Register Saturday | April 1 | 2023

La Belle Ville

Balconies have an architectural flourish with deep roots in the city's culture

Everyone loves Montreal—at least, that’s how it seems. People who have lived in Montreal for a reasonable amount of time seem predisposed to raving about its virtues. Exiled Montrealers in Calgary or Toronto gush about the cosmopolitanism of their former home; and even if one extracts the exaggeration and sweetened nostalgia that usually taints recollections of a hometown, there does seem to be something special about Montreal, something that makes it more than just a pile of old brick by a river, its glory days gone by. It’s hard to say what exactly this greatness is, but I think part of the answer can be found in the city’s streets. Ordinary street life in Montreal—with its cornucopia of languages, dress, and skin tones, and its exuberant blend of Québécois culture with all the other influences that have shaped it—is the heart of the heart of the city. Inhabitants fill outdoor terrasses with animated chatter, winter sidewalks teem with sled-toting children, and the streets provide a stage for the little dramas that make up urban life.

Public life would not be so lively, though, without a few distinctive elements that shape the city’s urban identity. The quintessential lane, for instance, and trundling down that lane the inevitable row of triplexes, fiveplexes, fourplexes and sixplexes, swelling up and dwindling down in height from one building to the next. Flowers, tomatoes and even grapevines on trestles flourish in tiny front gardens; simple, colourful cornices adorn some buildings, while dormers project up from the sides of others. Then there are the staircases, those famous staircases twisting their way up façades like wrought-iron rattlesnakes, climbing towards second-storey doors. These staircases have found a comfortable niche in Montreal’s art and literature—as well as in the nostalgic memories of visitors—as the ultimate icon of la belle ville, the perfect emblem of Montreal’s spunkiness and flair. But above these spiral staircases perches a less romanticized, more intriguing key to the city’s character: the balcony.

Montreal’s balconies are more often perfunctory than beautiful, and so multitudinous it’s easy to see why they are taken for granted. Try, however, to imagine our streets without these outward projections. The façades, the eyes and face of the city, seem blunted, cut short, unsettlingly vacant—a city without its eyelashes. I can’t help but think these homely little platforms affect Montreal far more profoundly than their humble presence would suggest. Reaching out over the sidewalk, the balconies bridge the gap between the private world of apartments and the public life of the street. On a summer night, as the cool shadow of dusk swims over Montreal, high landings everywhere fill with tables, chairs and chatting friends, and the soft lull of evening conversation drifts down through the trees.

Lots of cities possess a balcony culture. But cities where the balcony is inextricably woven into the local vernacular are usually southern locales like New Orleans, Barcelona, Buenos Aires—steamy cities that sweat languorously under a rich summer sun. Montreal summers may be hot, but this is winter’s city for nearly half the year. When locals want to get their game on, they think hockey, and eyes mist over when Quebec icon Gilles Vigneault cries out, “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” (My country is not a country, it’s winter). Why, then, all the balconies—an architectural feature better suited to blue skies and bright sun?

Montreal has its strict French Catholic and enthusiastically dour Scottish forebears to thank. Balconies first appeared in Canada during the Victorian era. Elaborately carved out of wood, the original balconies were usually cantilevered on brackets above doors, rising upwards in a splendour that offset the sad gloom of greystone. More decorative than functional, these early examples opened a safe door upon the street and allowed city dwellers that slight elevation of feeling with which to ponder the expanse below. By the 1890s, balconies were the predominant architectural feature of city streets, from the most elegant of wealthy western precincts, like the Golden Square Mile, to surprisingly sumptuous examples in the working-class east end. 

Balconies may have been popular among the rich and the petite bourgeoisie, but they were put to real use by the poor working class. With more than eight hundred thousand new arrivals between 1890 and 1930, Montreal quintupled in size to become Canada’s cradle of industry. Thousands of country dwellers migrated into the city: in the early 1920s alone, over five thousand permits to build were issued a year. As new buildings rose in ever farther fields, the balcony took on a more functional form, reduced from elaborately turned wood to wrought iron or, in later years—when the balcony-staircase combination became popular—to simple, cheap, unembellished metal. Most of the tenants of the new balcony-bearing structures were transplanted ruralists fleeing Quebec’s poverty-stricken countryside. In a sense, Montreal’s balconies grew out of the wide verandas and vast porches of rural Quebec, a compromise between country life’s endless sense of space and city life’s restrictive dimensions. Bringing a taste of the outdoors with them, the migrants transformed the city into a hodgepodge of terraces and staircases that facilitate neighbourhood interaction even to this day. Montreal’s animated culture owes a lot to the rich street life of its working-class past. 

The balcony aided further waves of rural immigrants—this time Italians, Poles, and Jews from overseas—by providing a means for neighbourhood interaction, in many ways the only relief from an otherwise desperate life. By 1940, Yiddish was Montreal’s third most common language and its Jewish community numbered sixty-four thousand, mostly concentrated in the ghetto that ran up St. Laurent Boulevard like a thin belt between the anglophone west and the francophone east. In his fascinating book City Unique, the documentarian and writer William Weintraub describes the Jewish ghetto:

Street life in the Jewish streets was lively and noisy. The milkman, the breadman and the iceman, with their horses and wagons, all made a hearty clatter as they plied their trade. . . . For young mothers, the centres of their social life were those long outdoor staircases, so peculiar to Montreal. They would sit there, on hot summer days, feeding their babies, scolding the older children for getting dirty on the street, and—above all—gossiping with the neighbours.

Thriving street life was hardly unique to the Jewish neighbourhoods. In the half-dozen streets of Goose Village, constantly under assault from industrial odours, life was just as convivial. Weintraub describes the fondness with which former residents recall their old working-class neighbourhood: “All would speak of the neighbourliness, the unlocked front doors of their run-down houses. There was pride in how well residents of Irish, Italian and Ukrainian descent got along.” 

Not surprisingly, balconies have wound their way into Montreal’s literature as a constant, if quiet, presence. In The Tin Flute, novelist Gabrielle Roy describes Montreal’s streets as “petites agoras où l’on discutait de la vie”—little agoras where life is discussed. The same applies to balconies: they are nodes of individual and public life alike. They blend into the literary setting, a natural part of the Montreal vernacular. “Melech Adler,” begins a paragraph in Mordecai Richler’s Son of a Smaller Hero, “his mottled hands lying on his lap, sat on the kitchen chair on his balcony considering the prospects before him.” Fictional characters like Richler’s use the balconies the same way real Montrealers do: as a point of access to the outside world, a way of connecting one’s private life with the street.

In David Fennario’s 1979 play Balconville (literally, “balcony city”), the balconies of Point St. Charles provide the stage for linguistic and political tensions between francophones and anglophones. Locked into their miserable lives by poverty and the summer heat, Balconville’s characters peer down from their perches like birds, gazing upon the broken windows and greasy patinas of their isolated working-class quarter. “Going anywhere this summer?” one character asks his neighbour. “Moi?” she replies. “Balconville.”

Balconies rarely feature as prominently as in Balconville—except in the work of Michel Tremblay, where they abound. The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant opens with three sisters—Rose, Violette and Mauve—sitting comfortably on their balcony on Fabre Street. By sheer coincidence, a handful of neighbourhood women are all pregnant, the fat lady among them, and the sisters are knitting booties for the street’s future residents. Soon their mother Florence joins them, pulling out a rocking chair and gazing upon the street.

“In the morning, before they brought out the chairs, they had washed the balcony. As they would every day until the beginning of September.” The knitting sisters and their mother are invisible. They sit quietly as the days go by, rocking back and forth in their chairs to the rhythm of Fabre Street: “Florence, Rose, Violette, Mauve . . . followed beside it all, straddling the generations, perpetually tending and knitting, hidden watchers, surveying and looking on, united, protecting cradles from afar, counting the births, but not the deaths.”

The women feel and watch over the pulse of the street from their tidy little viewing deck—and so do modern Montrealers. The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant brims with closeted characters filled with the need to burst from their confines into the world outdoors.  In a scene near the end, the fat lady emerges from months of expectant confinement to stumble toward the balcony as if the sight of Fabre Street will quench some irresistible thirst. “Keep going, ma tante,” her family urges. “You’ll see. It’s worth it. It’s so beautiful outside.” Finally, she emerges:

When everything was silent again, and the fat woman was able to contemplate the street as much as she liked, steep herself in the images and sensations of the early spring night, scrutinize the smallest shadowy corners, recognizing, in spite of the darkness, the faces of all the neighbours watching her from their balconies, breathe deep the promises of May, and what still remained of April, time was suspended and nothing moved.

Since its deep mid-nineties recession, Montreal has become a magnet for the creatively inclined, drawing bohos and artists from across Canada, each new arrival eager to participate in the city’s vibrant life and animated culture. One can feel this spirit just by walking around. Early one winter evening, as the last whispers of dusk faded into the chilly night, I strolled down Fabre Street. This one-time bastion of working-class life has been transformed by gentrification, but the working-class vitality remains. Kids bundled up in tuques made their way home from school; a young mother pushed a stroller past me, hands clad in gloves, scarf flung around her neck. Fabre is an imposing street, with broad sidewalks and tall buildings and even taller trees. That night, the balconies reached gently out from the homes, adorned with kitschy Christmas decorations: little Santas with jolly red noses, lights that blinked off and on and off again. Inside, apartment lights flickered on as people came home for the day.

The balconies were haunted by the leftovers of autumn: dusty bicycles, forgotten plastic chairs, a table or two. They waited quietly for the first spring night to bring the hum of the indoors and the clatter of kitchen chairs out into the street. Even in the damp cold of that winter night, it wasn’t hard to imagine Florence and her daughters knitting quietly, casting caring glances over the bustling street below. 

[Sidebar] That joie de vivre

Breathless accounts of Montreal’s charms rely heavily on the joie de vivre angle, describing Montreal as a sort of European exile stuck in the snowdrifts of Canada. “Montréal is Canada’s most romantic metropolis,” gushes the latest Fodor’s guide, “a city full of music, art and joie de vivre. It is rather like the European capital Vienna.” Of course, whittling down Montreal’s character to a few generalizations belies its complex nature. It may have its balconies and, yes, a sort of joie de vivre, but that hardly means Montreal is a lost child of Europe. 

Montreal today is more a product of its multicultural, prototypically North American upbringing than it is an infusion of European culture on the American continent. Recently revealed census statistics paint a portrait of a Montreal that is more diverse than ever. Twenty-nine percent of Montrealers are allophones—people who speak a language other than French or English—an increase of nearly 7 percent since 1996. Italian is the third most spoken language in Montreal, followed by Arabic, Spanish and various Chinese dialects.

In an article that followed the release of those statistics, La Presse columnist Rima Elkouri described sitting on the number 55 bus, reflecting on the linguistic mishmash surrounding her. “What language does Montreal speak?” she wondered, hearing two friends speaking Spanish behind her, a couple of old ladies chatting in Portuguese and some schoolkids yammering in English. “If I had taken the bus a few minutes earlier, I would have perhaps heard, like the day before yesterday, the daughters of Chinese immigrants speaking French, friends switching indifferently between French and English, others mixing Arabic and French.”  Sorry, Fodor’s—it’s this mixture of ethnicities and cultures that gives contemporary Montreal its joie de vivre.