Tag Archives: Deurbanization

Yesterday and Today

The bell tower of the former Saint Jaques Cathedral and the parking lot that preceded Place Emilie-Gamelin, 9th of June 1976. Photo by Vincent Massaro, credit to Archives de Montréal
The bell tower of the former Saint Jaques Cathedral and the parking lot that preceded Place Emilie-Gamelin, 9th of June 1976. Photo by Vincent Massaro, credit to Archives de Montréal

This is Berri Square on June 9th 1976, the year of our Olympiad.

I find this photo significant for a few reasons. First and foremost is that UQAM had not yet built its main campus.

That came three years later.

It only took three years to build UQAM’s main campus.

Let that sink in and think about how long it has taken the province to build the MUHC. Or finish the Dorval Interchange. Or complete the Train de l’Est.

Need I go on?

Why don’t we build as fast as we did thirty some odd years ago?

Warts and all, I find the Latin Quarter far more inviting and appealing today when compared to the photo above.

Back in 1976 there was no Grande Bibliotheque nor UQAM’s main campus. There was no large public space either (Place Emilie Gamelin would only be completed in 1992).

To think that the roof of Berri-UQAM was a parking lot for all those years…

This doesn’t feel like the transit and institutional hub I know, it feels barren and disconnected.

I guess that’s the second thing I find fascinating about this photograph – it’s deceptive.

There seems to be a lot of stuff missing, and the openness and lack of any kind of green space makes the area feel impoverished, and far less significant in terms of its function within the urban environment. This appears to be almost some kind of accident of urban planning.

But then you have to consider Berri-de-Montigny station (as it was called back then) had been completed a decade earlier and would have been as much of a transit hub as it is today. Consider Saint Denis would have been similar to how it is today in terms of its reputation as an ‘entertainment district’. UQAM’s main pavilion hadn’t yet been built but the university was using the building facing the bell tower of the former Saint Jacques Cathedral. The old bus depot would have been newish back then, and the large warehouse across the street was the main distribution centre for a major local grocery chain, and doubtless was humming with activity all night (it was later converted into a roller rink and concert venue). Place Dupuis would have been relatively new as well, offering high end commercial and corporate real estate as well as the Hotel des Gouverneurs, one of the first large hotels in the are aside from the old Gare Viger railway hotel.

Even though there’s virtually no green space (and consider as well the grounds around the remnants of the cathedral were closed to the public), the area nonetheless has a more open feel. I can imagine this area felt very different with all that open space and open sight lines allowing perspectives of the city that have been lost to time. Montreal would’ve looked different back then, and perhaps arguably looked better at a distance than it may have been up front.

That said, I think we need to be careful in how we look at Montreal’s urban past. This photo was taken in 1976 and a sizeable chunk of downtown Montreal looked a lot like this – large parking lots, large open lots, a lot less green space and fewer major institutions occupying the centre of the city. How could 1976 have been any kind of a ‘golden year’ in our city when so much of what makes our city great today simply didn’t exist at the time?

I’ve often argued we look at our past, particularly as it concerns our urban environment and urban quality of life, with rose coloured glasses.

Sure, we hosted the Olympics, the Habs were winning Stanley Cups left and right, the city’s economy was stronger and a Montrealer was Prime Minister.

But consider as well the exceptionally higher violent crime rates of the era (i.e. a hundred homicides a year), or that Montreal police morality squads prowled for young gays on Mount Royal. Consider the mansions and historic neighbourhoods replaced by skyscrapers and obliterated by highways, or the population shift to the suburbs and a downtown that turned into something of a ghost town after 6 pm. Imagine Montreal without Le Plateau or a resurgent Saint Henri, or any of the prized urban neighbourhoods we so covet today; we are a far more livable city now than we were then.

Forget about Montreal’s Golden Age. It hasn’t happened yet.

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.