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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 7:28 PM
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Homecoming reflections (TO, Mtl, Hfx)

I just spent the month of July touring the three cities that make up my autobiography in Canada. This is the longest time I have spent in the country since 2011.

It was a real eye-opener and it didn't go as I thought it would.

Montreal

I lived in Montreal for 17 years and will always have a special place in my heart for the city. It is Canada's oldest and first metropolis, it is the single nail holding the federation together, and it is a strange and mythic place.

My visit to Montreal was enormously disappointing.

I had expected to visit my city in a boom period; I had thought the new building projects and urban initiatives would see the city in finer form that I had ever experienced it. Maybe this is true, or maybe it will be true very soon when a few of the major ones are complete. At present, the place is a big construction site.

Unfortunately, it is also running very visibly at something like 70% capacity.

The only major thoroughfares running in anything like top gear are Sainte-Catherine and Mont-Royal, and the former is not active or central-feeling enough to contend with other, similar streets. Saint-Laurent is dreary and sleepy; Saint-Denis is full of holes. Notre-Dame has its pockets, but it lacks any continuity.

The city is visibly poorer and smaller than the cities I have traditionally considered its peers and rivals. Copenhagen and Stockholm exceed its vitality at half its size. In North American terms, it can't really be ranked alongside places like Boston at the moment, but instead exists somewhere between that and maybe St. Louis. I have always been proud of Montreal and I don't like saying this.

I didn't like feeling it either.

The Old Port is impressively vital, and busier than I have ever seen it. Unfortunately, the urban connective tissue joining it to the greater central area is very poor with the area between Beaver Hall and Bleury as the only real strip of living tissue. There are a lot of good things afoot in Montreal but they have not fully materialized as of yet; the impression I was left with was of just how scarred the city's admittedly vast central area is... the 20 tunnel, the suburbanization of Burgundy, the inner south-east... it's like Berlin.

Montreal is doing all the right things but it started so late. The continent's 21st century is only starting to arrive. In order to regain its rightful stature, enormous structural shifts have to occur, including an overall closing of the gap between French and English Canada in household income terms.

Although I had allowed for 10 days in Montreal, we left after five.

Toronto

I was a little kid in Toronto and I loved it back then. In the intervening years, though, it fell by the wayside of my affections. There always seemed something absent from it; it seemed to have an unearned sense of self-satisfaction, a synthetic quality to its identity. I always enjoyed it but was never fascinated by it.

Over the past month, though, I fell in love with the place all over again. Something has happened in Toronto, it has surpassed some point of critical mass or attained some kind of urban singularity. It is so incredibly full of life and vitality right now that the old Samuel Johnson line about London comes to mind... to demur from Toronto is to demur from life itself.

We arrived from Pearson on the UP Express and the space in front of Union was full of temporary stalls, music and life. My Swedish companion looked up at the Royal York, at the CN Tower, at the RBC complex and said 'this is a mighty city -- I can see why you wanted to bring me here.' She had no mental image of Toronto at all and did not know what to expect. From the moment of arrival, it fascinated her.

After checking in to our central hotel we had some drinks at a Financial District patio and then headed up to University, and down Queen. The gorgeous, Gothamite Canada Life building was flashing its beacon and one block west, a boisterous crowd cheered a family of raccoons down a Queen Street facade. We stopped in for a drink at the Cameron House because a quartet of young guys were playing expert Zydeco and it was spilling out into the road. When they left the stage, a trio stepped up to back a Dietrich-esque chanteuse. This was at like 6 p.m., well before any cover-requiring headline act was set to appear.

We continued west and it didn't let up until Roncesvalles. Trinity Bellwoods sizzled under a marijuana haze; at the Gladstone a strangely dressed couple made a karaoke duet out of the Roots' 'Adrenaline'. It was the most impressive arrival-night urban showing of our long travel history, and we have been all over Europe.

I won't continue with an itinerary, but the place didn't let up. After five days in a Montreal that honestly presented as a Budapest to Toronto's London, we came back. I told my friends my impression and one even said 'traitor'. He was only half-joking.

I call it as I saw it though. There is something happening in Toronto and it is not to be missed.

Halifax

This is a low-effort entry because though I was a teenager in Halifax I have no strong emotions for the city. Although its reputation is that of a city that feels larger than it is, I think otherwise. Describing it to my companion, I called it a Malmo-sized place. In reality, it is more akin to Helsingborg. That is no crime, though, just a perception; it is a lively, vital-feeling Canadian city that shares none of Montreal's weird deadness. I remember when it did.

What Halifax really needs to do, though, is start valuing its history. I don't know the situation with heritage protection but it appears as if there is none at all. Young Avenue is a ruin. Once a nationally significant period collection of New England-style merchant mansions, it now features vacant lots and clusters of aluminum siding-clad nonentities. On Spring Garden, they have knocked down landmark banks and rows of victorians to build bland pre-cast structures of no merit.

The city is not the quiet and marginal place it once was, but is needlessly giving up irreplaceable things.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 7:37 PM
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That was fun to read - glad you got to visit.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 8:45 PM
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Interesting read indeed. Sometimes you need to go abroad for a few years to really appreciate a city or to see it from a different angle. I lived in Montreal for four years as a student, and at the time it appeared to me as a true rival of Boston and one of the nicest cities in the world (not top 10, but certainly a top 50 contender).

That was 8 years ago. I spend some time in Montreal once in a while when I visit my family or in Sherbrooke but I admittely don’t feel like spending time there anymore. What happened to St-Denis, St-Laurent and even some sections of Ste-Catherine? Sometimes after 2 hours my gf and I realize we are ready to leave. The city I found beautiful and vibrant in the past still strikes me as beautiful, but also small and underwhelming at times. To be honest, I can’t put my finger on the problem, but I thought some of your observations made sense.

As for Toronto, there is a strong impression that the city is going in the opposite direction. It is not Chicago just yet, but it is getting there.

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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 9:15 PM
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I don't know what it is with Montreal. I felt as you did when I lived there, and on paper it has all been uphill since then.

As an anglophone, it is clear that the city's time as a meaningful part of English Canada is over, and the anglophone population has divided into a part whose children will likely become functionally francophone and a part that is akin to the anglo populations of Berlin or Prague... curiosity-seekers and location-independent wanderers.

This is healthy in the long run as we already have one New Orleans, but... Quebec needs to step it up. My time in Scandinavia has shown me that you do not need enormous populations in order to maintain independent societies, but a look at the metropolitan GDPs of Montreal (4.2 million) and Stockholm (1.8 million) clearly displays the problem.

Stockholm is more than twice as productive as the much larger Montreal. Per capita it roasts the Quebec metropolis like it was Sarajevo or Belgrade.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 9:33 PM
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In Canada there is a laissez-faire attitude toward urban development. There is not much feeling that governments should direct urban development in a way that is optimal for residents, visitors, and the economy. Developers talking about what is economically viable (profit maximizing) are given a lot of credit, and there is often a fear that if we expect too much the growth will go elsewhere.

Canada's also generally stingy compared to most other places with a similar level of wealth. Even modest spending can generate lots of complaining.

This has sort of worked out OK in Toronto during the past few years since the economy has been doing well and the housing bubble and transportation woes have caused the inner city to be showered in cash. But there are deeper problems of housing affordability and poor infrastructure. We have the same problems here in Vancouver. The ignorance in Halifax around heritage preservation is a symptom of the same root phenomenon.

I wish we would grow up and move beyond this as a country, realizing that you can have functional markets and economic freedoms while also building lots of public infrastructure and intervening to make sure that the end result works for everybody.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 9:36 PM
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I get that Montreal's downtown feels a bit scarred and disjointed, but the outlying neighbourhoods more than make up for it in urban heft & vitality. I've never been moved by the core, but every time I pull into the Plateau or Mile End or wherever (always on a pleasant summer's evening) it's always struck me as a near-perfect urban tableau.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 9:44 PM
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I felt that in the streets around Mont-Royal, between say Christoph-Colomb and Papineau.

The lower Plateau, though, was strange and sleepy; Prince-Arthur, for instance, is a ruin aside from the block nearest Laval, and the parts of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Denis hemming in the streets like Drolet, Coloniale, Saint-Dominique et cetera are very spotty and have a '90s feel. The standard of everything from food to live music is much patchier than in, say, the inner west of Toronto.

I stayed in Mile-End near Saint-Viateur and it felt intermittent and underdone. One of the reasons I left was because, as someone who has strong emotions for and about Montreal, I recognized myself starting to turn on the place. Every empty storefront and crumbled pavement was getting to me. It was as if I was becoming more sharply critical than was necessary in my disappointment and sadness.

You can't really go home I guess.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 9:48 PM
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Montreal

I lived in Montreal for 17 years and will always have a special place in my heart for the city. It is Canada's oldest and first metropolis, it is the single nail holding the federation together, and it is a strange and mythic place.

My visit to Montreal was enormously disappointing.

I had expected to visit my city in a boom period; I had thought the new building projects and urban initiatives would see the city in finer form that I had ever experienced it. Maybe this is true, or maybe it will be true very soon when a few of the major ones are complete. At present, the place is a big construction site.

Unfortunately, it is also running very visibly at something like 70% capacity.

The only major thoroughfares running in anything like top gear are Sainte-Catherine and Mont-Royal, and the former is not active or central-feeling enough to contend with other, similar streets. Saint-Laurent is dreary and sleepy; Saint-Denis is full of holes. Notre-Dame has its pockets, but it lacks any continuity.

The city is visibly poorer and smaller than the cities I have traditionally considered its peers and rivals. Copenhagen and Stockholm exceed its vitality at half its size. In North American terms, it can't really be ranked alongside places like Boston at the moment, but instead exists somewhere between that and maybe St. Louis. I have always been proud of Montreal and I don't like saying this.

I didn't like feeling it either.

The Old Port is impressively vital, and busier than I have ever seen it. Unfortunately, the urban connective tissue joining it to the greater central area is very poor with the area between Beaver Hall and Bleury as the only real strip of living tissue. There are a lot of good things afoot in Montreal but they have not fully materialized as of yet; the impression I was left with was of just how scarred the city's admittedly vast central area is... the 20 tunnel, the suburbanization of Burgundy, the inner south-east... it's like Berlin.

Montreal is doing all the right things but it started so late. The continent's 21st century is only starting to arrive. In order to regain its rightful stature, enormous structural shifts have to occur, including an overall closing of the gap between French and English Canada in household income terms.

Although I had allowed for 10 days in Montreal, we left after five.
Bizarre. I’m curious. In what way(s) do you think that « The continent’s 21st century is only starting to arrive. »? I always get that impression of Toronto, that they are reluctantly and half-heartedly being dragged into adopting practices that Montrealers have taken for granted for years if not decades.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 9:55 PM
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Montréal is definetely a scarred city at the moment and it might have been the worse Summer to visit. The city is rebuilding itself nearly completely, including iconic monuments that you didn't name like PVM, Place Bonaventure, Eaton Centre, Parc Jean Drapeau, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, construction of the REM, Champlain, Turcot don't help for sure.

I suspect that you tried to relive your experiences at where you found livability in your youth, but they have moved like others mentionned.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:02 PM
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Bizarre. I’m curious. In what way(s) do you think that « The continent’s 21st century is only starting to arrive. »? I always get that impression of Toronto, that they are reluctantly and half-heartedly being dragged into adopting practices that Montrealers have taken for granted for years if not decades.


I mean that the central urban landscape is more heavily characterized by buildings built according to the trends of the '80s and '90s.

There are also many more throwbacks on the retail level and in spaces like bars and restaurants. You just see a lot more things like marginal electronics stores, frozen chicken fingers, and budget signage. You can't get away with that in places like Stockholm or Toronto.

Now, admittedly, the rents in those places are what sparks this sort of finicky, high-level competitiveness in even the smallest things, and this weighs on quality of life. But at the end of the day, what do you want? Where are the next things going to come from? Stockholm or Belgrade?

I was looking at these cities as possible venues for life and career. I was looking for a certain dynamism.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:15 PM
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I suspect that you tried to relive your experiences at where you found livability in your youth, but they have moved like others mentioned.
This might be true. I did, however, make sure to visit the places that my friends mentioned as the new spots. Everyone, for instance, said that Saint-Laurent was over, that Burgundy and St-Henri and Griffintown were more active.

There were some great things there, and this is an increase of infinity per cent over when I was in town. But these are just patches and strips and intersections for now. Montreal is doing the right things, but it can't yet put together a single walk like the one from, say, Union Station to Queen and Roncesvalles.

It can't put together one like Amagertorv to Enghave Plads in the much-smaller Copenhagen. Believe me, I tried to create them. I wanted to show the city off.

But it kept being full of holes.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:23 PM
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I do think that the city may be starting to turn an important corner, though, particularly with the return of Square Victoria as the business centre. It will take over a decade with things firing on all cylinders, though. That's an absolute best-case scenario.

Too many places have just done too many things with the past 10-15 years. Montreal fell behind.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:30 PM
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I mean that the central urban landscape is more heavily characterized by buildings built according to the trends of the '80s and '90s.

There are also many more throwbacks on the retail level and in spaces like bars and restaurants. You just see a lot more things like marginal electronics stores, frozen chicken fingers, and budget signage. You can't get away with that in places like Stockholm or Toronto.

Now, admittedly, the rents in those places are what sparks this sort of finicky, high-level competitiveness in even the smallest things, and this weighs on quality of life. But at the end of the day, what do you want? Where are the next things going to come from? Stockholm or Belgrade?

I was looking at these cities as possible venues for life and career. I was looking for a certain dynamism.
Perhaps the citizens of Mile End find the little electronics store more useful than streets lined with Starbucks, Shoppers, Subways and restos selling $20 bacon-wrapped Ethiopian/Icelandic fusion muffin tacos?

There are plenty of places in MTL for the global elite to flash their cash, god forbid the entire city should sell itself out in order to please that fickle crowd

And being here in July, you’d have to work very hard in order to avoid all of the iconic events that have no equivalent anywhere else in Canada or N.A.

Very hard indeed!
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:33 PM
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I am not going to argue or contend. I came to Canada and had my impressions of the cities I care about. In an overall sense, I found Toronto much more competitive with the places I frequent here in Northern Europe, and a more promising venue for life and career.

The fact that I felt this way made me disappointed and a bit sad given my attachments but there you go.

Everyone is different and these things are very subjective and tied to one's own situation.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:34 PM
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I do think that the city may be starting to turn an important corner, though, particularly with the return of Square Victoria as the business centre. It will take over a decade with things firing on all cylinders, though. That's an absolute best-case scenario.

Too many places have just done too many things with the past 10-15 years. Montreal fell behind.
How, exactly, has the city fallen behind?
And no wistful lyricism, tangible examples.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:37 PM
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You want to make this more empirical than it could ever be. I think you would like to push back against my characterization of Montreal. You have every right to do so, but I won't push back in turn.

This thread is titled 'homecoming reflections' and its tone is wistful and lyrical and that's what it is.

I wanted Montreal to win very badly but it lost. Not for you, not objectively, but in my own estimation. That's the subject of this thread.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:46 PM
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The fact that I felt this way made me disappointed and a bit sad given my attachments but there you go.
It makes me sad too. I don't know Montreal, of course, but I've been many times and love it. It makes me sad that your growth and experiences have left it behind.

You can still go home. It's never the same as before you left, but it's yours ("Now that boy is a man, and winter covers your mountains. Your parks, like my hair, are grey - but the snow will melt away. Spring and youth will fill you then, without me, my Sarajevo, my only city").

It all depends on your priorities. Mine is a deep sense of belonging, strong enough to be a nearly ethnic-level sense of place, and a fulfilling artistic and cultural life. So I'm willing to sacrifice a lot to remain where I can get that. If your personality allows Montreal something that leaves you unsatisfied with anywhere else, you can always go back and be truly, completely satisfied and happy with the decision.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 10:58 PM
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It all depends on your priorities. Mine is a deep sense of belonging, strong enough to be a nearly ethnic-level sense of place, and a fulfilling artistic and cultural life. So I'm willing to sacrifice a lot to remain where I can get that. If your personality allows Montreal something that leaves you unsatisfied with anywhere else, you can always go back and be truly, completely satisfied and happy with the decision.

I will always love Montreal. Nowhere is more fascinating. Nowhere would the spectacle of human flourishing mean more to me.

I am an anglophone and Toronto was always better on paper. But Montreal had the intangibles, at least as far as I was concerned. I made my life there and refused several opportunities to head down the 401.

This time, it was different. I felt the weight of more young people trying their luck, more young people working their passions, in Toronto. That Friday night on Queen had more working musicians playing mid-billed shows, playing rooms you could just wander into, for very little money than the next Friday in Montreal, and their average level was quite a bit higher too.

I was in Montreal one week later.

I looked. I wanted it to be even better but it was not as good.

Maybe it was an anomaly or a construction thing or whatever, but I doubt it. The sheer human activity level, the vitality, just wasn't there.

Toronto will never mean anything like what Montreal means to me but, and I apologise for the lyricism mais c'est mon estie de fil, the nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 11:07 PM
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You want to make this more empirical than it could ever be. I think you would like to push back against my characterization of Montreal. You have every right to do so, but I won't push back in turn.

This thread is titled 'homecoming reflections' and its tone is wistful and lyrical and that's what it is.

I wanted Montreal to win very badly but it lost. Not for you, not objectively, but in my own estimation. That's the subject of this thread.
You’re entitled to your opinion Kool and I don’t want a pissing match but to make empirical declarations only to retreat into subjectivity when asked for examples is.. annoying?

As to how or where or why we’ve supposedly « fallen behind », that shall have to remain a mystery

I too have lived in Northern Europe and I love it. I wish we had their infrastructure, transit, urbanism and non-ridiculous alcohol regimen. To me, MTL comes closest to the overall « feel » and mindset that I get there - certainly more so than Toronto.
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Old Posted Jul 28, 2018, 11:09 PM
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I think what I meant by that is simply new construction and new commercial activity.

We know there are fewer new buildings in Montreal, and I felt (but don't know, admittedly) that were fewer new commercial ventures as well.

So there was this sense of more things from past eras, and not always Wilensky's/Binerie Mont-Royal-type charmers.

Sometimes just weird '90s-seeming things.

I can see how in a longer-term livability sense, Montreal does have a generous amount of Northern Europe-type attributes, but this slow turnover -- even compared to little Copenhagen -- can give it a frozen-in-time-type feeling in places.
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