Tag Archives: Cote-des-Neiges

City describes its own urban redevelopment project as ‘ambitious’

Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)
Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)

We may have come full-circle.

The City of Montreal recently released what it is describing as an ‘ambitious’ plan to redevelop the urban core of the city – what we ambiguously, perhaps ambitiously, call Downtown (though it for the most part occupies the plateau above the old city, but I digress) – in an effort to attract new residents and increase the population of Ville-Marie borough by 50,000 by 2030.

The city wants to attract seniors, young people and families (or, in other words, everyone) to the borough, the current population being about 85,000 over 16.5 square kilometres.

The borough includes Mount Royal and Parc Jean-Drapeau, not to mention Old Montreal and the Old Port, the Village, the Latin Quarter, the Quartier Sainte-Famille, Centre-Sud, Milton-Parc, the entire central business district, the Quartier des Spectacles, Griffintown, the Shaughnessy Village, Chinatown, the Square Mile and the Cité-du-Havre.

Adding 50,000 people to the very centre of Metropolitan Montreal by 2030 would bring the population of the borough up to over 130,000. Fifty years ago, the population of this area was 110,000, at which point it was already well on its way in its dramatic late-20th century population decline. By 1976 the population was estimated at 77,000 and by 1991 the population would fall all the way to about 68,000, it’s lowest number in recent memory. The population of the borough has grown modestly in the last 25 years, with measured increases in five-year intervals ranging from 4.2 to 6.5 per cent.

For comparisons sake, the Plateau’s current population is about 100,000, the Sud-Ouest is at 71,000 and Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the largest borough by population, is about 165,000.

Queen's Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 - Michel Seguin
Queen’s Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 – Michel Seguin

Bringing Ville-Marie’s population up to 130,000 would be quite an accomplishment, though it’s not an altogether hard sell. Not to be flip, but it’s basically where everything is.

And it would also mean that the urban depopulation of Montreal, an unfortunate and enduring consequence of the city’s urban planning efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, will have been reversed, perhaps permanently.

To me that’s a far greater accomplishment than simply facilitating an existing growth trend, and I wish the city much success. I would like to see and feel a ‘downtown’ with a population roughly equivalent to the its last high-water mark, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. If it works, it’s reasonable to assume the population of the surrounding boroughs would likely also increase. More people living in the city, within walking distance of the services they need and the places they work, is exactly what the city should be proposing and facilitating.

But again, it’s not a hard sell, and the trends are already pointing in this direction. It may ultimately be Montreal’s saving-grace; unlike other depopulated urban centres in the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence and North-East corridor, Montreal has succeeded in enhancing the overall quality of life of its urban core and has been slowly winning back residents.

Where the Coderre administration could have distinguished itself was a concrete plan with defined targets, and in this case, prepare to be disappointed.

Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin
Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin

The announced ‘ambitious’ plan is remarkable in how little specific information is required to attain the quality of ambition. They want to boost the population with no clear indication where they might live, nor what kind of housing will be needed (though they did make mention of Griffintown as being poorly planned, as too many housing units are too small and too expensive… who’d have thought). The plan indicates a desire for new schools and greater access to the waterfront, both of which lie outside the city’s jurisdiction in that building schools is a provincial responsibility and the Old Port is a federal one. Coderre indicated the waterfront development would require control of the Old Port to be ceded to the city. Richard Bergeron, former Projet Montreal leader and the downtown’s appointed development strategist, wants a cohesive plan for the twenty-kilometre stretch between the Champlain and Cartier bridges, with half being open to the public, and the other half available for riverside housing.

It’s been discussed before. The mayor has spoken in the past of opening a beach in the Old Port and a vague desire to emulate other cities that apparently have ‘better’ access to their waterfronts.

Of course, there is always the matter of the Saint Lawrence’s current, not to mention the periodic direct sewage dumps… I’m not convinced we’ll be lining up to take a plunge in the drink any time soon without major physical alterations to the Old Port, such as creating breakwaters or jetties, and improving our water treatment capabilities.

Oddly, despite a steady 10% office vacancy rate, the plan also includes 800K square meters of new office space and 200K square meters of new commercial spaces. Again, this strikes me as a touch odd: Ville-Marie has a surplus of both and is already well-known as the commercial and office core of the whole metropolitan region. Do we need more of the same or better use of what already exists?

And if the mayor wants the manufacturing sector to return to the urban core of Montreal, perhaps we ought to reconsider our penchant to convert every square inch of remaining industrial space into condos?

Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993
Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993

The other ‘specific’ ideas the city has in mind are all ideas that have been mentioned in the past: renovating and rehabilitating Sainte-Catherine Street; more parks and green space; more bike baths; a ‘greenway’ from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence; transforming disused public buildings into multi-use developments that bring new uses to old heritage sites.

None of this is really news, the city’s been talking about this for years and you’d think it would obvious and didn’t need to be spelled out. It’s hard to take the city seriously when its grand strategy for urban redevelopment consists of simply doing what we expect the city to be doing already.

Were we not already seeking to preserve public buildings with heritage value by redeveloping them for new purposes? Were we not already seeking more green spaces and bike paths? Hasn’t redeveloping Sainte-Catherine Street been a priority for every mayor going back to Jean Doré?

I agree with Mayor Coderre in that urban economic redevelopment and repopulation won’t happen without better living conditions in the urban boroughs, but the quality of life in these boroughs is arguably already quite high. Ville-Marie in particular already has great parks and is the best connected borough in terms of access to public transit. Ville-Marie is the borough that requires the least improvement in these respects: Saint-Henri, Cote-des-Neiges, NDG, Verdun, the Plateau and HoMa would all benefit immensely from serious investments to improve transit and green-space access, and given generally lower housing costs in these areas compared to Ville-Marie, it would seem to me that it would be more effective to improve the quality of life in the inner suburbs first.

City Hall ca. early 1990s - credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)
City Hall ca. early 1990s – credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)

Better public transit access and a beautification campaign could have a greater impact if applied to the Sud-Ouest, HoMa Montréal-Nord and Verdun where population density is already high and home values are comparatively low. Moreover, these boroughs already have the public education infrastructure that will draw young families. Instead of building new schools, the city could have proposed a bold plan to renovate and rehabilitate existing schools, possibly even going as far as mandating local school boards share space in existing schools. The Anglo boards have a surplus of space in well-maintained schools and the Francophone boards have overcrowded schools in dire need of renovations; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most efficient and cost-effective solution to this problem (and one that would be beneficial to everyone) is to share the space. The unnecessary linguistic segregation of Montreal’s schools is more than just an ethical problem; it’s economically unsustainable and only serves to undermine the quality of education in the public sector generally-speaking.

Imagine a different scenario where the City of Montreal was directly responsible for public schools infrastructure, and school boards, while maintaining their operational and institutional independence, could operate from any school building (and by extension would no longer be responsible for maintaining the physical space of education).

Downtown viewed from Avenue du Musée - date and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s
Downtown viewed from Avenue du Mus̩e Рdate and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s

In a sense, access to public education would increase without having to build new schools. Students could be redistributed more evenly and all boroughs would be able to offer education in either language, proportional to the respective linguistic populations.

That issue aside, it’s evident any new residential development within Ville-Marie borough should certainly plan for the necessary green spaces, transit and education access that would be required by 50,000 additional residents. I would argue Ville-Marie borough is definitely lacking in school access, but not in parks or transit access.

All in all what Coderre and Bergeron announced was little more than the intention to hold public consultations and come up with some guidelines for urban redevelopment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it’s hardly an ambitious plan. I’m glad the city considers intelligent urban planning worthwhile, but without any concrete proposals they’re essentially telling us they have the intent to do their jobs. Lack of precision is politically-motivated: it’s hard to effectively criticize a mayor’s accomplishments if he doesn’t have any goals.

Three-Alarm Fire Nearly Destroys Historic Snowdon Theatre

Snowdon Theatre Fire - March 26th 2016
Snowdon Theatre Fire – March 26th 2016 – credit to Eric Zaidan

That was a close one.

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.

The Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace (CDN-NDG herein) borough currently owns the building and quietly put it up for sale back in January. They’re accepting bids until May 1st, though all bidders must be able to put up a $10,000 guarantee just to be considered.

Here’s where things get interesting: local journalist Kristian Gravenor filed an access-to-information request last fall to find out what the borough feels are necessary repairs to make the building usable again.

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.

Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign
Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign

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.

The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s
The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-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.

Contact:

Borough Mayor Russell Copeman

City Councillor Marvin Rotrand

City Councillor Peter McQueen

City Councillor Lionel Perez

City Councillor Magda Popeanu

And on a final note, any Montrealphile with an interest in this city’s once grand collection of ‘movie palaces’ ought to purchase Dane Lanken’s book on the subject post-haste.

Your City, Your Candidates – Michael Simkin

The Least Coherent Hate Speech/Political Vandalism I've Ever Seen
The Least Coherent Hate Speech/Political Vandalism I’ve Ever Seen

Well, there’s less than a week to go before we head to the polls and decide which chump is right for the job of managing this at times ridiculous city.

Perhaps I’m getting cynical.

I’m getting cynical, but I think that’s a cynicism of politics in general.

In any event, I recently sat down with one of the most promising candidates I’ve yet seen and am legitimately hoping he wins. There. I’ve officially backed one person.

So help me… I actually endorsed some one.

As you’re doubtless already aware, this is part of a series of candidate interviews I’m doing for Forget the Box, an awesome local news and culture website. Check it out friends.

***

I recently sat down with Projet Montréal Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough mayor candidate Michael Simkin to discuss his and the party’s plans for one of Montreal’s most dynamic and fascinating boroughs. I discovered one of the most unique candidates in this city’s electoral history (and I’m saying that as a historian…)

Who were you prior to this electoral season?

Well, I suppose the most accurate way to describe myself is space lawyer. To my knowledge I’m the first space lawyer to ever run for local office.

Space lawyer?

Yeah I have a law degree from McGill, one of the very few graduates from the Institute for Air and Space Law. Before that I was working on becoming an engineer, which brought me to NASA in the late 1990s to work on the X-33 advanced space plane project, a kind of next-generation Space Shuttle.

Go on…

Let’s see, after being called to the Québec Bar I worked for the Canadian Space Agency’s space sciences group but my project was scrapped (as with much of our nation’s scientific research) by the Tories. I was lucky to be re-assigned to Environment Canada as a Sr. Climate Change Advisor, but have since taken a leave without pay to run for local office.

Are you mad?

Ha ha. No. I recognize that’s not what most people would do, but look at our situation here. This city needs a major change if it wants to get back on its feet.

What drives you?

Two things. First, I’m driven by trying to understand the world around me and further by trying to improve it. This is what got me into engineering, law, municipal politics, heck, even my ‘theatre therapy’ project.

Sherbrooke Ouest NDG
Sherbrooke Street in NDG (photo WikiMedia Commons)

How do you have time for all this?

Easy. I always work with others. I always work in groups; collaboration is the key. It’s easier and produces better long-term results.

What’s your connection with the borough?

I was born and raised here in NDG and I currently live but a few blocks from where I grew up. This is my home, my community and I’m exceptionally proud of it. Growing up we weren’t very well off, but this community always provided. You know, it’s funny. Michael Applebaum’s father used to run a shoe store and he’d sell factory seconds to people who really couldn’t afford to pay the full retail price. He helped us, he was totally selfless. When Michael Applebaum was arrested on suspicions of fraud I remember remarking to myself how far an apple can fall from the tree, no pun intended.

What did you do as a lawyer?

I only worked in law for about 18 months but during that time I was primarily involved in defending consumers as I worked for Option Consomateur. Among others I was involved in the push to change the rules regarding cell phone contracts, so that consumers wouldn’t be locked in to ridiculous three-year contracts. I also participated in a parliamentary committee on access to food and good nutrition.

Is food security a concern for you and the party?

Absolutely. I want to establish a food policy for the borough and the city, this was adopted by the party.

I was involved in establishing the first food co-op at McGill when I was studying there when I realized that the joke about students subsisting on little more than Kraft Dinner was not so much a joke but a reality for thousands of students. People assume that if you’re studying in university that you’ll be smart enough to eat properly but the problem lies in lack of access to good food at a reasonable price. Students don’t generally have immediate access to market-fresh food, let alone the money to pay for it.

Food security and the right to quality food is of vital importance to our city and the well-being of its citizens. I’ve noticed that the French community is way more food-conscious than the Anglophone community and perhaps this is changing, but for the time being, we would be wise to adopt initiatives coming out of the broader Franco-Montreal community.

Decarie autoroute
The Decarie expressway which intersects the CDN/NDG borough (photo WikiMedia Commons)

What kind of initiatives are you talking about?

We have to address socio-cultural aspects concerning food and further educate the public about nutrition. In terms of the right to food, we need to look well beyond food banks and the stigmas that come with them. Community kitchens, as an example, are an engaging way to move forward on this issue.

What are the people of CDN-NDG most concerned about?

Corruption, and as a direct consequence, from what I’ve seen and experienced firsthand, there’s a lot of suspicion about anyone running for office these days. All politicians are suspect and the people think (perhaps, at least initially) that those in the running are simply looking to exploit the same machine that was involved in so much fraud, bid-rigging, collusion etc.

Now, all that said, admittedly it isn’t too difficult to demonstrate Projet Montréal’s integrity – that speaks for itself, no PM members were ever picked up by UPAC or have testified in front of the Charbonneau Commission. We’re clean, and after breaking through people’s initial resistance to speaking with politicians, we make this point clear.

Personally, I believe it’s time to abandon the notion of career municipal politicians. So I won’t seek a third mandate if I’m lucky enough to win the next two elections. Eight years is enough, after that it’s time for fresh blood.

How do you think you’re doing? How’s the party doing?

Recent polling aside, I think the party’s in a very strong position. That so much of our program has been copy-and-pasted into the programs of the other parties is indicative that, at the very least, our opponents recognize we have the ideas that resonate with the electorate. Further, that both Coderre and Coté have been running robocalls against us is also indicative we’re seen as a real threat to them. As for myself personally, I think I’m leading in CDN-NDG and am very happy with the response I’ve been getting.

What do the citizens of Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace need?

A lot. Citizens need police to respect their own operating norms and stop using racial profiling. As you might imagine that causes a lot of headaches in our borough given the large immigrant and visible minority populations. We obviously need better quality roads but we further need many more bike paths so we can encourage alternatives to using your car (which in turn helps the roads last longer).

The citizens have often spoken about the lack of community space and the poor condition of local parks, both of which need to be prioritized. Further, our parks can be too focused on supporting the needs of children and families during the day, but there are other people who’d like to use these spaces too. We need parks with activities geared towards everyone. On top of that, people are asking about green roof initiatives, urban agriculture etc.

It’s a big borough with a large and diverse population, so naturally there’s a litany of needs.

Anything in particular that really strikes a chord with you personally?

Yes. We have way too much subpar housing in my borough and it sickens me. We have people here living in apartments that technically, legally, should not be habitable.

Whether it’s electrical problems, mildew, mould, cockroaches or bedbugs, CDN-NDG has a housing problem that’s been callously ignored for far, far too long. Michael Applebaum, in his role as borough mayor, was completely useless in getting anything done in this respect.

From what I know about 20% of rental housing in our borough is listed as subpar and as borough mayor I would consider this a pressing priority. We have a moral obligation to make sure people have access to quality apartments, regardless of how much is paid in rent.

We need standards and the means to enforce strict regulations. It’s unacceptable that citizens here are forced to live in such awful housing and all for what? So a slumlord can save a few thousand dollars on repairs?

If I recall correctly, 80% of all the rental units available in the entire borough are owned by five people. You see the problem? And you better believe those people have strong connections with the old order.

We have to tackle this housing crisis head-on. Whether it comes in the form of outright expropriations or simply forced repairs that get added to the annual property tax evaluation later on, either way, this is something I consider very important. It is inexcusable that anyone in a city such as ours should be forced to live in such decrepit, infested apartments.

***

Voting happens on Sunday Nov. 3rd 2013.

It will be cold and rainy/snowy.

You’ll have every reason in the world to stay home watching the boob tube.

Don’t just sit there.

Go vote instead.

Otherwise is four more years of mob rule, dysfunction, embarrassment and exodus.

We can do better.

Your City, Your Candidates – Marvin Rotrand

marvin-rotrand

I sat down recently with long-time Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand to discuss Snowdon, Cote des Neiges, public transit and a lifetime of experience in Montreal municipal politics. He is the first candidate from the Marcel Coté coalition to agree to an interview with Forget the Box as part of our on-going series of interviews with local candidates. The original can be found here.

Describe your district and career in local politics for me

Well, once again I’m running to represent the fine people of Snowdon as a city councillor, something I’ve been doing more or less constantly since I first became a local representative back in 1982. Back then I came in with the (Jean) Doré camp, the Montreal Citizens Movement, and we were looking to bring new ideas to city hall, which had grown stale and corrupt under Jean Drapeau.

I’ve enjoyed the job ever since and the people seem to like me as their councillor too. In 1988 I had a falling out with the MCM and sat as an independent, and then was briefly involved in the ‘democratic coalition’ back in the 1990s, but that fizzled after a few years. I’m also the Vice Chair of the STM.

As to Snowdon and Cote des Neiges, a few bits of important data all Montrealers should know about. We’re one of the most multi-lingual, cosmopolitan communities in all of Canada, perhaps North America, highly integrated – there are no ghettoes here.

This is a special place, largely where people get their first experience with Canada, Québec and Montreal, so it’s important that we shine as an example. There are at least 125 different ethnic groups and over 100 different languages spoken here, and you’ll find every corner of the globe represented here.

We have had a significant Jewish presence since the end of the Second World War, but whereas that Jewish population, my parent’s generation, were Eastern and Central European Holocaust survivors, today’s Jewish community in Snowdon and CDN is predominantly from the Orthodox Lubavitch sect.

We still have a sizeable West Indian community, but they’re older and less evident now. The demographic trend has seen the former generations of Jews and West Indian blacks move out to the West island. In their place came a massive influx of Filipinos, who in turn are now moving West as they rise up the socio-economic ladder. And in their place have come new waves of immigrants, be they Bangladeshi, Pakistani, West African – you name it.

Queen Mary near Snowdon Metro
Queen Mary near Snowdon Metro

What do you hope to accomplish for the residents of your district?

I want to continue what we’ve been working on for years, namely trying to make Cote des Neiges on the whole a pleasant, attractive and welcoming place to live. Our green spaces are top-notch; new chalets have been built in the parks and we’ve installed new equipment throughout (benches, water-games, trash cans, lighting, etc.).

We’ve placed a focus on park development because access to green space is crucial for our residents, especially recent arrivals. Every year our parks become home to many festivals, and the availability of large, well-maintained green spaces can do quite a bit to raise the average standard of living for all CDN residents.

In our borough, we have many socio-demographic extremes, good green spaces can help put people on a more equal footing – we all share these spaces after all.

We also have new housing initiatives in mind. For one, the ‘Triangle’ (Author’s Note: a poorly planned hodge-podge of light industrial space, mid-size apartment buildings and parking lots bounded by Décarie, De la Savanne and Jean-Talon) is set to get some 3500 new housing units, of which 15% will be used for social housing. There’s also the possibility of eventually transforming the former Blue Bonnets raceway into a large ‘urban village’ for 25 000 people to reduce sprawl.

We need more Montrealers who actually live in the city limits of Montreal, paying taxes to City Hall. The more the merrier, and this all means more money for important social programs, everything from public transit to parks and community centres.

Developing new housing solutions for families is particularly important, as families are economic agents in their own right – owning property, paying taxes, starting small businesses, and working for the betterment of communities. We can’t afford to lose any more families to off-island suburbs.

Why are we expanding the Métro in such a piecemeal fashion?

I wouldn’t characterize it that way, but I’ll tell you this – the Métro is financed by the province, 100%. The STM operates the Métro, the AMT plans Métro expansions. The AMT is a provincial body and the province makes the call as to when and if the Métro gets expanded. This is how it’s always been, for better or for worse.

It’s obvious we’d all like a Métro that goes everywhere, runs all day long, never breaks down and costs nothing to use, but we need to be far more realistic and look at the bigger transit picture. The point is simply this – we need to give as many Montrealers as possible a cheap and efficient means of getting around the city without requiring the use of their cars. That’s it. We need something affordable and doable. Métro extensions take forever to plan and execute, but as I said, that’s a provincial problem we unfortunately have to deal with.

In the meantime, we need solutions. I think the widespread implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes and reserved lanes is probably the best way forward right now. It’s comparatively cheap given that we’re not really inventing anything new or digging subterranean tunnels, we’re just re-designing roadways and developing new routes and possibly re-purposing high-capacity buses for those routes. Much cheaper than $300 million per kilometre I can assure you.

And best of all, because the BRT system would fall within the city borders, we can plan and execute this project ourselves. We’re looking to implement some 370 km of reserved bus lanes, add 150 more articulated buses to the 200 we already have and bring the total number of buses up to 2000 from the current 1600.

What do you think of the Blue Line extension project?

It’s out of our hands, I hope the government actually accomplishes this project and the population density of St-Leonard and Anjou demand it, though I wouldn’t suggest a terminus anywhere near the Galleries d’Anjou shopping mall. Shopping malls shouldn’t double as public transit connections, especially not in the suburbs.

This is why I can’t comprehend Projet Montréal’s interest in light rail over the Champlain Bridge to the Dix-30 shopping centre in Brossard. We want people to buy locally, not make it easier for them to get to a Best Buy or Walmart. It’s companies like those that are killing our major commercial arteries here in the city.

***

The election is on November 3rd. I recognize how fashionable it is to be ignorant these days, especially when it comes to municipal affairs. The difference between voting and choosing to forgo your most basic democratic obligation is a choice between falling behind or moving confidently forward. Not all the candidates are full of shit, and to be perfectly frank, there are people in all four camps who really deserve to be involved running our great city. Make sure you tell them as much. Tell them to stop stealing your money and stop acting like children and force them to work together.

And don’t ever, ever forget. You’re the boss. We all are. These people work for us.

Meet Your Candidates, Meet Your City No.1

The Filipino Chess Club of Montreal, at its former home, a Tim Horton's
The Filipino Chess Club of Montreal, at its former home, a Tim Horton’s

I’m going to try and interview a few local candidates in the run-up to election-palooza this November.

First up is an extended version of an article I wrote for Forget the Box on Sujata Dey, Projet Montreal city councillor candidate for the Darlington district of Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace-de-Loyola-de-Snowdon-sur-Décarie-et-Upper-Lachine-Road-Next-to-the-Superhospital-and-the-Poorer-Little-Italy-de-l’Oratoire-de-l’Université-de-Montréal-Westmount-Adjacent. The photo above is taken from an article written by the candidate on community planning in her borough for a website called Montreal Serai.

Okay, it’s not really called that, but to the point, CDN-NDG is, in my opinion, a borough too big. Though we’re a big city, we’re a city of neighbourhoods, and I think we’ll benefit from smaller-scale representation. The borough system always seemed a bit odd to me – in CDN-NDG’s case too big to really cater to local needs, awkwardly gathering up a lot of the city’s diversity (cultural, social, aesthetic, historic etc.) into something that doesn’t quite work for residents while being big enough to become bloated with corruption. Remember, Michael Applebaum was once the paranoid borough mayor of CDN-NDG.

Now this isn’t to say that the borough system is structurally corrupt (I hope), but I think I’d prefer a ‘renovated’ system that devolved the power of the borough mayors and empowered the role of councillor as a member of a stronger, ‘more executive’ municipal legislative body, such as a congress of councillors. Ideally we’d have more councillors so that there’s a better representation of the city’s many communities, and neighbourhoods. I’d like a city where I actually knew my councillor and she or he knew me.

In any event, the article is part interview with the candidate and part ruminations on the city and its political reality. I hope you enjoy.

***

I find myself in front of a community centre/library in a converted office block on a muggy summer Sunday afternoon. High up on Cote-des-Neiges Road the mountain still forms the backdrop looking towards the city, with the road crawling out from the gap between Mount Royal and Westmount like a river pouring forth from a waterfall. Cote-des-Neiges Road is a never-ending torrent of humanity, the eponymous borough well represented by its main thoroughfare. The borough, Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, is the most populous of Montreal’s many boroughs, and is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan and integrated neighbourhoods in all of Canada. The Cote-des-Neiges component is itself more heavily and densely populated and has served, nearly consistently since the end of the Second World War, as the ‘first neighbourhood’ for many generations of immigrants. This is as true today as it was more than sixty years ago.

I’m here to cover the nomination of Ms. Sujata Dey, a businesswoman with deep roots in the community, as Projet Montreal city councillor candidate for the Darlington district of the aforementioned borough. Darlington, the northernmost part of Cote-des-Neiges, is also one of the poorest and most ignored parts of the city. Sitting there I realized this is where my father’s people come from, this is exactly where he spent his formative years.

They would tell you it’s changed dramatically, but all that I see is pretty much exactly the way they described it. Ours is a subtle timelessness.

The conventional thinking amongst establishment politicians in Montreal is that the poorest neighbourhoods are generally where immigrants reside and that, simply put, immigrants don’t vote in municipal elections. Therefore, the establishment parties don’t pay much attention to the needs of residents living in these areas and do almost no campaigning or reaching-out. This may explain why only about 39% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2009 election, totalling just over 400,000 votes split between three main parties. A low turnout by anyone’s standards, but also in keeping with the ‘focus on your base’ mentality that so pervades Montreal municipal politics. That base, even in 2013, is all too often Caucasian, French-speaking and (at the very least) lapsed Catholic – the very same people who’ve been leaving the City of Montreal for adjoining suburbs at a near constant rate for the last forty years.

There are a lot of people who exert undue influence over Montreal, yet who also do not pay any taxes to the city and can’t vote in our elections. Keep this in mind when (if) the parties begin discussing their plans for the city – see how much is actually focused on the citizens who live here versus the interests of those whose time spent in the city is framed by their work schedules. Makes me wonder if ‘One Island, One City’ was really that bad of an idea in the first place.

In any event, Ms. Dey did not mince words.

“This is Montreal’s Enron moment.” I agree, though I wonder how fresh Enron is in people’s minds. Inasmuch as Enron was a great reminder for why we need strict government oversight to prevent fraud on an epic scale, so too does Montreal require a more invested citizenry. When we fall asleep at the wheel, when we resign ourselves to not being able to do anything to change the status quo, we lose. Enron foreshadowed the economic collapse of 2008-2009; it’s my hope that a prolonged era of darkness in Montreal city politics is coming to an end, rather than about to peak. I don’t know how much more the people can take. If the fall brings a whole new onslaught of fresh arrests and implications, we may lose our faith altogether.

Those gathered responded very well to this statement. The room was packed with some seventy people who, historically, have been all but ignored by the city’s former political machines. Sure, some of the people here may be paid lip service in the immediate run-up to the election – a photo-op, a promise to encourage diversity or something along those lines. It doesn’t tend to go much farther than that. Regardless, the room is full, the people attentive. I’ve been to a lot of nomination meetings; few have had this kind of turnout. I would assume these people would be the most disinterested – not for lack of understanding or being able to devote the necessary time, but simply because they’ve been ignored for so long. It goes to show the conventional thinking – much like conventional politics in general – isn’t worth much. The people gathered here care – they’re willing to sacrifice a precious day off to do their civic duty and implicate themselves in the process by which we might actually turn things around in our city.

Ms. Dey makes a fully bilingual presentation; two languages are required to cover all bases, so to speak, with children translating into other languages in whispers for their grandparents. She mentions she wants an ethics code, greater operational transparency, a system of checks and balances – some people’s eyes light up, incredulous – why doesn’t this exist already?

Why does it always seem that Montreal is missing the bare minimum requirements for a sustainable democracy?

Ms. Dey pushes on into new territory, a point made by several Projet Montreal candidates – she wants an audit. Audit the borough, audit the city, audit the departments, audit everything to see precisely where and how we’re wasting so much of our tax revenue. The idea of an audit is wise, though it would be a hard sell. That said, it could result in a cheaper government to run. Again, makes me wonder why we’re not already doing it on a yearly basis – cries of corruption in municipal politics and local construction firms dates back to before the war. Despite its historical precedence, I would argue strongly that we not consider inherent corruption as an element of our culture.

Ms. Dey continues, pointing out the lack of vital community space for such a diverse, growing population. As an example, she points out that the Filipino Chess Club was thrown out of their former informal home – a Tim Horton’s. In communities such as these, the demand for community space far outweighs what’s available, another victim of ‘traditional’ thinking (which stipulates, ignorantly, that recent arrivals don’t have time for trivial social gatherings). The reality is quite different – recent arrivals not only need a lot of community space, but they actually make good use of it. Every room in this office block turned community centre was occupied; once we were done we were hurried out so the room could be converted for a reception.

The lack of available space is itself not too far removed from another point underlined by the candidate – most people who live in Darlington don’t know who their representatives are, simply because they haven’t bothered to introduce themselves to the locals. It’s hard to mobilize for a higher quality of life when you have not only never met your municipal representative, but further still, that the individual in question spends half the year golfing in Florida, or otherwise ‘too busy’ to meet with his or her constituents. This is on purpose – our governments have been of the ‘laissez-faire’ variety that tends to shun civic engagement of any kind, largely because that gets in the way of private real estate interests, which, as we’re now becoming aware, seems to have been what Montreal City Hall was largely used for about two decades.

The people of Darlington are committed citizens, engaged and neighbourly – they have no interest in private real estate deals. They need jobs, they need a housing plan, they need community-focused politicians to take on the slum lords who’ve rendered so much of the area’s so-called ‘affordable housing’ roach infested, leaky, mouldy etc.

What a sick city we live in – I would’ve expected nonsense like this back before the war, but today? In 2013? Ça n’a pas d’allure!

The speech wraps and Projet Montreal leader Richard Bergeron steps up to make some closing remarks in surprisingly good English. I say surprising only because friends and associates had told me he was shy and didn’t consider himself very good. I think he’s being a little too hard on himself.

He praises the party for bringing people like Ms. Dey into the spotlight, for facilitating real community involvement in civic affairs. He derides the gimmicks and corporate marketing strategies of the pop-star candidates who’ve largely turned this forthcoming election into more of a popularity contest than anyone dared dream possible. Bergeron points out that Projet Montreal is the only party ‘without a Mafia expense account’ and, true to form, not currently being investigated by the SQ’s permanent anti-corruption unit (UPAC).

The only party left, the only party at all, the only party that will continue to exist after Mr. Bergeron retires. All of the other groups contesting this election are leader-driven that they’ll simply cease to exist after the election is over.

As you might imagine, this is less than ideal for a city trying, desperately, to re-establish its democratic credibility. There should be many citizen-driven municipal political parties, not just one, but Projet Montreal is the only party still standing. And for good reason – it conducts itself properly. Ms. Dey was the only candidate the party nominated for the district but the party took a vote anyways. It left an impression. Whereas other groups would do this by acclamation, Projet Montreal actually went to the trouble of recording the vote. In that sense, Ms. Dey was elected to represent the party, a small yet nonetheless telling detail. The fact that there was a vote actually attaches the candidate to the people she aims to represent. I’m sure some would deride this as mere pageantry, but I see it otherwise. At the very least it’s thorough; it doesn’t cut corners.

We should expect nothing less from our elected representatives; we go to the polls November 3rd.