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.

6 thoughts on “A Resolution: to be Even Better than the Real Thing

  1. Although I agree with you to some extent, you ( and the Montreal City Blog lady ) don’t seem to realize how difficult to maintain a small business. How does a small mom&pop business survive being on a busy street like Ste.Catherine, paying high rent, taxes, insurance, etc. etc., having a half-a-year winter on top of everything? If you look around in your neighborhood, you must notice small businesses come and go, being unable to survive. I don’t like chain-stores either and I agree with you that we don’t need more Tim Hortons and Second Cups, but at the same time we cannot blame if people open up those chains due to the relative ease of the business maintenance.

    • Hi – thanks for the comment.

      I’d like to see controls put in place that would provide advantages to small businesses against the chains, which can be operated at a loss for longer by the parent corporation if they feel the location is still useful. In effect, a chain goes into the operation with greater insurance and is typically fully equipped, wherein the mom & pop lacks these things.

      Ultimately, it’s the city that has to decide on what kind of look we want to present the world, which in my opinion means that we need to showcase our entrepreneurial spirit and our local institutions by securing prestige locations for them. Whether this is done by having the city buy and then auction off property, establish new property taxes or by establishing micro-credit/micro-finance/micro-investment opportunities for the small-business class, no matter which way you cut it, the City must become more implicated in local business. Capitalism without strong vision is nothing but a get rich quick scheme.

      • I agree with you but I don’t remember when was the last time Capitalism had strong vision. Money talks way too loud. Sorry to sound pessimistic but I think we keep capitalism only because, as Churchill said, it’s better than any other system. Maybe you want to run in 2013?

        • Absolutely, though I recognize I have little hope of being much more than what the media would call an ‘outsider candidate’.

          With respect to capitalism, yes we need it, but we need the People to elect leaders who will drive development and lead the business sector. Capitalism on a very personal level, where it works best. Let strategic vision be driven without corporate influence, or, look at the city as a corporation (which it is) in which every citizen is both employee and share-holder. Either way, the city has a responsibility to its citizens to provide jobs by further stimulating small-business, providing spaces for such businesses to flourish and by further ensuring that the company or corporation understands its responsibility to locals. Ultimately it would require a profoundly more integrated relationship between the city and its business community, something many may be loathe to pursue given the assumption it would invariably lead to increased corruption. Such corruption, in my opinion, is more often driven by scarcity of work than by the city’s implication in driving development and steady renewal.

  2. The type of tourist who doesn’t go off the beaten path prefers to eat at Scores than at Joe Beef tavern. It is therefore convenient that downtown is dominated by crap chains.

    That said, I don’t think it’s that bleak. There are some good eats toward the western end of Ste. Catherine in Chinatown II (ie: Kazu), albeit mostly casual. As for Dorchester Sq., the Dominion Square Tavern and Le Piment Rouge are both excellent.

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