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The view from Los Angeles

View of Los Angeles' Financial District, from Getty Museum

In 1876, the mayors of Los Angeles and Montréal were brothers named Beaudry. I’m not sure how much else we have in common, though there are certainly a lot of Canadians in Los Angeles. In any event, I recently had the good fortune to spend a week relaxing with excellent company in Hollywood, and the experience, my first in ‘la-la-land’, was certainly something to write home about (though post-cards were prohibitively kitschy). Here are a few observations about life in the great western desert:

a) Los Angeles has been described as ‘a hundred neighbourhoods in search of a city’ (originally it was 72, but that was back in the 1930s, the author of the article I read in the in-flight magazine updated the quote for the new millennium). I couldn’t agree more, as the various neighbourhoods I saw had very distinct characteristics, none of which were easily shared. The disparities between rich and poor in the United States only re-enforced this view, with the constant reminder from my acquaintances out West that the dividing line between upscale bistros and Skid-Row (an actual hobo-town) was often little more than which side of the street you were on. That and the car culture only served to enhance the divisions – in essence, what’s between points A and B seldom matters, as your car is an extension of the comfort you live in. As you can expect, this is not a pedestrian friendly city.

b) The Financial District, in the photo above, is considerably smaller than I would have expected, significantly smaller and less vibrant than Chicago or Toronto. The biggest factor seems to be that very few people actually live in LA’s ‘downtown’, though apparently this is changing as some Angelino’s have been making the move into the city for the last few years. Either way it was a bit strange to see a downtown so vacant after 5pm – not unlike Calgary.

c) The public transit system is well-developed though lacking in certain areas. For instance, while we had no trouble getting from Hollywood to Santa Monica to visit the jaw-dropping Getty Museum, the LA Metro website’s trip-planning program never worked. Though this was a bit of a problem, once on-board the expressbus making its way down Sunset Blvd, we realized that once on-board it would be difficult to get lost, as the bus is equipped not only with automated stop-calls, but an interactive map broadcast on flat-screen TVs, showing riders where they are and what’s around them. Made me wonder why we can’t have the same thing here in Montréal. Once on-board it also became quite clear who takes public transit in LA, as about 90% of the on-board signage, including the TVs, was in Spanish. LA is very much a Spanish city, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn their are more Hispanics than Caucasians, so as you can imagine, there’s a fair bit of visual bilingualism. However, unlike here in Québec – where language is regulated by the state – there, its regulated by capitalism and the realities of American society. Needless to say, we received more than one incredulous look while on-board.

d) Food – all I can say is ‘Asian-American’ fusion cuisine. If you haven’t had a Peking-duck taco, get on it. That shit’s delicious!

e) View – a good friend remarked that the city was built for great perspectives, and I wholeheartedly agree. Whether on the highway, on zipping around the ‘spaghetti-streets’ of Hollywood (thanks to J. Foster for that one), in the hills or wherever, the city affords many excellent views. This makes driving around on the highways and main boulevards very exciting, and as you can imagine, Sunset Boulevard is really exceptional in this respect. I’m not crazy about car-culture, but this is one reason I would consider getting a license. Of course the varied topography of the city allows for so many spectacular perspectives, and the fact that we were in Hollywood meant the view was always pretty spectacular.

That should be it for now – more to come later.

Deceptive Perspective

View of the Old Port of Montréal

Back in the early 1980s, several commentators writing in the local press lamented the loss of Montréal’s once prosperous and boisterous port. In the late 1970s, several grain silos, elevators and warehouses were torn down – allowing views such as this one today – and new facilities were built further to the east. Montréal did not lose a port, it was simply moved to new facilities, enlarged, with its oldest portion re-configured as a tourist destination (which currently brings in roughly 2 million visitors per year). The linear park system installed in place of former depots was constructed in the early 1990s, another element of the city’s 350th anniversary spending-spree. Today, the Old Port has found a new purpose as upscale, chic playground, while the Port of Montréal continues to play a vital role as the largest inland port in North America and the third most important general freight port on the Eastern Seaboard. Despite all of this, the perception back in the day was that Montréal was losing its prominence, losing an element that once made us great. I find locals are still quick to jump on this bandwagon – seldom traveling far east enough to see the port in action, they opt instead for the more destructive concept that the city has been lost – it’s raison-d’etre torn down by literal bulldozers.

Former Glories

In the summer of 1967, roughly 50 million people came to Montréal, and an overwhelming majority of those people would have passed through this space, the former Place-des-Nations. To think that such a crossroads of world culture would become a temporary parking space for eighteen-wheelers is beyond offensive. So many have told me of the electricity in the air in this place that fateful summer; despite its appearances, it still retains a particular emotive quality. It imposes an odd reverence on you, as though it was a ruin of a once great people. How hard would it really be to transform this space into something worthy of its significance, of our accomplishment?

An unfinished list of unfinished projects

Habitat 67 with crane-barge from pier

The following is a list of unfinished projects, forgotten ideas, white elephants and missed chances from the past few decades; if there was ever an unfortunate characteristic demonstrable of Montréal, it would be our unfortunate history of not following through on our plans and not having the confidence to continuously find solutions to the inevitable obstacles to our progress:

    1. – Mirabel International Airport
    2. – Griffintown
    3. – Habitat 67
    4. РThe Montr̩al Aquarium
    5. – Olympic Stadium
    6. – Downtown baseball stadium
    7. – Expo 67 museum
    8. – Overdale
    9. – Heritage Theaters/ Downtown Theater District
    10. – Turbo-trains
    11. – Windsor Station
    12. – Victoria STOLport
    13. – 1909 PQAA Park Avenues recommendation
    14. – Mount-Royal Funicular
    15. – Trams
    16. – Golden Square Mile mansions
    17. – Medical-tourism hospital
    18. – Underground City extensions
    19. – Pie-IX, West-End, Airport, Anjou, St-Leonard and Longueuil  Métro extensions
    20. – Public washrooms
    21. РVespesiennes (dit Cam̩liennes)

      Introducing a blog (and wondering why…)

      The absolute worst part about starting a new blog is not just the knowledge that you’re adding to an infinite and growing number of projects generally doomed to failure, but there’s the added apprehension about posting any idea to the vastness of the internet – am I not just adding to a lot of pollution and noise? And who am I to say anything at all? So much of what we see, regardless of the medium, is so often the ramblings of mad man or a half-cocked idea with a half-assed implementation.

      Then there’s the troublesome issue of the title: it needs to be intelligible, remarkable, perhaps even clever or witty. Can’t be presumptuous, can’t assume to pretence, can’t be monolithic etc. Why is it that the medium which is the most open and available means of communicating original thought so quickly mired in the hang-ups and details generally saved for the end with regards to other media? If you can retain your optimism after the initial delays of having to come up with a catchy name off the top of you head, perhaps you recognize the form and function of this medium is inherently evolutionary, at least if its done right. Isn’t it a joy to see the development, the permutations, and the triumph of doggedly pursuing your intent to spread your own personal gospel? And aren’t the naysayers who whip out catchphrases like: ‘well that’s been done’ or, ‘kinda arrogant, no?’ simply incapable of getting past the first hurdles?

      I certainly hope so…

      I don’t know exactly how and where this blog will go, but I know how and where to push, so perhaps I’ll push it into somewhere known and meaningful amongst the vast debris of an infinitely growing web of thought.

      Commemorative postage stamp, issue 2001
      Kondiaronk, Huron leader at the Great Peace of Montréal

      I don’t consider the current working title to be particularly attractive, and generally speaking it would be an unknown word to most English speakers – so be it, there’s a story there, and in part it relates rather well to what I think I’m trying to accomplish.
      Simply put Kondiaronk was a diplomat, perhaps one of the first in recorded Canadian history. He was a Huron Chief who died in Montréal in 1701 of the dreaded smallpox. When he left to attend the great conference he helped create that fateful summer, he knew the risk to his health was high, and that he would likely not return. About 1,300 other Aboriginal delegates travelled to Montréal that year seeking the same peace, the same general agreement between civilized and sovereign peoples – they knew whatever the risk to their personal health via European-borne diseases, there’s was a mighty and vital task. And in the end, after several days of negotiations, the colonial government of New France signed a peace treaty with 39 Aboriginal nations in what is today Canada and a good portion of the North-eastern United States. This was a meeting between peoples who held each other in high esteem – they considered each other as equal and free men and had no reason not to. They would conclude the Great Peace of Montréal with much rejoicing; though they did not know it at the time, they would have participated in the first documented example of participatory, representative government in Canada, a glowing example of early federalism.

      Signatures of the Aboriginal delegates at the Great Peace of Montréal

      What strikes me is how innovative it was for the time. It was original thinking, very creative and profoundly unique – the logical development given the circumstances and context of those deliberate and delicate first moments of contact. Two groups of peoples from extremely different backgrounds, cultures, languages and societies came into intimate contact with one-another and produced original solutions to complex socio-cultural problems. A new people were being born through synthesis.

      So this blog aims to look at our historical and cultural identity for solutions to current problems in Montréal, pertaining to design, culture, society and sustainable development, in the broadest sense of those terms. I may as well identify it off the bat – I’m certain I’ll be able to sum up this blog in a sentence several weeks from now, but I’m not there yet. Sorry for the vagueness but that’s the humanity of the medium, it needs to be forgiving, a little loose.