What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).
That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.
The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.
I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.
Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.
That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.
And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.
I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.
At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.
And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.
We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.
Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.
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).
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.
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 RiviÃ¨re Saint-Pierre, would have served the town’s poorest citizens as well as acting like a kind of asylum for the lame and insane.
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.
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.
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-RiviÃ¨res 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.
As the photos here demonstrate, the Old Port was once the port, and the area currently occupied with restaurants, boutique hotels and galleries was once highly industrial/commercial. All those sweet lofts you now covet were once working-class housing, and the port had a bit of a reputation for being a seedy, run-down part of an old city falling apart at the seams. Consider the size of Grain Elevator No.5, and imagine three elevators of a similar size, not to mention cold-storage warehouses and functioning piers and all associated logistical equipment, ripped out from their moorings and cleared away. Though this was doubtless a smart move for the city (as more modern port facilities were constructed further East and the area once occupied by the port was turned into one of the classiest neighbourhoods in the city), it nonetheless had a deep impact on the psyche of local inhabitants.
On a final note – there are two elements of port life I would like to see reintegrated into the Old Port, and I can imagine it would allow for an interesting and distinct character. For as nice as it is, the Old Port still seems a little too dependent on tourist dollars to keep going – at certain times of the year, let’s face it, the Old Port can be anything but hospitable, with much of Rue de la Commune boarded up until the Spring. I’d like to see actual sailors, people from all over the world, enjoying the Old Port and utilizing it as anyone may use a city, but there is a lack of affordable hotels in the area, as pretty much everything is geared towards wealthy American and European tourists. If this was altered slightly, and additional services for sailors were located in the Old Port, it would add a degree of authenticity (which can’t hurt) that may translate into additional sources of steady income for the Old Port as a neighbourhood and community.
I think we’ve got a weird creativity problem coming from the semi-corporate, semi-public-interest corporations running our primo public space. They offer a bland foreign substitute when they ought to be pushing to fix significantly larger problems. Once again, a problem – lack of public beaches – which could necessitate a fantastic response – a metropolitan plan to clean our local waterways and rehabilitate the beaches which occur naturally on-island. And once again, a complete lack of vision.
As you can see above, this new ‘urban beach’ is destined to be situated at the eastern tip of the Quai de l’Horloge. Currently, the area is pretty run down, not having been renovated since, by the looks of things, the early 1990s. Most of the beach would extend down the inner side of the Quai’s marina, offering a pleasant view of the Old Port and many ostentatious yachts. If they construct a new pavilion at the end of the Quai, with appropriate facilities, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t go there. It may quickly become a douche-bag/white-trash repository with juiced-up muscle-heads parading around ceaselessly with popped-collars and rococo-Catholic tattoos, but hey, just because that’s exactly what you’ll find at the;
1. Beach at Parc Jean-Drapeau
2. Oka Beach
3. Eastern look-out on the Mountain
4. La Ronde
5. The Orange Julip
6. For some reason the Oratory?
doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen in the Old Port too, right? That would be pretty fucking lame.
Maybe you run this risk in every place people congregate, but it seems as though a beach without the possibility for swimming is basically a place where you get drunk while sun-bathing. And if you can’t cool-off by taking a dip, then your just going to drink. I’m no teetotaler, but we should think this one through. Off the bat it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be family-friendly, and that’s where the money lies. But perhaps I’m taking liberties; there’s no reason to think that this new development would be treated any differently than the rest of the facilities, restaurants, pavilions etc throughout the rest of the harbour-front. In my opinion, they do generally good work – so here’s hoping it succeeds.
Ultimately, any new development in the Old Port is probably worth it, and this area could use a renovation, and this one is as good a plan as anywhere else. It has worked in Paris, though I feel the Parisian example is significantly better connected to the urban traffic dynamic. This beach is planned for the end of the Quai, in an area which is otherwise used for parking. That being said, it’s not isolated when you consider it in relation to the placement of other facilities along the linear park – in other words, it could be a ‘pole of attraction’ designed to stimulate increased traffic at that end of the Old Port, an area which is currently being redeveloped with high-density residential housing.
The big problem with this kind of development is that it’s so simple, so unimaginative. Aside from the fact that it’s an imported idea, it doesn’t consider the bigger local issue, which is that we live on an island that once had numerous natural, largely public beaches and clean water to bathe in. Now we don’t.
We’ve shut ourselves out of an interesting industry – resort tourism – as a result. Consider how many other cities built along rivers have almost immediate access to large public beaches, boardwalks and resort, beach-side communities. New Yorkers have access to this, as do Cariocans; hell, even Londoners can escape to Brighton! But we’ve lost our beaches as a result of our previous industrial development. It also doesn’t help that Lac St-Louis is sort of a collecting pond for industrial waste and pollutants coming down from the Great Lakes, and so instead of planning and creating funds to clean our river and lakes, we announce cheap imitations with great fanfare.
As I said, pretty fucking lame.
What do you think we should do? Does this argument make sense? Hope this was clear – feedback & constructive criticism always appreciated.