Vanishing Montreal

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An odd nebulous haze that is never found within the modern and vibrant city heart hangs over Montreal’s outer neighborhoods. Outside the fringes of downtown, in the shadows below all the lights, is the real Montreal – one that is never seen by tourists, and this is the Montreal I wanted to photograph. By 8 AM, myself and a good friend found ourselves driving through the mists upon Southern Quebec, the barren trees taking the form of obscure silhouettes in the distance of the sprawling corn fields that lined Route 133.

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The fog was so thick that the familiar sight of the Montreal skyline in the foreground of Mount Royal was invisible to us in Brossard as we approached the Champlain Bridge. Even on the bridge, the island could not be seen. The vague geometry of the Victoria Bridge in the distance could just barely be made out.

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Getting off the Bonaventure Autoroute, we headed into town via The Old Port. What once was the original city center has now been restored into a vibrant tourist neighborhood which thrives along the once busy port, now a bustling waterfront area scattered with promenades, festivals and intriguing museums like the Montreal Science Center.

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As seen in the Old Port of Montreal, this is what happens when you turn 2 smaller buildings into one large building.

Just outside the old port, where the colonial French charm melds with the industrial cityscape, Rue Notre-Dame runs parallel to the Saint Lawrence banks, congested with their railyards and oil refineries and warehouses, heading north through blue collar neighborhoods with their rows of brick town houses and rather depressing looking parks underneath dirty winter snows.

This part of town is officially known as Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, which like a lot of Montreal boroughs, used to be separate cities, until they were eventually annexed to the greater city of Montreal. A former Francophone working class industrial area, this is a rough and hardscrabble part of town that is constantly reinventing itself. Now called “HoMa” by the locals, the neighborhood is looking towards its fine attractions and cultural institutions around Olympic Park and its unpretentious culture to establish a new identity. This is a neighborhood of simplicity and contrasts, one that is un-garished and so far, without a Starbucks, which in my opinion can only be a good thing.

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Driving through the neighborhood, we stumbled upon this abandoned industrial warehouse.

Enjoying the great outdoors

Enjoying the great outdoors

Sitting admist a stark landscape of massive power lines and broken barbed wire fences barricaded behind large dirty snow drifts, sat this interesting abandonment. What was once probably a warehouse is now nothing more than a crumbling shell. The inside was a dark and cold world as icy water continuously dripped from the skeletons of rusting steel above us, making noise on the hard concrete floors which had iced over. Trying not to slip on the very slick icy surface, I attempted to photograph the inside, noticing how the roaring hum of traffic outside was suddenly diluted in the cold silence. The inside wasn’t much to see, it was barren with no artifacts left behind. But what had been taken away by man, mother nature had substituted for. The Montreal winter had created snow drifts inside by wayward snow coming in through the holes in the facade, the wind shaped the drifts and created undulated patterns along the surface. The walls had turned into an urban chalkboard, becoming the canvas for numerous graffiti artists or bored teenagers with access to spray paint.

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Back outside, we suddenly found ourselves as victims of cosmic relief, as the freezing rain/snow combination that had been brewing in the skies above rained down on Montreal – right after a conversation of how we hoped the fog would clear up soon.

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A cool find, an industrial property that wasn’t abandoned (but looked it) had a sawtooth roof, a unique feature not seen too much anymore. However, it had been unusually modified over time. The purpose of a sawtooth roof is to let in light, but this one seemed to be doing just the opposite, as it was almost all covered up with tin sheeting.

A cool find, an industrial property that wasn’t abandoned (but looked it) had a sawtooth roof, a unique feature not seen too much anymore. However, it had been unusually modified over time. The purpose of a sawtooth roof is to let in light, but this one seemed to be doing just the opposite, as it was almost all covered up with tin sheeting.

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Another great abandonment, most likely one of the original structures in the neighborhood. Surrounded by barbed wire fence and several “keep out” signs, this building successfully stands right out in the otherwise bland neighborhood, it’s bright and creative graffiti creating a reward for wondering eyes.

Another great abandonment, most likely one of the original structures in the neighborhood. Surrounded by barbed wire fence and several “keep out” signs, this building successfully stands right out in the otherwise bland neighborhood, it’s bright and creative graffiti creating a reward for wondering eyes.

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The mists that weighted down the Saint Lawrence tides curled around a grain silo on the side of Rue Notre-Dame

The mists that weighted down the Saint Lawrence tides curled around a grain silo on the side of Rue Notre-Dame

Wedged between the Saint Lawrence and the Lachine Canal is the neighborhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles, known locally as “the Pointe”. The Lachine Canal it sits on brought industry and growth to the neighborhood, and it’s demise is also what killed it. Today, Pointe-Sainte-Charles is a different place than its former self, as ambitious and creative people are beginning to invest in the neighborhood, taken by it’s authentic and rough charm. It is truly a neighborhood of contrasts, and is impossible to define within a single sentence.  Blocks of tree lined streets with modest and cookie cutter row houses sit along small mom and pop stores that anchor busy street corners. But a block away and you find yourself in a very different neighborhood, one of pot hole ridden roads, crooked power lines and neglected industrial areas who have long been the victims of sorrow. The beat up street signs bear a lot of Irish names, a testament to the many Irish immigrants who came to settle here in the 1800s. Today, the pointe is still considered the heart of Irish Montreal.

But, with so many post industrial neighborhoods today, Pointe-Saint-Charles has undergone gentrification. The Montreal Technoparc industrial park opened in 1988 on the site of a former landfill and dump site between the neighborhood and the river. The rehabilitation of the Lachine Canal for recreational use spurred the reclamation of factories along the canal for lofts and businesses. Because of this, rents and the cost of living are beginning to increase, in what can be described as Montreal’s “Brooklynization”.

Though its nice to see a neighborhood being rehabilitated and cleaned up, its current way of life and culture may be threatened in years to come.

A typical street in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

A typical street in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

Evidence of a former rail line, now begins and ends nowhere, the busy Bonaventure Autoroute can be seen in the distance, moving traffic directly towards downtown.

Evidence of a former rail line, now begins and ends nowhere, the busy Bonaventure Autoroute can be seen in the distance, moving traffic directly towards downtown.

A large sight on an otherwise dull stretch of roadway, The LaSalle Coke Crane towers over the frozen dirty waters of the Lachine Canal. The rotting crane symbolizes the dependence the city’s industry had on the canal. The crane was used for unloading coal arriving by boat to supply power for nearby factories.

A large sight on an otherwise dull stretch of roadway, The LaSalle Coke Crane towers over the frozen dirty waters of the Lachine Canal. The rotting crane symbolizes the dependence the city’s industry had on the canal. The crane was used for unloading coal arriving by boat to supply power for nearby factories.

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I read somewhere that The city of Montreal along with the borough of LaSalle wants to restore the crane, and reinvent it as a look out, one that will provide great areal views of the canal and the city sprawl beyond the banks. However, nothing further has happened and the project remains uncertain. But the broken gate on the side and footsteps trudging up the steep stairs indicated that others have scaled the tower for the views.

The LaSalle Coke Crane is good sized, but it withers in the shadow of the herculean brick edifice across the canal. Covered with graffiti and scared by rust, broken windows and a crumbling foundation, the awe inspiring ruins of the Canada Malting Plant seem to hold the attention of any wondering eye.

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Built in 1905 in the working class neighborhood of Saint-Henri, The Canada Malting Plant would make history. Throughout its years of activity created jobs, sold malt to breweries and also promoted the industrialisation of Montreal.

Malt is the result of the transformation of cereal grains by germination. These germinated grains are quickly dried before the plant develops, and this creates enzymes to convert plant starch into sugar for brewing beer and to produce alcohol for distilled spirits.

The original building was constructed in a neo-roman style, which includes arched windows and detailed cornices. This plant was constructed not only with functionality in mind, but also with the idea of beautiful architecture. It was intended to be a showpiece. For example, in the areas where the grain was germinated, light was not supposed to enter, but the architect still added mock windows to the designs in the plant to keep the windows constant. These days it is rare to use this approach because industrial property has negative growth in terms of value, so the industries are built cheaply. This plant was built to last and they wanted it to look good, to forever create an impression in the minds of Montrealers.

In 1963, the demands on the plant where so high that they expanded and built a receiving plant at the port of Montreal. This allowed the grain to be stored before shipment down the canal to the plant in St Henri. The St Henri plant was also enlarged, doubling its production capacity. Eighteen new silos made from poured concrete were added and a new malting annex was built, also made from poured concrete.

In 1970, with the Lachine canal closing, the Canada Malting plant suffered a blow in which it never recovered from. Barges could not be floated upstream anymore so the grain had to be delivered by trucks and trains but this was not the best method to bring the barley because damage and loss could occur during transportation. The transportation costs also proved to be more expensive. With the advent of computer automation the plant became outdated, due to new techniques and technological breakthroughs.

After years of misery,  the Canada Malting plant closed their doors in 1980 and relocated to the port of Montreal. The facilities were newer and didn’t depend heavily on transportation, which saved the company money and time.

The plant became abandoned and neglected, its memories burning against the stars. Sometime around 1996, a graffiti artist whose alias is SAIKO, broke into the plant and painted his name on top of the silos. This action (and his visible mark on the largest structure in the area) suddenly drew new attention to the decrepit ruins, and soon other graffiti artists and colorful characters began to venture into the building to leave their mark, or perhaps to undertake more sinister activities forever obscured by the dingy brick walls and collapsing ceilings. When residents of St-Henri started complaining, the building was sealed off. But fencing doesn’t always keep people out, and new entrances have appeared and disappeared as fast as they were created.

Since 2005, the Canada malting plant has been up for sale for 5 million dollars. However, after 20 years of abandonment, this building cannot be recycled. The damage caused by water infiltration, vandals and the decaying mortar would cost more to repair than to demolish, leaving a frustrating and vague predicament many abandoned buildings today face. If anything, the old plant may wind up facing demolition by neglect.

During late May and early June of 2005, Quartier Éphémère invited a lighting conceptualist named Axel Morgenthaler to give this building a last homage. With a bundle of stroboscopic and fluorescent lights, he lit up the top “workhouses” on the upper most floors to simulate the glow of welding torches and of workers performing maintenance tasks on the building. Because of the location’s high visibility and landmark status, it successfully drew the attention of many. I can only imagine how cool that must have been.

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The building remains under tight watch, and trespassing isn’t worth the heavy police fines that will accompany your visit. As it is now, the local police and fire department are already plagued with rescue calls to the old plant. Many curious urban explorers and local kids venture inside and get up into the upper levels, only to find themselves too scared to come back down, which requires the fire department showing up and executing an expensive rescue mission. Needless to say, it happens quite often and they are frustrated. Thankfully, the building is just as interesting when photographed from the roadside, which you still can do.

Though I couldn’t go inside, another urban explorer did, and thankfully uploaded the adventure onto Youtube. You really get a sense of the building and it’s environment while watching, the blackness of the secretive subterranean world and its heavy silence are broken by the beam of a flashlight, the sounds of crunching glass and debris crumble beneath each footstep.

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The fog was just beginning to burn off the Montreal skyline as we headed back north into Pointe-Saint-Charles, the city slightly taking form as if appearing out of a dream. The entire north-eastern section of Pointe-Saint-Charles is barren grassy lands, half taken up by the rail yards and the other half left undeveloped due to severe ground chemical contamination.

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The final destination of my trip wasn’t an abandoned one, but it’s a local institution, and a wonderfully bizarre one. Take the Decarie Autoroute west of Mount Royal, and you will soon see a giant orange towering well above the concrete retaining walls of the highway that is three stories high with a diameter of forty feet. Sitting on the corner of Decarie Boulevard and Rue Pare is Gibeau Orange Julep, also known as (also known The Big Orange). The restaurant was started by Hermas Gibeau in 1932 to serve his trademark orange drink, Gibeau Orange Julep, which is what I came there for – a wonderful and sacred creation that tastes like you are drinking a creamsicle. It is also because of this that so many people covet its secret recipe. In the summer months, the restaurant parking lot is also a haven for car shows – a canvas of muscle cars and hot rods. This bonafide city landmark was around well before 5 star gourmet restaurants and martini lounges made their presence here. It’s definitely worth the haul across town.

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7 Comments on “Vanishing Montreal

  1. Excellent..nice to see the ‘other side’ which most people don’t often see. All cities have an underbelly which is generally kept discreetly away from the bright lights of the shopping centres and hotels…glad you posted this one…I enjoyed it.

    • Thank you! If you do a little digging, often what you find can really change the way you see a city. I view Montreal in a completely different perspective now that I’ve gotten to know it more, and I hope to go back for more.

  2. A fantastic cavalcade of discoveries in a city that never fails to delight. I agree that some of the most satisfying sights will never be found in a tourist pamphlet – the parts that make a city a city. Thanks for taking me back – it’s been years since I went north to the land of my forefathers (my grandpere was born in Montreal; his mother’s family had been in Quebec City since the 1600’s). I have the fever, once again…

    • Thanks! Montreal has so many things that Vermont could never offer, from it’s abandoned buildings to a fascinating history and culture. I really enjoy just exploring the outer boroughs, getting lost on the side streets and finding new things to photograph, explore or learn about. It’s a shame almost that most people don’t really consider venturing out from the tourist areas, but then again, that is also what makes these neighborhoods special for those who truly go the extra mile. Quebec City is beautiful as well, I haven’t had much of a chance to really explore it,but I greatly enjoyed my visit there.

  3. Yeah, I don’t remember seeing all that when I was there. But I was so caught up in everything else that was there maybe I just didn’t get to it all. I love how everything is in French there.

    • Yeah, the way the autoroute system is designed is to bring all the traffic from the suburbs right to the downtown district, so it’s common for any visitor to bypass these side neighborhoods completely. You had the same reaction I did years ago when I really started to discover Montreal, and realize at just how much I didn’t see. I like how everything is in French as well, not sure why, I guess it’s just an interesting change of environment, and I do love the French language.

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