The Mordecai Richler Monument to Municipal Illogic

Mordecai Richler 'Pavilion' in Fletcher's Field, Parc Mont-Royal - credit to the National Post
Mordecai Richler ‘Pavilion’ in Fletcher’s Field, Parc Mont-Royal – credit to the National Post

Hat’s off to Bill Brownstein over at the Gazette for shedding some light on the unnecessary civic embarrassment and ode to illogical urban planning that is the saga of the Mordecai Richler Pavilion.

You likely know the ‘pavilion’ as the dilapidated gazebo in Mount Royal Park, pictured above.

How this particular gazebo came to be known as the Mordecai Richler Pavilion is generally presumed to be as a consequence of Richler’s harsh and globally prominent criticism of the Quebec sovereignty movement. Allow me to explain.

It really is a completely random recognition. To my knowledge the gazebo doesn’t feature prominently in his writing, he wasn’t known to frequent it and while it’s a safe bet to assume he likely had once been there and was familiar with the structure, it’s far from being emblematic of the neighbourhood further east he actually grew up in. If anything the gazebo was more a part of the ‘city on the hill’ than of the city below it, and some of Richler’s characters are quite critical of the old money, elitist society Mount Royal Park was largely designed to serve. In sum, naming this particular gazebo after Richler doesn’t make much sense at all.

Naming one of the several small side streets (Groll, Bagg, St-Cuthbert, Clermont, Roy Ouest etc.) that intersect St-Urbain makes far more sense to me, and indeed, this was the first idea, initially championed by Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand several years ago.

In my opinion, naming a street after Richler in an area of town he grew up in is an appropriate way by which to recognize him. That said, at the time this was proposed Rotrand alleges he encountered opposition from the Plateau Mont Royal borough administration. Either they were concerned about potential backlash from hardcore separatists who live in the Plateau or otherwise were themselves of the mind Richler was merely a Quebec-basher who didn’t deserve any recognition at all. There were negotiations – perhaps a pocket park or playground, or more appropriately the Mile End Library – but ultimately nothing came of it. Richler died in 2001.

And so, perhaps the single most influential author this city has ever produced went publicly unacknowledged until about 2012, when Rotrand succeeded in convincing disgraced former mayor Gerald Tremblay to name something – anything – within the mountain domain after Richler. The mayor was in charge of the mountain (perhaps he still is), and the Plateau Mont Royal borough is not. Simple as that. The gazebo must have been chosen because it wasn’t already named and turning it into the ‘Mordecai Richler Pavilion’ would justify the cost of renovating the gazebo.

Great. It may have nothing to do with the man it’s named after, but hey, it will result in a better looking Mount Royal Park, so what’s not to like? Maybe it’ll become something meaningful to Montrealers, a preferred spot to sit and read.

And best of all, because it’s a renovation job it won’t cost as much as building something completely new and further steers clear of the oddly controversial proposal to rename a street, park or library after Richler.

And by the way – on the issue of illogical naming and recognition practices vis-a-vis our public spaces, consider that there is a playground off Clark south of Pine (i.e in the general vicinity of where Richler grew up) that’s actually called Parc University Settlement.

We can’t name this place after Mordecai Richler?

Our city will recognize a university settlement but not one of it’s most accomplished public intellectuals?

In any event, back to the pavilion.

The resolution was passed in 2011 and the gazebo, already in poor shape, was officially named after Richler. Then nothing happened for two years and here we are.

This is the newspeak offered by the city regarding the future of the pavilion:

“The Mordecai Richler Pavilion is an important element of Montreal architecture, one that is part of an area of outstanding heritage value. The administration strives to honour Montrealers who contributed to the vitality of the city.”

I’m not so sure about that first part. It’s an old gazebo that’s managed to survive a lot longer than anyone anticipated but this doesn’t necessarily mean it has any particular architectural value. If I recall correctly, I believe I read once there’s a connection between the gazebo and the nearby Quartier Général of the Montreal fire service. From what I’ve read the gazebo used to be used by brass bands, military and marching bands, back when this was considered genteel summertime entertainment. It’s a far cry from the EDM mini rave that now takes place around the gazebo (though not in it, because it no longer has a floor).

In essence, the gazebo is fundamentally worthless unless the city names it after Richler and spends some money making it into something more substantial than what it currently is. It’s only after the transformation that it will have any tangible cultural or heritage value.

And now… the cost.

Brownstein writes that, so far, fifty-seven thousand dollars (and change) has been spent on an architectural study of the site and a proposal for the new pavilion.

The city has a planning department, so I’m not altogether sure why we need to spend additional money subcontracting architects. What is Beaupré Michaud telling the city it’s own employees can not? What additional information are they bringing to the table with their analysis of the site?

It’s a gazebo.

The city has authorized a budget of 250 thousand dollars for the renovation project which is due to start some time this summer and will be completed by the end of the fall. The question is just what exactly we’re getting for a quarter of a million dollars, over 300 thousand dollars including the architectural study, and what purpose the gazebo will serve.

I’d like to hope for that amount of money we’ll get a lot more than just a renovated gazebo. You’d think the project will include a variety of extras – a drinking fountain, lighting, furniture, garbage and recycling bins, a large square in front of the ‘pavilion’ featuring a statue of Richler and some kind of inscription (in English, quel horreur!) carved into locally-quarried granite, not to mention a proper pathway with its own lighting and a hell of a lot of shrubbery. Oh, and maybe one of those mini libraries featuring beat up Richler paperbacks.

And while I’d love to see such a project realized, it begs the question. Is this really the best use of public funds given our city’s current economic situation?

Renaming a street, library or park doesn’t cost $300K or even $60K and it’s a more appropriate way to recognize the deceased author than randomly attributing dilapidated and antiquated park furniture after him.

And if the city were to go that route instead renovating the gazebo becomes a simpler affair as well. Because it’s disassociated from Richler, it’s suddenly not so significant and doesn’t need to become a pavilion. It can be given a ‘bare bones’ rehabilitation at a fraction of the current proposed budget.

But there’s little hope of all that. The city has made up its mind to create a new public space and has authorized quite a sum to pay for it. All the taxpayers can do now is ask, politely, to see the plans they’ve come up with.

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