Tag Archives: Montréal

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.

Montreal at the Crossroads: 1758

A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758
A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s take a trip back in time.

The year is 1758 and the ‘Seven Years’ War‘ had entered its fourth year in North America. The conflict was the largest international conflagration since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, and involved every ‘great power’ (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire) of the era. It was a contest between two grand coalitions, one led by Great Britain, the other by Bourbon France, and was fought throughout Europe, the Americas, West Africa and even as far afield as the Philippines. By its end, Britain would be the predominant global power, a position it would retain until the mid-20th century. But it would come at a cost for the British: within a decade of the war’s conclusion thirteen British colonies would rebel to form the United States, the nation that would ultimately replace Britain as the predominant world power a little under two centuries later. And even more importantly, some of the more immediate consequences of the Seven Years’ War would contribute to the French Revolution, arguably one of the most important events in human history. This in turn leads to the rise of Napoleon (and coming full circle here, we have Napoleon’s t-shirt. It’s at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the story behind why we have it is the subject of another article).

As it would happen, a key event in this geopolitical crisis would take place in Montreal. Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, the last Governor General of New France, would surrender the town and all of New France to the British on September 8th, 1760, a little under a year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Though this moment has been characterized as a devastating blow for the nascent community, because the town of Montreal escaped the fate of Quebec City it quickly became the new seat of British military, economic and political power in what would just over a century later become Canada. In so doing, Governor Vaudreuil and the Chevalier de Lévis exercised sound judgement and common sense that not only saved the community, but would further guarantee the long-term survival of the French Canadian people, as the Old World’s ‘rules of war’ would be thoroughly respected: property rights and deeds were upheld; religion, customs, laws, language and culture were all retained and the British guaranteed the right of safe-passage back home for anyone who so desired. The French colonial administrators and military personnel packed-up and sailed back to France, leaving behind them a distinct society over a century in the making.

The map above is entitled ‘Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montreal or Ville Marie in Canada‘ and dates back to January 30th, 1758. It was engraved by Thomas Jefferys, a London cartographer also known as the ‘Geographer to King George III’, and would have been used by the British as they prepared for a potential attack. This is Montreal at the time of the Conquest. Jean-Claude Marsan has indicated that this map was likely based off a previous French example, though in most respects it is an accurate depiction of what Montreal looked like.

At the time Montreal was one of the largest settlements in France’s North American possessions: the population of the town of Montreal in 1760 was roughly 5,000, with perhaps 8,300 in total living on-island (the island’s total population was about the same as Quebec City in 1758, though these population figures would have changed during the course of the conflict, especially after the Siege of Quebec). In all of New France there were but 65,000 inhabitants, this compared to an estimated 1.5 million people living in the English colonies along the Atlantic Coast. France’s loss of its North American possessions to the British is hardly surprising, given this severe population imbalance. In his seminal study of the evolution of Montreal’s urban environment, Marsan points out that the Bourbon monarchs of France spent about as much on their colonial efforts as they did on their recreation at Versailles, and indebted the community of Montreal to pay for its own defences.

In 1758, Montreal was a metropolis by French North American standards, though it wasn’t particularly impressive when compared to British American cities like Boston (with an estimated population of 16,000 in 1742) or Philadelphia (13,000 the same year). Montreal was still chiefly a fortified frontier town, but given its position at the confluence of the Outaouais and Saint Lawrence rivers, not to mention its geographic attributes, was of remarkable strategic importance.

Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)
Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)

At the very end of the Ancien Régime period of Montreal’s early history, the 8,300 or so citizens who lived on-island would have occupied some familiar territory. There would have been several other smaller settlements dotted around the island, including Sault-au-Récollets (at the Back River), Pointe-Claire, Lachine, Senneville (along with its fort) and Pointe-aux-Trembles, as well as the Sulpician Fort, the towers of which remain standing at the top of Fort Street on the grounds of the Grand Seminary. The main settlement where the majority of the population lived would have occupied much of what we today call Old Montreal. The town pictured above would have run west to east from McGill to Saint-Hubert running from the northern wall (along today’s Saint-Antoine) down to the riverfront. There would have been just five roads leading out of the fortified town, each with small clusters of houses lining the streets outside the walls. The roadway heading northwest (and perpendicular to the river) is none other than The Main, Boul. Saint-Laurent, arguably Montreal’s most storied street.

Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672
Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672

The two main east-west arteries, Rue Saint-Paul and Rue Notre-Dame, haven’t changed since they were laid out by François Dollier de Casson in 1672, as were the smaller intersecting north-south streets, like Rue Saint-Francis-Xavier, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Jean and Saint-Pierre. The wall that surrounded Montreal in 1758 would have been constructed in 1717 by the famed military engineer Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, and it’s within the confines of these protective walls that Montreal began to grow in earnest.

The 1758 map details the city’s most important buildings, some of which exist to this day. First and foremost is the Sulpician Seminary on Place d’Armes, whose construction dates back to 1687. The seminary’s clock, installed in 1701, as well as its gardens, are the oldest of their kind on the continent. The second oldest extant building pictured here is the central section of the former Grey Nuns’ Hospital, called the Freres Charron General Hospital at the time. This building, located outside the protective walls but south of the Rivière Saint-Pierre, would have served the town’s poorest citizens as well as acting like a kind of asylum for the lame and insane.

Place d'Armes - 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.
Place d’Armes – 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.

Montreal’s other important buildings in 1758 would have included the parish church of Notre-Dame, located in the middle of Place d’Armes and adjacent to the Sulpician Seminary. Notre-Dame Basilica would replace the parish church in 1829, with the church’s bell tower razed upon the completion of the basilica’s bell towers in 1843. Across Rue Saint-Sulpice was the convent of the Congregation Notre-Dame and the Hotel-Dieu, the town’s principal hospital, which they ran. The Hotel-Dieu was established on that site in 1688, and would have burned and been rebuilt three times by 1758.

Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier
Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier

Further east (and identified by the letter C) is the Chateau Vaudreuil, also designed by Chaussegros de Léry, which served as Governor General Vaudreuil’s official residence and was destroyed by fire in 1803. Subsequently, the land was bought by local merchants and turned over to the city on the grounds it became a public market. Place Jacques-Cartier has stood on the site ever since. Just north, at the intersection of Rue Notre-Dame, stood the Jesuit Church, Convent and Gardens, with the church located at what is now Place Vauquelin, and Montreal City Hall occupying what was once the Jesuit’s gardens. A little further east and we come across a interesting note: ‘a small chapel burnt down’. The chapel that burned was the very first erected in the colony at the behest of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1655. That chapel burned in 1754, four years before this map was made. The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel that stands on the very same location today dates back to 1771.

Artist's rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 - credit: Omar Bakar
Artist’s rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 – credit: Omar Bakar

At the far eastern edge of the town (at the letter E) stood a ‘cavalier’, which is a type of fort built inside a fort and on much higher ground, though as is indicated in the legend, it lacked a parapet. This is where Montreal’s few artillery pieces would have been located: close to the river’s edge and the eastern gate, defending the town’s arsenal and boat yard.

And if you’ve read this far you’re in for a treat: here’s the above map superimposed over a contemporary satellite image. Use the fader in the top-right corner (under link to this page) to transition between the images.

The links between the fortified frontier outpost of 1758 and the modern metropolis of today are at times difficult to discern. We know the city is old because there are parts that look and feel old, but the superficial antique aesthetic is misleading. Much of Old Montreal only dates back to the mid-late 19th century and some of the best-preserved examples of local Ancien Régime architecture are located, in some cases, a fair distance from the original settlement. One of the principle reasons why so little is leftover from the French colonial period is in part due to the numerous fires that swept through and destroyed parts of the town (and some of the more important buildings) throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s ironic that the protective walls that surrounded the town exacerbated the danger of large fires given the increase of population density within its walls. It also didn’t help that timber was the still the preferred construction material well into the mid-late 18th century.

By 1758 the danger of fire was far more threatening than attack by the Iroquois, and so small villages had begun to appear outside the town walls along the established ‘chemins du roy’. These roadways, much like the street grid of Old Montreal, are the most important and enduring elements of Montreal’s first urban planners. Life outside the protective walls would have had some serious benefits, namely a breath of fresh air. As the colonial era town lacked a sewage system, waste of all kinds were simply thrown into the street. Moreover, there was a fair bit of agriculture and all manner of farm animals inside the gates, often free to move about as they pleased. So the urban-suburban rivalry of Montreal is about as old as the city itself. In 1758, about 40% of the island’s population lived outside the walls.

Montreal in 1758 would have been positively medieval; the basic layout of the fortified town mimicked examples in the Southwest of France and on the English borders with Wales and Scotland from roughly four or five centuries earlier. The basic housing design, examples of which have survived in the form of traditional Quebecois architecture, are also medieval in nature, similar examples being found in Normandy. One particular element of the town’s early design was that it had two principle open spaces – one in front of the parish church (today’s Place d’Armes) and another, a market place, closer to the river and with its own gate (today called Place Royale). Here we find another urban design element that has survived to this day: the lower town, closer to the river, is the most densely populated and would have been home to the town’s merchant class. The upper part featured the town’s major religious buildings, all of which featured stately gardens. This layout also recalls that Montreal was initially conceived as a religious mission, and so those buildings occupied the higher ground of the Coteau Saint-Louis. The grade separation of the classes for the most part remains intact; the wealthiest neighbourhoods of modern Montreal are at the base of Mount Royal, the working class neighbourhoods are still ‘down the hill’ and located within proximity of the river.

Some things really never change. Individual buildings dating back to the heroic colonial era may be in short supply, but the impression of the village illustrated above is our most enduring link to Europe. You can still see the Montreal of 1758, you just have to know where – and where not – to look. Or perhaps ‘how not to look’ as it’s more often than not the spaces between the buildings, the roads and squares, that provide the greatest wealth of clues to the town that once was. This is where we discover that the roots of Old Montreal in Old Europe, and an urban aesthetic which reaches back nearly a millennium.

Montreal: a modern medieval city…

***

Author’s note: thanks to Alan Hustak for some corrections. First, technically Montreal never surrendered, but rather capitulated what with the overwhelming odds stacked against the town and its people in 1760. Doing so allowed the terms of surrender to be negotiated and as such facilitated Montreal’s successful, peaceful transition from one empire to another. In addition, Montreal was not the largest settlement in New France at the time, as I incorrectly stated in this article’s first draft. The population of Quebec City would have been roughly 9,000, and Trois-Rivières at about 8,000, with Montreal’s town population at 5,000 and the island’s population at roughly 8,300. These figures would have been precise up to around the time of the Seven Years’ War, though likely changed after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Siege of Quebec.

Mo’ Métro blues…

Azur Métro train rendering

The first Azur Métro train is set to start rolling Sunday at 10:00 am on the Orange Line.

Huzzah!

The Quebec government awarded the contract to build 468 MPM-10 (Azur) Métro cars (forming 52 nine-car trains) to the Bombardier-Alstom consortium back in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion.

Deliveries were expected to begin in 2014, and one prototype was delivered to begin in-tunnel testing. This led to the discovery of unexpected complications, namely insufficient electrical power. Prior complications included the discovery a 200-meter section of the Orange Line was a touch smaller than the rest, requiring renovations to prevent the new Azurs from ‘grinding’ against the tunnel walls or ceiling.

In January of 2015 work on the project was suspended for six months in order for the consortium to work out problems with the trains’ automated switching software.

And now, one completed train has been delivered for entry into service. It is the first new Métro train in forty years and the third generation of trains to operate in the system. The Azurs will operate on the Orange and Blue lines, displacing the second-generation MR-73 trains onto the Green and Yellow lines. The MR-73s entered into service in 1976 and were refurbished in 2005-2008. The MR-63s currently operating on the Green and Yellow lines are fifty years old and the first trains to ever operate on the Métro.

According to a Bombardier spokesman, five more completed trains will begin operating soon and the company expects to have five or six more trains completed by the end of this year. All 52 trains are expected to be delivered by 2018, lest Bombardier-Alstom risk the wrath of the STM and Transport Quebec…

As to replacing the MR-73s, that’ll have to wait until the 2030s because, well, much like the MR-63s, they were rather well-built. There’s also no current plan to build the several hundred additional Azurs that would be required on top of the 468 currently on order.

On the same day the STM made their triumphant announcement, La Presse reported Transport Quebec discovered in mid-January the initial cost estimates concerning the extension of the Métro’s Blue Line by five stations to the east will now cost roughly twice as much ($2.9 billion).

Two years ago the AMT’s cost evaluation put the figure around $1.5 billion, but since then a Federal election occurred and the swarthy new prime minister has announced a major infrastructure spending spree. Mass transit projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions will almost assuredly get federal funds.

It should be noted that, as recently as a year ago, provincial transport minister Robert Poeti and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre both seemed favourable to extending the Blue Line above-ground by using light-rail, though neither offered any particulars on how two different mass transit systems would be linked. Poeti indicated a Blue Line extension wasn’t even a priority, at the time. How things have changed! Coderre, who had previously argued Métro extensions were too expensive, is now very enthusiastic and argued it’s vital to the development of Montreal’s eastern sectors. He said this in the same breath as he mentioned several other transit dossiers which include a light rail system for the Champlain Bridge (and possibly other parts of the city) and a new West Island/Airport express train.

Of course none of this is particularly new: the plan to extend the Blue Line east goes back forty years at least. The map above dates back to when the City of Montreal was playing a more direct role in the development of the Métro, (my guess is 1976 given most of the Green Line stations are correct but the planning names of the western Orange Line stations are still listed. You’ll also notice the western extension of the Blue Line from Snowdon towards Ville Saint-Pierre, and that the eastern part of the Blue Line goes up towards Montréal-Nord), and as you can see back then bigger plans were in mind.

But herein lies the crux of the problem: Métro extensions are not planned by the City of Montreal or the STM, but pêle-mêle by a provincial government agency. Same story vis-à-vis the Azurs: the purchase was made by the provincial government for the STM.

It still boggles my mind that the future of high-speed mass-transit in Montreal will be decided by a provincial government agency, and apparently if and when the Fed decides to spend money on transit infrastructure. Montreal should be doing this on its own, and should further be setting its own development pace and priorities.

The question is whether expansion would be a priority for a local planning agency, especially when it comes to the Blue Line, currently the least used of Montreal’s four Métro lines. Connecting the Blue Line to the Mount Royal Tunnel, modifying the Green and Orange lines to accommodate a higher rate-of-service, or even re-designing the stations of the Blue and Yellow lines to accommodate nine-car Métro trains could all be seen as greater priorities if the ultimate aim was to increase ridership.

Ostensibly this is the underlying justification of the Blue Line expansion, but I have my doubts this is the best possible use of three billion dollars in new infrastructure spending. What I don’t doubt is the new figure likely has far more to do with the Fed’s newfound interest in urban mass transit than the actual costs of building a five-station Métro extension.

And on a closing note, don’t expect to see the Azurs operating on the Blue Line anytime too soon. A Bombardier spokesman told me the Azur train sets are only available in a nine-car configuration, though the stations on that line currently use MR-73s in a six-car configuration (again, owing to low use). The platform lengths of the Blue Line stations are the same length as all the other Métro stations, but also all have barriers on account of the shorter trains. The Bombardier spox indicated that the Azurs can’t be shortened and wouldn’t be operated on the Blue Line until the stations are modified.

So far, no indication the STM will go through with those renovations, nor is there any idea of how much that will cost.

Public consultation can’t replace vision

If it weren’t for the fact that it’s apparently a great excuse for a lot of infrastructure spending, would anyone really care about the 375th anniversary of the founding of Ville Marie, which will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017? Are these dates important to us for any other reason than that politicians can use them as focal points?

There’s interest in renovating and redeveloping Montreal’s Old Port as part of this anniversary, and to that end the city has authorized renovation projects both for Place Vauquelin and Place Jacques Cartier. There was a public consultation at the Montreal Science Centre held on Thursday of last week that was apparently well-attended, and the intention is that a master plan will be completed by next year.

Note: the plan is only expected to be completed by 2017, there’s no word on any specific projects or what, if anything, might actually be improved/renovated by then. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear either what precisely needs to be done in the first place.

Dawn Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

Also worth noting, though this CBC article seems to have missed the point, is that the Old Port does not actually belong to the City of Montreal, but to Canada Lands Corporation through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation. Ergo, while Montreal may be interested in developing the Old Port, the Fed is still ultimately responsible and they have no interest in ceding ownership of the land to the city. Mayor Coderre has argued that it’s vital for Montreal to take ownership of the Old Port in order to fully realize it’s revitalization.

As far as renovating the Old Port is concerned, the last time there was a significant investment was 24 years ago when Montreal was celebrating its 350th anniversary.

Since 2012 the operating agency has spent $14 million on new installations and activities, though the general manager of this same agency called the Old Port ‘tattered’ in a Montreal Gazette interview from a few days ago. An investment of $125 million back in the early 1990s gave the Old Port its modern form after the area spent much of the 1980s as a bit of a no-man’s land.

City from the Harbour - Summer 2015

Just to be clear on what we’re talking about, the Old Port is a very specific part of Montreal. It essentially consists of the long linear park running immediately south of Rue de la Commune, as well as Windmill Point and the four principle quays. Everything north of de la Commune is Old Montreal, and as things go in this city, despite the intimate relationship between these two sectors they administratively have nothing to do with one-another.

Why the Old Port needs to be ‘renovated, rejuvenated and revitalized’ doesn’t seem to be clear either. For the six million or so tourists who visit it every year, there doesn’t seem to be much complaining: it’s a park with various attractions next to the city’s premier tourist destination; what’s not to like? And either way last week’s public consultation wasn’t about what tourists want, it was about what we want.

Clock Tower Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

I had registered to go and say something but then decided not to when I realized the crux of my argument – as a Montrealer – was that the last thing the Old Port needs more of is tourists or tourist-attractions. It seemed counter-intuitive to me as I can’t imagine this is what the operating agency wants to hear. They want to make money, point finale.

I’d argue strongly the investments made in the last few years – notably the beach you can’t swim at, the zip-line, haunted house and pirate-themed jungle gym – are all terrible and not worth the money spent on them. Moreover, I’m fairly certain these ‘attractions’ were only brought in after public consultations and/or market research indicated the Old Port was lacking in things to do. They all feel like the terrible ideas only a group of otherwise unemployable market research study participants can come up with.

Silo No. 5 - Montreal, Spring 2015

From a completely historical point of view, even calling it the Old Port seems misleading: the new attractions have absolutely nothing to do with the area’s history and the entire space has a decidedly modern feel to it. Jacques Cartier did not zip-line his way into Montreal in 1534, we’ve never had a serious pirate problem and, if we do have a haunted house in Montreal, my guess is that it’s probably one of the places where CIA-funded mind control experiments were conducted, and not an assembly of brightly coloured former shipping containers.

If the Old Port has a serious problem, it’s that it’s trying way too hard to be all things to all people, again, another problem stemming from public consultations.

I’m generally indifferent to all the Old Port’s crap because I know I’ll never be involved with it. I’m never going to buy any of the overpriced tchotchkes, knock-off handbags or t-shirts that say ‘Federal Breast Inspector’ on them from the spaced-out teenagers sitting in the nifty new container kiosks. Nor will I ever dine in the Old Port, given the food is overpriced and of low quality; this is a gourmand’s city, something which is not reflected in the Old Port or much of Old Montreal for that matter. I think I’ve been in the Old Port well over a hundred times in the last decade and I don’t think I’ve spent more than $20 in that entire time.

Attractions, Old & New - Montreal, Summer 2015

I also don’t think I’m alone. As far as I can tell, most Montrealers in the know know better than to waste their money in our city’s various tourist traps. And the Old Port is the biggest tourist trap we have.

Now all that said, I still thoroughly enjoy going to the Old Port, and will continue to do so regardless of whatever the city or Canada Lands Corporation comes up with. It’s a big space, there’s only so much damage they can do. The best parts of the Old Port, at least in my opinion, are either technically off limits or otherwise far from its central and most touristy part. There’s a look-out at the end of Alexandra Quay that offers amazing views of the city an the river, not to mention the grounds around Silo No. 5, which actually look like there was once a park located there that’s been since closed off to the public.

Abandoned Park - Montreal, Spring 2015

Assuming the majority of Montrealers do indeed agree the Old Port is ‘in tatters’ then why not just do the simple thing and fix it up? Fresh paint, new uni-stone, update the landscaping, improve the lighting. Whenever I go to the Old Port, this is typically what I notice first and foremost.

I feel there’s a prevalent belief in this city that we need to reinvent the wheel all the time, and that we won’t be truly happy with our city until it’s completely unrecognizable but teaming with tourists.

Obviously this isn’t what we want. If the powers that be want to best represent the interests of the citizenry, perhaps they should consider how Montrealers typically use the most successful of our public spaces (on top of what makes them so successful in the first place). Consider: the tam-tams are completely spontaneous and the city isn’t involved one iota. Most of Mount Royal Park is attraction-less and most Montrealers seem to be able to enjoy the mountain without having to spend much money. The lookouts are free, the trails are free, lying in the sun is free (etc.)

Windmill Point - Spring 2015

Rather than occupying public space in the Old Port with activities and attractions, why not just leave it open and accessible and let people figure it out for themselves?

On a closing note, I really hope they don’t do anything with Silo No. 5 – it’s a monument in its own right, and fascinating to explore. My main concern at this point is that CLC through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation will either try to redevelop the site into condos or some kind of half-assed attraction (like that virtual-reality thingamajig that was up and running for a few years on Sainte Catherine Street near McGill College… I think it’s a watch store or a Five Guys now).

Second closing point: though it’s outside the realm of the Old Port, I’d argue the single best thing the city could possibly do is to convert Bonsecours Market back into a public market (à la Atwater or Maisonneuve markets) and – by extension – use the market as a transiting point between Old Montreal and the Old Port. I think this would entail ‘opening up’ the Rue de la Commune side of the Bonsecours, such as with vendor stalls and additional doorways (etc.), but the point is if we want these tourist-driven parts of the city to still be attractive to locals, we need to offer a little more of what makes Montreal such an exquisite city in the first place. I’m sure the 3,000 or so citizens who live in the area would certainly appreciate access to a proper market, and the tourists would have better dining options (at least) as a result.

Montreal to end generations of low self-esteem in women with new Barbie Museum

The new Chador Barbie is a big hit in countries where women  can be stoned for witchcraft
The new Chador Barbie is a big hit in countries where women can be stoned for witchcraft

The Disneyfication of Montreal continues unabated.

New for February of 2016, the world’s largest permanent exhibition of Barbie dolls is set to welcome tens, possibly dozens of people when it opens next week somewhere in the shopping mall that was once a luxurious hotel.

Five-thousand square feet of Les Cours Mont-Royal will be dedicated to a collection of 1,000 Barbie dolls, most of which will be exhibiting haute-couture from some of the world’s leading fashion houses.

According to the recent Simone de Beauvoir Institute graduate I interviewed panhandling outside Peel Métro, “…that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

The museum (and my aren’t we throwing that word around a lot these days) will have free admission, as organizers felt it would be inappropriate to charge North American children to see what more productive Chinese children spend their days ‘creating’.

In lieu of admission fees, Barbie Expo® will be asking the visitor(s) to donate to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, though apparently will not be able to grant wishes such as: ‘I wish my kid’s doll was a better role-model’, ‘I wish Barbie’s proportions were physically possible’ or ‘I wish my schmuck kid stops begging me to come here.’

Les Cours Mont-Royal has followed the precedent set by the Montreal Eaton’s Centre in turning spaces left vacant due to exceptionally high rents into ‘museums’ designed to inspire young minds. Their Grévin Wax Museum features life-size replicas of the heroes of New France, as well as noted children’s enthusiast Michael Jackson and the lesbian chansonnier Justin Bieber.

The new museum will be promoted by the Quebec and Montreal tourism offices as representative of Montreal’s dynamic and well-respected cultural scene. Barbies will not only be featured in designer clothing, but also in unique dioramas, such as ‘Barbie at Waterloo’, ‘Barbie exiting the Apollo lunar module’ and ‘Babushka Barbie in Dealy Plaza, Nov. 22nd 1963.’

Though he could not be reached for comment due to an official policy of ignoring local journalists, Mayor Denis Coderre was imagined stating “Montreal’s back motherfuckers!” when asked what, if anything, the Barbie Museum will contribute to the city’s cultural vitality.

City hypocrisy re: wood burning ban?

Fire pit, Place Jacques Cartier - January 2016

I snapped the photo above in Place Jacques Cartier a few days back. It is a fire pit, one of several located near Rue de la Commune and intended to provide a place to warm up for all those out enjoying the many and diverse activities on-going throughout the Old Port and Old Montreal this winter. It was a quaint scene, doubtless intended to remind tourists of our hearty Colonial past. Nearby, a calèche driver enrobed in a buffalo hide stood next to his massive, steaming steed, educating passersby that his was the original Uber. Adirondack chairs of fresh-cut pine surrounded the flaming hearths. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

So naturally the powers at be want this to end… or so I thought. The city has plans to ban fireplaces and other wood burning stoves and fire pits because they pollute.

While the ban is still two years off, I was a touch perplexed. This was all happening within eyesight of City Hall and both major parties seem to be really gung-ho on expediting the ban. Wouldn’t they have at least thought about ensuring there aren’t any fire pits at public events in the lead-up? What kind of message does this send to the people? Are they bad for the environment or can fireplaces distinguish between private use and public? Perhaps burning wood emits less particulate in the context of being decorations to support our tourism industry?

Banning things is, unfortunately, just about the only thing municipal and provincial governments seem to be good at these days. In addition to the fireplace ban, the province recently decided to ban cigarettes from outdoor patios and e-cigarettes from anywhere indoors. E-cigarettes, by their very definition, do not involve any burning tobacco whatsoever.

The bans are all intended to improve air quality and make us healthier, but they’re illogical when put in context of what’s causing far, far worse air pollution. Even if everyone in Montreal decided to light up a smoke and their fireplaces simultaneously, the pollution still wouldn’t even come close to what’s produced by all the cars, trucks, busses and airplanes going in and out of our city every single day. You and everyone else living in this city could get cracking on being pack-a-day smokers for the rest your lives and it will wouldn’t come close.

This type of legislation tends to get near unanimous approval from other politicians and, even though people do grumble and complain these bans are invasive and unnecessary, it’s unlikely public opposition will be so strong there’ll be any street protests.

In other words, it’s a safe bet everyone will go along with the plan and whomever’s in power looks like they’re doing something productive.

Banning cars and trucks, no matter how effective a solution to the air-quality and smog problem, would be political suicide. So that’s not going to happen.

In the end, what we really need is the political will to secure massive investments in public transit, like a new light-rail system and (not or) a major expansion of the Métro.

It would also be great if all the highway trenches were covered over too, given much of our local smog is generated by ground-up salt and sand used to clear the streets after snowstorms. Covering over the Decarie and Ville-Marie Expressways wouldn’t just ensure they’d be permanently clear and unaffected by the elements, but further wouldn’t require snow clearance. And the exhaust within can be sucked out and cleaned too.

But in order for any of this to be possible, we have to get comfortable with the knowledge small, bandaid feel-good solutions won’t do an iota of good to improve our local environment and cut down on smog.

The idea that your fireplace is a major contributor to environmental degradation is, apparently, not even really taken seriously by whichever city department was responsible for setting up these hearths.