Yesterday and Today

The bell tower of the former Saint Jaques Cathedral and the parking lot that preceded Place Emilie-Gamelin, 9th of June 1976. Photo by Vincent Massaro, credit to Archives de Montréal
The bell tower of the former Saint Jaques Cathedral and the parking lot that preceded Place Emilie-Gamelin, 9th of June 1976. Photo by Vincent Massaro, credit to Archives de Montréal

This is Berri Square on June 9th 1976, the year of our Olympiad.

I find this photo significant for a few reasons. First and foremost is that UQAM had not yet built its main campus.

That came three years later.

It only took three years to build UQAM’s main campus.

Let that sink in and think about how long it has taken the province to build the MUHC. Or finish the Dorval Interchange. Or complete the Train de l’Est.

Need I go on?

Why don’t we build as fast as we did thirty some odd years ago?

Warts and all, I find the Latin Quarter far more inviting and appealing today when compared to the photo above.

Back in 1976 there was no Grande Bibliotheque nor UQAM’s main campus. There was no large public space either (Place Emilie Gamelin would only be completed in 1992).

To think that the roof of Berri-UQAM was a parking lot for all those years…

This doesn’t feel like the transit and institutional hub I know, it feels barren and disconnected.

I guess that’s the second thing I find fascinating about this photograph – it’s deceptive.

There seems to be a lot of stuff missing, and the openness and lack of any kind of green space makes the area feel impoverished, and far less significant in terms of its function within the urban environment. This appears to be almost some kind of accident of urban planning.

But then you have to consider Berri-de-Montigny station (as it was called back then) had been completed a decade earlier and would have been as much of a transit hub as it is today. Consider Saint Denis would have been similar to how it is today in terms of its reputation as an ‘entertainment district’. UQAM’s main pavilion hadn’t yet been built but the university was using the building facing the bell tower of the former Saint Jacques Cathedral. The old bus depot would have been newish back then, and the large warehouse across the street was the main distribution centre for a major local grocery chain, and doubtless was humming with activity all night (it was later converted into a roller rink and concert venue). Place Dupuis would have been relatively new as well, offering high end commercial and corporate real estate as well as the Hotel des Gouverneurs, one of the first large hotels in the are aside from the old Gare Viger railway hotel.

Even though there’s virtually no green space (and consider as well the grounds around the remnants of the cathedral were closed to the public), the area nonetheless has a more open feel. I can imagine this area felt very different with all that open space and open sight lines allowing perspectives of the city that have been lost to time. Montreal would’ve looked different back then, and perhaps arguably looked better at a distance than it may have been up front.

That said, I think we need to be careful in how we look at Montreal’s urban past. This photo was taken in 1976 and a sizeable chunk of downtown Montreal looked a lot like this – large parking lots, large open lots, a lot less green space and fewer major institutions occupying the centre of the city. How could 1976 have been any kind of a ‘golden year’ in our city when so much of what makes our city great today simply didn’t exist at the time?

I’ve often argued we look at our past, particularly as it concerns our urban environment and urban quality of life, with rose coloured glasses.

Sure, we hosted the Olympics, the Habs were winning Stanley Cups left and right, the city’s economy was stronger and a Montrealer was Prime Minister.

But consider as well the exceptionally higher violent crime rates of the era (i.e. a hundred homicides a year), or that Montreal police morality squads prowled for young gays on Mount Royal. Consider the mansions and historic neighbourhoods replaced by skyscrapers and obliterated by highways, or the population shift to the suburbs and a downtown that turned into something of a ghost town after 6 pm. Imagine Montreal without Le Plateau or a resurgent Saint Henri, or any of the prized urban neighbourhoods we so covet today; we are a far more livable city now than we were then.

Forget about Montreal’s Golden Age. It hasn’t happened yet.

Brain Drain

Pierre-Karl Péladeau during a press scrum - credit to Toronto Star
Pierre-Karl P̩ladeau during a press scrum Рcredit to Toronto Star

Today was just one of those days I suppose. Perhaps you’ve had them too. A day were you read the paper and see the headlines and wonder just what it is you’re doing living in Montreal. Today wasn’t even particularly cold out either.

Rather, it was the enlightened goons who (somehow) managed to get elected to represent the collective interests of Quebec, with an apparent total disregard for the interests of many of its citizens, particularly those noble enough to stick it out in what’s increasingly starting to look like a city on the verge of real failure.

And I’ve been accused of being an apologist, not only for Montreal but Quebec as well.

In case this has all been too glib allow me to get straight to the point.

In an era of heightened awareness concerning campus sexual assault, the education minister has given his own ringing endorsement to fully legal strip searches of minors without parental consent or even police involvement, so long as it’s done in a ‘respectful’ manner. If you’ve just spewed coffee out onto your laptop reading that last sentence take a moment because there’s more. The strip searches are justified in terms of the student’s security, just like every invasion of the state into the personal domain. Always for our own interests, legally speaking. The reason this is news is because a fifteen year old girl was strip searched by her principle and another woman who worked at her Quebec City high school. They were looking for pot. They found nothing. The girl was coerced into removing all of her clothing without legal representation, without the involvement of police, an without notifying her parents.

She complained to a newspaper she felt violated. No kidding. This is Quebec in 2015 and it makes my blood boil.

Especially because you’d figure Yves Bolduc would have the common sense to realize he’s opened the door to so much potential abuse of minors in Quebec schools. Did he learn nothing from the Residential Schools Scandal?

And that’s just for starters.

Then the enlightened (pure sarcasm) head of the poorly named CAQ decided to let us all know he thinks every mosque in Quebec should be investigated so as to determine whether or not the imam/congregation preaches values that are in line with Quebec values.

What Quebec values?

The discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities? Undue persecution? Are those the values of which he speaks?

François Legault co-founded Air Transat. He was an education minister during the Landry Administration. He is an accomplished individual by any standard. Yet in Quebec he can afford to make statements such as these and be taken seriously, statements that would void whatever political credentials one might have in just about any other political jurisdiction. A career-limiting move, in corporate parlance.

Not here. In Quebec saying ‘every Muslim is guilty until proven innocent’ is just fine for the leader of a provincial political party. The only other political party in all of Canada that came close to this type of nonsense was the wildrose Party in Alberta and they imploded under the weight of their own ineptitude. Is it any wonder some Muslims living in Quebec (and by that I mean Montreal, let’s be real) don’t feel welcome and may actually get pushed towards embracing the more conservative if not fundamentalist aspects of their faith? They come here expecting liberty and tolerance and discover they’ve immigrated to the part of Canada that still hasn’t accepted Canadian values as defined in our constitution and charter.

Quebec is governed by a collective siege mentality that has ruined our economy and has entrenched social, cultural, political and economic divides across the province (all of which intersect as if at a bull’s eye squarely atop Montreal).

And then, rounding out the shameful day that was February 18th 2015 in Quebec, the heir-presumptive to the throne of the Parti Québécois, Pierre-Karl Péladeau, said that a referendum would not be necessary to achieve independence, and that a PQ electoral victory would be sufficient. A few hours later his aide would insist that this was not the case, that he misunderstood the question.

Independence. Nothing’s working and we’re still talking independence.

Some days I hate living here. Some days I hate living in the place I have always called home.

I don’t know why I’m able to somehow force myself not to be bothered by it on some days, while on others it forces me into the pits of despair. I also don’t know why I put up with it. Everyone I know tells me to leave or tells me that’s what they’ll tell their children; that there are no opportunities here, and that it’s foolish and naive to think things will change for the better.

I know too many people who made the right choice and left.

How awful it is to live in a city as tantalizing and generally enjoyable as Montreal, only to be made ultimately untenable by poisonous and petty provincial politics.

Gutting the City

Dix-30 aerial photoAn aerial view of Quartier Dix-30 in Brossard. Not my work. Ceci n’est pas une ville.

We need a Dix-30 styled “innovative multi-use urban project” like we need a gaping hole in the head.

For one, there’s nothing innovative about shopping malls.

For two, TMR’s industrial park is hardly urban.

For three, it’s projects like these that lead to boarded up windows on Saint Catherine or Saint Lawrence.

***

Let’s back up a bit.

There’s a firm that’s aiming to build a massive brand new shopping, entertainment, hotel and office park at the intersection of highways 15 and 40 in the Town of Mount Royal’s industrial park.

They’re calling it 15/Quarante and so far have refused to go into anything but the absolute vaguest of details. It’s the same company, Carbonleo Realty, who’s responsible for the Quartier Dix-30 shopping mega complex built in Brossard to much undeserved fanfare a few years back.

Now this same company is looking to repeat its success on island, on a significant portion of real estate currently occupied by factories and warehouses.

And who needs that right?

Instead they plan on replacing the means of production with the means of mass consumption and build big box stores.

They’re also indicating office towers and – get this – a concert hall – are all in the works.

I’m telling you right now: there will never be a concert hall located in TMR’s industrial park. That’s bullshit right there. Multiplex movie theatre – sure, why not, that could happen.

But concert hall?

Nope. Not ever.

For one there’s no way public money would serve to build in TMR what has just been built in a more sensible location at Place des Arts.

As to office towers, again, I’m very skeptical. A landing corridor passes right over that highway junction and it’s debatable whether Montreal on the whole needs more office space.

I can imagine there’s plenty of reason to suspect a mega mall in the style of Dix-30 would work (in that it would make money for the Town of Mount Royal and for the developer); there’s already a lot of that in that area anyways and there’s interest in redeveloping the old Blue Bonnets race track into a large residential project. The mall proposed would thus be located close to a large body of people and at a major traffic junction. How could it fail?

This is precisely what the people at Decarie Square, Place Vertu, the Cavendish Mall and that other short-lived mall further south on Decarie (that was abandoned throughout much of the 1990s) were thinking. The rules of retail and real estate are the same – location, location, location. And superficially it makes sense they would choose to locate the mall in the area they’ve chosen.

The first problem I see is that adding a mega mall will only exacerbate congestion. Without a considerable public investment in redeveloping the surrounding roadways the proposed mega mall runs the risk of being inconvenient to get to despite its proximity to major traffic systems and residential areas.

The second and bigger problem is that projects of this size wind up destroying independent businesses and obliterating established commercial thoroughfares. If we want more successful small businesses on The Main, on Saint Catherine, on Saint Denis, Queen Mary and Notre Dame West, we can’t allow for more big box stores and shopping malls. It’s really just that simple. I think the single greatest economic challenge to Montreal in the last forty years is the threat posed by large multi-national retailers who sell high-volumes of attractive garbage at unbeatable prices. We should have legislation on the books to keep such companies out of our city simply to maintain competitiveness and entrepreneurialism.

Simply put.

If you are a capitalist you should be against projects like this and just about every ‘big box’ retailer operating in our city.

They are literally undermining the economic foundations of our city.

Yes, it’s true the Economist ranked Montreal as the world’s second best city to live in (absurdly taking a back seat to Toronto, the city fun forgot).

THIS DOESN’T SPEAK VERY HIGHLY OF OTHER MAJOR WORLD CITIES.

As much as I love Montreal, we need to face reality and acknowledge we got the high rank simply because it’s cheap to live here and broadly speaking we enjoy a high standard of life. It was not because of any local economic or political dynamism, that’s for sure.

A Brookings Institute study that came out roughly around the same time as the Economist report put Montreal in 285th place out of 300 major world cities in terms of economic productivity.

And more locally the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses put Montreal dead last in terms of best cities for doing business in Canada.

Given the state the world’s in right now, sure, Montreal’s a great place to live to ride out the storm.

We know we have an enduring economic problem in this city, and have been particularly vocal of late, bemoaning job losses, folding restaurants and boarded-up windows.

And yet, we do nothing to fight that which is driving these failures. The answer to some of our economic problems lie in protectionist legislation at the municipal level.

Every time a new McDonald’s, a new Starbucks, a WalMart, Home Depot, Tim Horton’s or Target opens up, small businesses fall by the dozens, and with it goes a crucial component of our city’s economic foundation. The city needs to stand up for competitiveness, choice and entrepreneurialism by promoting small business over volume retailers and corporate chains.

It’s the highly localized investment capital generated by small businesses that form the real backbone for long term economic growth, as family run businesses are passed down from generation to generation and local legacies are established. In the long run the city benefits from the regular returns of these businesses far more than could possibly be expected from high volume retailers and franchises that are notorious for short shelf lives.

In sum, malls die and are emblematic of unsustainable economic policies. The downtown core has already demonstrated the adverse effects of ‘chain and franchise’ dominance, and as a result feels increasingly alien. Sainte Catherine is more a poor man’s Times Square than something iconically Montreal; the neon used to advertise theatres, cabarets and restaurants. Today it advertises the exact same stores I find in the shopping malls of suburbia or the Underground City.

And it’s for that reason that I rarely find myself on Sainte Catherine or shopping downtown. Too little choice.

The last time I can recall spending an afternoon ‘out shopping’ was last summer on Bernard in the Mile End. I went across town from where I was living at the time and walked along the street, stopping in several stores (all independently owned) and making a variety of purchases, some planned, others more spontaneous. Then I got a bite to eat at a local bistro, had an espresso and then met up with a friend to have a drink on a terrace.

Yes, conceivably I’ll be able to do all this, and possibly more, at the proposed TMR Mega Mall.

But I wouldn’t on principle no matter what kind of branded lifestyle or savings it promises.

I don’t think I’m alone either.

In any event, I don’t know how to close this, so here’s Glenn Castanheira of the Saint Lawrence Merchant’s Association discussing why he thinks it’s a bad idea on CTV Montreal… and Castanheira again in debate with the Mayor of the Town of Mount Royal, Philippe Roy.