On Missing Home

July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The old Turcot Exchange. The different colourations of the concrete indicates patch work concrete, except, of course, for the rust and discolourations from water/ice.

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.

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Montreal’s new métro cars

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.

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