Quick Fixes for Vieux-Montréal

Clock Tower - Montréal, Taylor C. Noakes 2009

There are none. I think people want one, but what can I say – it’s a complex problem.

I’ve been having a hell of a time getting my thoughts organized on this issue. We all know ‘something ain’t quite right’ with the Old Port and Old Montreal – it’s too touristy, it’s a little trashy (be honest…) and it seems oddly out of step with the rest of Montréal – and yet no one really knows what to do. It’s not a failure, far from it – the area has come a long way in the last forty years, but I feel a great number of Montrealers share the opinion that it’s not as good as it could be. Perhaps as it should be. A public consultation is underway to determine the area’s identity with the aim of improving it (or better aligning it with whatever the consultation comes up with) in time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017. We should note that the last time the area got a big face-lift was 25-30 years ago in preparation for the 350th anniversary in 1992. What we have today is largely the legacy of that project, and I firmly believe we gained something significant. There is a community there, of sorts, it’s home to about 4000 people and another 30,000 or so work there.

So I suppose now is the time for refinement, and the creation of a tangible neighbourhood to finally cement the old quarters’ purpose within the city. This is far from an easy task, though from some of the discusion I’ve heard concerning the future of Vieux-Montréal, many seem to think all it may require is a grocery store. Certainly, a Marché PA (or better still, a proper full-service public market, such as the Atwater), would be a boon for local residents, but it’s not going to forge an identity.

Bonsecours Market, Montréal - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

It’s really quite ironic – the place we saved as a living reminder of the original city, our supposedly most emblematic and iconic quartier, is itself without a purpose and has the appearance of artificiality. It may be iconographic, an attained ideal of urban preservation, and we should be lauded for it. But without purpose identity is impossible. It’s a leisure-plex of epic proportions, but is far from self-sustaining. It’s a Disneyfied reality. And for many Montrealers old enough to remember, Vieux-Montréal and the Vieux-Port has undergone a transition away from being a functioning part of the urban core, a place where port and commerce interacted directly, to a legislated tourism and leisure zone. Suffice it to say I think the Old Quarters need both the social and cultural services of a neighbourhood in addition to being better integrated into the Central Business District that surrounds it on all sides.

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In any event – before I start going off on weird tangents – let me just churn out some ideas I think might help focus urban development in the coming years onto what we can collectively refer to as the historic districts. The Old Port, Old Montreal, the International Quarter, Faubourg des Recollets, Faubourg de Québec, Cité-du-Havre, Griffintown and the park islands present a unique opportunity for a broad re-densifying and re-purposing of the urban core of Montréal. And through this process we may end up with the elusive identity we’ve been seeking. Through legislation and civic-driven redevelopment these historic districts could become something truly great – a real neighbourhood many people interact with on a daily basis. I’m going to re-visit this issue in several separate posts, so here are some broad problems and potential solutions.

Here are the guts; I’ll expand later.

1. The over-riding solutions should be focused on quite literally re-attaching the area to the rest of the city. The good news is that the Bonaventure Expressway is supposed to be coming down (or at least there’s a public consultation to determine what to do with the area, assuming it will be demolished and brought to grade) but of course the elevated Bonaventure Rail Viaduct still acts as a psychological barrier on the West side, whereas the dual mega Molson and Radio-Canada complexes cut the historic districts off on the East. To the North, too few large public spaces, the exposed highway, and monolithic mega-structures occupying excessively large blocks. Every effort should be made to psychologically and aesthetically (and, of course, structurally) erase these useless divisions, scars if you will.

2. Continuing on this theme, enhancing public transit in the area and the interaction with the so-called underground city.

3. Doing so would ideally lead to the creation of an interaction between an urban residential community, the city’s primary tourist area, and its commercial, corporate an institutional quarters all as logical extensions of the more modern city that has grown up somewhat distinctly from the historic quarters, existing as it does in a crescent around them. A transit system that is emblematic of the area works to further solidify a local identity, and offers another method of bringing people into the area.

4. This means new transit hubs would be required in the area, and this in turn provides local poles of social attraction, which in turn sustain the cafés, bistros, and myriad services an identifiable neighbourhood tend to support.

5. But more will be required, because we’re not just looking at sustaining a neighbourhood or providing it with a façade in lieu of real identity. For that the area will require the socio-cultural anchors – a school, a library, a community athletic centre, daycares, community cultural space.

6. This in turn requires the city to play a leading role in redeveloping the area, and by this I mean purchase property, introduce new zoning regulations, lead residential development through structural and socio-cultural infrastructure development and further encourage small-business development through preferential leasing, city-backed loans, and the provision that proprietors live within proximity of their business. That the city would have to take it a step further and encourage the creation of schools and a CLSC, in addition to diverse other services, certainly puts the redevelopment I’m imagining well beyond what we’ve been used to for the last few years.

Windows Through Time - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

Public spaces:

Off the bat the entirety of public spaces in Vieux-Montréal and the Vieux-Port could stand to get a facelift. Place Jacques Cartier, Place Vauquelin, the Champs de Mars and waterfront park could all use some general sprucing up. Place d’Youville, between McGill and the history museum where the old parliament once stood and today a parking lot, should most definitely be converted into some kind of public green space (though if the money were available I’d prefer to rebuild the Saint Anne’s Market that once stood there and served as Canada’s Parliament as originally designed, serving to educate the public on the subject of the founding of Canada during the period 1837-1867 in addition to providing a potential market and rental hall location, but I digress). We’d also be wise to finally do something with Place Royale, which today is a granite tomb, though it was once a cute and well manicured public square with actual grass and trees you could touch to make the physical connection with the wilderness the city’s first citizens encountered back in 1642. Why on Earth city planners decided to remove every bit of green from Place Royale is beyond me.

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And something has to be done with Viger Square. As it stands today it’s a summertime vagrant campground – I know, I used to live across the street. The problem as I see it is that for the most part Viger Square is surrounded by a wall or hedge – and as such it’s difficult to see across, difficult to police. Urban squares and public greens should, in most cases, be open – walls and dividers of any kind send the wrong message. Something open and a little more ‘classic’ might work a lot better with the area as opposed to the hyper modern conceptual park currently on the site.

That said, though I generally avoid going there, it’s nonetheless an interesting park design and I can imagine it working somewhere else.

Infrastructure:

This leads conveniently into some key infrastructure issues we should consider. Viger Square, much like the Palais des Congrès, was a smart initiative in that it permitted something useful on top of the exposed Ville-Marie Expressway. There’s still quite a bit left to cover up, but these days it seems everyone’s afraid (somewhat ridiculously so) that covering over the expressway would assuredly lead to its total collapse. I’m of the opinion we should reinforce the expressway with a steel cage and put a lid on the open wound from St-Urbain to Hotel-de-Ville, putting a massive public green and possibly a ballpark on top (utilizing the block directly across from the Palais des Congrès between Viger and St-Antoine across to the Main (the buildings on this block are old, architecturally insignificant and dilapidated; moreover their occupants could easily be relocated)). This would provide a large new urban park on which buildings could be oriented, in much the same fashion as Dorchester Square provides a ‘front lawn’ function for the city’s iconic temples of high finance and commerce downtown (though curiously uptown from Old Montréal). There are several empty lots along Viger which would doubtless attract the development of large capacity condo towers, if not the privilege of an office tower, and further empty lots just beyond in dire need of development.

It goes without saying that we must continue pushing a ‘no empty lots’ policy regarding the entire area – this means that city needs to lead urban redevelopment from the front, and plan the city’s evolution on a quartier by quartier basis, directing real estate development rather than leaving it up to chance.

Corridor to Place d'Armes - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

It further goes without saying that real-estate development could be facilitated at least in part by the development of the Réso in the area. Consider this: Place-d’Armes Métro station is not actually connected to Place d’Armes. A simple tunnel (which could potentially use existing subterranean constructions in the short distance from the Palais des Congrès to the plaza) is all it would take to psychologically extend the reach of the Underground City directly into the heart of Old Montréal. For that matter, it never made any sense to me that the Old Royal Bank building on Saint-Jacques wasn’t connected to the World Trade Centre directly across the street via a Réso tunnel. Would it not increase the value of the building substantially? Not just in terms of convenience but further still as a potential extension of the modern, integrated system of class-A properties that make up our rather expansive Central Business District?

Old Courthouse, Montréal - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

For some of the same reasons I’d argue strongly in favour of connecting Champ-de-Mars station directly to Place Vauquelin or Place Jacques-Cartier (or both) in addition to the numerous vital civic buildings in the area, such as the Palais de Justice, Old Courthouse, City Hall etc. It logically follows that the new CHUM Superhospital be connected to UQAM in one direction and Champ-de-Mars in the other. Investments in developing the Réso in this sector allow for the Vieux Quartiers to become far better integrated into the massive well connected city that exists on its periphery. It further permits the development of defined poles of activity, and a greater mingling of the population at large (consider the hypothetical North-South axis that would be created through such an extension of the Réso in this area – the Great Québec Library & Archives, UQAM, the Métro, the bus depot, Place Dupuis, more UQAM, CHUM, another Métro station, the city’s civic administrative and judicial centre, Place Jacques-Cartier and then the waterfront – imagine that all connected). It will assist, greatly, in moving large groups of people, merrymakers and tourists alike, in and out of the Old Port and Old Montreal, and work towards eliminating cars from the area’s streets. The psychological implications of extending the Réso into this area shouldn’t be underestimated.

We need to be honest with ourselves – if we want to keep our significantly large historic quarter alive and well and looking good, we’re going to need to phase out vehicular traffic as much as possible, and this will mean providing an enhanced public transit service unique to the area – the obvious choice being street cars given the area evolved with this mode of public transit central in the minds of the planners. The advantage of doing so is that we can popularize the mode as a historic innovation and novelty (at first) and regulate transit and transport in the sector with streetcar development in mind. Should we do this we not only develop an attractive solution to traffic problems in the area, we gain less wear and tear, speedier infrastructure repairs and snow clearance, pedestrian promenades and enhanced street-level socializing, fundamental necessities for the creation of a real sense of community. An identity at least partially defined by how one moves and interacts with their urban environment.

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Transit:

Say we implement a streetcar system in the area, the logical first step would be to build two intersecting lines, one working east-west to parallel the Métro line (say along Notre-Dame or Rue de la Commune) and another linking the park islands and Cité du Havre with the Old Port and Old Montréal, meeting at Place d’Armes. Eventually the streetcar system of the Old Quarters could be linked to the Métro/Réso concentration above the highway, with Rue de la Montagne, Peel, Berri, St-Hubert and/or McGill/Beaver Hall likely serving ‘inter-modal’ routes attaching the tram system to the underground city and Métro lines of the upper city. In total, maybe we develop a system of six or seven lines, none too long, to provide an enhanced transit service integrated with the rest of the public transit network, that not only serves a growing residential population in Old Montreal, but further serves to further stitch up the Modernist Era slashes on to the urban fabric. There are people in this city would would prefer to live in an environment in which streetcars replaced automobiles within what they’d refer to as their ‘neighbourhood’, so why not offer the opportunity? Novelty is one thing, but if the novelty actually works and is determined to be vastly superior to what we currently have, it will assuredly develop into an original driving force in local residential construction. Remove cars from our streets and you can suddenly do a lot more with them.

SdH tramway proposal

And the development of such a transit system could certainly provide a practical use for the numerous public spaces of the sector, such as Square Victoria, Place d’Armes and maybe give Chaboillez Square and Viger Square a chance to return to significance. These vital poles of attraction in turn stimulate the variety of services, businesses, that see the a financial advantage by being within proximity of such spaces. Opportunities get created as a consequence of public transit development, the icing on the cake is that it gives us a justifiable reason to breathe new life into our historic public spaces as well.

On that issue, returning back to Viger Square is the problem of Viger Station, another painful reminder of former glory. Once a grand railway hotel, today it’s bland municipal office space, and though we can’t return it to its former function, we could potentially make it a streetcar station, and giving people a reason to come back to this space, to use it, may provide the inspiration to return this building to the public consciousness by diversifying its functions within the urban core. The people need as many options as possible to interact with other citizens in beautiful public buildings, and a ‘build it (or in our case, renovate or rehabilitate it) and they will come’ mentality could stimulate small business and investor interest, in turn facilitating the rehabilitation of the area around it. But again, the city needs to lead on this, and the city has a responsibility not just to protect the outer look of a heritage property, but its social function too.

Old Royal Bank Building from an Empty Lot - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

Let that be an over-riding theme – we must reject mere façadism. The reason we still have this fascinating collection of old buildings is because they maintained their form and function just long enough for us to realize this fact, and that form and function were valued by the population at large. Consider the destruction of the Van Horne Mansion in 1974. Citizens wept as they watched bulldozers annihilate a Gilded Age mansion none of them had ever set foot in, all because it represented something inspirational or significant to them, or more often than not simply for the fact that they’d no longer see the beautiful flowers growing in the wrought-iron greenhouse. A lack of regulation and forward-thinking city-planning or a cavalier attitude about free market capitalism in the real estate market could be disastrous for that which we find so iconic and emblematic of our city. Moreover, failure to maintain the Vieux Quartiers as a sustainable community runs counter to that which is so iconoclastic about the Montréal approach to architectural preservation. It’s bizarre that we could have such success in preserving and developing what has become the Plateau, the Mile End, NDG, Outremont, St. Henri, the Shaughnessy Village, the student ghettos as we currently conceptualize them, and yet the same success at maintaing local socio-cultual vitality so eludes the historic districts.

McGill Street Glow - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

Other random thoughts I’ll have to expand on much later.

1. It’s part of the port – so why doesn’t it really feel like it? How about a thorough reconstruction of the Iberville Passenger Terminal so as to include a ferry terminal, a maritime museum, the offices of Atlantic Montreal Lines, a cruise booking agency, and a proper passenger terminal (etc., etc.). Encouraging the development of cruises stopping in Montréal is a job for our tourism bureau, but again, we’re in a better position to develop that kind of business if we have the facilities to handle the job.

2. I was very surprised to find out that Dawson, back during its very early days when the campus was spread out all over the city, had two campuses located in Old Montréal. I think this should be re-investigated; education is our business and we do it surprisingly well. We certainly have a lot of students, and it wouldn’t surprise me if another CEGEP or university is created at some point in the future (when the economy stabilizes). Inserting an institutional function into the historic quarters, possibly as simply as using existing office space, seems like a logical and straightforward way to secure both small business and residential interest in the sector.

3. An aquarium. Somewhere obviously closer to the water and a scientific facility, not some hokey ‘Marineland’ shit. We once had a top-flight aquarium at La Ronde, so I can imagine something a little closer to the tourist masses would likely work quite well. Plus it’s just one of those highly socially beneficial ‘status symbols’ for any city, it offers a public educational service and expands the city’s cultural and academic population. It’s a revenue generator and it’s fun. We just need to pitch the idea to investors, and I feel that’s a real problem too – capitalism isn’t overly creative.

4. Discretely open the gardens at Notre Dame to the public. No fanfare, no photo-ops, just a newly created means to access this beautiful treasure in the heart of the old city.

5. We’ve got two examples of former banking and finance halls being converted into theatres, though I’m not sure of what’s currently going on at the former CIBC main branch on Saint James (the other is of course The Centaur). Though I’m not a big fan of what the Centaur has produced lately, the idea of converting a banking hall into a performance space is unique, clever even, and something to be explored in our historic district. The Royal Bank vacated its historic property on Saint James and they have a spectacular banking hall as well. I think there’s a lot of potential in developing small and medium sized multi-functional performance space in the area, and it would certainly help a local character that would give Montrealers another reason to interact with the area.

Lego on the Saint Lawrence - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

The Force of Montreal

21-87 by Arthur Lipsett, National Film Board of Canada

So here’s something.

This is a film called 21-87, by noted Montréal avant-garde film-maker Arthur Lipsett. While he was working as an editor and illustrator at the NFB (back when the NFB was quite literally laying the foundation of Canadian cinematic arts), he created an apparently mesmerizing collage of diverse audio recordings he had collected over the years and weaved it into film. He combined stock footage he found on the cutting room floor of the NFB along with his own footage of various urban scenes from the city streets of New York and Montreal. The result is a rather impressive short film I too feel compelled to watch several more times (though that’s largely because I’m tired and think I’m missing something – film criticism is not my forte, I’m still astounded Vaudeville fell to the Talkies. But I digress…)

Like too many great Canadian artists Lipsett was way too far ahead of his time and committed suicide two weeks shy of his 50th birthday largely unknown and under appreciated. But he did have a profound and lasting impact on a young George Lucas (as well as Stanley Kubric; Lipsett was offered a chance to create the trailer for Dr. Strangelove but declined. What Kubric ultimately produced was heavily inspired by Lipsett).

Lucas credits the inspiration for his idea of ‘The Force’ to a specific moment in the film when the word is mentioned, in the decontextualized snippet of an apparently spiritual conversation (at 3:51).

But it is the imagery that caught my attention at that moment. The old man feeding the pigeons is doing so in Phillips Square, and is sandwiched between shots of a flock of pigeons soaring above Dorchester Square, in such a fashion that it looks almost like the same birds jumped from one cut to another, sweeping from left to right. A character of an old man with a hat, at first feeding pigeons and well dressed, then disheveled yet holding a bird in his hands, continues this micro-story arc through what seems to be several different pieces of film. That’s what George Lucas was looking at when he began to conceive The Force, a belief and pseudo-spiritual plot device that has inspired some 400,000 Brits to describe themselves as Jedi, making Jedi the fourth largest reported religion in the United Kingdom (there are more reported Jedi in the UK than Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews; you can’t make this shit up.)

You can read as much into this as you like, I just think it’s neat that George Lucas, the man who created one of the most enduring, popular and lucrative films of all time was thinking up The Force while watching a crazy old man play in pigeons in one of my favourite city parks.

Also it should be stated that Dorchester Square looks really good but, as I suppose I am somewhat unaccustomed to seeing my city in black and white, I found the textures and character of the buildings facing the square (all of which are still there and just as prominent today, they nonetheless seem more severe and imposing. In one instance the Dominion Square Building looking like a cloudy backdrop quickly coming into focus as a detailed wall of windows. The glass and slate CIBC Tower almost appears as a solid mass, and in the background the Cathedral looms large and ominous, as if viewed through a fog.

Yet in the foreground there are quaint and relaxing scenes we could quite literally go see in real time any old day of the week during the more temperate months. Dorchester Square still has possibly crazy old men talking to and feeding the pigeons. In Phillips Square, by contrast, a newspaper-hawking dwarf handles such affairs. Plus que ça change, eh?

What do you think of 21-87?

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

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If you’ve been following the news of late, you may be asking yourself just how the PQ got elected back in September. I honestly don’t know with certainty why, but I’m fairly convinced the PQ’s victory is a direct consequence with popular displeasure with the PLQ under Jean Charest. The printemps érable didn’t help Charest either, as police brutality by the SPVM was viewed by the public at large as an extension of a dictatorial and aggressive state. Moreover, sticking his neck out and forming UPAC and the Charbonneau Commission, while ostensibly the right thing to do (and I should point out, Charest is not implicated in the slightest), was political suicide because, frankly, people are so goddamned stupid these days they equate the person calling for an investigation with the person complicit in the crime.

Unless I missed something, Charest hasn’t been implicated, indicted, or in any way involved in the on-going corruption scandals plaguing Montreal’s construction industry, yet was popularly believed to be exceptionally corrupt.

Curious that.

And now, not quite six months after Charest was unceremoniously booted from office by the slimmest of margins, the PQ under Premier Marois isn’t doing much of a better job. In fact I’d argue it’s doing a worse job.

But what’s truly amazing is just how well the PQ is destroying its own credibility. Or at least it seems rather impressive to me.

What preoccupies me is whether the PQ will undermine itself quick enough to provoke a strong public reaction against them, or whether they’ll so masterfully weave bullshit into a cohesive nation-building myth they actually manage to secure enough interest to actually call a referendum on Québec sovereignty (which as you might imagine, could mean just about whatever the fuck you want it to – every single Canadian citizen is 100% sovereign – our Constitution and Charter clearly define our rights and responsibilities, a proper social contract; without handing you bags of money I can’t imagine how much more the PQ plans on making you, me, or any of us for that matter).

So all that said, let’s take a quick gander at how the PQ is undermining itself. If nothing else, hopefully a series of outright idiotic incidents will make the collapse of the separatist movement in Québec a comic affair we’ll all share in laughing about later on.

Oh, and for the record, I’m exceptionally proud of the socially-progressive identity that has been crafted in Québec, particularly over the last fifty years. I believe the elusive Canadian identity can at least in part be found in the culture and society of my home province, whether the SSJB and PQ like it or not.

I’m also seriously thinking about joining both these organizations. The SSJB was once far more ‘federalist’ in political orientation (or at least Canadien Supremacist, if I may coin such a term).

Without further delay…

Step 1: Keep beating a dead horse. Even though support for Québec independence is low and the PQ has a minority government by the slimmest of margins, Premier Marois insists that “just as soon as we have the winning conditions” a referendum (presumably on the future of constitutional relations in Canada, but really, who the fuck knows) will be called and (apparently) Québecois will unanimously support the move for an independent Québec. The more she pushes the illusion of the necessity of Québec independence, the more she defines herself as a one-trick poney, something most Québecois may not approve of – after all, assuming she ever got her way, she hasn’t demonstrated she could lead an independent nation. This is largely because of…

Step 2: Alienating your support base. Such as the once-cohesive student protest movement that actually forced last fall’s election. Cutting $124 million from the post-secondary education budget while also not finding a viable solution to post-secondary education costs to the student is indeed a terrible situation, far worse given that it seemed the Charest administration brought in the tuition hike specifically to avoid the cuts. And what’s really puzzling here is that one would assume a liberal, if not to say progressive political party like the PQ would be in favour of more Keynesian economic theories, including managed deficit spending, as a necessary evil so as to maintain open access to high-quality universities. But no, not only are there cuts, now it seems as though there isn’t even a guarantee of possible future re-investment in education. If there’s anything a society should go into debt for, it’s without question the education of the next generations.

Which brings us back to alienating the base – it doesn’t help Marois much when Parizeau gets on her case for poor economic judgement. Remember, Parizeau is the economist who was supposed to have all the answers to the numerous questions about how Québec’s economy would work if we were independent. For the over 40 crowd, he may be seen as more ‘with it’ than the current administration, which is kind of all over the map. This can be illustrated by…

Step 3: Public demonstrations of disinterest, disengagement or flat-out pandering. Too much to list here, but I’m suspicious when cabinet ministers suddenly find money – $46 million to be precise – despite announced cuts and active cuts in related sectors, in this case education and healthcare.

Then there are the overt displays the PQ quite simply isn’t serious about governing. There’s no excuse for sleeping through Question Period. If you’re too sauced to pay attention, don’t bother showing up, but let’s be real, if you can’t manage to stay awake during what typically amounts to be a combative, argumentative session of political theatrics, you might not be cut out for the job. If Daniel Breton has trouble sleeping (as I and countless hundreds of thousands of other Canadians do), then he should see a doctor, take sleeping pills at night and coffee during the day.

There’s really no excuse for ‘being confused’ about simple government procedure and knowing how you want to vote on a given issue, yet somehow the PQ managed to vote against its own interests and support the opposition party’s motion which heavily criticized the PQ’s planned mega cuts to education. Being on the verge of tears in front of the TV cameras didn’t boost my confidence in our elected officials much either.

And then of course there was the ill-conceived trip to Scotland and, worse still, the failure to adequately prepare to be interviewed by the British Press. As you might expect, what Ms. Marois wanted to say and what was not the same thing, and though some logical or rhetorical incongruities may happen from time to time when discussing or debating large complex issues, the simple fact remains that Ms. Marois did not explain herself properly in either language – and if she had chosen to answer in French, for clarity’s sake, I’m certain the BBC could scare up a translator. Or perhaps Ms. Marois is so caught up in PQ rhetoric she actually believes Anglophones are insulted by French.

Qu̩bec independence is a joke Рis it any wonder Alex Salmond tried to keep his distance, and opted for closed door meetings?

She’d be wise to watch out for strange bedfellows. Though the Scotland trip was poorly received and French Socialist President (and Malian saviour) François Hollande has already stated he doesn’t want to get involved, there are plenty of rightwing and far-right nationalist parties throughout Europe who share, at least on paper, a desire for greater independence for their ‘oppressed and marginalized peoples’. In Flanders, a right-wing party that seeks to break up Belgium once and for all. Elsewhere in Europe, nationalism has far more sinister tones and implications.

I suppose I’ve made some kind of a point, but I need to end on this:

How much is this actually costing us? Not just in terms of tax revenue wasted pursuing this pie-in-the-sky ‘goal’, but in terms of lost morale, population decline (whether as a result of putting off starting a family because of politics or losing your progeny to an unstable and stifling socio-political climate), diminishing investor confidence?

We’ve been dealing with this go-nowhere issue for more than 30 years (it’s been at least that long since anything of consequence actually happened, and there I would point to repatriation of the Constitution, the Federalist victory in 1980, Bill 101 and the dual Charters of rights, liberties etc as the major successes to come out of that era. We’ve ben waiting for the other shoe to drop for a long time.

And it’s gotten us nothing and brought us nowhere. Contemporary PQ politicians don’t even bother laying out a plan, presenting their transition procedure, or even philosophize about how we’d carve out our academic and intellectual sovereignty in a world that’s getting smaller with every great technological leap forward.

To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, we’re driving towards the future, but our leaders (if you can call them that) keep their gaze uniquely focused on the rear-view mirror.

Do we let this go in the name of political correctness, or as a result of catastrophic laziness, until we don’t recognize you we are nor what we’ve made of ourselves?

Does a nation have to grow up?

Thoughts on Montréal Museums and Major Cultural Institutions

Avenue du Musée - Montréal (su

I took in the recent Impressionism exhibit at the MMFA on closing day – always an exciting time to visit a museum, even if it is chocked-full of the dilettantes and bridge & tunnel types of our local cultural community. I count myself proudly among them, and either way it’s a nice feeling to see the place at maximum capacity, because I know more often than not I’ve seen the place too empty.

As an aside, after seeing the lines two weeks prior, I decided to get a VIP membership. Would highly recommend, many excellent little bonuses (i.e. no waiting, 10% off in bookstore etc.) and have a gander at the MMFA’s beautiful website while you’re at it.

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Though perhaps times are changing. The museum has been expanding considerably over the last few years – they just opened a dedicated children’s education centre where there was once an ill-suited eye-glass store, and the renovation of the old Erskine & American Presbyterian Church into the new Canadian arts pavilion was completed last year and is an excellent demonstration of the re-purposing of heritage architecture. It looks like the museum is gearing up once more to expand, this time into a fifth pavilion south of the main halls of the Desmarais Pavilion on Sherbrooke. The new building will be completed in five years to house a sizeable collection of Old Master paintings donated by Michal and Renata Hornstein. Cost is $25 million and to be paid by the province. Here’s the presser announcing the finalists.

Based on some of the renderings I’ve seen, this new pavilion will extend far enough south to make it nearly at the Hall Building’s doorstep, and thus it’s likely the city, Concordia and the museum may conspire to connect the museum to the university. Doing so would link up to disconnected pieces of the Underground City, the museum’s tunnel under Sherbrooke Street and Concordia’s tunnel system, recently extended from the Métro to the library and hall buildings.

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Though the initial cost estimate may seem very low and likely to change, perhaps what we build over the next five years (in the lead-up to the city’s 375th anniversary and the nation’s sesquicentennial) won’t get taxed by “Monsieur 3%”. From what I’ve heard from some ‘well-placed sources’ in the local construction industry, the Charbonneau Commission has at the very least succeeded in making people far more discreet in their dealings, and cost throttling and the various other acts of brazen corruption we’ve been discussing are not occurring to the same degree as they once did. All that to say, build now while we’re being cautious.

The provincial government, whether federally-inclined or not, should nonetheless take advantage of up-coming anniversaries and invest heavily in the development, renovation, rehabilitation and beautification of the city of Montréal in particular. Call it Keynesian economics, call it keeping up appearances or straightforward opportunism, regardless, investments in these areas helped us mitigate economic troubles in the past, we’d be wise to consider them again. In fact, it would be nice to have a civic administration that took a leading role in cultural development, but I digress.

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In other museum-related news, the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal is also planning an expansion of sorts, though the scuttlebutt is that rather than acquire a new building or renovating the existing structure, the MACM needs to build an entirely new facility.

I tend to agree. Though I wouldn’t call it an eyesore I also wouldn’t call it a museum – it looks like they repurposed a parking garage. I’m generally disinclined to knock down anything built as recently as 1992, but considering how much of an imposition an uninspired and far too small building can be on a site such as the Place des Arts, Place des Festivals, I honestly think it needs to be re-conceived nearly from scratch. Apparently less than 2% of the total collection is on display at any one time and this is aside from the current difficulties regarding public access to their archives and documentation centres. Moreover, the museum is not directly connected to the Métro.

Perhaps this is why Alexandre Taillefer is so keen to move Calder’s Man – maybe he wants it as an integral part of a wholly redesigned MACM (of which he is chairman of the board.)

I would rather see our contemporary art museum prominently display an original piece created with a specific purpose in mind. Moreover, I’d want that piece to not only be emblematic of the museum, but made by a local as well.

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Of course, should a complete re-development be required (and I’d argue that it should be seriously considered given that a new facility could better unite Place des Arts with Place des Festivals) we’d have to deal with the collection and where to store it. I’d argue strongly in favour of putting it up at the airport, something done by Atlanta’s fascinating mayor quite recently, and otherwise put as much of the collection on display in choice public areas – institutional buildings, public space, Métro stations and perhaps even strewn about the city in small temporary rented galleries. Why not make art far, far more accessible and public?

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A few after-thoughts. Some museums we could use:

1. Either a new pavilion for the McCord or an independent gallery altogether, dedicated to the photography of William Notman & Sons. There’s simply no better record of late Victorian and turn of the century Montréal than Notman and I’m absolutely certain it would be a smash hit – the displays along McGill College always seem to catch passers-by. I’d love to know if there’s ever been any serious thought concerning this.

2. A museum and ‘interpretive centre’ dedicated to hockey, and Montréal’s role in the development of modern professional hockey as we know it. I say interpretive centre because I think it would be neat to give people the opportunity to experience hockey as it was back in the beginning, such as by offering a venue for ‘historical hockey’ (in a manner similar to old-rules 19th century baseball re-enactors). Not exactly hip but definite fun for tourists, school outings and families. Plus we have an added advantage in that the Victoria Rink still stands on its original location downtown. Though it would be a considerable renovation effort to convert it back into a functioning hockey rink (especially if the original details were to be restored), I can imagine some corporate sponsors could turn this into a reality. Plus it would provide a venue of sorts, something the deep downtown is sorely lacking.

3. A larger and more comprehensive natural history museum, ideally located far from existing ‘cultural focal points’ while remaining within the periphery of the central business district. I can’t think of a location off the top of my head, but having been to the Redpath within the last few years I can say it’s clearly too small even for their small collection, and a more modern facility could help it secure far higher attendance and better serve the local school boards, among others. Putting a collection together these days is a little more difficult considering no one wants to be responsible for the slaughter of elephants, tigers and other endangered animals, and the concept of a natural history museum may seem a bit antiquated, but I’m certain we could put a sufficiently modern twist on the notion to make it more suitable for Montréal’s needs.

And yeah, we need to make sure kids understand that the oil in Alberta comes from extinct dinosaurs and not the magical hand of god. A natural history museum with some fearsome looking dinosaur recreations can help us inoculate our children against creationism, and if there was ever an unaddressed public health concern that’s it in my books.

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News & Writer’s Block

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A plantscraper

There’s so much going on right now and I recognize I’m doing a poor job chronicling and commenting on the never ending supply of fascinating (and mundane) events that have occurred in our city over the past few months.

What can I say? Really. What can I say that hasn’t already been said – this is a good time for journalism, but an overwhelming one for an at-best occasional blogger.

Or perhaps I’m just following far too many journalists on Twitter… either way I’m overcome by a feeling there’s not much I can add that hasn’t already been said far better by someone else.

I’m hoping it’s just a bad case of writer’s block.

In any event, here are some thoughts on a few items I’ve come across recently.

First, from Alanah Heffez at Spacing Montréal, a novel proposal to create a temporary urban farm at the abandoned Blue Bonnets raceway. Though the borough intends on redeveloping the site as a high-density ‘planned community’ at some point in the forceable future, Ms. Heffez is of the opinion that we won’t see any movement for at least five years – I completely agree, and likely longer still. She reports that there is community interest to use the site for farming in the meantime, and at 43 hectares the site provides ample room for a wide variety of agricultural activities – I can imagine just about everything from large garden plots to indoor vermicology to aquaponics and hydroponics on that site alone, possibly utilizing the existing buildings. The soil is apparently a little gravelly but usable nonetheless; what can I tell you – I think this is an amazing idea and support it 110%.

Food security is important contemporary socio-political issue of particular importance to North Americans in general, but with the overwhelming cacophony emanating from the Charbonneau Commission and the hand’s down retarded debate over gun control happening south of the border I doubt we’ll get a chance to make some time to seriously discuss it. And it’s an issue I feel should be front and centre for all Montrealers. We are, after all, sitting on an island in the midst of a vast agricultural plain, and yet far too little of what we eat actually comes from it. Once upon a time not so long ago nearly everything we ate was cultivated or produced right here in the city or surrounding metropolitan region. Over the course of the last forty years food prices have increased considerably and in excess of the rise in inflation. More and more of the food we eat is heavily processed, imported and increasingly unnatural, as industrialized, corporate agriculture has grown over the past decades. As you might imagine, this is an unsustainable and extremely unhealthy phenomenon, one which must be addressed and corrected as soon as humanly possible.

Ms. Heffez’s proposal is well-rooted in a growing food-security and urban agriculture movement, one largely led by a retired professional basketball player and certified genius by the name of Will Allen (a recent recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant). Mr. Allen’s organization, Growing Power, has developed a simply wonderful urban farm by the same name in Minneapolis, and on a plot of land many, many times smaller than the Hippodrome he has managed to create a comparatively inexpensive and hyper-efficient supplier of wholesome produce for disadvantaged urbanites. Growing Power includes multiple greenhouses, hydroponic cultivation, fish farming (he grows tilapia and perch, indoors!) as well as traditional mixed outdoor farming and urban livestock (goats, pigs, chickens, ducks etc.). Imagine what we could do if we used his method and applied it to 43 hectares – we could provide a considerable amount of high-quality organically farmed produce from within the city limits. Citizens would be able to purchase food at a fraction of the current cost – this would quite literally increase the value of the Canadian dollar within the city. The implications, in my opinion, are significant. If our municipal government were to prioritize food security by, in effect, re-introducing agriculture to the city, we would not only be able to mitigate the local problem of malnutrition and malnourishment, but would further permit everyone to lower their annual food budgets. And considering the communal and cooperative nature of urban agriculture, we may wind up realizing just how inter-dependent the citizens of a large metropolis truly are.

Second, from Kristina Gravenor at Coolopolis, two neat proposals I’ll use to help develop a common thread. On January 30th he wrote about reviving the Mount Royal Funicular and the next day he proposed putting ‘green roofs’ atop the Decarie Expressway (something I’ve been on about for a while). Both of these articles are in effect calling for more green space in Montreal, in the first case by providing a more sophisticated alternative to reach the top of the Mountain than by using the Camilien Houde Parkway (possibly making it redundant) and in the second case by converting an open sore and concentrated source of vehicular pollution into parkland. Again, I’m in total agreement.

W/r/t the funicular I would argue in favour of it specifically as a means to get rid of the road which currently bisects the mountain. If a funicular were installed within proximity of the original on the east side, then the road leading from Mount-Royal & Parc could be returned to the mountain, thus permitting better access to the entirety of the eastern portion of the mountain from within the park. I’d like to get rid of the parking lots too, but I suppose they still serve a purpose. That said only the western portion of the road (the inappropriately named Chemin Remembrance) is really vital. If the eastern part of the Camilien Houde parkway were eliminated, not only would Mount Royal park be larger and potentially offer many more hiking trails, it could further permit connection of the park to the U de M campus and Outremont as well. And all of this is aside from the fact that the increase in preserved parkland could permit a greater biodiversity on the mountain.

And if it’s well designed, unobtrusive, efficient – we may have a source of modest constant revenue and another tourist destination too – what’s not to like?

As for covering the Decarie, I agree with Kristian whole-heartedly. We should cover all the exposed highway trenches (i.e. the Ville-Marie Expressway downtown), and turning the top into a simple open green space is an excellent proposal for a wide variety of reasons. First, it allows the pollution to be trapped in a tunnel, and ventilation systems can be fitted with ‘scrubbers’ designed to clean polluted air before releasing it back topside. Second it provides much-needed multi-use green spaces in the urban core. Third, and perhaps most importantly, adjacent land value, especially along Decarie, would skyrocket, and I can imagine quite a bit of new development would follow as the Montreal real estate market adjusts to the novelty of a massive linear park atop a vital highway. Finally, a way to benefit from immediate highway access without all that shitty pollution!

I can imagine such a project would ordinarily be presented as something to be done in segments, but if the plan were so bold so as to suggest covering the entirety of the Decarie Expressway in one shot, a streamlined operation and cohesive vision would definitely get us more bang for our buck.

And it may finally make the Snowdon Theatre a viable option for conversion into an actual performance space. No one wants to go on a date next to a grimy, stinking highway.

And just to wrap it all together, all the new green space wouldn’t just give us more opportunities to catch a breath of fresh air, but would also provide plenty of new land on which simple urban gardening and agriculture could be practiced. Consider for yourself – that’s a lot of land we’re not fully utilizing.

Third and finally, the proposal to move Calder’s Man from it’s current location at Parc Jean Drapeau to somewhere in the city – if I understand correctly Alexandre Taillefer, who if I’m not mistaken is the chairman of the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, wants the well-respected oeuvre of modern sculpture somewhere closer to the MACM, likely as a feature of the Place des Spectacles/ Place des Festivals. François Cardinal of La Presse, initially in favour of the idea, has thought better of it.

I’m of the opinion we’ve already done enough in this sector, and over-focusing all cultural activities and landmarks in one place is never a good idea. For the same reason you don’t pack every square inch of all the walls in an art gallery with paintings, we shouldn’t move Calder’s sculpture here. If Taillefer is indeed interested in developing a new building for the MACM, then let it be the landmark, or let it be designed to prominently feature a new piece that is representative of that particular space and the buildings around it. There’s no reason to parachute Man into the area, I don’t think it would fit and I’m beginning to grow anxious the PdA/PdS area is going to seem a bit too busy in a few years.

We’re a big city – there’s room to distribute our landmarks and major cultural venues and if we were smarter we’d do just that so as to spread out the positive economic benefits they bring.

I think the underlying issue here is that we’re cognizant the park islands are under-utilized, but the solution isn’t to gut them of what they have. But that’s another issue I’ve been writing and re-writing for months now – hopefully I’ll have something half decent soon enough.