come hell or high water, I started looking into the structure’s history. While I’m generally in favour of acknowledging great Montrealers and preserving our architectural heritage, I wanted to know what precisely made this edifice worth protecting. Heritage preservation isn’t simply about preventing the demolition of old buildings, as if it were it would be very, very difficult to build anything new in our city. We have many old buildings in our city, but not all of them can be considered heritage structures.

So what makes this one so significant the city is ready to spend over half a million dollars of public money in renovating it?

Two things I discovered: first, it’s not a gazebo. Second, it has basically nothing to do with Mordecai Richler.

I had hunches on both these points, but didn’t know with certainty until after speaking with Plateau Mont-Royal city councillor Alex Norris and Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montreal. I should point out that the Mordecai Richler pavilion doesn’t lie in Norris’ district, as Mount Royal Park is part of Ville-Marie and not the Plateau Mont-Royal borough. That said, he’s been a vocal critic of the way the project has been administered for several years, and was quick to get back to me. The city still hasn’t.

As to the pavilion’s connection to Mordecai Richler, both said that, though they weren’t certain there was any direct connection between the structure and any of Richler’s written work, the author grew up in the area and both were certain that the author would’ve been familiar with it, though neither knew if he had ever spent any time there.

The decision to name the structure after Richler came in 2011, about a decade after Richler passed. At the time the idea was that the dilapidated structure near the firefighters’ headquarters in Fletcher’s Field would be renovated and re-developed into a pavilion, obviously intended to encourage tranquil introspection as well as providing a vantage point from which unemployed philosophy grads could whittle away the hours with long pensive gazes…

And then nothing happened. The renovation project got about as far as removing what was left of the floorboards and putting up a sign that said the structure was off limits. Before that, as far as I can recall the structure was shabby looking, graffiti covered and more often than not used as a makeshift homeless shelter. Removing the floorboards took care of the latter problem and made the others worse.

Last spring Mayor Coderre decided the city had gone long enough without properly honouring the late author, and so in cooperation with the Plateau Mont-Royal borough administration renamed the Mile-End library after him in a feat of irony so absurdly perfect Richler would’ve had a hard time coming up with it himself. A primarily francophone library in a formerly abandoned Anglican church located in a neighbourhood closely associated with the city’s Hassidic community and administered by soft-nationalists who in 2014 recognized American-born, Mexican-raised Lhasa de Sela with her own park, rebutting an attempt by Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand to do the same for the Montreal born and raised Richler. Plateau Mont-Royal officials at the time argued they didn’t want to ‘sacrifice the cultural heritage’ of the neighbourhood…

I’m quite certain Mr. Richler would have found that to be hilarious in and of itself.

The initial plan to name a street or park after Richler in time for the tenth anniversary of his death fell through, but not before former mayor Gerald Tremblay decided to name the dilapidated gazebo on Mount Royal after Richler.

I’d ask Gerry what his thoughts were at the time, but I have a feeling he has bigger issues to deal with.

Oh yeah, one other thing. It’s not a gazebo.

And here’s where things get interesting, because it’s actually a bandstand with its own interesting history, one city officials don’t seem to know anything about.

Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montreal provided me with the basics about the structure and explained why, in his view at least, it is a heritage structure.

In sum Mr. Bumbaru explained that the bandstand’s history can be traced back to a prominent and immensely powerful lawyer by the name of Charles Sandwith Campbell, whose estate bequeathed one million dollars to the city in 1923 (about $14 million in current dollars) for the construction of parks and playgrounds “in congested parts of the City of Montreal (…) for young children not too far from their parents abodes” and to finance a summer concert series “to encourage the playing on summer evenings of bands of music in the public places handy to the congested parts of the city” (for clarification, quotes attributed to Campbell’s will, and not Mr. Bumbaru).

Though several ‘Campbell Parks’ were built, only one still bears his name. The concert series continues (here’s a link to the summer 2015 line-up), though of the multiple bandstands built to facilitate the concerts, only the one to be re-named after Mordecai Richler remains (similar bandstands were once located in LaFontaine Park and in Place du Canada).

The bandstand does have a long history in terms of public culture, serving as a location for public concerts and as a meeting place for special processions (such as the inauguration of the Mount Royal Cross in 1924 or the city’s 300th anniversary in 1942), and in the case of the former, the location of the bandstand was chosen because concerts were already being given in the area.

In other words, the cultural heritage here is principally of public concerts, and the bandstand was designed with acoustics in mind.

A final irony I suppose…