The Case for Cabot Square

Wikipedia-Cabot-Square

Poor John Cabot, we hardly new ye.

Most people don’t know who he is or why there’s a sizeable chunk of prime downtown property in a state of seemingly perpetual disrepair named after him.

In fact, it’s not even actually named after him, strictly speaking, as his actual name (in his native Venetian) was Zuan Chabotto.

In English and French, his name was John or Jean Cabot. In Italian it was Giovanni Caboto. In Portuguese he was known as Juan Caboto.

A man by any other name…

Perhaps it is because he is so unknown and comparatively unimportant to the lives of Montrealers that we have allowed the rather large urban park that bears his name to end up the mess that it is. Recent news is that the city is pledging $6.5 million to renovate and revitalize the park, more on which I’ll talk about later.

Hmmm, come to think of it, strictly speaking it’s not a park but a square. In fact, because it’s technically a square there’s no curfew. As far as I know it’s only parks and playgrounds that have curfews in this city.

Thus, this once proud square has become a repository for the city’s homeless, the kiosk has been boarded up for years and the Métro entrance is repository for the homeless in winter months. Lately, efforts to improve the overall aesthetic of the park has resulted in the installation of a multitude of sculptures. So now it’s a repository for post modern art as well.

Montrealers know there’s not much good going on in Cabot Square – at best it’s a poorly designed bus terminus. At it’s worst it’s a shocking example of endemic social inequity.

This is what I find particularly ironic – Cabot Square is generally associated with the city’s transient Aboriginal homeless population. The lasting negative effects of European colonization of North America can be seen just about every day gathered, inebriated, somewhere in the square dedicated incorrectly to a man who was once viewed as our equivalent to Columbus.

I suppose in some ways he is our Columbus. The American veneration of Columbus is as ridiculous as our former veneration of Cabot. Neither Columbus nor Cabot were the first Europeans to reach the Americas, this was done by the Viking Leif Ericson in the 11th century. And neither of them ‘discovered’ the Americas either – this was accomplished by the ancestors of our Aboriginal peoples some ten thousand years ago.

It’s the official position of the government of Canada and the United Kingdom that John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497, so you’re right to wonder why on Earth one and a half acres in the Shaughnessy Village is dedicated in his name. He never had anything to do with Montreal.

And if that all isn’t bad enough, from atop his perch Cabot’s copper gaze is fixed forevermore on the architectural abomination that is the Pepsi AMC Cineplex (awaiting new management) Forum. Our city’s great failure to preserve our shrine to the greatest game is all he has to look at now.

So how did we get here?

The land that became Cabot Square was acquired from the Sulpicians in 1870 for the purposes of a public park in what was then the westernmost extent of the city. Initially it was called, simply, Western Park (the Montreal Children’s Hospital was formerly the ‘Western General Hospital’ if I recall correctly) and it served the large Anglo-Irish middle and upper-class that inhabited the area as a much needed common green. Originally, it featured a large fountain in the middle. The statue of John Cabot was a ‘gift’ from the Italian population of Canada to Montreal and was erected in 1935, though the square wouldn’t be officially recognized as Cabot Square until some time later.

For a good long while Cabot Square was as desirable a place to go as any other large urban space and served as a kind of ‘front yard’ for the Forum throughout that building’s storied time as home to the Montreal Canadiens. It was also immediately adjacent to what became the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 1956, and down the road from the former Reddy Memorial Hospital. The area was, by some estimates, at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s when Westmount Square and Place Alexis-Nihon were built atop and integrated into the Métro system, an early component of the Underground City. At the time, Atwater station was the western terminus of the Green Line and the integration of mass transit, large, contiguous shopping malls, the city’s main arena and residential and commercial towers was at the cutting edge of modern urban design. The Forum was expanded and modified into its ‘classic look’ in 1968 and throughout the next two decades was not only home to the most exciting franchise in the NHL, but was also served as the city’s main large-capacity performance venue. Even into the mid-late 1980s the general area around the square was developing and improving: commercial office towers were added to Place Alexis-Nihon in 1986, Dawson moved into its current home in 1988 and the CCA was completed the following year just down the road.

By the mid-1990s the situation had changed considerably. The Canadiens would leave in the Forum in 1996 and the subsequent ‘entertainment complex’ developed in the renovated building never quite took off as intended. The Reddy closed down about the same time as Ste-Catherine Street West began its steep decline into a bit of a ghost town, as storefronts remained vacant for well over a decade. Today there are still too many unoccupied buildings on that stretch of our city’s main commercial artery, another hospital is slated to close, and the Forum seems to be an even greater disappointment as former ‘anchor’ tenants pack up their bags.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

The city’s plan to invest $6.5 million to renovate the square is definitely a step in the right direction – it needs a lot of work. But there are critics, notably City Councillor for the Peter-McGill district, Steve Shanahan. He argues that an aesthetic makeover won’t solve the square’s homeless problem.

He’s right, but then again, it’s not exactly the square’s homeless problem; it’s Montreal that has a general homeless problem. Mr. Shanahan is arguing that half the allocated sum be used to address the homeless issue as it specifically relates to Cabot Square – though he was particularly outraged the city’s plan doesn’t include the destruction of the aforementioned Métro entrance at the northwest corner of the square, immediately adjacent to the unused Vespasienne (which was, to my knowledge, never actually in use as a public pissoir, but used variously as a flower vendor and bistro or snack bar).

For people unfamiliar with the area, the Métro entrance is a rather cumbersome structure that features an oddly large vestibule and other space used variously by the STM. It’s an unnecessary structure (from a public transit perspective) that blocks access to the square and serves as a kind of homeless hangout.

This wasn’t always the case. When the Métro entrance was built it was, in my opinion, ingeniously well-designed. The entrance is oriented towards the centre of the square and this is important given the square’s former use as the Forum’s ‘front yard’ – large crowds could come out of the Forum and into the square instead of spilling out onto Atwater. Having people move into the square in turn facilitated dispersal amongst STM services – Métro on one side, the old bus terminus on Lambert-Closse on the other.

The placement of the bus terminus across from the Métro entrance also guaranteed a constant stream of foot traffic through the square, and generally speaking we tend to take decent enough care of that which we use most often.

But some years ago the decision was made to eliminate the bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, replacing them with several smaller glass shelters at multiple bus stops arranged around the square. Why this decision was made I’d really like to know. Buses still congregate on the eastern side of the square and, again somewhat ironically, the bus shelters have become makeshift pissoirs, used by the local drunks.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

In the history of Cabot Square’s long demise, I think this was the first bad move. It removed people from the centre of the square and re-distributed them along its edge. Worse, the new shelters, along with hedges and decorative gates, made it difficult for see across the square, allowing people a degree of privacy inside the square. It was only a matter of time before it gained a regular homeless population – Berri Square (Place Emilie-Gamelin) suffers from exactly the same problem. When people can’t see clearly across a square, when there are aesthetic elements that block views, people generally stay out and keep to the edge. Policing these areas becomes difficult. In both cases police have resorted to simply parking their cruisers right in the middle of the squares in a show of force to drug dealers. Is it any wonder people stay out of these public spaces?

All this considered, I don’t think Cabot Square is a lost cause, the city just needs to realize it can’t throw money at the problem and hope it disappears. If we want a better functioning, more welcoming Cabot Square we have to consider what’s around the square too, and how the neighbourhood has changed in the last twenty years.

I’d argue the square could do without the current Métro entrance, but I wouldn’t recommend eliminating the entrance and the tunnel as well. Access to the Métro is a plus for any public space, but we could afford a less obtrusive entrance. Something closer to the Art Nouveau entrance at Square Victoria seems more appropriate.

It would be wise to return to one large bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, and remove all the obstructions along the edge of the square so that it can be accessed from all sides. It is a city square after all, it’s supposed to be ‘open concept’. The city’s current plan seeks to enlarge the square by expanding onto Lambert-Closse, eliminating two lanes. I’d prefer to see expansion to the south instead – that stretch of Tupper has always seemed a bit useless to me. Either way, the benefits of a single bus terminus are wide-ranging. Increased safety and security, concentration of activity, the option to build a large heated bus shelter, and that it would encourage transit users to cross through the square.

More broadly, the city needs to have a plan in place for the future of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. What will come of this massive building, arguably a heritage site worth preserving? I would hate to see it converted into condos, though I think this is unlikely. It’s institutional space and we need as much of that as we can get our hands on. Perhaps it will become a public retirement/assisted-living home, or maybe it will be bought up by Dawson College, given they’ve been over-capacity and renting space in the Forum for a while now.

At least part of the former hospital could potentially be used as a homeless shelter.

But all this will take some serious leadership from City Hall. A $6.5 million renovation plan is a good start, but the square needs rehabilitation as well. The western edge of the downtown has a lot going for it, but the city will have to develop a master plan that tackles a lot more than just the landscaping problems.

A place as ‘Westmount adjacent’ as Cabot Square should be a far more desirable place to be.

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