PREFACE TO CHUCKMAN’S MONTREAL: A BEAUTIFUL CITY IN PHOTOS BY ONE OF ITS GREAT ADMIRERS…   3 comments

THE PHOTO AT THE TOP OF THE SITE IS OF LE METRO, A TRAIN WITH THE BRAND NEW AZUR CARS, JUST PULLED INTO STATION PLACE SAINT-HENRI, ONE OF THE SYSTEM’S MOST ARCHITECTURALLY DISTINGUISHED.

 

There are more than a thousand photos of the city here, and I hope readers enjoy them. They were taken in many locations, under various conditions, and represent a number of neighborhoods. The focus is on urbanity and on some interesting and rather unique forms of it found in Montreal. I am not interested in suburban landscapes or lifestyles. Although Westmount is represented, not technically a part of Montreal, a visitor would never be aware of that fact as he or she walked west of Atwater along, say, Sherbrooke. There is an almost seamless continuity, and much of Westmount is very urban.

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 NOTE: If you are anxious to get to some pictures, just scroll past this essay, but you may just find it interesting, and it certainly relates to what you will find in the photos.

 

REFLECTIONS ON MONTREAL – INTRODUCTION TO A GREAT CITY THROUGH SOME PERSONAL AND SENTIMENTAL OBSERVATIONS BY A GREAT ADMIRER – JOHN CHUCKMAN

One of the qualities that especially marks Montreal is the sweetness of so many French people. I am not sure that sweetness is the word that completely captures the quality, perhaps naturalness and lack of pretention, perhaps charm are all parts of it, but I like the word “sweetness” applied here. It fits well to my mind.

Not all of the people, of course, but a surprising number. It is a quality you run into again and again, and there is no other place in Canada where this is true. I‘ve spent time in the major cities, and a great many years in Toronto, but you will find little of the quality I am talking about there. It is rather unique, and it appeals to me a great deal.

I believe you can see it in some of the faces I have photographed, although I wish I had photographed more. That would make a wonderful study, the faces of Montreal. But I’ll confess a truth that is a little embarrassing, I have always been rather shy about photographing people face-on. Shy about asking and shy about taking pictures without asking. It is a real handicap for someone who loves creating images. I wish it were not so, but it is.

I believe you can also see it in many little details of the way things are done in Montreal, from the outdoor eating on the street to the little balconies with the flowers and to some of the shops and the atmosphere you find in many restaurants, an atmosphere influenced greatly by this quality in customers and staff. They just display something you will not see very often in Toronto or Calgary or Vancouver. I actually think for anyone who spends some time in these places, they will instinctively recognize what I am talking about.

Of course, I have gone beyond making extended visits to this beautiful city (discussed below from my original introduction to the site of about four years ago), and I live here now, undoubtedly for my last days. For someone like me who grew up in a big city, always in apartments, Montreal again has a quality you do not find other places in Canada. It has a great stock of apartments, everything from older gracious ones and small cozy ones to newer efficient ones, and along with them come streetscapes with many old churches and institutions, a great many neighborhood parks, and charming small shops serving apartment dwellers – all of it together making a wonderful tapestry of city life.

There is something about the nature of the people and their pattern of living in Montreal’s neighborhoods that recalls the much-beloved Chicago neighborhoods where I grew up, neighborhoods which now exist only in memory, their contemporary reality being violence and decay. Urban villages, I used to call them. People shop in neighborhood stores, eat in neighborhood restaurants, and spend time in neighborhood parks, and they generally walk for these activities. And this kind of neighborhood life is not the localism of suburbs, something I’ve always found rather stifling, but activity carried out in the near presence of the densest part of the city, which provides almost a kind of heartbeat in the background. It produces a total effect, a pleasant urbanity, which other arrangements cannot match. There are various local street activities and festivities, too, which periodically see residents strolling and eating on the street.

Montrealers use the local parks a great deal, filling them with life and activity, and there are many parks, just as there were in Chicago when I grew up. Picnics are common. There is even a restaurant near one of great old parks which will prepare you a box lunch to take. Musical events are common. The great park I just referred to, Parc La Fontaine in the East End, has a beautiful puppet theater. Another common sight in neighborhoods and parks is groups of day-care kids walking with the people who take care of them. If they are the young ones, they will all be attached together with a long colorful sash-like walking restraint. If they are very young, they will ride around in strollers or buggies designed to hold a crowd. The delightful sights are common because Quebec has a generous day-care program which allows young families to work while paying modest fees. I very much like what it does for street life, and there are a number of photos on the site.

The local shopping streets tend to accommodate apartment dwellers with many kinds of goods and services you will often not find on the commercial streets of other places these days, such services having migrated to big-box stores in suburban or semi-suburban malls. Things such as a small local hardware store or a kitchen-supply store or a shop selling all the needs for tiny balcony gardens, and frequently, my most beloved of all Montreal businesses, the boulangeries, which generally operate along the lines of the ones in France, open seven days a week, starting at seven in the morning, and selling some of the best bread you will ever eat, always freshly made. There are no big-box stores in most of these neighborhoods although they are available in areas around the city. Their relative absence in the city would be an inconvenience for semi-suburban types, but they are not the kind of people who live here. And how nice to be able to get a light switch or a breadknife within a short walk without using a car.

I suspect the height of buildings in these neighborhoods – definitely urban with two or three or four floors, only sometimes hi-rise, and the lack of big-box stores are characteristics protected by zoning, which is fine with me. A let-her-rip attitude would quickly destroy the ambiance.

Toronto, as the immigration literature advised when I first came to Canada from Chicago, was a city of houses, and the literature was quite accurate. While Toronto was a city of opportunity, undoubtedly the best in the country, it lacked ambiance and grace. It was hard to find a nice apartment, and I never liked the pretty soulless apartment buildings they started building in quantity in the late 1960s. I called them “balconied blocks,” and they all looked much the same and their local streets had no special feeling or charm. Clean and useful, much as the slogan which used to be painted on the city’s streetcleaners, “Keep Toronto clean and tidy!” Toronto lacked many neighborhood parks and special gathering public places. It still does, and I think that is reflection of the lack of apartment neighborhoods and all the style of life that goes along with them.

They’ve built a vast new sprawl of condos on the old rail lands in Toronto, but they gave it all little thought and good planning. It was an urban gold rush for developers and the city collecting fees and taxes. It is mostly not my idea of a pleasant environment. Many of the buildings are just plain ugly, and the places do not feel like neighborhoods, and they do not have a good mix of different ages and circumstances of residents. The necessary urban mix with shopping and restaurants is not there. Young singles living in tiny, tiny spaces. Montreal, too, is now building many large condos in certain locations, many seem to be fairly high-end and good-looking, and I dearly hope they do not end up with islands of sterility resembling Toronto’s rail lands, but I have every reason to believe they will not.

Montreal’s residential neighborhoods are also lined with trees, adding great charm to the streets. Not just the trees which grow in people’s yards, but trees deliberately planted along the edge of the sidewalks. Yards in fact in the city are very small, even tiny, so there is an impression of something of value having been shifted from the private to the public. It was one of the most memorable aspects of the neighborhoods in which I grew up, and still it arouses a strong emotional response in me. I remember missing the effect terribly when I first lived in Toronto. There are lots of trees in Toronto, but they are almost all on people’s lawns. The sidewalks are concrete strips right next to the street, and that creates a truly barren effect.

In the summer, the trees along a sidewalk in Montreal and the great numbers of trees in the parks offer beauty and protection from the sun, with a feeling of graciousness. In a neighborhood like Le Plateau, it is possible to walk from an apartment along a street for many blocks under a bower of trees. Trees along the edges of a residential street do so much to add complexity and sophisticate its look and create a kind of attractive curtain for residents across the street from each other. They provide homes for birds and other critters, and for me, the sense of walking under a bower never ceases to be pleasant. The seasonal changes in the trees, from bright green buds in the spring to thick lushness in the summer and then to autumn color and falling leaves adds a kind of theater to the streets. And they look pretty spectacular with snow on their branches, and we do get lots of snow in Montreal.

Montreal, as its name suggests, is a mountain, not a very steep one, but steep enough in places to give drama to views and tire some walkers. And it is a mountain on a large island in one of North America’s great rivers, the St Lawrence, a river loaded with all the history of early explorers and settlers and possessing a certain special sense as part of the Great Lakes system. There is still a kind of feint echo of names like Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain and de Maisonneuve, Acadia, Evangeline, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the French and Indian War, and the very real possibility that had that war gone the other way, French would be the world’s language rather than English. Water from the Great Lakes flows down the river and out into the Atlantic Ocean. I read once there is something like a five-year cycle for water to circulate through the Great Lakes and empty into the ocean. And of course, the St Lawrence makes Montreal a true international port.

At any rate, being on an island in the middle of a great river has undoubtedly a lot to do with our snowfall. It certainly gives us some thrilling breezes. Some people hate snow, but I have always loved it. It provides another form of urban magic like the effect of trees. We had plenty of it in Chicago, and evening or early morning streets with snow on the tree branches and clinging to crevices in buildings with warm yellowish lights in the windows on the street is not something I get tired of. I’m not fond of bitter cold, which we do get sometimes, but you can’t custom-tailor your climate and I enjoy enjoy its special beauties, and snow is one of them in Montreal.

The coming of spring in Montreal provides an especially happy time, not just with the usual buds and blooms, but people’s coming alive after the long winter. Chairs and tables start appearing on sidewalks in front of cafes, and picnics begin to happen in the parks, sometimes even a bit prematurely from the point of view of weather but delightfully welcome. The gradual appearance of window-box and little balcony gardens in hundreds of locations, the blooming of little neighborhood nursery and garden shops, and there is the delivery and decoration and furnishing, here and there on commercial streets, of the large wooden platforms that will provide the joy of eating outdoors, right in, or at the edge of, streets into the autumn, a seriously-enjoyed Montreal custom. And there’s the dramatic change in dress by Montreal’s beautiful women to styles of clothes that would have been jaw-dropping as a young man.

I have worked hard at my French, but I am old, and my memory for new things is not what it was, so it goes slowly. Ҫa va lentement, as they say.  A few people have remarked that my accent genuinely sounds French, and that is a very flattering and encouraging to hear. I have always loved the sound of the language, and for years I have had a collection of recordings by famous French and Quebecoise chanteuses, some of whom can produce tears for me with their songs. I’ll never manage to master the language at my age, but I practice every day faithfully.

Montreal’s collection of churches and related buildings, such as seminaries, is large and remarkable. This was, until several decades ago, a very Catholic city, very devout, and it shows in the architecture. Many of the buildings now serve other uses, and I can only be glad they are preserved. Not all have survived, but overwhelmingly they have. And I am very glad of it. No one, of course, will ever build anything like some of them again, so they provide historical and cultural interest and a kind of beauty, focal points in streetscapes much the way the large churches in European cities do. Many are venues for concerts and other activities. I just love the sight of some of them which are located on a square or at the head of a street, and you will see photos on the site of just such situations. I was even raised as a fundamentalist Protestant, yet my aesthetic sense and historical curiosity embraces these buildings as treasures.

Quebec went through something called the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, which much resembled what happened a bit later in Ireland, and the Catholic Church fairly quickly lost its central place in the culture. You may know how progressive and independent-minded a lot of things are today in Ireland, and it is just so in Quebec.

And it has been so for a longer time, but Quebec had to go through a series of events which were very difficult and stressful at times since the late 1960s when a movement for independence from Canada, or at least for a form of sovereignty within, became an active part of the society. This involved a new party, the Parti Quebecois, being elected to run the provincial government. The movement culminated in two referendums, one in 1980 and one in 1995. It also saw the birth of another new party, the Bloc Quebecois, which ran in federal elections to represent Quebec and once succeeded, rather strangely, in becoming the country’s official opposition party in the national government in Ottawa because Quebec (Canada’s second largest province) supported it for a while to the exclusion of other traditional federal parties.  An opposition party dedicated to independence is a rather unusual situation.

So, it was a very serious movement. Unfortunately, it hurt the province and the city economically. Montreal went from its historic position as Canada’s premier city to being second. Toronto benefited greatly from the migration of some major company headquarters over several years. There is still activity around the idea of sovereignty or independence, but it has run its course as a force. Montreal people gave me the strong impression several years ago when I rediscovered the city of being concerned with just getting on with life, and so they do. Some of the changes which occurred during those years helped greatly I think with bringing some peace, such as the sign law requiring all business signs to be in French. This has the advantage, too, of keeping the flavor of Montreal as a special place in North America, and it is no hardship to speak of. I do think the movement provided the needed release of a pressure valve for the people. And having gone through all that, in addition to the many other differences in Quebec, only adds to the rich texture, the unusual flavoring, of the place, much as appears to be the case in Ireland following the collapse of the Catholic Church’s central position there.

Montreal is a remarkably cosmopolitan place, as you can see in the photos. There are people on the streets from many lands and there are businesses representing their interests and tastes. You see people from the Middle East, from Korea and China and Japan, from South Asia, from Haiti, from Africa, from Latin America, and other places. It all seems to work smoothly. Many Muslim women wear the hijab, which I regard as a handsome garment, and I have never seen any trouble from others, the kind of trouble we hear so much about from the United states these days. Muslim families seem very well integrated and can be seen many times, as on a weekend, going about their business on the streets together. I have never seen even a look of disapproval. The cosmopolitan nature of the city creates some fascinating circumstances. I have a substantial number of Asian restaurants nearby, and if you are in one waiting for something, you will observe a waiter or order-taker speaking at various points to people in French, in Korean or another Asian language, and in English. Montreal has one of the most beautiful Chinatowns I have ever seen. It is not huge, but there are points where it’s possible to feel you really are in Asia, and it has such style and presence, it is delightful.

Old Montreal and the Old Port are likely the city’s greatest tourist attractions, and they form together a wonderful place where, at some points, it’s possible to imagine you are visiting the 18th century. The beautiful and very historic city of Quebec is just a few hours east of Montreal, but there are spots in the Old Port which have the same ambiance, as you may see from photos on the site. There are narrow, winding streets, stone buildings with iron gates, archways into back areas, gorgeous shops, elegant hotels, and many kinds of restaurants.

A word about graffiti. Montreal is known for unusual amounts of it. It comes in several forms. There is the simplistic graffiti with which most urban people are familiar. They are of no interest, at least for me, but there is another far more complex and interesting form that I think qualifies as genuine vernacular art. Some of these are quite complex and interesting and they pop up in unexpected places. The photos include several striking examples. There is still another form of painting on buildings, which it would be incorrect to call graffiti. These are large murals, some genuinely huge, carefully executed works that are in fact commissioned by the owners of buildings and businesses. Perhaps some of the second type of graffiti artists, the talented vernacular ones, graduate to this occupation over time. I don’t know. Some of these are nothing less than spectacular, genuine artistic efforts in every sense, as interesting as any number of modernist paintings. The photos include examples.

 

THE PREFACE I FIRST PUT UP ON WORDPRESS WHEN I STARTED THE SITE ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO:

 

Montreal was always a handsome city, but I had not been there in many years, and I was taken aback by the strikingly beautiful urban place into which it has blossomed. It is now North America’s “movable feast.”

Montreal’s beauty is at many levels, including other smart and attractive elements of urban planning. Bicycles are everywhere, and I don’t just mean the large racks of rental bikes. There are stands next to buildings everywhere in the central city for locking up bikes, and there are special bike lanes permanently constructed with curbs against cars. Motor scooters are parked everywhere, either along the sides of buildings or lined up perpendicular in the spaces once reserved for cars, so one car space now accommodates six or eight motor bikes.

Montreal always had street cafes, but now they are spotted everywhere in a fashion I have not seen before. They are on large platforms jutting into street lanes and covered with awnings or umbrellas, a concept which gives pedestrians a priority over cars, slows traffic, and doesn’t block up sidewalks for walkers. It is absolutely a brilliant and attractive innovation. I don’t know, but suspect, the platforms are taken up after the warm-weather season, but for the time when it is fun to walk the city, Montreal has greatly increased the pleasure of walking: you are never far from a place to sit and have refreshments, urban oases under umbrellas.

There has been a lot of tree-planting on streets since I was last there, something always adding great beauty to a city. The pictures show people enjoying the streets in great crowds, and they show, too, the remarkable amount of new construction in the city, a pleasing discovery considering all the political turmoil of the last few decades. It appears positive political developments have encouraged investors. A remarkable number of important old structures have been saved and given new life, as old convents becoming college campuses.

The true urbanity of Montreal is rooted in its apartment-living. A huge stock of beautiful old apartment buildings graces the city, something not found in Toronto which in the past was described accurately as a city of houses. Toronto now has built a huge volume of condos, but they have been built too often with little serious planning, creating places which cannot be described as apartment-living neighborhoods or even neighborhoods at all. Montreal’s new condos reflect some clever government incentives such as increased height allowance in return for two-storey commercial fronts along streets. They don’t resemble giant glass walls dropped on the sidewalk.

It is all exciting, and I have fallen in love with Montreal again. Note this first group of pictures was taken in just two and a half days of walking with a bit of adverse weather interfering. The pictures include only parts of downtown and the near west side, and Montreal of course has many other interesting places. Still, I think I have captured something readers will enjoy, and it’s my intention in future to add to the collection.

As I add this later note the following summer, my wife and I are spending an extended time in Montreal’s wonderful Le Plateau district, and I am taking many photos to add to the site. I hope you enjoy them. It is my aim to capture many details of the city and its life and to offer viewers a kind of entertaining and informative documentary not found anywhere else.

Montreal is simply a wonderful urban fantasy.

We are now, 2016, back for a third season of enjoying Montreal while I try to capture its magic in photos. I’m using a new camera for the first time, so viewers may note some different qualities in the photos.

Once again, 2017, we have returned for an extended visit, this time staying in an apartment in Saint-Henri, a neighborhood we had never visited. It is a very interesting place of mostly modest streets with walk-up apartments, delightful little neighborhood businesses, some past glories in architecture and parks, some very up-and-coming areas of new low-rise condo construction – overall, a somewhat faded, charming place with really good bones, just saturated with that quiet, lovely sense of Montreal’s urbanity and cosmopolitan character. Again, the wonderful Metro, station Place Saint-Henri, allows you to easily travel to most points in the city worth a visit.

 

Note: all rights for the images on this site belong to John Chuckman. Non-commercial use of them, always crediting this site, is welcomed by the author.

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MONTREAL AU PRINTEMPS – SITTING ON A BENCH ON RUE SAINT-MATHIEU – A JOHN CHUCKMAN IMAGE

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Posted June 22, 2018 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

MONTREAL AU PRINTEMPS – A WONDERFUL RESTAURANT – A FAVORITE OF MARJORIE’S AND MINE – RUE SAINT-MATHIEU – A JOHN CHUCKMAN IMAGE   Leave a comment

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Posted June 22, 2018 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

MONTREAL AU PRINTEMPS – SWEEPING OFF SOME WINTER COBWEBS – RUE SAINT-MATHIEU – A JOHN CHUCKMAN IMAGE   Leave a comment

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Posted June 22, 2018 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

MONTREAL AU PRINTEMPS – CHARMING GROUP OF RESTAURANTS IN DAPPLED SUN – RUE SAINT-MATHIEU – A JOHN CHUCKMAN IMAGE   Leave a comment

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Posted June 22, 2018 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

MONTREAL AU PRINTEMPS – A VERY SPECIAL SPOT – RUE SAINT-MATHIEU – A JOHN CHUCKMAN IMAGE   Leave a comment

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Posted June 22, 2018 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

MONTREAL AU PRINTEMPS – TAKING A REST IN THE GARDENS OF RUE SAINTE-CATHERINE O – A JOHN CHUCKMAN IMAGE   Leave a comment

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Posted June 22, 2018 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

MONTREAL AU PRINTEMPS – IT’S NOT JUST THE FLOWERS THAT BLOOM – RUE SAINTE-CATHERINE O – A JOHN CHUCKMAN IMAGE   Leave a comment

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Posted June 22, 2018 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized