Category Archives: Montréal Noire

Destroying the Old Port – Historical Perspectives

Knocking down the Old Port - late 1970s, not the work of the author.

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend spending some time in the Old Port this Summer, and specifically a walk along Rue de la Commune. Enjoy a nice meal on an outdoor terrace, walk along the Harbourfront Park and take in the wide variety of activities available in Montréal’s Old Port during the peak Summer tourism months.

And remind yourself as you look out over the water towards Ile-Ste-Helene, the Casino, Habitat 67 or the Jacques-Cartier Bridge that once upon a time – not too long ago in fact – you couldn’t see any of it, because the Port of Montréal was still fully operational in the sector currently known as Vieux-Montréal.

As the photos here demonstrate, the Old Port was once the port, and the area currently occupied with restaurants, boutique hotels and galleries was once highly industrial/commercial. All those sweet lofts you now covet were once working-class housing, and the port had a bit of a reputation for being a seedy, run-down part of an old city falling apart at the seams. Consider the size of Grain Elevator No.5, and imagine three elevators of a similar size, not to mention cold-storage warehouses and functioning piers and all associated logistical equipment, ripped out from their moorings and cleared away. Though this was doubtless a smart move for the city (as more modern port facilities were constructed further East and the area once occupied by the port was turned into one of the classiest neighbourhoods in the city), it nonetheless had a deep impact on the psyche of local inhabitants.

Approaching Montreal's port - late-1960s, early 1970s; not the work of the author.

Here’s where dates are key. The renovation of Montreal’s Old Port and the relocation of the commercial seaport took place in the late 1970s. It involved cooperation between three levels of government with the Fed leading, as the Port of Montréal is a crown asset. At the same time – the same year in fact – the much dreaded economic reaction to the election of the PQ in 1976 was beginning to manifest itself. The Péquistes were talking Bill 101 and an eventual Referendum, and some major corporations once headquartered here pulled up their roots and shipped off to Toronto (In 1978 it was the Sun Life Insurance Company, once a major white-collar employer). The near simultaneous destruction of much of the industrial component of the Old Port signified, for many, an irreversible turn of fortune – a Montréal equivalent to Cleveland’s infamous Cuyahoga River Fire.

Cold Storage warehouse and other port facilities - 1958; not the work of the author.

FYI – if you want a local blues-rocker’s take on this era in city history, check out Walter Rossi’s “Down by the Waterfront”; off of 1980’s ‘Diamonds for the Kid’ – scroll over to read the lyrics. I can’t say for certain it’s about life on our particular waterfront, but from what I’ve heard and read, life was a bit different back when the Port actually emptied directly onto de la Commune. Consider that Montréal’s role as a major transit point in international smuggling operations has pretty much maintained itself since before the War – it’s just that back before the mid-1980s, most of that smuggling was going on where currently American tourists go to get a taste of Europe on the cheap. Dig?

Moving the port facilities further East was obviously a wise decision, as the expansion allowed the Port of Montréal to develop into North America’s premiere inland port. In fact, I’d even go so far to say it made the Saint Lawrence Seaway somewhat obsolete, as ocean-going vessels can now easily dock in Montréal and transfer their cargo directly onto waiting trains, access the oil terminals and have access to larger spaces and more modern equipment to unload cargo containers. Moreover, by moving the port to a more or less dedicated industrial area, away from the city and next to a major military base, cut off from residential area by better zoning, rail lines and Boul. Notre-Dame Est probably did quite a bit to remove, if not eliminate some the seedier elements associated with major port cities from the picturesque Old Quarter.

Old Port Police HQ - demolished in the early 2000s; pic from late 1970s, not the work of the author.

I think one of the biggest problems we had with regards to our Old Port redevelopment (read this neat 1979 Montreal Gazette article about planning for the new Montréal Harbourfront), was that there was a lull period throughout most of the 1980s as the old was removed, the ground de-contaminated, the area re-designed etc. It seems as if the Drapeau & Doré administrations didn’t adequately communicate the Old Port redesign scheme as a major investment with guaranteed returns, at least not well enough to counter the growing perception that Montréal was becoming a washed-up second city.

Part of the problem may have had to do with the fact that ‘harbourfront/dockside/portlands’ renovations were a kind of weird 80s and 90s urban-planning technique designed to ‘re-invigorate’ failing American rust-belt cities, most of which kind of came up flat. I think Montréal succeeded wildly, though it shows – when you walk around the Old Port ask yourself who works there in the off-season. It still has a viable economy besides tourism, and has been re-integrated into the urban fabric, quite expertly in fact. Consider the types of services, spaces, places and institutions in the Old Port – this is now a place to live, work and play. Few other cities have been able to rehabilitate such a large area on such a grand scale; how much money has been invested into the Old Port and Old Quarter since the mid-1980s? I can bet you it probably dwarfs what was spent on the Olympics.

It’s unfortunate that, as a result of our extremely successful port renovation scheme, we lost this:

Market scene from Place Jacques-Cartier; 50s or 60s? not the work of the author.

And it’s also kind of amazing that we did, given that so many other cities went with conversions of old port-side warehouses and storehouses into international markets – think South Street Seaport in NYC, or Faneuil Hall in Boston. And given how successful other markets have become in Montréal, you’d figure there would be an effort made to rekindle a bustling Old Port market. I’d love to see small motor boats coming in from up and downriver with fresh produce. Actually, I’d get a huge kick out of it. Imagine the people watching you could do! Imagine how much more life it would breathe into the port, and how many more Montrealers may go there – tourists be damned.

On a final note – there are two elements of port life I would like to see reintegrated into the Old Port, and I can imagine it would allow for an interesting and distinct character. For as nice as it is, the Old Port still seems a little too dependent on tourist dollars to keep going – at certain times of the year, let’s face it, the Old Port can be anything but hospitable, with much of Rue de la Commune boarded up until the Spring. I’d like to see actual sailors, people from all over the world, enjoying the Old Port and utilizing it as anyone may use a city, but there is a lack of affordable hotels in the area, as pretty much everything is geared towards wealthy American and European tourists. If this was altered slightly, and additional services for sailors were located in the Old Port, it would add a degree of authenticity (which can’t hurt) that may translate into additional sources of steady income for the Old Port as a neighbourhood and community.

As it stands right now, the Old Port is a bit of an oddity in Montréal. It’s gorgeous, it’s antique, it’s wealthy and fun. But there are parts which still seem a bit off – is it weird to have a playground in your front yard? The fact that there is no so little actual port activity in the Old Port gives it a Disney World pseudo-realistic feeling. What if a ferry terminal and a dedicated cruise-ship pier were built, and the Old Port reprized its role as a major transit point? I can imagine the Old Port would acquire a degree of cachet heretofore unknown, one it could potentially bank on. Not to mention that there is a potential gold mine in opening up the Old Port, with its remaining facilities, as a new passenger transit hub. Today there are no ferries between Montréal and say, the South Shore, or West Island, or anywhere else accessible by water. There are very few cruise ships, and a lack of investment in new facilities will prevent Montréal from becoming a major cruise ship tourist destination (and if you’ve ever been up or down the Saint Lawrence, you know why that’s kind of ridiculous).

I mean who wouldn’t want to sail into this:

The view from 1994. Pretty much the same as it is today; not the work of the author.

Montréal Kitsch: the Kon-Tiki Polynesian Restaurant

Illustrated advertisement for the Kon-Tiki - located at what is currently the Cours Mont-Royal; not the work of the author

When my parents were growing up, the Kon-Tiki was a top-flight Montréal resto and a true local institution. Apparently it was known far and wide and outlived the 1960s Polynesian fad by a considerable margin. It certainly helped that they were located in one of the most fashionable hotels in the city at that time, not to mention a stellar decor. Kinda wish resurrecting restaurants was a thing.

Is it me or is dude all crazy-eyed looking at that green drink?


Disused rail line, Port of Montréal near Moreau Street, facing West - 1954: credit to Vicky Robinson

When I first came across this photograph I thought instinctively that was from a very early period, 1890s or thereabouts. Closer inspection revealed the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in the background… and then I realized the date included with the rest of the pertinent info. Oh well, only spent ten minutes trying to figure out how old it was.

I can’t tell whether it’s a power line or a telephone line, but either way it was clear rail was hardly the priority. I suppose I could have just shown you a recent picture of the Bell Centre to indicate my personal malaise at the state of rail transit in the city from which once all rail led.

What do you think about rail access in Montréal? Will the Train-de-l’Est spurn additional AMT development? Will we ever build a high-speed link from here to anywhere else? And what about the long-talked about high-speed train to NYC? It’s been on the books for twenty some-odd years!

Is this picture an appropriate metaphor for how our city deal with new technologies? How apt is it?

The longer I look at this picture the more it seems to mean to me…

Commemorating the Blue Bird Café Fire

James O'Brien, responsible for the fire that killed 37 people on Sept. 1st 1972 - not the work of the author

The Blue Bird Café and Wagon Wheel country bar were once located on Union Street, south of Ste-Cat’s on the west side, in what is now a parking lot. On Friday September 1st 1972 three young men, O’Brien among them, were denied entry to the Wagon Wheel for being excessively drunk. They left but came back with a plan only conceivable to several inebriated young men – to start a fire on the staircase leading to the upstairs club while it was packed with Labour Day weekend revelers. The fire quickly got out of hand, spreading throughout both establishments. A detailed report on Wikipedia can be accessed here.

Recently one of the many indirect victims of the disaster, a Kathleen Livingston of Brossard who lost her daughter in the fire, was found murdered in her home. I can’t imagine how awful that must be for the family, especially knowing that the Blue Bird Café Fire has almost entirely been forgotten.

Among other things, the culprits have all been paroled from their life sentences. The families of the victims were given a mere 1 to 3,000$ and the City, Fire Dept. and proprietor walked away from one of the worst disasters in the city’s history.

What breaks your heart isn’t the death toll or even the disturbing images – such as these recently posted to Coolopolis – its the fact that it could have been prevented.

Most of those who died died together, huddled in a bunch by a rear window, hoping to escape the smoke and flames. A rear exit had been locked shut, and people were trampled as the patrons upstairs rushed to the ground floor Blue Bird, itself filling with smoke and flames racing across the ceiling support beams. That the fire escape was locked would be grounds enough for the City, Fire Dept. and proprietor to be on the hook for a substantial amount, but the victims were nonetheless not properly compensated.

It’s disconcerting, but the fact that we haven’t had a fire with a major death toll since may be an indication that the city and Fire Dept. take the issue of a major fire at a crowded restaurant or club a little more seriously. There have of course been some spectacular fires since, such as the paper recycling plant that went up without any victims back on June 8th or the fire at the old Franciscan Monastery at Hope & René-Lévesque which went up in flames in February of 2010. Still, I’d hate to think that it’s the kind of thing which is bound to happen from time to time. I remember an ex girlfriend of mine telling me that Steve’s Music Store on St-Antoine was a tinderbox waiting to burn. She indicated that the interior was too cluttered, the exits not clearly labelled and that the owner had bribed the Fire Dept. to look the other way on bad wiring, lack of extinguishers, smoke detectors etc. I don’t know if its true or not, but I definitely tell people I know to always go there knowing exactly what they want, and to make the trip a short one.

I think it’s for the fact that I believe the citizenry needs to always keep one step ahead of the great threats to our communities that we commemorate the Blue Bird Café fire. A plaque is hardly sufficient, and the location of the building – in a what is now a parking lot on an unimportant side street downtown – won’t grab people’s attention. By contrast, I remember seeing a memorial in downtown Toronto dedicated to construction workers killed in industrial accidents (I think it’s near the Metro Toronto Centre) that literally stopped me in my tracks. It was bold and in-your-face, detailing the way these poor people died. Something akin to that in Montréal, to commemorate the Blue Bird Café fire, would be a good use of public funds. Effective use of installation art can drive the emotions of ordinary people, and make them care about issues that may not have necessarily occurred to them without prompting. Something like that for the Blue Bird – something like that to remind us of man’s follies and our greatest dangers and the responsibilities we share as citizens to ensure each others’ safety. Another feather in the cap of big government, I would never want to have corporate interests considered before the needs and rights of the people. If only so much influence could finally come from this tragedy. I think we all share in a responsibility to make something happen here.

Gang & Mafia Violence in Montr̩al РA Query

Paolo Violi, dead in a pool of his own blood: aka - The Way Out - not the work of the author, probably the work of a crime scene photog

Montréal has a bizarre problem with crime. It’s hard to describe it without getting bogged down in seemingly contradictory nuance and jargon relating to crime statistics throughout the city. For most of the last century, Montréal, owing to its combination as port city, Canadian metropolis and Sin City appeal have resulted in a long and colourful history when it comes to crime. For instance, we have a retardedly low homicide rate but are also a focal point for the illicit gun and narcotics trade, which is in itself largely thanks to our massive, strategic port, in addition to the presence of several Aboriginal reserves (especially Akwasasne, which is in essence a backdoor for smugglers into the States). We have had a gang problem since as far back as anyone can remember, and when you break down the gangs by demographics, there are street level hoods for practically every nation represented in our colourful mosaic of a city. Irish mob, Russian mob, multiple biker gangs, Haitian gangs etc etc (all of which are apparently operating in a weird kind of balance. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Calabrian and Sicilian factions of the Montreal Mafia weren’t themselves organizing a strict division of labour between the various other groups operating here). Perhaps that’s why even the gang-violence rates have been going down (until last year if you count the arson cases which have gripped Little Italy). Rape and other sexual assaults are also on the decline, and so is random petty thefts and assaults in the Métro. Ask anyone who lives here, and they’ll tell you its a safe city.

Now – that being said, here’s some unfortunate truth:

For one, we may be in the midst of a full-scale changing of the guard with regards to which faction is running the Mafia here in Montréal. I read a fascinating article to that effect by Alessandro Amerigo on Viceland, which can be accessed here.

Kristian Gravenor, over at Coolopolis, (always a bevy of the lurid and amazing re: crime in the city), has put this video together of interviews with a former street gang leader and local criminologist, with a focus on the Haitian Street Gangs.

The key here is that we’re essentially dealing with what initially started out as loose organizations of people who were trying to level a very unequal playing field. Nowadays it’s different, it’s all about the coin, but there’s a ounce of truth to the idea that these gangs and criminal organizations got their start as a means to protect immigrant communities from abuse. As Montréal is a cosmopolitan, international city, we’ll always have a gang problem.

But why does it seem as though the SPVM isn’t terribly good at catching and prosecuting gang leaders and mob bosses? Why do we have such a hard time keeping a lid on gang violence? One would think that we’d have had enough experience by now to have figured out excellent ways of combating these problems.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the SPVM is quite talented at killing people in exceptionally suspicious circumstances, and then covering up any malfeasance with an enforced code of silence, brought to you by the Police Brotherhood – which itself, much like the Mob, tries to innocently present itself as a benevolent organization that takes care of police widows etc. I can’t remember the last time a Montréal cop was killed in the line of duty.

You’d think that with the mechanisms we have in place vis-a-vis law enforcement (ie – a police union that never turns on its own backed up by a total lack of an internal affairs dept. along with a thoroughly complicit Sureté de Québec and close ties with quasi-Separatist labour unions) would allow the SPVM to prosecute street gangs and criminal organizations with near impunity while exercising extreme prejudice. But alas they don’t. Instead, innocent immigrants, minorities and people biking to work get popped and the word on the street is nil – it’s not your business and you have no comment, lest you want to feel the wrath of the Police Brotherhood.

Almost makes you think the big-league crimes that happen here do so because they’re occasionally allowed to happen. The ultimate in collusion and corruption may be the same apparatus that keeps the general crime rate low. I don’t want to believe this is the case, but sometimes I wonder why a city like ours continues to have to deal with various inter-gang flare-ups of violence. If the Vice article is in any way legitimate, we may have to deal a major spike in violence, akin to the late-1970s when the Sicilians ‘bought-out’ the Calabrians to take control of the local Mafia and its business. Those were dark days, and the people must do whatever they can to prevent such a war from starting again. The question is are we willing to give the SPVM a carte-blanche to wipe out the problem?

How far are we willing to let them go to protect us all?

You couldn’t make this shit up…

Not the work of the author

The following anecdote is real – it is not the result of the author’s extensive imagination.

The other day I had to go to Dorval to pick up some mail from my Aunt’s place. Returning to Lionel-Groulx around 3pm I decided to take the Metro to Atwater, and thus went with the crowd exiting the 211, coming down the stretch bordered by benches. A very old woman, I’d say in here late 80s and not looking very healthy, sat in a wheelchair alongside the last bench. She made eyes with me – they were alarmed. Figuring she might be in distress I ventured over. In a thick St-Henri patois she asked me if I she could borrow two minutes of my time. She launched into a pre-scripted rant about how she worked for an NGO which aimed to assist poor Columbian agriculturalists develop sustainable methods and make ecologically sound decisions. She then says that for a small fee I can help these poor, downtrodden individuals – at this point she whips out a baggie filled with white powder. For fifteen dollars, she’d sell me what she called ‘fairtrade cocaine’.

I took me a while for my jaw to wind itself back up towards the rest of my head. Beyond weird, it as a solid what the fuck.

By the way, found this.