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.

A rational society; the Hitch strikes again…

I love watching intelligent people destroy obnoxious blowhards with sound, precise, maddeningly effective logic, cutting like a hot knife through butter. The Hitch delivers in this one, calling Jerry Falwell exactly what he was: a dangerous demagogue.

How lucky to live in a society based, strongly, on Enlightenment principles. How precarious it is, as recent developments in the United States have demonstrated, to hold onto it.

A key issue to understanding Québec society and culture is the near-total control inflicted on it by the Catholic Church, roughly from the time immediately after the Patriotes Rebellion up until the late 1950s. And then, the , a period of profound social change, about as tumultuous and rapid as possible without degenerating into a prolonged riot, though the years were rough by local standards. Of considerable importance, the once dominant Church would lose its position in Québec society, and the state would go secular. This was the Quiet Revolution.

I cannot conceive of a city more Catholic and yet profoundly secular as Montréal. I have no idea how many people here identify with atheism, yet I’m acutely aware of a general consensus that religion has done considerably more harm than good throughout the last few thousand years. It seems that pretty much everyone I know, and meet, are probably thinking the same thing. Again, its part of the local cultural identity. We were oppressed for years, the abuse was rampant. Why do you think it was called ‘le grand noirceur’, the Great Darkness?

Seeing a man like Hitchens emasculate that Confederate worm and his faux-Irish Braheem mouthpiece gives me immense joy.

Anyone up to build a statue of him next to the cross on the mountain?

Modest Proposal No. 1

Alley in the Shaughnessy Village

I love this tree. Not this type of tree, this one in particular. Look how it stands. Look how it twists and bends. Look how it manages to provide such a dramatic canopy, so much clean leafy goodness at the end of this ‘figura serpentinata’ trunk. Look at how little ground area it actually takes up.

I’m not a fan of cemeteries – they’ve always seemed useless to me. Not to mention that we here in Montréal could have a Mount-Royal Park at double its current size if we made like 1854 and started exhuming the bodies. So I asked myself – where are the points of intersection here?

Blamo – dedicate trees to people. Replace tombstones with fancy plaques which will eventually become completely absorbed by the trunk of the tree (plus, by the time this happens, everyone you used to know will also be long gone, so no harm, no foul). Either way, we need to get rid of cemeteries, and I really can’t imagine a better way to commemorate someone’s living spirit than by gifting future generations a better environment.

With many thanks to a van filled with bran and a supafly soul-searcher

One of my favourite songs, and an excellent video to go with it. Features some interesting perspectives on the city – a very Montréal video. I am not saying it captured the zeitgeist of the era, as that is exactly what you’d expect to read here (if this were a poorer quality blog). So instead I’ll just say that I find this particular video captures a quintessential element of the local culture in the late-90s. It’s dark yet lively, promising despite the gloom, sort of relishing the noire, and reminding us that below the surface, a walk on the wild side awakens spirits numbed by the demands of a trying environment. Yeah, that’ll do nicely…

One more thing, the incomparable Curtis Mayfield is indeed featured on this funkiest of Bran Van tracks, and it would be his last, as the soul-singer-supreme would succumb to illness related to his paralysis. Of note, he recorded the vocals for Astounded while suspended in a special spin-aligning bed. That’s right, Curtis was staring at the floor while his lungs belted out notes that flew towards heaven.

Revisiting a dark past

Soldiers stand guard in front of the Hotel-de-Ville de Montréal, October 1970

Forty years ago Montrealers were still reeling from the October Crisis, an unfortunate event in our city’s history. A terrorist organization, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) wrapped up a seven year bombing and armed-robbery spree with two kidnappings and a murder. The response was swift and exacting – partial martial law was declared in Montréal, Ottawa and Québec City, the operations of the Government of Québec were moved to a ‘bunker’ of sorts in downtown Montréal, and thousands of federal troops were deployed to guard important buildings, set up checkpoints, and assist the Montréal Police (SPVM) and the Sureté du Québec (SQ). The murder of Québec cabinet-minister Pierre Laporte would spell the end for the FLQ, as the military and security forces cracked down on the terrorist organization and its suspected sympathizers. Hundreds were arrested and detained for (on the most part) a few days. The right to freedom of assembly was never denied, even though thousands of FLQ sympathizers applauded the news that Laporte had been killed. Makes me think that those who were arrested probably had more than a fleeting sense of sympathy for the FLQ.

Regardless, on the 16th of October, the Québecois nationalist organization, the Societé-St-Jean-Baptiste (SSJB) unveiled a new monument dedicated to those who were temporarily imprisoned during the Crisis for alleged terrorist sympathies. None of these people were incarcerated for very long, they were not treated as typical prisoners, and certainly, none of them were tortured or abused in any real sense. While unfortunate, it was a necessary evil to wipe out our very own home-grown terrorist network. For a list of FLQ activities during the 1963-1970 period, check out this link and judge for yourself whether you think the actions of the federal and provincial governments were out of line.

The view from Los Angeles

View of Los Angeles' Financial District, from Getty Museum

In 1876, the mayors of Los Angeles and Montréal were brothers named Beaudry. I’m not sure how much else we have in common, though there are certainly a lot of Canadians in Los Angeles. In any event, I recently had the good fortune to spend a week relaxing with excellent company in Hollywood, and the experience, my first in ‘la-la-land’, was certainly something to write home about (though post-cards were prohibitively kitschy). Here are a few observations about life in the great western desert:

a) Los Angeles has been described as ‘a hundred neighbourhoods in search of a city’ (originally it was 72, but that was back in the 1930s, the author of the article I read in the in-flight magazine updated the quote for the new millennium). I couldn’t agree more, as the various neighbourhoods I saw had very distinct characteristics, none of which were easily shared. The disparities between rich and poor in the United States only re-enforced this view, with the constant reminder from my acquaintances out West that the dividing line between upscale bistros and Skid-Row (an actual hobo-town) was often little more than which side of the street you were on. That and the car culture only served to enhance the divisions – in essence, what’s between points A and B seldom matters, as your car is an extension of the comfort you live in. As you can expect, this is not a pedestrian friendly city.

b) The Financial District, in the photo above, is considerably smaller than I would have expected, significantly smaller and less vibrant than Chicago or Toronto. The biggest factor seems to be that very few people actually live in LA’s ‘downtown’, though apparently this is changing as some Angelino’s have been making the move into the city for the last few years. Either way it was a bit strange to see a downtown so vacant after 5pm – not unlike Calgary.

c) The public transit system is well-developed though lacking in certain areas. For instance, while we had no trouble getting from Hollywood to Santa Monica to visit the jaw-dropping Getty Museum, the LA Metro website’s trip-planning program never worked. Though this was a bit of a problem, once on-board the expressbus making its way down Sunset Blvd, we realized that once on-board it would be difficult to get lost, as the bus is equipped not only with automated stop-calls, but an interactive map broadcast on flat-screen TVs, showing riders where they are and what’s around them. Made me wonder why we can’t have the same thing here in Montréal. Once on-board it also became quite clear who takes public transit in LA, as about 90% of the on-board signage, including the TVs, was in Spanish. LA is very much a Spanish city, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn their are more Hispanics than Caucasians, so as you can imagine, there’s a fair bit of visual bilingualism. However, unlike here in Québec – where language is regulated by the state – there, its regulated by capitalism and the realities of American society. Needless to say, we received more than one incredulous look while on-board.

d) Food – all I can say is ‘Asian-American’ fusion cuisine. If you haven’t had a Peking-duck taco, get on it. That shit’s delicious!

e) View – a good friend remarked that the city was built for great perspectives, and I wholeheartedly agree. Whether on the highway, on zipping around the ‘spaghetti-streets’ of Hollywood (thanks to J. Foster for that one), in the hills or wherever, the city affords many excellent views. This makes driving around on the highways and main boulevards very exciting, and as you can imagine, Sunset Boulevard is really exceptional in this respect. I’m not crazy about car-culture, but this is one reason I would consider getting a license. Of course the varied topography of the city allows for so many spectacular perspectives, and the fact that we were in Hollywood meant the view was always pretty spectacular.

That should be it for now – more to come later.