Place Emilie-Gamelin: broken space

Monuments by Melvin Charney in Place Emilie-Gamelin

This is the view from the centre of Place Emilie-Gamelin, a major urban square in downtown Montréal directly above the most important Métro station in the whole city, Berri-UQAM. Informally, the area is referred to as Berri Square, though many more simply, dismissively refer to it as Berri, an unavoidable place, very useful, very well connected, but ultimately, undesirable.

Berri’s a bit of an anomaly. I like to call it Montréal’s Ellis Island, as it serves as a major transport hub. In the picture you can see the entrance to the city’s main bus terminal, chariot of the poor to all destinations near and far not important enough to have an airport. The bus terminal is small and in dire need of improvement, so a few years back before the economy tanked, the provincial government got involved with a project spearheaded by UQAM and the city to build a massive new bus terminal on the block behind the existing one. It was designed to include student housing for UQAM as well. Once the new station was to be completed, the old one would have been knocked down and replaced with an office tower. I’ve heard this argument, from several people, that there exists a conspiracy to ‘pull’ the downtown away from its ‘traditionally English’ sector to a ‘primarily French’ one. These terms are all very noted, as actual Montréalers know the subtleties of local living – that is, we know the lay of the land. I don’t believe there’s anything sinister about, Berri Square is a natural pole of attraction, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as proud, declarative, and well-respect as Dorchester Square downtown.

Place Dupuis from across Place Emilie-Gamelin

However, just because it shouldn’t be this way doesn’t explain why it is. Here’s a link to a Le Devoir article concerning the stalled Ilot Voyageur project which is currently a large empty shell of what would have been an impressive building. You can see a construction crane behind the bus station in the top photo. Apparently, talk of not building a connecting Métro tunnel was batted about as a means to cut costs. This is beyond stupid – the current station connects directly!

Before the renovation of Berri Square and its transformation into Place Emilie-Gamelin in 1992, several proposals had been floated around about installing a new concert hall for the OSM on the site, but if the Olympics taught us anything, its that you don’t build on public space, you build beside it.

1984 Berri-UQAM site proposal for new concert hall

Fortunately it never came to fruition on this site, as I believe well-designed parks, plazas, squares etc provide much needed relief, and space to congregate. People do use Berri Square, but it has a bad reputation, Indeed, the day I shot these pics I spent three hours observing the space, watching how people interacted with it; here’s an abridged version of what I saw:

– 16 y o up-and-comer in the drug trade chasing off old woman who was photographing buildings around the square

– police cruiser, parked, empty, sitting in the middle of the square, by the giant chessboards (no pieces out that day)

– somewhere in the area of thirty to fifty bums, vagrants, drunks, hobos etc, probably getting the best use out of this space presently – everyone else walks around it, few cross. Those who do are either a- very aware of their surroundings, b- completely unaware of their surroundings and for that reason quickly leave or c- in the process of doing, aquiring or selling narcotics.Watch out for a rookie mistake – never buy anything in Berri, never tell anyone to go buy in Berri. You’ll get robbed, or worse.

– an urban square so completely disconnected from its surroundings it actually denigrates the value of what’s around it. A total waste of potential – considerations such as: make sure sight-lines can be maintained and ensure the plaza is open and accessible were cast aside for the purposes of an artistic statement. It’s a shame, I don’t know if Charney’s installation will work elsewhere, but its got to go for the sake of this space.

When you consider just a vital a space like this, you really wonder why they wanted to stick a concert hall right on top of it. That being said, because of its condition, I’m sure their are many people who would like to see something work here.

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