There is little in our daily lives more quintessential than a Montreal lane. Those of us of a certain age who were brought up in working class districts of the city are undoubtedly familiar with them. From playing ball hockey in the alleyways of our neighbourhoods, to improvised hopscotch, to ‘Double-Dutch’ ropes, these narrow roadways tucked in the back of modest residential flats for the longest time provided rambunctious children a relatively safe precinct to act out their youthful fantasies.
Immortalized by many a Montreal artist, including Japanese-born Miyuki Tanobe, back alleys are part and parcel of this city’s colourful mores. Image below.
As a youngster, raised in the blue-collar community of Verdun, I was clued – up with every nook and cranny of my local lane. At that time, most were lined with wooden sheds clumsily covered in corrugated tin siding to simulate a modicum of protection against fire. Most of these rather unsightly outbuildings were used originally to store coal, later oil, and were also employed for the delivery of ice in pre – electric refrigerator days. All such cumbersome distributions, along with the meanderings of the ever-present ragman, were made through the narrow back alleys of the environs. Even the bi – weekly garbage collection took place there.
Below, my sister standing on the back ‘balcony’ of 792 Osborne Street during a return visit in 1994.
Of course, the primary purpose of Montreal’s town lanes was evidently not to serve as a place of amusement for young children, although they did provide an ideal setting for a kid’s all – time favourite game, hide-and-go- seek.
No, unfortunately, urban alleys actually had their darker side. All contiguous flats also had a second balcony; these ones overlooking the back lane in question. They were often poorly maintained and it was from one in 1954 at the tender age of seven that I saw an elderly woman fall to her death while she was feeding the birds, leaning against its second floor railing that unexpectedly gave way.
The presence of so much rubbish within such restricted confines attracted vermin as well. In fact, in one instance, again at a very young age, I brought home as my newly found pet – much to the near frenzied horror of my parents and sister – a half drowned rat that I had discovered after a heavy rainstorm in the alleyway directly behind our flat. To this day, I do not remember on any other occasion my hands being scrubbed so methodically and for so long.
Yet, despite that rather large rodent, I personally, through the naive eyes of a child, do not really remember our adjacent lane being that acutely dirty.
On the other hand, some twenty years later I recollect paying a quick visit in May of 1975, for photographic purposes, to a few lanes located in the Plateau-Mont Royal district of the city. I was staggered by the general filth that I both saw, and photographed. Of course, it was springtime and that season always revealed the debris left behind by the melting snow.
Below, Plateau lane in May of 1975
Even further back in time, during the Edwardian Period, one disquieting report that appeared in the April 8, 1905, copy of the Montreal Star spoke of one city alley where “there are no less than ten or twelve cats, evidently poisoned during the winter months”. The unpleasant smell became increasingly strong precisely at a time when the inhabitants of the neighbourhood were, after a long, hard winter, just taking down their unwieldy storm windows. City medical authorities astutely pointed out the health dangers posed by not removing cat and dog corpses immediately.
In recent times, a major effort has been made by the municipal authorities to clean up city alleyways. Not that long ago, subventions were offered property owners to tear down their old wooden sheds and replace them with modern steel staircase structures. Furthermore, nowadays, efforts are made every spring to beautify these vibrant vestiges of our collective past. Flowers are added, banners raised, community events held. Virtually none of them are used anymore for delivery purposes.
Below, contemporary use of a Montreal lane in 2013
As for me, I’ll just continue to walk down my own still vivid memory lane and contemplate the youthful tomfoolery in which I, and so many others, often engaged in those unforgettable back alleys of Montreal.
Below, summer scene in Montreal Plateau lane on September 30, 2013