Published in the Montreal Gazette on November 14, 2014
I cannot help but concur with Mark London’s assertion that “it’s a Montreal oddity, city administrations redoing public squares every couple of decades.” (“Park or Events Venue?”, Gazette, November 12, 2014, A-25) While most of London’s article pertains to the recent developments on Ile Ste – Hélène, his comments about other Montreal parks are equally pertinent, particularly those about the concrete abomination that is now Viger Square.
On September 26 last, I went on an agreeable amble along the western perimeter of Ile Ste – Hélène. On the north shore of the island in particular, the views of the city are stunning. While there were people, there were not too many of them – just enough to keep the experience pleasant. Young lovers scattered here and there, happy to have found the occasion for a relatively private and romantic moment together in an idyllic setting.
While surely a new vocation can be unearthed for the long neglected Place des Nations, the rest of the island park (like most urban commons) requires just a few touch ups now and then to bring it up to scratch.
Of course, if the Coderre Administration has decided that the picturesque isle is to become a cash cow for struggling city finances through the constant promotion of boisterous mega events (much to the annoyance of nearby St. Lambert residents), then the future of the site becomes more problematic and complex. If, in fact, a regular staging venue is to become the island’s raison d’étre, then Mayor Coderre owes all Montrealers an explanation. However, regardless as to whether His Worship provides one or not, it might very well be asked why are these raucous happenings not held in a nearly always empty Olympic Stadium?
As it is, Montreal does not have an enormous amount of green space from which residents can escape the hustle and bustle of city life. There is certainly an increasingly encroached upon Mount Royal Park and, at least for the moment, the islands of Expo’67. There is not much else, however.
Montreal has long had municipal regimes seemingly indifferent to the expansion and promotion of tranquil green spaces in our urban midst. Early in the last century, for instance, City Fathers were afforded the occasion to enlarge Western Square (today, John Cabot Square) northward all the way to Sherbrooke Street. Wrote one Montrealer at the time: “It would be a lasting disgrace should the present opportunity be neglected to secure this property by the city for a public square.” (Letter to the Editor, Montreal Star, May 5, 1909)
Yet, after initially expressing interest, three different administrations (Mayors Laporte, Ekers, and Payette) managed to drag out the file just long enough that this exceptional opportunity was eventually lost.
Around the same time, similar bureaucratic behaviour also managed to scuttle another chance to enlarge this city’s very limited green areas.
When the land encompassing the Redpath Estate was placed on the property market in the spring of 1909, the city was pressured to purchase it. The much-desired ground was located essentially at the head of Mountain Street, at Sherbrooke. It was thought by many that, from the city centre, it would make an ideal entrance point to Mount Royal Park. To that end, a wide and elegant promenade was envisioned leading up the slope. It was to be a thing of beauty, rivaling anything of its kind in Europe.
However, even a century ago, City Hall had a reputation for slowness in acting. All of which caused one Montrealer, David Drysdale, to formulate about the idea in the imperative: “Now, Not Fifty Years Hence”, he frustratingly wrote. (Letter to the Editor, Montreal Star, March 10, 1909)
Unfortunately, once again the municipality did not act; at least not in time. The Redpath Estate was sold in 1910 to private concerns who later developed it for residential purposes.
With these and other missed opportunities, the downtown we know today has had to content itself with its existing green spaces, including those located on Ile Ste – Hélène. As Mark London surmises, most public squares and parks require a minimum amount of looking after. They do not need to be constantly ‘re-invented’ for whatever purpose, just respected for what they were meant to be – oases of splendour and tranquility.
Below, a beautiful Viger Square on December 24, 1923 (note the absence of snow!).