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Notes on Montreal

April 7th, 2010 · 14 Comments

Yes, I’ve been gadding about a lot and this time to Montreal — mainly to cook meals and provide a taste of home to a cluster of young adults, some of them family, some of them friends. There is a veritable ghetto of Vancouver kids in Montreal these days, so there were plenty around to entertain.

As those privileged to pay tuition fees these days know, living a student life often means living in conditions that approach those of people on welfare. So when the kids are camped out in their SROs and tiny apartments out of town, sitting down to a meal that hasn’t been on a steam table for five hours is pretty exciting.

When I wasn’t shopping for or chopping onions, beets, fennel, carrots, parsley and the rest, I did get a chance to walk around quite a bit since we were one block off Saint Laurent. And was reminded again about all that’s good and not so good about this city, which I spent a year working in during the 90s.

What was great:

– The always walkable Plateau area, which is like a big village.

– The food. Besides shopping at the great north end market, Jean Talon, for my Easter dinner (ham, pheasant pate with figs and pistachios, fresh peas in the pod, crottins of goat cheese from Quebec) and along Saint Laurent (chocolates at the new, hip Juliette et Chocolat, smoked meat sandwiches, Portugese sardines) , I also drove out waaaay out to the new market on the far east side (almond croissants with chocolate, some fancy kind of cumin seeds, wildflower honey) — another reminder to me that Vancouver needs more permanent buildings for markets, places where owners with small stalls with real specialties can operate

– The galleries and museums everywhere. These are not people afraid of dumping a few hundred million here and there for cultural spaces. Makes our current fussing over the Vancouver Art Gallery expansion look a bit underwhelming. I only managed this time to get to the Musee d’art contemporain at Place des Arts (which is being dug up all around to create a new plaza and to do something I can’t understand to Ste. Catherine that involves shutting down the whole street for blocks — hello, class-action lawsuit by disgruntled business owners, I couldn’t help thinking as I saw it). But every time we went anywhere we inevitably passed some grand new structure — the massive new Grand Bibliotheque by our local architects, the Patkaus (a massive, sea-green glass building that looks a bit odd next to busy and unpedestrian Rue Berri, across from the less-than-lovely bus station), Pointe a Calliere archeological museum on the waterfront that opened 10 years ago, the Musee des Beaux Arts on Sherbrooke that opened when I was working here, along with dozens of other massive structures.

– The concrete protected bike routes along Rachel, Maisonneuve and Berri that make cycling feel like it belongs on the street and not like outdoor Rollerderby. And the Bixi, Montreal’s version of the Paris shared-bike system, is coming!! They were hauling in the bike stands all weekend while we were there.

But I was also reminded of what I didn’t like or what was newly unlikeable:

– The lack of trees and greenery. When you have the kind of low-rise density that Montreal does, where it packs in a lot of people but not in towers, that means wall to wall housing. Between the endless rows of brick and stone houses, the paved streets and the concrete sidewalks, I sometimes feel as though I’m living in a cement box when I’m there. It’s like taking Gastown and spreading it out over 10 square miles. It’s so hard. (And, adding to that, so dirty — cigarette butts and litter everywhere.)

Okay, it was early spring and the trees were still bare, but I know I’ve felt the same way even in summer. In my one and only interview ever with Richard Florida, he said Vancouver surprised him because he had always supposed that urbanity couldn’t be combined with green. But he appeared to be entranced with the way this city could be both dense but filled with landscaping. We shouldn’t forget how precious that is.

– The bad bus service. The Metro is wonderful and don’t those big trains and huge stations make even our Canada Line look like a little Lego set, but the buses were pathetic. The 55 bus line, which runs up and down the densest section of Montreal (Saint Laurent and Saint Urbain) and probably the section with the least number of car owners, was running buses only every half hour much of the time I was there. One day, the bus simply didn’t come at all, leaving 70 or so people lined up outside the St. Laurent metro stop in the middle of the day. Apparently there was an anti-budget demonstration downtown and the Montreal transit people apparently couldn’t figure out how to get around it. Maybe that’s why they’re so big on bikes here, even in the middle of winter.

– The reminder about how ugly we can make our cities. Montreal’s not special in this regard. Every city is like this. No matter how many beautiful little pockets it has, every city also seems to give up and allow outbreaks of hideousness to erupt. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit — or a kind of deliberate blindness — that we can survive all the awful parts and concentrate instead on the little sanctuaries that have been carved out of the vast urban landscape.

But I’d still like to see the architect or city planner who, instead of focusing all their attention on luxury condos or charming public spaces, could figure out how to build an attractive highway, a service area (garages, light industrial) that wasn’t necessarily charming but at least not a blight, and downtown office-oriented streets that feel human. Rene Levesque Boulevard is a crime against humanity and, if the city of Montreal really wanted a cultural monument, it would figure out how to remake that street.

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