Tag Archives: Perspectives on the city

A Resolution: to be Even Better than the Real Thing

Apologies for the lack of new content over the last couple of weeks, but what can I say I think we’ve all been busy right?

A good friend of mine is back from San Francisco and we’ve been talking cities, comparatively speaking. We touched on a wide spectrum of issues and key differences between the two cities that he related to me as something our citizens may wish to consider for our own community (or perhaps that I may wish to consider when putting together my eventual campaign platform). Issues of design and philosophy, but also of prerogative, presentation and appeal.

Among others, he asked me the following; why are the really top-flight, high-end and gourmet restaurants of our city located in areas generally inaccessible to tourists? By contrast, he inquired why it was that our apparent ‘show-street’ (Ste-Catherine’s) was crammed with chain retail stores, family restaurants and other locales better identified by a corporate logo rather than the quality of the services within? For the life of me, I can’t think of a single excellent restaurant on all of Ste-Catherine’s from Fort to Berri. There are times when Ste-Catherine’s is completely inactive, a slightly better lit variant of Boul de. Maisonneuve in the same sector. Less than thirty years ago this was not the case. Has our city been ‘bylawed’ into an unrealistic hodgepodge of distinct districts-cum-cubicles? What has made Ste-Catherine’s a less than ideal location for good restaurants, fashionable clubs and vaudeville theatres, as it once was teaming with life, quality performances, food and diverse entertainment? What sapped its nightlife? And why is it that quality, in this city, is never located in a position of distinction?

As an example, Dorchester Square’s dining options are severely constrained on the high-traffic Peel side while some new options on the low-traffic Metcalfe side remain largely hidden. Within the square only a tired casse-croute that never seems to be open, despite immense daily pedestrian traffic and a high concentration of office workers that could easily support a restaurant in this most public of public spaces. In Central Park, they have the world-famous Tavern on the Green. See what I mean? For a city that prides itself on exceptional nightlife and fine restaurants, we do a shit poor job making it obvious to find. And why should such things be hidden – does it make the find more valuable to the patrons? Are restaurants supposed to be exclusive or hiding in plain sight? Is any of this good for business?

Consider Place Jacques Cartier, arguably one of the most beautiful public squares in the Old Port. Have you ever eaten at any of the restaurants there? How many of them are quality local institutions compared to the number of tourist traps serving subpar food at inflated prices? Why do we, the citizens of Montréal, allow this? I can imagine in another city, perhaps a more thoughtful city, a public space of such quality and importance as this one would be filled with perhaps some of our very finest restaurants and shops. I ask again, when was the last time you went shopping in the Old Port? There’s nothing worth buying down there. There are few if any services, despite a stable local population and a stable daily traffic of locals going about their business. And yet, one of our most visited neighbourhoods and districts is far from emblematic of the city a seasoned local knows and loves. It is a very large tourist trap with all the good stuff barely identifiable, as if Montréalers are attempting a covert reclamation of the antique city. One of my favourite Old Port haunts is identifiable only by a set of antlers over the door. I love subtlety, but this is too much.

There’s something wrong if we can’t get tourists to the Mountain or to Parc Lafontaine or Ile-Ste-Helene. Why must these be our secrets? What are we trying to hide from the global stage? Why are these places inaccessible to tourists who may be unwilling to travel more than thirty minutes in a given direction from their hotel. Does our city really require so many secluded parks? And why does the city invest so much time in re-branding areas already well visited by tourists while doing nothing to lead tourists towards other equally well defined but locally-oriented neighbourhoods?

It seems as though there is a highly compartmentalized, perhaps sanitized, version of quaint Montréal we present to tourists and visitors on a scale that resembles cartoonish stereotypes of American excess. We don’t show the outside world what makes us powerfully unique and a thoroughly desirable place to live. No, instead, we put a dinky local spin on what remains a bad interpretation of American pop-culture. Its the Three Amigos, the Nickels and the thankfully forgotten foray into Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Café territory that I think make some of the distinguished addresses of our city thoroughly un-Montréalais. We need to stop designing our city along what’s popular elsewhere, because at best we can only reproduce a pale imitation.

But people love us for who we are, and love coming her specifically for what sets us thoroughly apart from the pack. A good deal of the tourism experience in this city, based on what I’ve read in guide books, is the insistence on exploration. In general I agree with this kind of mentality, but why not open the market the better competition for key commercial real estate a little closer to beaten path.

Consider our local film industry, constantly advertising our city as a universal stand-in for any other city on either side of the pond, but never advertising Montréal for Montréal’s sake (and as we should know by now, capturing the aesthetics of Montréal on a whole is a difficult proposition, despite the beauty so apparent to any visitor). I’m tired of being told I’m looking at New York or Paris when I know I’m looking at Montréal. What sets those cities apart is that their citizens are perennially dissatisfied with the status quo, and we’re desperately trying to slow ourselves down and take the path of least resistance. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

All great cities need to prepare for and execute a constant self-criticism that leads to impassioned and driven local entrepreneurs to lead individually for the common good. Ultimately, the common good is typically well aligned with the business interest’s bottom line.

And so I’m left to wonder – are we regulating ourselves into oblivion? Have we become so dependent on municipal intervention in all areas of city planning that it has stifled individual investment and creativity?

Government involvement has lead to the re-alignment of whole sectors with the hopes of streamlining operations and making it easier for tourists to identify, and yet they all seem a degree artificial in the end. New developments favour chains and franchises to independent businesses, yet only independent businesses are left with the will to set themselves apart by offering superior service and products. In other words, we don’t need any more starbucks or second cups – but I do need a new mom and pop coffee shop. New businesses on St-Catherine’s or at the Place des Festivals rarely seem to be anything other that a new franchise for an existing foreign label. Where is the investment in ourselves? Why don’t we take pride in the homegrown innovation as much as we’d like to think. And why doesn’t the city provide local institutions a chance to bid on properties along prestige addresses or major public spaces?

So if I was to ask for just one common resolution, adopted by all citizens equally for this coming new year, it would be that we all do all we can to instigate the changes we want to see for our city, individually or as a societal conspiracy. It would be to resolve to promote Montréal for Montréal’s sake, and to retake our city for our own business interests. Otherwise, we tend to look like a tacky and cheap imitation of everything we despise in the typical American city, and lay down no roots nor foundation for our business interests to grow and prosper.

So this year, let’s be more than what we are, let’s realize what we want and cease our finger-pointing and incessant whining. We can do whatever we set our minds to, and there seems to be a sufficient interest in instigating widespread change to the kind of city we live in. Let’s do what’s ultimately best for us – which is to say let us more thoroughly invest in that which makes us innovative, independent and unique.

I’ve seen far too many new Tim Horton’s open up in a city supposedly renown for excellent cafés this year, let’s try something new.

Montréal on The Layover

Haven’t watched the whole episode but what the fuck, it features my favourite city and I’m generally a fan of the program, though I’ve admittedly only seen a few episodes.

Also, what the fuck kind of Expos t-shirt is Andy Nulman wearing at the beginning?

Anyways, enjoy – more content on the way ya heard?

A new Planetarium at the Big O & what will come of Chaboillez Square?

I believe this is a model superimposed onto an actual photograph, likely used in Dow's publicity for the sponsored Expo 67 gift. Not the work of the author.

This is Chaboillez Square, or rather what remains of it.

Technically speaking Chaboillez Square is now the small park in front of the Dow Planetarium, where parking spaces have been placed in the publicity shot featured above. The Planetarium itself was a gift from the Dow Brewery (located behind the Planetarium and currently being converted into condominiums) for Expo 67. With a seating capacity of 375, it is still the largest Planetarium in the country, though the operations are to be moved to a new facility, sponsored in part by Rio Tinto Alcan. While the decision to build a new Planetarium is not an issue of contention, the decision to place the new facility in Maisonneuve Park, adjacent to the Big O, Saputo Stadium, the Insectarium, Biodome, the Botanical Gardens and other diverse diversions is leading some to question whether it is wise to concentrate so many public education and entertainment facilities in the same place. The City is insistent that this plan makes sense as it groups together some of the city’s premiere science-themed museums in one central location, doubtless with tourists and families clearly in mind, not to mention the population balance for the metropolitan region, for which the location is exceptionally well-suited.

But is too much concentration a good idea?

And will a new Planetarium be enough to reverse the fortunes of this still somewhat blighted area? And what underlies this reactionary feeling against placing cultural institutions ‘in the East End’?

The blue star indicates the new site of the Planetarium - not the work of the author

It’s discouraging that so many major cultural venues have been moved here, a still somewhat disconnected island of high-density and urban modernism detached from the city, and painfully so. The Olympic Stadium and the grounds around it always seem cold, sterile and lifeless to me, and you can’t help but feel you are in the presence of a somewhat well maintained monument to a bygone age when walking around the site. Sure, there are times when it looks good and it works, but those times don’t come nearly as often as they used to. There are oft-repeated claim that centralizing these institutions and entertainment venues will have major economic spinoffs for the community, though they hardly seem to have been fully realized as the Olympic Stadium and Maisonneuve Park facilities are, to a degree insular, and appear to have little interaction with the built environment around them. The Olympic Stadium alone was supposed to act as the focal point for a major East End renovation and spurn the gentrification of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; what seems to have occurred instead is the gradual recycling of lands once set-aside for new civic institutions and the centralization effort – a use it or lose it situation doubtless a result of the Big O’s big debt. What’s certain is that whatever happens at this site (on the whole) tends to have little impact on the surrounding community, and the reach of Montreal’s downtown urban tapestry has yet to extend this far East. Imagine if all this was concentrated to the West of the CBD – say in NDG, Lachine or LaSalle? I can imagine it would look about as hopelessly disjunct as it does where it is. So the question is, how do we better integrate the Olympic Stadium and its related facilities into a new, more cohesive urban tapestry? A well-designed Planetarium may, at the very least, provide some proportion and a new focal point for orientation within the greater sphere of the design. I suppose that would be rather a pro pos of a Planetarium, and certainly of the ‘orientation through exploration’ design of the greater portion of the city.

Of course there’s not too many places to put large facilities such as these, but it feels as though the density of this sector of the City is still quite imbalanced, and perhaps a city effort to increase residential density with new medium and high-income high-rises in this sector may subsequently trigger at least a partial gentrification or a more proportional sense of scale. A better surface link to the rest of the City, as was attempted, in a manner of thinking, with Corridart.

Then there’s the issue of Westside Montrealers getting the shaft, losing another cultural venue ‘to the East’ as it were. It’s unfortunate that most of the complaining comes from West Islanders who aren’t even citizens of Montrealers, but the fact remains that there are over a million people living East of the Main. The Big O location is surprisingly central, though many loudmouths would like to convince you that East Enders don’t go to museums. The racism I’ve seen in various comment sections is wild – hard to believe some people still think so poorly of Francophones in this day and age.

There is a practical concern however, in that a balance needs to be established between cultural concentration (as you might find in the sprawling, multilevelled Quartier des Spectacles & Place des Arts complex) which is easily accessed and integrated into a high-density urban tapestry, as opposed to the Olympic Stadium site, which seems accessed for the most part via the Pie-IX Métro station and lacks other key services around the site as you might find downtown. It’s tricky, but consider the distribution of universities and how they anchor four distinct parts of the city, or how the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts defines what remains of the Golden Square Mile. Moving the MMFA to any other location seems irresponsible, perhaps inasmuch as moving hockey away from the Forum led to a prolonged, highly localized depression on Ste-Cat’s West.

The situation at Chaboillez Square (the historic name for the large open space where the Dow Planetarium was built in the mid-1960s) is fascinating and particular. While Heritage Montreal has listed the building as threatened and historically valuable, the neighbourhood around the square changes and modernizes dramatically. In an area once defined by industry and poverty, new institutions and neighbourhoods have sprung up. The Quartier des Multimedias, ETS and new residential developments on Notre-Dame and St-Jacques are slowly transforming the area immediately south of the Central Business District, and this area will likely become highly gentrified over the next few decades. The focus on high technology jobs and recycling old buildings has given the sector a noticeable aesthetic, one which is particular to Montréal. That being said, there is a dearth of cultural space, community infrastructure (such as public schools, parks, playgrounds etc) and large, open green spaces. Chaboillez Square, or perhaps a heavily remodelled version making use of space above highway on and off ramps, could support these activities for a new neighbourhood.

Consider it for yourself: here is a link to a bird’s eye perspective from Bing Maps. Compare the area being redeveloped with the large public spaces to the East and North and ask yourself what the future of Chaboillez Square ought to look like.

Then attend the public consultation meetings. Your opinion matters.

A stroll through the Plateau on a sunny summer afternoon… {a little bit of pleasantness}

Curbside Overgrowth
Chateau Firehouse
Saint Lawrence Main
Pathways to the Ballet of the Streets
Dominant Perspective
Neo-Medieval Courtyard
Around the Bend
Tower of Power
Keeping Pace

Historical Montreal Skyline Pic!

The City of my Past - not the work of the author, though I do remember this skyline.

So this would have been taken in the early 1970s from a rooftop in Westmount, likely at Grosvenor and Boul. de Maisonneuve (which you can see in its pre-bicycle path form centre-left in the pic).

This skyline view would have remained more or less constant until the late 1980s, and is the earliest memory I have of the city, which was eagerly pointed to me by my father when I was a wee toddler. I can remember parking off of St-Antoine and watching the construction of what was then known as the Laurentian Bank Building, and then walking under the CIBC Building, thinking it was the tallest I had ever seen.

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.