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.

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