Paul Clarke’s inference that healthy, mature trees are indeed a rare sight nowadays on Ste – Catherine Street West is an interesting one. (“Rare patch of green on Ste – Catherine,” Gazette, Letters, July 5, 2016)
In fact, such was not always the case, and the issue goes a long way back in time. A little ‘looking back’, as is often the case, can bring some useful perspective to the question, an element that was missing in Saturday’s feature article.
On May 23, 1908, an angry broadsheet reader took pen in hand and vented his frustration in a Letter to the Editor to the now defunct Montreal Star. The focus of his great annoyance was “the wanton destruction of one of the finest trees in our city.”
The letter-writer, who signed his correspondence, “A Lover of Trees”, went on to lament the fact that although the municipal authorities were quite busy planting new saplings, they were making very little effort to save the precious few which were of a mature age.
In this case, the majestic timber stood at the corner of Ste- Catherine Street and Stanley. While the letter-writer was not sure if the tree had been destroyed by the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company (the forerunner to today’s Hydro – Quebec) or by the city itself, he was certain that its loss left a gaping, aesthetic hole at that particular intersection. “Now it is removed,” continued painfully the newspaper’s contributor, “one of the most unsightly corners in the street is laid bare, as well as two frightful poles.”
A couple of years later, on May 2, 1910, the Montreal Star editorialized on the identical topic. “In all of this there is a great lesson for our city. No one can walk the streets in the summer without being struck with the number of fine trees which have been so hacked and butchered that they are dying.”
Of course, that was then and this is now. Or is it?
This past spring, I decided to take stock of city trees on the sidewalks of St. Catherine Street. The shameful statistics I came up with are not very encouraging.
On the south side of the road, between Rue de la Montagne and Bleury Street, there are 62 prearranged locations for trees, of these 35 were empty. The trees had either been cut down or destroyed, for whatever reason. The north side fared somewhat better with 18 trees missing out of an intended total of 69. Taking into consideration both sides of the thoroughfare, just over 40% are without their growth.
Neither is this an isolated phenomenon as it is found a little bit everywhere throughout much of the city centre. For instance, the north side of Notre Dame Street, between Rue de la Montagne and Peel Street, does not have one surviving tree in its many city-made placements meant to accommodate them.
Furthermore, the absence of trees in these grill-covered sites designed to receive them is frequently a danger to the public. The steel grate covering becomes, seemingly, once again a negotiable part of the sidewalk, only now uneven and often with a tiny six-inch tree trunk protruding from the centre of it. Indeed, an accident waiting to happen.
While trees are occasionally destroyed by nature (the 1998 ice storm comes to mind), they are more often than not destroyed my man, and the activities of men. Certainly vehicle pollution is not good for them; neither are after hour youths roaming the streets late at night vandalizing them, as is also so often the case.
In Edwardian times, when there was no air conditioning, mature stock usually provided a cool spot from which to escape, albeit temporarily, city sun and heat, in addition to providing a touch of green to otherwise grey and dull surroundings. This is surely what our 1908 letter-writer had in mind when he took pen in hand to express his profound dismay at the loss of just one such tree. Nevertheless, unlike today, many others did remain.
In 2016, there are only a handful of fully grown timbers to be found the length of our principal business artery. It is time that City Hall step up to the plate and pro-actively correct this glaring absence. In this regard, the gradual removal of motorized traffic from Ste Catherine Street would be a step in the right direction.
Below, a tree-lined St. Catherine Street, looking west from Peel, in 1905
Ice storm losses
Grill / grate covered openings for trees
Bleury to Mountain, southside: 62 in all; 35 empty/27 with trees
Bleury to Mountain, northside: 69 in all; 18 empty/51 with trees
TOTAL: 131 in all; 53 empty / 78 with trees