Tag Archives: Historical perspectives

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.

Historical Perspectives of Montréal

The Laurentian Hotel (1948-1978) and the old bus terminus - not the work of the author.

Facing East on Dorchester Boulevard, late 1950s, early 1960s. You’ll notice the recently completed Queen Elizabeth Hotel in the background and the bus depot in the foreground. Pic seems to have been taken either from Drummond or Mountain. What’s fascinating here is that the Laurentian Hotel, which at one point would have anchored Place du Canada much like the Sun Life Building or Windsor Hotel would have anchored Dominion Square immediately to the North. Further, up to the demolition of the Laurentian in 1978, this area would have had four major hotels facing the combined Dorchester Square – the Queen E, Windsor, Chateau Champlain and Laurentian, with the Sheraton nearby. The Laurentian wasn’t terribly attractive on the outside, as you might be able to see in this photograph, though the interiors were apparently quite well done.

It would take nine years for the Canadian Pacific project to re-develop their lands adjacent to Windsor Station, and by 1987 the Laurentian Bank/Lavalin project had been considerably scaled back. The CPR wasn’t nearly as successful at developing their lands as was CN; quite a pity too, given that some of the shelved CP plans called for major renovations and some epic construction in this area. Seems as if they got the shaft, and that may account for CP’s re-location to Calgary in 1997.

Phillips Square, late 1950s - early 1960s. Not the work of the author.

And this is Phillips Square around the same time, facing Northwest across the square from near the centre, with Christ Church Cathedral taking up most of the frame. Consider that this area isn’t nearly as green as it is today. Check this old Kondiaronk article for more percent pictures of the square. You can see that the cathedral now serves as a green space and urban park inasmuch as Phillips Square does. Notice as well the lack of concentrated vendors here (as street vendors were the norm back then), and the planters we have today were back then public toilets – those little towers are in fact ventilation shafts. Apparently you can still access the old toilets if you know what manhole cover to pry open. I wouldn’t recommend it, probably smells quite bad down there, and will doubtless quickly get you arrested.

Westmount Train Station, early 1970s - not the work of the author.

A view of Westmount Train Station and the Glen Yards, back before the Superhospital. With the closure of Westmount Train Station in the 1980s, Westmount’s public transit access dwindled to a handful of bus lines and a long tunnel to Atwater Métro. Vendome station, much like Atwater, is physically close to Westmount though still in the City of Montreal. It’s unfortunate that this station will almost assuredly never operate as intended again, lest there is sufficient traffic heading West from Westmount. Pity. To my knowledge it lies completely abandoned at Victoria and Saint Catherine’s West, almost within sight of Vendome Station. It’s bizarre that the commuter trains don’t disembark at Westmount Station – which is a proper train station, and have some sort of covered walkway to Vendome and the bus terminus there. It may be wise to try and reduce congestion so close to Vendome and give commuters the advantage of utilizing the train station.

Something tells me that this whole area will be the focal point of year’s worth of renovation work and re-design. Guess we’ll have to wait.

New Photos Page – Montreal in 1900!

Dominion Square and the Windsor Hotel, circa 1900

Check back soon for more pictures of Montreal from the past!

The first series of pictures are from around 1900 and can be accessed on the Montreal, circa 1900 page under “Photographs”. Or you can click here.

I’ll be working on another series of pics from the 60s, 70s and 80s and post soon.

Cheers, hope you enjoy!

Taylor –

Historical Perspectives on the City – Bishop & Ste-Catherine’s

The view from yesteryear, Ste-Cat's & Bishop, which was whited-out of this pic - not the work of the author, but apparently the work of a militant anti-Anglo xenophobe

My guess is that this pic was taken back in the early-mid fifties, though someone with an eagle-eye for cars would know better than I.

Is it me or are there a fair number of buildings still standing along this stretch?

Doesn’t seem like its changed too much, save for what you’d see in the background.

The Pit Before Place Ville Marie

Intersection of Mansfield & what was then Dorchester, looking North. Place Ville Marie had yet to be built - not the work of the author for obvious reasons.

Now that I’ve moved closer to one of my favourite Montréal icons, I feel compelled to remind people that before PVM, Montreal featured a massive open trench close to the heart of the city. In fact, before CNR and the City entered into an agreement to redevelop the entirety of CN lands south of the Mount Royal Tunnel (a process that took almost a half-century to complete), Montreal was hopelessly scared by this gigantic hole.

The gaping hole on the urban tapestry was as a result of the Mount Royal Tunnel, constructed around the turn of the 20th century to allow an efficient and direct northern rail connexion to the new heart of the city. The Canadian Northern Railway, half of CN’s predecessors, built the Town of Mount Royal as a model garden suburban city, boasting its rail connexion to the city centre as its chief advantage – imagine that, excellent public transit access as a major selling point for a massive residential development, about a hundred years ago! Profits from the residential development allowed the CNR to expand by leaps and bounds. Even more impressive eh? Makes you wonder why we don’t do this anymore.

Plan of the new community of TMR & Mount Royal Tunnel - circa 1912

I suppose planning on this magnitude was more common back then. In any event, as successful as the project was on one side of the mountain, it left a pretty bad fissure on the other, which over time grew notorious as a preferred location to commit suicide. As grisly as that may be, it was also provided a near constant drone and a considerable amount of air pollution, and as you can imagine, helped precipitate the residential demise in this part of town. As the city expanded beyond the urban constraints of the Old Quarter and began moving up the hill, urban redevelopment succeeded in gobbling up a good portion of the Square Mile in the process, as the large estates and institutions of yesteryear’s mercantile elites were transformed into the modern yet mature city we have today. PVM stands out, in my eyes, as the principle focal point of Montréal’s dense urban core.

The PVM development was part of a larger CN master plan which included the development (in chronological order) of Central Station, the CN headquarters and original ICAO complex, the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Place Ville Marie, the Terminal Tower (800 Boul. René-Lévesque) and Place Bonaventure. A later development would come with the Place du Centre and McGill College revamp of the 1970s and 1980s, entrenching these lands as a new societal centre for the City. Suffice it to say a lot of paths cross here, so it was natural to work the site into a larger traffic master plan.

And imagine all that was here before was an open void. Seems almost otherworldly to me, and very hard to imagine as I lay out on my roof at nights watching the grand beacon announce our presence to all points within a fifty kilometre radius at eight-second intervals. Very hard to imagine indeed.


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…