On Missing Home
July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments
Riding the metro in Beijing the other day, listening to Wolf Parade’s track ‘Valley Boy,’ I suddenly had this moment of vertigo as my mind was riding the 55 bus up blvd. St-Laurent back home in Montreal. ‘Valley Boy’ is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, our city’s patron saint of letters. Wolf Parade, though from Vancouver Island, are also a Montreal band. A few minutes later, my friend, Darryl, who is in Montreal from Alberta this week, sent me this photo.
There is nothing more alienating than to feel yourself in a city over 11,000km away from where you are. But I was in Montreal. But not the shiny Montreal of 2017, the grittier Montreal of the early 2000s, when the Main was half dug up in construction, and the rest was littered with discarded coffee cups and remnants of the weekend’s detritus. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cohen wandering around, visiting his favourite haunts, talking to the occasional person brave enough to actually approach him.
I never did. He was Leonard Cohen, He wasn’t a man for small talk, or pointless conversation. I did, though, meet Cohen once, a long time ago. It was the early 90s, he was touring behind The Future, and in a laundromat in Calgary, there he was folding his laundry as I was putting mine in the dryer. It was a random meeting and he dropped a sock, I picked it up for him. We talked for a bit, about nothing and everything and then he went on his way. I still don’t know why he was doing his own laundry on tour.
Montreal is changing, soon it have the newest infrastructure of any city that matters in North America. Every time I go home, I hear more and more English, and not just downtown, but on the Plateau, in the Mile End and in my old haunts in Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles. But even worse is the creep of major chain retailers. It used to be that Montreal was a holdout against this invasion. It was a city of small shops, mom and pop outfits, all up and down the Plateau, even downtown and in the other boroughs. I bought a stereo at a small store on Sainte-Catherine near MusiquePlus that has been shuttered for over a decade now, killed off by the Best Buy.
Montreal is losing its soul, I’m afraid. I take no pleasure in saying this, in fact, it hurts my own soul to say so. But there is a deep and dangerous cost of the gentrification of the city. My buddy Steve is a New Yorker at core, even if he long ago escaped. Each time he goes home to Queens, he is more and more appalled by what he sees in Harlem and Brooklyn and even Queens. Sure, it was a safer city and all that, but it was losing its soul. I always felt smug in the belief my city couldn’t do that. And better yet, my city was never crazy violent and it had, by the early 2010s, appeared to have recovered from the economic uncertainty of the separatist era. Hell, for a few years at the turn of the century, Montreal was actually the fastest growing city in Canada.
And so Leonard Cohen has been dead for almost two years. In ‘Valley Boy,’ Spencer Krug, one of the frontmen of the band, sings:
The radio has been playing all your songs
And talking about the way your slipped away up the stairs
Did you know it was all going to go wrong?
Did you know it would be more than you could bear?
In interviews, Wolf Parade have hinted this was about the larger geopolitical shitstorm that was engulfing the world when Cohen went to his great reward. As I was riding up the Main on the 55 bus in my head the other day, I thought differently. This was about Montreal, a city they and I have all moved on from, and one that Cohen left many times. Of course, Cohen also said that you can never leave Montreal, as it travels with you wherever you go and it calls you home. Later on the album, Krug sings, ‘Take me in time/Back to Montreal.’ And so we never do really fully leave.
Stupid Season in Montreal
March 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins. They lost 5-3. The Canadiens are having a miserable year, this loss, their 48th of the year (including regulation and overtime losses), officially eliminated them from playoff contention. The mood in the city is dour and angry. Fans are upset at management for mismanaging the Franchise, Carey Price. He had some mystery ailment he said was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome bothering him earlier in the year. It wasn’t team doctors who noticed it; it was his wife, Angela. Big defenceman Shea Weber played through a nasty foot injury before being shut down for the season and having surgery.
Then there’s the mistakes General Manager Marc Bergevin made in the off-season. He traded away promising defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for moody, sulky, but very talented forward Jonathan Drouin. And then the team put Drouin at centre, a position he hadn’t played for years. Why? Because the Habs haven’t had a #1 centre since the peak of Saku Koivu’s career in the late 90s/early 00s. Drouin, not surprisingly, has been a bust. Bergevin also let iconic defenceman Andrei Markov walk after he insulted Markov in contract negotiations. Bergevin then had the gall to tell us that the defence was better this year than last. I could go on and on.
Something stinks in the City of Montreal and it is the hockey team. It is a laughing stock.
And, not surprisingly, the Twitter wars have been epic. During last Thursday’s game, a prominent Montreal sportswriter made an idiot of himself. This is also not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to the Habs. He was in a discussion with a blogger, who noted that we Habs fans forget that the team has had 3-100 point seasons in the past 5. This sportswriter noted in response that “Germany had three really strong military years in WWII.”
And then all hell broke loose, as it should. When his interlocutor noted this stupidity, he dug in deeper, noting that “They [meaning Nazi Germany] were winning until they weren’t. It’s not that deep.” Another Twitter user called him out, and our intrepid journalist got his shovel out again: “Notice I said military. Only an idiot would stretch that into anything more.”
Well, maybe I am an idiot. As the second interlocutor noted, this is Nazi Germany we’re talking about. Not some random war. This is a régime that murdered 6 million Jews in cold blood, to say nothing of Roma, LGBT, and disabled victims. The Holocaust is, to paraphrase Elie Weisel, an event that cannot be understood, but must be remembered. There have been other genocides, particularly in the last half of the 20th century (after we, the West, declared “Never Again!”). But, the Holocaust remains beyond the pale in our collective consciousness.
And when this was pointed out to our journalist, that he essentially compared the management of the Montreal Canadiens to the Nazis, he got out his shovel and kept on digging: “No, not every soldier was a Nazi, not every German believed the Nazi ideology. But that’s beside the point, because we all know what I was saying, and it had nothing to do with Nazis.”
To put it bluntly, this is epic stupidity. According to the United States Holocaust Museum,
The German military participated in many aspects of the Holocaust: in supporting Hitler, in the use of forced labor, and in the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.
The military’s complicity extended not only to the generals and upper leadership but also to the rank and file. In addition, the war and genocidal policy were inextricably linked. The German army (or Heer) was the most complicit as a result of being on the ground in Germany’s eastern campaigns, but all branches participated.
And sure, maybe the journalist didn’t mean to bring up the Nazis. But words have meanings, and someone who works with words on a daily basis should know better. The Wehrmacht was by-and-large Nazified. Period. And his comparison of the Habs 3-100 point seasons with the Wehrmacht includes the Nazis, whether he meant it or not. And he should know better. I did hit the unfollow button, by the way.
Montréal: En construction
July 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
The running joke in Montreal is that a traffic cone should be our municipal symbol. From May to November or so annually, the streets of the metropole are a sea of traffic cones as workers frantically try to patch up roads thrashed by winter, and occasionally build something new. And annually, Montrealers kvetch about construction. As if it didn’t happen last summer and won’t happen next summer.
I was home last week, and it was the usual. Actually it’s beyond the usual. The city is awash in the orange beacons. Roads are dug up everywhere. But, something else occurred to me. This is not the status quo, this is not business as usual for my city. Instead, this is something new. This year, 2017, marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1642. It is also Canada’s 150th anniversary since Confederation in 1867. This means that Montreal is seeing an infrastructural (re-)construction not seen since the late 1960s, in conjunction with Expo ’67, on Canada’s 100th anniversary. That boon saw the highway complex around the city built, as well as the Pont Champlain. Montreal also got its wonderful métro system out of that. But this infrastructural boom coincided with deindustrialization and the decline of the urban core of the city. Thus, what looked beautiful and shiny in 1967 had, by 2007, become decrepit and dodgy. There was no money for proper upkeep, so things were patched together.
Take, for example, the Turcot Interchange in the west end of the city. Chunks of concrete fell off it regularly, so there were these rather dodgy looking repair patches all over it. The Pont Champlain had outlived its expected lifespan of about 50 years. And the métro. Wow. While the trains still ran on time, more or less, and regularly, they were ancient.
But now, all this money is being showered on the city. The Turcot is being taken down and replaced with a level interchange. Work is on-going 24/7 on this. The old McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), which had been jerry rigged in a collection of century old buildings on avenue des Pins on the side of Mont-Royal, has a beautiful new campus on the location of the old Glen Rail Yards in NDG. The Pont Champlain is being replaced. Meanwhile, on the ride downtown on the Autoroute Bonaventure, on the A20 from the airport, one will find access to the downtown core blocked. The Bonaventure, a raised highway that bisects Griffintown (buy my book!) is being knocked down to be replaced with an urban boulevard. And while I am not entirely clear what the plans are for the Autoroute Ville-Marie under the downtown core, construction continues apace there. Meanwhile, the Société de transport de Montréal has new cars on the métro! At least on the Orange line. And, while they don’t actually feel air conditioned, they do have an effective air circulation system that, if you’ve ever experienced Montreal in the summer, you will appreciate.
So, for once, Montreal is not just being patched up. It is being rebuilt. For once, the powers-that-be have planned for the future of the city. And one day, who knows when, the city will be radically rebuilt and will have perhaps the most modern infrastructure in Canada, if not North America.
Go figure. No longer is my city a dilapidated, crumbling metropolis.
On Chronology in History
November 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a review of what looks a fascinating book, Henry Petroski’s The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. The review, however, is plagued by an inability to keep a historical chronology. I always remind my students that chronology matters, especially in a history class. And when grading exams and essays, I find myself over and over again writing “Chronology?” in the margins.
The review, by Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, is plagued by such problems. For example, he recounts Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 ‘Report on the Subject of Manufactures,’ wherein he argued that the federal government had the constitutional authority to spend on internal infrastructure. But then, in the next sentence: “Hamilton’s view was rejected by President James Madison and his successor, James Monroe, who both vetoed major infrastructure legislation passed by Congress” for constitutional reasons. Problem is, in 1791, George Washington was President. Madison was elected president in 1809, 18 years after Hamilton’s ‘Report,’ and 5 years after Hamilton was murdered in a duel by Aaron Burr.
On the next page, Klein recounts the creation of the interstate highway system in the US. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the key here, as almost anyone knows (you know, those signs on the interstates that note they are part of the Eisenhower Interstate System. The key legislation here came in 1956. Klein writes:
Eisenhower’s highways were part of a series of great infrastructure projects that helped usher in unprecedented prosperity. Government investment and private entrepreneurship laid railroads across the continent; built huge power plants, such as the Hoover Dam; and provided universal phone coverage. Those projects generated economic growth and united the nation.
Factually, this is true. Infrastructure did aid in national growth and unity. But. The railroads were built in the late 19th century. The Hoover Dam was built from 1931-33. In other words, looooong before the interstate system. And while Klein is making a larger point about the need for government investment in the US’s ailing infrastructure, his inability to maintain a chronological reality here undercuts his argument about the importance of the Eisenhower system, given it was the last of these infrastructural developments and nearly a generation after the other examples he provides.
In short, kids, chronology matters.