Last month I had the great pleasure of visiting Montreal for a week (followed by spending a weekend next to a pristine lake in wood cabins for the wedding of two of my closest friends.) I was particularly excited to make the trip, not only because it was the first time I’d ventured out of the U.K for seven years, but also because I had the opportunity to explore the city with a group of friends. I wasn’t disappointed with what I found.
I want to focus this blog on the area around Rue St Catherine East, with some discussion on the apparent polarity between this largely freed up area, and the corresponding balance of high-rise financial and insurance buildings on Rue St Catherine West. And while I had a lot of fun in other areas of the city (including a fantastic night in a quasi-commune in Little Italy of Rue Dante), this is the area I felt needed documenting.
The photos above represent a movement, from left to right, on the back of a restaurant (left) and then the side and back of a bar and venue (right) that face onto Rue St Catherine East. This site greeted me every morning as I walked into the city from the southern end of Rue de Bullion, where I had the pleasure of staying. These murals–huge and hugely detailed in a way my phone camera cannot do justice to–were what really piqued my curiosity about the city. From the airport, I had taken a bus into the centre of the city and was surrounded on all sides by high-rise buildings that ran parallel to Rue St Catherine to the north. But two minutes of walking (out of the five minutes to get to my apartment) I found these. The separation in style and attitude do not accurately capture the sheer proximity of these two styles of ‘city living’. Rue St Catherine had become a place for me to explore.
Coming back the following day, I cut through this side street that connected the blocks of flats (beautiful examples of well designed, well maintained, and well funded social housing) at the bottom of Rue de Bullion to Rue St Catherine East, which you can see in the picture on the left. I was keen to experience the proximity of these different attitudes towards what city space can, and should, be, and to see how the march of gentrification–which is steadily moving through Montreal–was being acted out on a day to day basis. Throughout my stay there, and my strolls up and down Rue St Catherine, the following greeted me with a flurry of noise and activity:
This space, above a now closed music venue (which I didn’t manage to get a photo of) stands opposite the restaurants and bars adorned by those intricate, and quite subversive, murals. It appears to be a retorfitting of a building already there, though could easily be a new build, being perched on top of cultural businesses that have been forced into closure. Opposite a bar called Foufounes (that has quickly become an all time favourite) and located at almost the centre point of the whole stretch of Rue St Catherine, this building site–soon to be office spaces–became the epitome of what I felt about Montreal.
Face this building site, with Foufounes at your back, and turn left and you will be moving along Rue St Catherine East. Between five and ten minutes later, you will be greeted with this: Le Village.
Le Village is the centre of Montreal’s gay district and was, for me, the centre of what I felt about Montreal. In a province where gay marriage was legalised in 2004, and obviously influenced by an urban (and significantly student) population, Le Village throws together gay male saunas, with innumerable restaurants, cafes, and bars, as well as specialist clothing stores promoting transgender and gender fluid clothing lines. All busy, and all existing under these rows and rows of pink balls suspended over the pedestrianised main street as far as the eye can see.
The structural and social permissiveness of Rue St Catherine East, represented through its planning by its pedestrianised roadway, overspill from shops, restaurants, and bars onto the sidewalks, and general continuation of the street art found on the rest of the road, is counterbalanced by the hugely car-inclined Rue St Catherine West. Where St Catherine East remains mostly to a more human scale of architecture (as much as you can in a city full of apartment blocks), St Catherine West dwarfs human attempts to move around it freely. Starting from the plaza out the Musee de Beaux Arts, heading west, the buildings loom over you, turning Rue St Catherine into little more than a traffic sewer, to borrow from Mike Davis. The scales in play here are baffling, not least because when you stand at the interchange between Rue St Catherine West and Avenue McGill College and look north, you can see the mountain the city is named for, peering round huge insurance and banking buildings. (I took photos here, but they appear to have been corrupted).
This sweeping financialisation, that is spreading east along Rue St Catherine (and the parallel Boulevard Rene-Levesque, my route into the city, until you come in sight of the particularly impressive Maison du Ville) is, I feel, symptomatic of what is happening to Montreal. You can see and feel the gentrification of the city as you move through it. Out in places like Little Italy you forget what is happening closer to the centre. Even on St Catherine East you can forget what is happening only twenty minutes further along the road. To me, the character of this city–its apparent independence, its artistic, inclusive, and creative spirit–is being homogenized and whitewashed into a copy of every other major city in the U.K, U.S.A, and Canada. The cleanup is in full force in Montreal, and that is nothing but a shame. In a conversation with the locals in Little Italy about rent prices, they told me how little they pay for such a huge property in a beautiful and vibrant area. My disbelief gave way to a sadness that soon enough, this area (like those in the centre which, while cheap relative to the Cambridge flat I live in now, and especially friend’s places in London) while continually increase until they are priced out. But that, I think, is a conversation for another time.
My trip in Montreal was fantastic, and it was great both personally and academically to be able to explore a city that shows such polarity in such a small area. But the best part was being able to do this for my friends. Look below to see what’s in the pipeline!
I’ve been invited to speak at the Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the English Eerie event, being held in Oxford at The Old Fire Station on the 24th of October. You can check out the event’s facebook page here and you can book tickets here. My paper is going to be examining Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013) and exploring ideas of the (re)appropriation of space, which is a subject I have been looking at a lot throughout my MA year.
Also, I am standing for election for the ASLE Eexecutive Committee, in the Graduate Liaison position. More on this when I have news!