Generally speaking, I’m a fan of urban exploration.
However, there’s a few golden rules we should all keep in mind when it comes to exploring the secret and unseen parts of the city: don’t leave any trace behind, don’t hurt yourself, don’t inconvenience others, and above all else, don’t negatively impact the place you’re exploring.
Say, as an example, by starting a fire that may threaten a vintage theatre and the residents of the adjacent apartment complex.
But if you are so inclined to start a fire in an abandoned building, for the love of all that is good and holy, please share a video or photographs of your illegal deeds on social media, so you can be found and eventually prosecuted.
At this point you may be asking; “but who on Earth would be so foolish to do such a thing?”
The answer: teenagers. Boneheaded teenagers. And apparently some hotshot young videographers as well.
Unless of course these are off duty and out of uniform STM employees who happen to be urban exploration enthusiasts; that would be one of those ‘everything worked out better than expected’ conclusions I don’t think is terribly likely.
So while I find this video intriguing and interesting, I can’t in good conscience recommend others do the same. The risk is far too great.
That said, the STM could probably make some coin offering after-hours behind-the-scenes tours of the city’s transit infrastructure. I would pay good money to get a guided walking tour of the Orange Line, and am certain many others would too.
It’s remarkable to me that two different groups of people, in the same city and at essentially the same time, both recorded acts of trespassing and other illegal activities and then posted it to social media, seemingly oblivious the video or photo evidence could be used against them.
Kristian Gravenor has weighed-in on the Snowdon’s fire, but places the blame for the building’s slow demise ultimately on the city and borough government. In his opinion, neither have been proactive with regards to saving this building, and he suspects the borough will now announce it can’t be saved, and that as such it ought to be razed to fast-track new construction.
I would like to hope he’s wrong, and that this is simply a matter of local government lacking in vision and hoping for ‘free market’ solutions to solve problems that clearly fall within the public domain.
But when you consider that the Snowdon is the latest in an unfortunately long list of landmark Montreal theatres abandoned to ignoble fates without even an iota of effort by municipal officials to save them, it makes you wonder. This isn’t a new problem, it dates back forty years to the destruction of the Capitol Theatre, arguably the grandest of them all. More recently, the Seville and York were pulled down (to build condos and a university pavilion, respectfully), while the Snowdon, Cartier and most importantly, the Empress, lie abandoned and in ruin (and there are maybe a dozen more scattered elsewhere about the city).
In a city known for its nightlife, live entertainment and general cultural engagement, why is it very nearly impossible to renovate and rehabilitate old theatres and make them useful elements of the community at large?
Perhaps borrowing a cue from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (whose pavilions are connected underground though unfortunately still not directly accessible from the RÃ‰SO/Underground City), P-a-C’s expansion program seeks to link several pavilions together via an underground passageway stretching the length of Place d’Youville. An antiquated sewer running from Place Royal to McGill Street in Old Montreal shows evidence of six distinct epochs in Montreal history dating back to the founding of Ville Marie in the mid-17th century and will developed to act as the ‘historical/archeological’ spine and foundation of the expanded institution. The current museum is centred on Place Royal at the intersection of Rue de la Commune and Rue du Place d’Youville. By 2017 it will stretch all the way to the Customs House on McGill, effectively linking Old Montreal with the Vieux Port along a linear axis.
What can I say? This is brilliant.
The underground expansion will bring people directly into contact with the veritable foundation(s) of the city.
Getting a better frame of reference and knowledge of this city’s history will be as simple as walking about ten minutes in a straight line, in the climate controlled comfort of the next evolution of our Underground City.
The expansion is novel in its use of disused infrastructure (such as the William Collector and the vaults of the Customs House) as part of the expansion, rather than building a large and entirely new above-ground structure. Thus there’s no direct interference with the city above ground, no dramatic altering of local built environment.
It’s cheaper than the alternative and won’t leave any major visible trace other than Place d’Youville’s conversion into a something that looks more like a park and a lot less like a parking lot.
And best of all, it is so quintessentially Montreal to recycle old buildings, basements and tunnels for the purposes of better connecting the populace with its history. Our history is literally underground and so, for that reason (and keeping in mind P-a-C’s role as both archeological and historical museum), this expansion project is particularly well-conceived.
The new Pointe-Ã -CalliÃ¨re will include a total of 11 pavilions and several buildings of historical value. In addition to the post-modern main pavilion (Ã‰peron, 1992), there is Place Royal (the site of the first public market, circa 1676), the Old Customs House (designed by John Ostell 1836-37), the converted former Mariner’s House and the d’Youville pump house (1915).
The westward expansion will grow along the old William Collector, a sewer that was once the Little Saint Pierre River. No longer used for such purposes, the sewer will serve as a tunnel allowing access to other underground locations where history and archeology blend so perfectly together. Among the new pavilions connected to this subterranean passageway: the original Fort Ville-Marie (1642), Saint Anne’s Market (and former Parliament – 1832), the firehouse (1904), the old general hospital/ Grey Nun’s Motherhouse (1693/1747) and a new pavilion located in the underground vaults of the Customs House on McGill Street (1916).
This is an exciting and well-deserved expansion, in my opinion, and further proves the ‘Underground City’ is a lot more than just a series of interconnected shopping malls. It’s imaginative and unique and is wonderfully appropriate given that it will pull so many distinct historical periods, places, ideas and characters together in a rather straightforward manner. Places and times plugged in to one another along a route – in essence, a life source – that has been at the centre of life in our city since Day 1.
I really can’t imagine a better way to tell our story than to literally go directly to place where it all started. I’m also keen as to how it reinforces this notion that Montreal is a city both literally and figuratively attached to its history, growing as we do from our roots and with traces of our history and presence so integrated into our consciousness.
Also, Place Royale looks like a sarcophagus or a crypt. It’s bare and unappealing. If I could make one recommendation, it is that Place Royale be given something of a make-over as the eastern entrance to Pointe-Ã -CalliÃ¨re. Some planter boxes, trees, benches etc. It doesn’t need to be a huge renovation, just something that attracts people to the area. It was once the focal point of colonial era life in our city and today it gives the impression of sterility and stillness. This should change. The museum’s underground expansion is excellent, but it still needs to engage and interact with a broader public (i.e. tourists) that may not be familiar with the rather expansive museum operating beneath their feet. Ergo, I think a more ‘traditionally’ welcoming Place Royale would serve the museum, and Old Montreal generally speaking, quite well. A little more green to contrast with the dull grey and the provision for park furniture to encourage this space’s use wouldn’t cost much.
But of course, what would be really wild is if the space was used as a seasonal open air market, just as it was originally used. This, to me, would be the ‘icing on the cake’ vis-Ã -vis the historical ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of the museum’s mission. As great as it will be to interact with the remnants of historical eras as the museum intends it, I’m keen to see spaces of historical value used for the purposes that made them historically valuable in the first place. Thus, the site of the city’s first public market ought to be a public market. That way the link with the past is inescapable and the function of the public space remains true to its form. Place Royale’s purpose was to bring people together; today it seems to be generally unoccupied even at the heights of the tourist season simply because there’s nothing in the space to accommodate people. Adding some plants and temporary vendor stalls could turn all this around and potentially further serve to drive more people to this deserving and innovative institution.
Most people don’t know who he is or why there’s a sizeable chunk of prime downtown property in a state of seemingly perpetual disrepair named after him.
In fact, it’s not even actually named after him, strictly speaking, as his actual name (in his native Venetian) was Zuan Chabotto.
In English and French, his name was John or Jean Cabot. In Italian it was Giovanni Caboto. In Portuguese he was known as Juan Caboto.
A man by any other name…
Perhaps it is because he is so unknown and comparatively unimportant to the lives of Montrealers that we have allowed the rather large urban park that bears his name to end up the mess that it is. Recent news is that the city is pledging $6.5 million to renovate and revitalize the park, more on which I’ll talk about later.
Hmmm, come to think of it, strictly speaking it’s not a park but a square. In fact, because it’s technically a square there’s no curfew. As far as I know it’s only parks and playgrounds that have curfews in this city.
Montrealers know there’s not much good going on in Cabot Square – at best it’s a poorly designed bus terminus. At it’s worst it’s a shocking example of endemic social inequity.
This is what I find particularly ironic – Cabot Square is generally associated with the city’s transient Aboriginal homeless population. The lasting negative effects of European colonization of North America can be seen just about every day gathered, inebriated, somewhere in the square dedicated incorrectly to a man who was once viewed as our equivalent to Columbus.
I suppose in some ways he is our Columbus. The American veneration of Columbus is as ridiculous as our former veneration of Cabot. Neither Columbus nor Cabot were the first Europeans to reach the Americas, this was done by the Viking Leif Ericson in the 11th century. And neither of them ‘discovered’ the Americas either – this was accomplished by the ancestors of our Aboriginal peoples some ten thousand years ago.
It’s the official position of the government of Canada and the United Kingdom that John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497, so you’re right to wonder why on Earth one and a half acres in the Shaughnessy Village is dedicated in his name. He never had anything to do with Montreal.
And if that all isn’t bad enough, from atop his perch Cabot’s copper gaze is fixed forevermore on the architectural abomination that is the PepsiAMCCineplex (awaiting new management) Forum. Our city’s great failure to preserve our shrine to the greatest game is all he has to look at now.
So how did we get here?
The land that became Cabot Square was acquired from the Sulpicians in 1870 for the purposes of a public park in what was then the westernmost extent of the city. Initially it was called, simply, Western Park (the Montreal Children’s Hospital was formerly the ‘Western General Hospital’ if I recall correctly) and it served the large Anglo-Irish middle and upper-class that inhabited the area as a much needed common green. Originally, it featured a large fountain in the middle. The statue of John Cabot was a ‘gift’ from the Italian population of Canada to Montreal and was erected in 1935, though the square wouldn’t be officially recognized as Cabot Square until some time later.
By the mid-1990s the situation had changed considerably. The Canadiens would leave in the Forum in 1996 and the subsequent ‘entertainment complex’ developed in the renovated building never quite took off as intended. The Reddy closed down about the same time as Ste-Catherine Street West began its steep decline into a bit of a ghost town, as storefronts remained vacant for well over a decade. Today there are still too many unoccupied buildings on that stretch of our city’s main commercial artery, another hospital is slated to close, and the Forum seems to be an even greater disappointment as former ‘anchor’ tenants pack up their bags.
The city’s plan to invest $6.5 million to renovate the square is definitely a step in the right direction – it needs a lot of work. But there are critics, notably City Councillor for the Peter-McGill district, Steve Shanahan. He argues that an aesthetic makeover won’t solve the square’s homeless problem.
But some years ago the decision was made to eliminate the bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, replacing them with several smaller glass shelters at multiple bus stops arranged around the square. Why this decision was made I’d really like to know. Buses still congregate on the eastern side of the square and, again somewhat ironically, the bus shelters have become makeshift pissoirs, used by the local drunks.
In the history of Cabot Square’s long demise, I think this was the first bad move. It removed people from the centre of the square and re-distributed them along its edge. Worse, the new shelters, along with hedges and decorative gates, made it difficult for see across the square, allowing people a degree of privacy inside the square. It was only a matter of time before it gained a regular homeless population – Berri Square (Place Emilie-Gamelin) suffers from exactly the same problem. When people can’t see clearly across a square, when there are aesthetic elements that block views, people generally stay out and keep to the edge. Policing these areas becomes difficult. In both cases police have resorted to simply parking their cruisers right in the middle of the squares in a show of force to drug dealers. Is it any wonder people stay out of these public spaces?
All this considered, I don’t think Cabot Square is a lost cause, the city just needs to realize it can’t throw money at the problem and hope it disappears. If we want a better functioning, more welcoming Cabot Square we have to consider what’s around the square too, and how the neighbourhood has changed in the last twenty years.
It would be wise to return to one large bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, and remove all the obstructions along the edge of the square so that it can be accessed from all sides. It is a city square after all, it’s supposed to be ‘open concept’. The city’s current plan seeks to enlarge the square by expanding onto Lambert-Closse, eliminating two lanes. I’d prefer to see expansion to the south instead – that stretch of Tupper has always seemed a bit useless to me. Either way, the benefits of a single bus terminus are wide-ranging. Increased safety and security, concentration of activity, the option to build a large heated bus shelter, and that it would encourage transit users to cross through the square.
More broadly, the city needs to have a plan in place for the future of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. What will come of this massive building, arguably a heritage site worth preserving? I would hate to see it converted into condos, though I think this is unlikely. It’s institutional space and we need as much of that as we can get our hands on. Perhaps it will become a public retirement/assisted-living home, or maybe it will be bought up by Dawson College, given they’ve been over-capacity and renting space in the Forum for a while now.
At least part of the former hospital could potentially be used as a homeless shelter.
But all this will take some serious leadership from City Hall. A $6.5 million renovation plan is a good start, but the square needs rehabilitation as well. The western edge of the downtown has a lot going for it, but the city will have to develop a master plan that tackles a lot more than just the landscaping problems.
A place as ‘Westmount adjacent’ as Cabot Square should be a far more desirable place to be.
I remember when I first started coming downtown as a teenager (around the turn of the century) Le Faubourg seemed quintessentially Montreal – a large and often bustling urban market with a cosmopolitan food court integrated seamlessly into the urban fabric. It wasn’t a shopping mall even if it had a similar overall aesthetic on the inside, it certainly didn’t feel like a shopping mall from the outside. I appreciated it for integrating so many different functions into a single building, for the masses of people that always seemed to be in there, for how authentic it felt. A few years later when I commenced my studies at Concordia, the Faubourg was still a great place to grab lunch or to study between classes. In my youth, I considered the Faubourg a kind of ‘insider’s knowledge’; with so much of the urban core seemingly oriented towards tourists or suburbanites, the Faubourg seemed almost hidden in plain sight. For an individual who was looking for traces of sustainable urban lifestyles in what otherwise appeared to be little more than a rental ghetto, the Faubourg was a comforting reality – it meant real people still lived in a city I was told had been largely depopulated.
Anyways, prior to becoming an urban market in 1986, the Faubourg had been abandoned for several years after it ceased being one of the city’s first major downtown car dealerships (the Autorow – where fine McLaughlin Buick’s could be purchased circa. 1927). For a while in the 1970s, there was a plan to redevelop the Grey Nuns’ motherhouse (and quite possible the Faubourg as well though I’m not 100% sure) into a massive shopping and office complex similar to Westmount Square or Complexe Desjardins, a plan which was ultimately fought off by crusading architectural preservationist Phyllis Lambert. The conversion of the former car dealership into an urban market was a major undertaking as it involved both digging below the existing structure as well as building on top of it, in addition to completely remodelling the interior. The new Faubourg Ste-Catherine would be joined to a hotel (an Econolodge if memory serves) built at the southwest corner of Guy and Ste-Catherine Street (today it’s Concordia University’s Faubourg Tower Building), and featured a multiscreen cinema in the basement, in addition to a rooftop bar. Interesting note: the site of the Faubourg Building was once the location of Hector ‘Toe’ Blake’s Tavern, which would have closed in 1983. Also, the multiplex theatre in the basement closed and was converted into lecture halls (no shit!) in 2001, four years after Concordia bought the building to house the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.
Neat, isn’t it!?
Back to the Faubourg’s mid-1980s renaissance. Conversions of this nature were fairly common in Montreal in the late-1980s through to the 1990s; other prominent examples of this kind of ‘integrationist’ approach to rehabilitating the urban environment would include the construction of the World Trade Centre and Intercontinental Hotel in the Quartier Internationale, the Alcan headquarters, Promenades de la Cathedrale and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, though the widespread rehabilitation of traditional Montreal triplexes and former industrial space throughout the city during this time is the single overall best example of the phenomenon. After a thirty year period (from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s) of demolition and new construction, Montreal changed course and began trying to do more with what it already had.
I wonder if this move wasn’t done in anticipation of Concordia buying the building to turn it into some kind of a student centre? I remember when I was a member of the Concordia Student Union back in 2005-2006 there was a lot of talk about this proposal, as a member of the Board of Governors ran the company which owned the Faubourg at the time. The school was insistent that the new Faubourg would have commercial rental properties facing Ste-Catherine and that the students would get the rest of the space, though the students wanted the entire space and didn’t want storefronts as part of the deal. It all eventually fell through, but the damage was done.
As it stands today none of it seems to work at all.
And here’s where I see an opportunity.
I think the Faubourg should revert back to being an urban market, but not as it once was. Rather, I think the city should purchase it and redevelop it was a public market, much in the same style as the Atwater or Jean-Talon markets.
And here’s why it’s in the city’s interest to do so: thousands upon thousands of new residents will soon be pouring into the new condo towers going up but a few blocks east of the Faubourg and they need an ‘urban market’ to go along with their ‘urban lifestyles’. I can’t imagine how a public market at the Faubourg could possibly lose money.
What’s killing the Faubourg now is excessively high rents and an illogical renovation which has left the building careening headlong into abandon. If the city buys the building outright for the express purpose of converting into a market, it can reset rental rates to more appropriate levels, encouraging sustainable business development.
But the city can’t go it alone and would need some kind of a ‘strategic partner’. Concordia is the logical choice given it’s ownership of the Faubourg Building and the Grey Nun’s Motherhouse immediately to the south, which is itself currently being transformed into student housing.
Hundreds of hungry students living next to a market…
You’ve probably heard this factoid once before – Montreal has the world’s largest underground city. It’s true, though an unfortunate number of American tourists routinely come here hoping to see some kind of super-sized subterranean lair replete with cave-dwelling French Canadians only to find an elaborate mass-transit system and shopping mall complex instead.
That was certainly my first, and somewhat extended, impression of the RÃ‰SO, as the Underground City is officially known.
But as we barrel down head-first into winter I recall my sincere appreciation for the RÃ‰SO – the warm-cut. There are some 32 kilometres of pedestrian tunnels and 120 exterior access points concentrated in a 12 square kilometre area that roughly defines Montreal’s Central Business District. Some 500,000 Montrealers use the RÃ‰SO every day on average, and it represents a unique component of the city’s public transit infrastructure.
And I’m but a red blood cell travelling through the system.
Or at least that’s the way I see it. Once I’m in the RÃ‰SO, I feel a tangible connection to a vastly larger system. I feel like I move faster when walking through the tunnels, as though the tunnels were encouraging me to trot at a swift pace. I feel like everything’s only a five minute walk away, regardless of the actual time it takes. I like that there’s always an entrance nearby, that warm-cuts are a thing, that because so much of the city’s commercial office space and corporate infrastructure (convention centres, hotels, sports venues, etc.) is interconnected tens of thousands of white collar workers have abandoned their cars and cabs and now use a combination of foot power and public transit for their daily transportation needs.
I like that you can walk around underground for over an hour and still not see all of it.
In any event, the RÃ‰SO is a testament to some fascinating modernist-era urban planning ideas about how space is rationalized, how urban functions are aligned, connected and integrated and what interactions people and cities should have with their immediate environment. The Underground City was in part a response to our city’s meteorological and climactic realities but it also drew inspiration from architects and planners who were envisioning self-contained future cities. Montreal benefitted in having a very large area of the urban environment ready for a major transformation (in our case, the massive open rail-yard trench where Place Ville-Marie stands today) as early as the mid-1950s, and within a decade planners were already looking beyond cars as the ecological damage caused by carbon emissions began to become evident. The expansion and development of the RÃ‰SO has given us a veritable city within a city, one in which, increasingly, it is possible to live a completely insulated, integrated urban lifestyle.
Montreal’s Underground City may come off as a bit banal today, but I’m confident, as usage increases, so too will our imaginations with regards to what we can do with it, and how we interact with it. I’d certainly love to see all those new condo projects linked up, so that we can boast of an actual urban population who calls this underground city home. I’d further like to see more open, public spaces – the idea of a small underground park has always appealed to me. And if only we could get the annual weeklong Art Souterrain project to evolve into a permanent display of art throughout all facets of the underground city. Some ‘street’ vendors wouldn’t be half bad either.
While this kind of lifestyle might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can easily imagine this appealing to a new generation of young urban families. To put it another way, I don’t think it will be too long before we see condo towers with two or three bedroom units, medical clinics, 24hr pharmacies and daycare services. Condos are about branded living experiences, it’s just a matter of time before all the yuppies graduate from their ‘urban chalets’ to something more age and family appropriate. As the dream of affordable suburban home ownership is pushed farther and farther away from the city by rising on-island real estate prices, an entire generation of young families won’t have much of a choice but to stay in the city, close to work and without the added expense of a car.
But I’ll expand on that another day, until then I’ll leave you with the list you came for.
Diagonally across from PVM and just a touch north of the Square-Victoria’s northernmost entrance, it’s a prime real estate office tower with, I’m guessing a couple thousand people moving in and out every day, yet it’s disconnected despite its proximity to the absolute mega centre of the RÃ‰SO network.
Thanks to the magic of this isometric view of the city’s downtown core, you can appreciate a curious design element of the Sun Life Building that’s fascinated me for years.
The Sun Life Building is the big grey pyramidal building dominating the photograph above, built in three stages between 1913 and 1931 in a blend of styles I can’t quite put my finger on. There seem to be both Art Deco and Beaux Arts influences, but they don’t exactly dominate the design so I’ve never been too sure.
Either way, the original Sun Life Building was the first ‘third’ (i.e. the southern block) of the base, and this was expanded first north before the set back tower was completed at the height of the Depression, rising to some 24 floors and securing the title of largest building in the British Empire for many years.
One day many moons ago I was walking around downtown with my eyes pointed towards the skies and I noticed that I could ‘see through’ part of the building’s second tier. Whereas I had previously assumed the southern second tier was a solid block of offices I now realized there was instead an arcade of sorts, composed of columns holding an extension of the roofline, completing the symmetry of the building despite being conspicuously absent of office space. It looked like the Sun Life Building had erupted out of the ground around an ancient temple and in the process hoisted it up eight floors above the ground, gradually incorporating it into the whole.
Among this great building’s many traits are its numerous pleasant surprises, such as the building’s internal imbalance despite being outwardly perfectly (though deceptively) symmetrical – walk around the foyer and you’ll realize that though you’re in the apparent middle of the ‘pyramid’, the commercial ground floor arteries extend far further north than south. Even the elevator banks seem a bit off-centre. Cunning if you ask me, but more realistically driven by necessity – the interior form of the original Sun Life Building was, to my knowledge very well maintained, and this may explain why there’s nothing built on its roof. From what I’ve heard there’s a rather grand looking trading floor inside this building, perhaps well lit by natural light flowing in from above.
That’s the best explanation I can come up with on my own at least. I’ll need to confirm my suspicions – hopefully the building manager’s a fan of this blog.
Anyways, back when I first saw this architectural curiosity I immediately thought it belonged on film – some long sequence where the view from up there interacts with the ample surroundings and landmarks gathered around Dorchester Square. A scene with someone walking along the length of columns, the city holding steady in the background, streams of light cascading, through the arcade.
But it comes to mind that this might be an excellent place for a restaurant too. Granted the requisite renovations would require significant start-up capital, and the restaurant game is a harsh and cruel mistress even at the best of times, but I can’t imagine they’d be at a loss for customers. I can picture the tables arranged between the massive pillars, the interior recess of the Sun Life Building on one side, the cathedral and Place du Canada beyond, greens and blues in the background complementing the stone and granite, the floral arrangements and ‘hanging gardens of Babylon’ aesthetic of this most unique Montreal eatery. I’d eat there every day or as often as I could afford it.
And if there ever was a restaurant here, it’d likely end up on some master list prepared by a location management company, and so I might get my wish to see this place on film in the end anyways.
Wishful thinking I know, but what can I say – this could be an ideal location for a really top-flight restaurant in an area where establishments of that variety are, though not exactly in short supply, nonetheless stagnant.