The Urban Eye will return with a regular column in two weeks. In the meantime, a brief entr’acte …
Montreal is the world’s largest inland port—or something like that. The truth is, not many Montrealers actually know about their city’s marine might. The port, which by all measures is one of North America’s largest and busiest, is mostly hidden from view, tucked behind rail yards and expressways in long-neglected parts of town. Montreal is surrounded on all sides by water, yet much of the waterfront remains inaccessible or forgotten, a footnote in the day-to-day life of the city. The mighty St. Lawrence River, the umbilical cord that once connected a raw and wild Canada to the world beyond, is now of little importance to the millions of Montrealers whose only contact with it is peripheral: a metro ride underneath, a car trip overhead, a glimpse from the top of Mount Royal.
Much of this has to do with the evolution of the city. Ever since Montreal’s walls were demolished in 1820, it has marched inexorably up and around the mountain and out toward the vast plains of the eastern and western island. Deindustrialization pushed canalside and waterfront neighbourhoods into a deep slumber. Slowly, over the course of generations, Montreal has turned its back on its water.
All photos by Christopher DeWolf unless otherwise noted.
The European explorers that sailed up the St. Lawrence all faced the same obstacle: the Lachine Rapids. The construction of the Lachine Canal in the 1820s opened the vast interior to marine traffic. Industrial suburbs sprang up along the canal, including St. Henri, the neighbourhood made famous by Gabrielle Roy’s 1945 novel, The Tin Flute. These districts were hubs of activity, working-class neighbourhoods assaulted by the constant push of trains, boats, tramways and trucks:
The house where Jean had found his little furnished room was just in front of the swing-bridge of St. Augustin Street. It could watch the passage of flatboats, tankers that stank of oil or gasoline, wood barges, colliers, all of them giving a triple blast with their foghorns just before its door. … But the house was not only on the path of the freighters. It was also near the railway, at the crossroads of the eastern and western lines and the maritime routes of the great city. It was on the pathway of the oceans, the Great Lakes and the prairies.
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
When Leonard Cohen wrote “Suzanne” in 1967, Old Montreal was a derelict, forlorn district of old warehouses and crooked streets. The commercial heart of the city had moved uptown; so had the industry along streets like St. Paul. Place Jacques-Cartier, a square that spills from City Hall down toward the river, was lined by cheap hotels and taverns that catered to port workers and politicians. By contrast, today’s Place Jacques-Cartier is almost too clean. Now a tacky tourist trap, it smugly evokes an Old World past that never really existed. Overpriced restaurants have replaced the taverns; portrait artists and sword-swallowing buskers perform on what was once a bustling farmer’s market.
In 1991, the federal government razed some of the silos along the Old Port and created a pleasant park dotted with museums and tourist attractions. While this transformation of Old Montreal from port neighbourhood to tourist mecca has taken its fair share of casualties—Place Jacques-Cartier, as mentioned, or St. Paul Street, now besieged by souvenir shops—it has also sparked a remarkable transformation. New condominiums, chic restos and boutique hotels are springing up throughout the neighbourhood, lending it the kind of sophistication its evocative streets and elegant architecture deserve. Nearby, the area around Victoria Square has been transformed into the Quartier International, where sleek streetscapes and beautiful new squares make up for the pompous name.
Earlier this year, the Société du Havre de Montréal released a report overseen by Lucien Bouchard, a former Quebec premier, and Bernard Shapiro, a former principal of McGill. The study called for a reopening of the harbourfront through a variety of means: sustainable development in waterfront neighbourhoods, better access by public transit and the elimination of such barriers as the Bonaventure Expressway. The redevelopment of the Notre Dame highway in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve might finally give east enders access to the St. Lawrence. Finally, Montreal is turning back around and facing the water to which it owes its existence.