Many years ago when I found myself making my way towards the Tam Tams one sunny summer Sunday and wound up in the middle of a strange festival going along the Mount Royal Avenue side of Parc Jeanne-Mance.
I remember thinking this was an odd location for a festival – it’s a baseball diamond – and what was stranger was that everything was in English. All the signs and all the lettering on the side of the trucks was in English. Had I inadvertently walked into the middle of a film shoot?
Fortunately not; Montreal is a stop on the annual North American tour schedule of the travelling Festival of India!
In other words, you can add to our city’s dynamic list of annual festivals one thrown by the Hare Krishnas. They’ll be back, quite likely in Parc Jeanne-Mance, July 9th and 10th, though it makes me wonder why the Krishnas aren’t set up across Parc Avenue immediately adjacent to the Tam Tams. You’d figure that would be very complimentary what with the ‘expanded consciousness’ going on around the base of the Cartier Monument.
As it was this past weekend; the Tam Tams in particular and Mount Royal generally speaking tend to bring out large crowds, but Sunday was epic. It’s too bad the city doesn’t try to estimate the crowd size at the Tams, but that might be for the best. As it stands, and as it has always been, the Tams graciously features zero city involvement. It’s unorganized, essentially spontaneous and quintessentially Montreal.
That got me thinking – how long have people been congregating in this particular part of town?
Or, from another perspective, what is it that made this space public? What precluded residential development on the land that would become Mount Royal and Jeanne-Mance parks?
There are a few different reasons why, but it’s worth noting that annual festivals played an interesting role.
Mount Royal Park was inaugurated in 1876 and the city’s principle exhibition centre – the Crystal Palace – was moved from the foot of Victoria Street (between Sainte-Catherine and Cathcart) to the ‘exhibition grounds’ in Fletcher’s Field two years later. Fletcher’s Field ran between Saint-Urbain and Parc, from Duluth up to Saint Joseph, and was used for annual exhibitions, sports and even as a military parade ground.
The image above was created for the newspaper L’Opinion Publique in 1881 and offers a bird’s eye view of the ‘Provincial Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition’ and its buildings. The Crystal Palace is in the background, up on what is now Saint Jospeh, with a Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway train passing behind it. The racetrack in the foreground would have been located between Mount Royal Avenue and Marie-Anne, or just about where the Festival of India sets up shop today.
Curiously, the area’s association with psychoactive plants dates back all the way to 1879, when the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain recognized Fletcher’s Field as a prime source for Hyoscyamus niger, also known as Henbane or Stinking Nightshade.
I doubt many of the spectators attending the annual agricultural and industrial exhibitions back in the city’s Victorian Era would have consuming Stinking Nightshade, though it may have been popular among the various animals brought to the site. The lengths of the exhibition on both the Parc and Esplanade sides was basically two long stables for the many horses brought to the exhibition grounds. Much like today, the area would have had a particularly pungent odour…
Also worth pointing out: the first known photograph of uniformed ice hockey players in Canada was taken in the Crystal Palace in early 1881, the same year of the illustration at top. During the winter months the large interior hall of the Crystal Palace served as one of Montreal’s main skating rinks, the other being Victoria Rink, today a parking garage running between Drummond and Stanley, just up from René Lévesque.
Our Crystal Palace would ultimately be destroyed by fire (in 1896), much like the more famous example built earlier in London, and the land between Mount Royal and Saint Joseph would shortly thereafter be redeveloped into much of the residential housing we find there today.
The land south of Mount Royal would remain public, though it would be many more years before it took its present form, with an emphasis on sport, as Parc Jeanne-Mance.
Generally speaking, I’m a fan of urban exploration.
However, there’s a few golden rules we should all keep in mind when it comes to exploring the secret and unseen parts of the city: don’t leave any trace behind, don’t hurt yourself, don’t inconvenience others, and above all else, don’t negatively impact the place you’re exploring.
Say, as an example, by starting a fire that may threaten a vintage theatre and the residents of the adjacent apartment complex.
But if you are so inclined to start a fire in an abandoned building, for the love of all that is good and holy, please share a video or photographs of your illegal deeds on social media, so you can be found and eventually prosecuted.
At this point you may be asking; “but who on Earth would be so foolish to do such a thing?”
The answer: teenagers. Boneheaded teenagers. And apparently some hotshot young videographers as well.
In an astounding coincidence, on the very same day that photographs, like the one above, emerged online of several teenagers apparently starting a fire on the second floor of the abandoned Snowdon Theatre, this video of several people galavanting through the Métro tunnels was posted to YouTube and widely distributed on local social media networks.
In the latter case, the film crew accessed one tunnel while the Métro was still in operation, and then proceeded to make their way into the rear conductor’s cabin of an operational train, locking the door when accosted by an STM employee. As La Presse notes, there’s a safety issue inasmuch as there’s a security issue. It was just last week that Daesh sympathizers detonated bombs in a Brussels Métro station; the film crew in the ‘Lowest Point’ video had access to Métro controls, the track, and service tunnels and the various equipment kept in those tunnels. My guess is they were probably down in the tunnels for more than hour, and evaded STM security throughout.
Unless of course these are off duty and out of uniform STM employees who happen to be urban exploration enthusiasts; that would be one of those ‘everything worked out better than expected’ conclusions I don’t think is terribly likely.
I’m torn, really. I feel creeping adulthood and my gut says “don’t go exploring Métro tunnels”, especially not when the trains are actually in operation. It’s immensely dangerous, not to mention inconvenient for thousands or tens of thousands of people who may be affected by a temporary line closure. I think the code ‘900-02’ announces a suspected infiltration of the tunnels; if either an STM employee or the system’s CCTV system suspects there’s someone in the tunnels, they have to call it in, close it down and investigate.
So while I find this video intriguing and interesting, I can’t in good conscience recommend others do the same. The risk is far too great.
That said, the STM could probably make some coin offering after-hours behind-the-scenes tours of the city’s transit infrastructure. I would pay good money to get a guided walking tour of the Orange Line, and am certain many others would too.
It’s remarkable to me that two different groups of people, in the same city and at essentially the same time, both recorded acts of trespassing and other illegal activities and then posted it to social media, seemingly oblivious the video or photo evidence could be used against them.
Kristian Gravenor has weighed-in on the Snowdon’s fire, but places the blame for the building’s slow demise ultimately on the city and borough government. In his opinion, neither have been proactive with regards to saving this building, and he suspects the borough will now announce it can’t be saved, and that as such it ought to be razed to fast-track new construction.
I would like to hope he’s wrong, and that this is simply a matter of local government lacking in vision and hoping for ‘free market’ solutions to solve problems that clearly fall within the public domain.
But when you consider that the Snowdon is the latest in an unfortunately long list of landmark Montreal theatres abandoned to ignoble fates without even an iota of effort by municipal officials to save them, it makes you wonder. This isn’t a new problem, it dates back forty years to the destruction of the Capitol Theatre, arguably the grandest of them all. More recently, the Seville and York were pulled down (to build condos and a university pavilion, respectfully), while the Snowdon, Cartier and most importantly, the Empress, lie abandoned and in ruin (and there are maybe a dozen more scattered elsewhere about the city).
In a city known for its nightlife, live entertainment and general cultural engagement, why is it very nearly impossible to renovate and rehabilitate old theatres and make them useful elements of the community at large?
According to the Journal de Montréal, the fire at Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre, though severe, was not so bad it weakened the structure. Damage seems to have been concentrated on the roof. The three-alarm blaze involved 90 firefighters and 35 fire-fighting vehicles. So far so good: excellent response, no casualties, the building’s still standing. Firefighters are investigating to determine what started the blaze, as the former theatre is abandoned and – at least technically – unoccupied. Fire’s don’t habitually start themselves…
It’s the second major blaze in as many days. A fire tore through three abandoned buildings at the intersection of King and Wellington streets in Old Montreal Friday morning, leaving little more than the exterior walls of the triplet of antique edifices (and on that note: these have since been demolished, according to firefighter spox Ian Ritchie, the walls were ‘too unstable’). Montreal police arson squad investigators have described that fire as ‘suspicious’. There were plans to build a condominium project on that site, though this drew the ire of preservation activists and the plan ultimately fell-through. The Snowdon Theatre, similarly abandoned and up-until-now likely to have been converted into condos, falls in a grey area architectural preservation wise. It’s historic and old, but this isn’t usually enough to get a building officially listed. Many of Montreal’s iconic movie houses have been razed owing to this fact.
That request was denied. The borough indicated to Gravenor three separate articles could be used to justify the borough’s refusal to provide this basic information.
Remember, the Snowdon Theatre is for sale and the public, ostensibly, has a right to bid on it (as long as you have ten large lying around). But information about the building’s sale, or its condition, is not considered public information, at least in part because the borough feels making such information public would either unduly harm an individual, or benefit another, or possibly “have a serious adverse effect on the economic interests of the public body or group of persons under its jurisdiction.”
As far as the borough is concerned, knowing whether this building constitutes a veritable heritage site (by virtue of the basic information about the building the city would have to have access to already), and knowing how much (or how little) was spent on it ever since the borough bought the building back in 2004, could be risky either for themselves or some theoretical, legally-plausible citizen.
My guess is it’s likely the former.
Gravenor also brings up the fact that the upper-level of the post-renovation Snowdon Theatre was, for many years, used as a gymnasium that had produced some quality athletes and – most importantly – was still very much in use right up until the borough kicked a bunch of kids to the curb back in 2013. In principle the borough replaced one gym with another, though in practice the kids, mostly young girls, got short-changed, with the new facilities essentially inadequate for gymnastics. The gym was basically the only part of the post-renovation complex that was well-used, and it permitted some interior decorative and design elements to be preserved.
Naturally, since families and children were enjoying themselves and exercising, the borough decided they should put a quick end to it all and evict them. Officially, the ‘roof was damaged’ and thus the city-owned building had to be… abandoned rather than repaired.
Naturally, …because this is Montreal and graft runs the local economy.
So for three years the Snowdon sat vacant and neither the city proper nor the borough did anything to protect, preserve or promote this building. And it’s not like we’re discussing a little-known property tucked away out of sight either; the Snowdon Theatre’s iconic marquee is one of the few things worth looking at from the bottom of the Décarie Trench.
So how did we get here? And is the Snowdon a potential heritage site worth preserving?
The theatre was completed in 1937 after a five-year, Great Depression related hiatus in cinema and theatre construction in Montreal. It was worth the wait, as the theatre was visually striking in its nascent International style. The theatre is often identified as an Art Deco design, but in fact is a melange of different styles including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. The style was a major leap forward and signals the first of a new generation of Montreal theatres. It was large, spacious and boldly decorated by Emmanuel Briffa, the renown Maltese theatre decorator who left his mark all over our city. The theatre was built by United Amusements, a leading theatre chain of the day, and mostly showed double-bills with a schedule aimed to accommodate the lives and lifestyles of those living within walking proximity (which at the time would have been predominantly middle-class and suburban). The hall sat 882 and, quite unlike the minimalist exterior, had just about every square inch decorated. Tile, stained glass, plaster reliefs, sculptures and frescoes made the building’s interiors into something of a technicolor wonderland. The Snowdon’s lobby had a strong marine theme, topped off with a gigantic aquarium.
It’s remarkable actually, that theatre-owners put so much time, money and effort into decorating their theatres back in the day. Can you imagine an aquarium in the Paramount or at the Forum? How long would that last?
And if all that isn’t remarkable enough, it’s equally amazing all this work would be carelessly painted over, removed or otherwise destroyed by several ‘renovations’ that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no known photographs of the opulent and imaginative lobby, a scarce few of the theatre’s interior from its glory days.
What finally dragged the Snowdon under, like many other classic Montreal theatres, was one-part advances in technology (like multiplex cinemas and VCRs) and one-part moral decay. Porn hit the big screen in a big way back in the 1970s and a great number of antique vaudeville theatres had their lives prolonged somewhat when these theatres turned over to X-rated fare, the Snowdon no exception.
Unfortunately, and as you might imagine, once a theatre descends into becoming a ‘jack-shack’ it rarely manages to pick itself back up again to be anything else. Cinema l’Amour, on The Main just south of Duluth, is a good example of pornography saving an ancient theatre, as it has been in that business since the 1960s (the building itself dates back to 1914).
The Snowdon stopped being a theatre in 1982 and was left vacant for a few years until it was purchased by Monteva Holdings. That firm converted the Snowdon into its current form: the theatre was bisected with the upper portion becoming a gymnasium, the lower portion converted into offices and retail space. The marquee was left intact, but just about everything inside changed completely. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, as the building was once again vacant by the late 1990s.
What little that remained intact of the original theatre was limited chiefly to the ceiling of the former theatre’s hall, and it’s here where Saturday’s fire occurred. If the roof was in need of repairs three years ago when the borough evicted the gymnasium, it most certainly needs them to be completed now, lest the whole building be given over to the elements. Worth noting: roof problems are what’s chiefly responsible for keeping NDG’s Empress Theatre in its state of advanced decrepitude. As far as I can tell, prohibitive renovation costs (dictated by the borough) have sunk every plan to revitalize and rehabilitate that space, and once again the borough and city seem perfectly content to simply let ‘nature take its course’ and do nothing at all.
So, will your elected officials take the hint and act fast to save this landmark?
It’s hard to tell, but if you’re so inclined and passionate about preserving our city’s architectural heritage and places and spaces of recreation and leisure, I highly recommend reaching out to them directly. I’m hopeful they’ll respond favourably to increased public interest in supporting our city’s rich cultural heritage by working to find long-term solutions to make these old theatres viable performance venues once again. Just about every neighbourhood in this city has one, and if resurrected, it’s my contention that the long-term economic stimulus provided by these cultural centres would be far higher than the cost of the initial investment. City officials need to work with private citizens, and not wait around for ‘free market’ solutions, to raise funds and collaborate on a mass resuscitation of Montreal’s ‘threatened theatres’. It would be an excellent project for the 375th anniversary.
A few years ago I was at O’Hare with an hour and a half to kill between flights and after a quick bite and a coffee I was keen to go have a smoke. Unsure of where the exit was located, I approached two TSA agents and asked “how do I get outside?”
Annoyed, one replied “you go out through the front door.”
Whether notoriously complex to navigate Mid-West international airports or a stately fine arts museum, every good building needs a well-designed, fairly obvious, and effectively welcoming entrance.
Though this may seem obvious, consider there’s been considerable controversy concerning how Montrealers accessed their fine arts museum. The issue of access has led to a major renovation of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Hornstein Pavilion (the neoclassical structure on the north side of Sherbrooke Street), as well as the subsequent ‘permanent closure’ of that building’s massive wooden doors for nearly a decade. And when the museum sought a major expansion in the 1980s, what was ultimately completed was focused on yet another entrance.
I say this because I remarked last weekend that the MMFA’s entrance on the south side of Sherbrooke has been closed for renovations and that patrons were instead to enter through the portico, passing the immense marble columns and oak doors just as Montrealers had done a century ago when the Hornstein Pavilion was a brand new addition to Sherbrooke Street, the crown jewel of the Square Mile.
The front doors of the main pavilion were closed in 1973 when the museum undertook a three-year renovation. They’d remain closed after the MMFA re-opened on the 8th of May 1976 because it was thought the neoclassical styled entrance was elitist and ‘undemocratic’. This wasn’t a uniquely Montreal phenomenon either; several other major North American arts museums were closing the old doors and building new entrances to better connect with the public.
In the case of the MMFA, this move was likely a consequence of the MMFA’s historic attachment to Montreal’s Anglophone elites and the changing political climate of the day (it also happened that the MMFA was an entirely private endeavour up until 1972, at which point it began receiving funding from the provincial government, which in turn helped secure the expansion plan).
To coincide with the opening of the new pavilion built further up Avenue du Musée, architect Fred Lebensold closed the main doors and inserted a new double-ended entrance under the monumental staircase. In lieu of ‘being uplifted physically into a temple of art’, visitors instead went through revolving doors located under bubble domes on either side of the staircase, and down into a main lobby. Organized in this way, visitors would walk through the museum – and the history of art – chronologically, with the oldest items in the museum’s collection located at the lowest level.
There was a practical concern as well – Lebensold argued the opening and closing of the main doors too radically altered humidity levels within the museum. The grand re-opening of the front doors came about in the summer of 1983 to coincide with a major retrospective on the works of William Bouguereau; it would signal the beginning of a new era for the museum, one of large-scale and very popular exhibits, along with new plans to expand.
The Bouguereau exhibit and the desire for a major expansion of the MMFA came at around the same time as Bernard Lammare was appointed president of the museum’s board of directors. He was the major driving force, along with Paul Desmarais, to build the museum’s third pavilion, across from the original pavilion and aforementioned 1976 addition (now known as the Stewart Pavilion). What would become known as the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion (completed in 1991), is known to most people today simply as the primary means by which one enters the MMFA. It’s an immense arch made of the same Vermont marble quarried for the original building’s columns and façade, and is located on the south side of Sherbrooke. Standing on Avenue du Musée looking down, it’s just about all you see; the archway defines your path as always leading back to art. From other points on Sherbrooke, it blends into the background a bit better.
I’ve always been intrigued by Moshe Safdie’s Desmarais Pavilion because the most obvious and monumental portion – that of the glass-atrium entrance – isn’t a gallery and doesn’t really involve any art. It’s more like a foyer, a controlled and separate environment where a combination of environmental effects give the impression of grandeur without drawing your eye to any one particular element. You’re simply standing in a deceptively large room that leads to anywhere and everywhere. I feel this impression is emphasized by the notorious staircase that forces visitors to move at half-speed. The galleries, bookshop, restaurant and assorted offices and classrooms are all ‘hidden’ behind the white-marble ‘entrance cube’ and the adjacent remaining façade walls of the New Sherbrooke Apartments, built in 1905 and integrated into the Desmarais Pavilion after a fair bit of lobbying on the part of heritage activists like Phyllis Lambert.
Lamarre initially wanted to have the remnants of the New Sherbrooke razed so that Safdie could have a clean slate and create something modern and monumental. Opposition to this idea came not only from heritage activists like Lambert, but also from then-new mayor Jean Doré, who had promised greater public consultation when it came to major urban redevelopment projects. Ultimately, with the excellent examples of Maison Alcan and the Canadian Centre for Architecture perhaps providing some additional motivation, it was decided the new pavilion would integrate the façade of the New Sherbrooke, despite the additional complications of having to work around supporting beams. The end result was widely praised, a nice balance of the modern and innovative combined with the protection and renewal of the antique; new inserted into old without much disturbance.
In the span of 20 years the MMFA changed its front entrance three times, but with the Desmarais Pavilion, it finally had something people seemed to really like. Attendance began to rise steadily and has been high ever since. For the past two years, the MMFA has held the title of most-visited arts museum in all of Canada.
So who knows, maybe there really was something to be said for putting the entrance at street level and closer to the people. If the museum’s attendance numbers continue to rise, I suspect they may need to open more doors.
Another week, another colossal waste of our municipal tax dollars.
Tuesday’s announcement: $12 million to renovate Place Vauquelin, the public square between City Hall and the Old Courthouse. Among the many exciting new features: a redesigned fountain, heated granite paving stones and, as the Gazette reports ‘the return of the massive Christmas tree for the holiday period.’
Apparently the province will kick in $3.5 million, and it’s supposed to be completed by December of next year.
I won’t hold my breath… the Coderre administration so far is as well known for constantly pitching the inevitable return of the Montreal Expos inasmuch as their total inability to execute urban renovation projects on time or on budget. Coderre routinely over-promises and under-delivers, despite his ‘hands-on’ approach to dismantling poured concrete…
Moreover – $12 million to redo Place Vauquelin is excessive as is, and we’re assuming, with cause, that it will ultimately cost even more. How much can we really afford to spend on city beautification?
Don’t get me wrong – I want to live in a beautiful city with many well-maintained, well-conceived public spaces.
But don’t forget as well – we’re living in a time of austerity, or at least we’re supposed to be. All levels of government have indicated time and again since the Crash of 2008-09 that budget cuts are necessary so as to lower the debt, and that this, along with tax breaks for the wealthiest of citizens and corporations, will help revive our lagging economy.
Our economy is still lagging, and spending municipal tax dollars on city beautification projects is not the kind of economic stimulus we need.
Moreover, the underlying problem is – and always has been – that the people have no apparatus to measure government budgetary efficiency. There is no constant public audit of the spending habits of the City of Montreal, and we accept the city’s cost estimates for various projects without the means to judge whether these costs are reasonable or justifiable in the first place.
Take the Mordecai Richler Gazebo example: the Cadillac of modern gazebos, locally sourced, clocks in at a cost of about $25,000. Such was offered to the city, as well as the cost of construction, pro bono by a local entrepreneur a couple of months back. The mayor declined the offer, stating (weakly I might add) that the Richler Gazebo is a heritage structure and as such the current cost estimate of $592,000 is appropriate. It is already well-known Mordecai Richler never wrote of (or in) the gazebo that will bear his name, and by my estimate about half the total sum is linked to the city commissioning ultimately incomplete studies relating to the history and heritage of the structure. Information that was already publicly available, that any university student could easily have prepared in a report, could have saved this city at least a quarter-million dollars in costs associated with this project, and would have made a compelling argument in favour of simply demolishing it.
Another example: the $70 million renovation of part of Parc Jean-Drapeau to facilitate large open-air concerts is not only an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars, it will likely wind up exclusively benefitting concert promoters. The project is intended both to create a permanent outdoor amphitheatre as well as a new promenade to link Calder’s Man with the Métro station. Additional support facilities, like public toilets and vendor kiosks, would likely be integrated into the plan. But the project won’t be completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017 (in fact it’s due to open in 2019) and the economic benefits to the city are dubious at best. Parc Jean-Drapeau may be part of the city’s ‘tourism sector’, but the nature of these massive outdoor concerts tends to concentrate most of their economic activity to the immediate environs of the concert. Put another way, you’re probably not going to have dinner in the Old Port if you’ve spent your day at Osheaga or Heavy MTL, and this is quite the contrary of the city’s other, more urban music festivals (like the Jazz Fest or Francofolies, which provide direct economic stimulus to the restaurant and hotel industries across a far larger area of the city). What’s particularly onerous about this proposal is that a) there aren’t that many massive touring outdoor concert festivals to begin with, b) the existing space is already adequate given the limited need and c) Parc Jean-Drapeau already has a purpose-built outdoor amphitheatre, and it’s a derelict heritage structure to boot.
But wait, there’s more!
In January of 2014 the management corporations of both Parc Jean-Drapeau and the Quartier international de Montréal put together a project that sought to spend $55 million on a comprehensive renovation of Parc Jean-Drapeau in time for the 375th anniversary. At the time, the plan called for $12.5 million to be spent renovating and rehabilitating Place des Nations, $22.5 million to be spent building a three-kilometre long riverside promenade around both Ile Sainte Helene and Ile Notre Dame, $15 million on a new central promenade connecting the Métro station to Calder’s Man, and only $5 million to improve the open-air concert venue.
So in the span of just under two years the Parc Jean-Drapeau renovation project has increased in cost by more than $15 million and has been downgraded in terms of its scope (Coderre’s recent announcement seems to only include the Calder promenade and the infrastructure for a larger capacity and more permanent outdoor concert venue; there was no mention of Place des Nations or a riverside promenade). In addition, a larger and less expensive project that would have completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary is now only estimated to be completed two years later.
This is not an efficient use of municipal tax dollars, nor is it demonstrative of efficient urban planning.
Place Vauquelin, Viger Square, Place du Canada, Place des Nations and that wretched gazebo all fell into disuse and disrepair because they were not adequately maintained, as administrations from decades ago sought to cut costs for reasons that would be familiar to us today. Montreal has gone through several cycles of concentrated spurts of investment into massive urban beautification projects, most recently to celebrate oddball anniversaries (375th two years from now, 350th back in 1992, but the cycle goes back to Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics as well), followed by prolonged periods where maintenance budgets are cut back to the bone. This is an advantageous situation for politicians and private contractors alike – every other mayor can triumphantly proclaim major investments of public funds to demonstrate that, unlike their penny-pinching predecessors, they are truly working to push the city forward, wisely investing public funds in large-format public works programs.
It all has the allure of being good for the economy but it’s all just an illusion.
Coderre announced Thursday, from the trade mission he’s on in China (?), that there will be consequences for those responsible for driving the cost of the gazebo renovation project up to $592,000, and also provided the nebulous quotation: “…but trust me, I’m not going to spend too much money on that one.”
Your guess is as good as mine as to what precisely that means.
After about a year’s worth of work, Cabot Square re-opened to the public on Wednesday July 8th.
The major improvement involves two outreach workers who will now use the square’s renovated stone kiosk (vespasienne) as home base to provide services to the primarily Aboriginal homeless community that (up until the renovations began) called Cabot Square home. Whether this homeless population returns to spend their time in Cabot Square remains to be seen, but the mere fact that these outreach workers have their own workspace within the square is in and of itself a progressive step in the right direction. From what I’ve read, the kiosk will also serve as a café where the proceeds will support the homeless (or the outreach program that helps the homeless). This is also good – Montreal is well known for its dearth of coffee-purchasing opportunities…
Other improvements: apparently there’s daily programming (music, dance, theatre) organized throughout the summer, and free wifi. I have a greater interest in the latter rather than the former, but again, glad to see it and I hope these activities are well-attended.
However, as you can see in the above photo, much of the square has been covered over in a slick ‘water-permeable ground covering’ that looks an awful lot like asphalt and for that reason looks awful.
This is not to say that the square was completely paved over – just that too much of it was. The paved portion flows around ‘green islands’ – there are now several such ‘islands’ in the newly renovated square, sharply divided from the walking paths with large curbs that integrate a few benches and subtle anti-skateboarding dimples. Within the green islands, plants surrounding the bases of several trees. Elsewhere in the square, younger trees planted to replace those removed during the renovation are surrounded by small circles of wood chips.
The division between green and grey isn’t subtle – it’s very clear where you’re supposed to walk and where you’re not.
There’s almost no grass per se, no flowerbeds either. In its previous incarnation, there were patches of grass and no physical barrier between the somewhat symmetrical paving-stone walking paths and the green space.
The new arrangement reminds me of a trip to the Biodome; nature in the new Cabot Square is ‘grade-separated’ – look, but don’t touch seems to be the overriding design philosophy, which is ironic given how Aboriginal politics often involves efforts to sustain our interactions with the natural environment (i.e. preservation with an aim towards common appreciation etc.)
While there’s no doubt the new Cabot Square is slick, clean and modern, it’s also much less of a park. It feels more like a transit point than an urban refuge, and this is odd given that there’s so much less going on around Cabot Square these days (i.e. the Forum closed in 1996, the Children’s Hospital just relocated and the square isn’t the major bus terminus it once was). Considering there are plans to increase residential density in the area by building more condo towers and apartment buildings, I figured city planners would have gone in a different direction, aiming to provide an urban refuge instead of a kind of shaded crossroads.
It occurred to me that the paved surface will certainly make the space easier to clean, and further allows city vehicles to drive around inside the square without ripping up the ground and grass. Except that these posts have been installed at every entrance and seem pretty solid. I’m not entirely sure what their purpose is… I think it’s to slow down cyclists.
Now the square has a paved interior with wide paths and large curbs to ensure the division between green space and walking space, but these posts make it impossible for any car or truck to enter the square (and Montreal police pledged somewhat to treat homeless Aboriginals more like human beings).
One thing I noticed when visiting recently was the removal of shrubs, decorative fences and bus shelters that once ran around the square’s periphery. I completely approve of this, and wrote about the necessity of opening up sight lines in the past. The former arrangement of bus shelters and shrubs made it impossible to see across the space and for this reason made it an ideal location for homeless people to congregate (Place Emilie-Gamelin and Viger Square suffer from the same problem).
So that being the case, it makes me wonder if the homeless Aboriginal community (or any members of the broader homeless community for that matter) will return to the square.
The picnic tables have been removed, as have a number of park benches. Garbage and recycling has been moved to the periphery, largely at the entrances (in a move I could only assume was based on a recent STM decision to do the same with Métro stations, wherein garbage and recycling has been removed from platform level and relocated to receptacles located up near the ticket kiosks). This is one of those ideas that’s good in theory but rarely in practice (i.e. people have about a 30-second tolerance limit to carrying garbage; if a garbage bin isn’t immediately available, they tend to just drop it on the ground).
And as to those anti-skateboarding dimples on the curbs? Again, useful in theory, but given that the entire square has been paved over, the whole square is now far more inviting to skateboarders than it was previously. Moreover, on all sections of the curbs that ramp up from ground level, there doesn’t seem to be any dimples at all.
Put it another way, when I visited the square last week, it was a group of skateboarders who were making best use of the space. I don’t think this is what the city had in mind.
Here we see an example of one of the myriad ‘activities’ slated to take place in the square. I think this was for a caricaturist. Elsewhere there was a small group of somewhat depressed looking ‘street performers’ dressed like pirate-clowns; I’m assuming this was entertainment intended for children…
Again, more good stuff in theory, but only time will tell whether this actually leads to a major vocational change for the square. There seemed to be a lot of people working (ostensibly) for the city that day, and supporting this over the long term may prove problematic what with austerity budgets.
And here’s the renovated vespasienne. It looks great, but it didn’t look like the café component was fully operational. It’s unfortunate there’s no landscaping around the base of the edifice (no flowers or plants), as this gives the impression the vespasienne grew out of the pavement.
Perhaps the single biggest lost opportunity was the Métro entrance kiosk located at the northwest corner of the square, in that what is arguably the most problematic structure in the square was left as-is. The Métro entrance in the square was once very useful indeed – keep in mind Atwater was the western terminus of the Green Line for about a decade, and up until 20 years ago the Forum was the city’s primary sporting and concert venue. Thus, it was useful to have a large Métro entrance located directly across from the Forum to help manage the crowds. Ever since the Forum stopped being a important venue this Métro entrance hasn’t been particularly useful. It, and the long tunnel that connects it with the Alexis Nihon complex diagonally across the street, hasn’t been very well maintained and all too often stinks of piss.
And as such it will remain – I suppose getting the city’s parks department and the STM to cooperate on a city beautification project may have been a little too difficult to coordinate. Thus, the STM kiosk remains an oversized, underused and aesthetically disconnected element of the square. Had they removed it the square could have had an entrance from arguably its highest traffic corner. Instead, the structure remains as a lasting visual obstruction to what’s going on inside the square and will likely continue to serve as something of a homeless shelter in its own right.
At the end of the day it begs the question – is this really the best our city can do?