An odd quiet that is never found within the modern and vibrant city heart hangs over Montreal’s outer neighborhoods. Downtown, with it’s glass and steel skyscrapers reflect beautifully restored Victorian Brownstones and stone Cathedrals which nudge next to leafy squares and cobblestone plazas, the flash of bustling Sainte-Catherine Street and the Quartier des Spectacles with its bright lights and exciting venues haunt the hearts of all who visit. But outside the fringes of downtown, in the haze of the city lights, is the real Montreal. A landscape of blue collar brick row houses with small rot iron balconies and weathered patio furniture, bikes leaning against trees along pot holed streets and an array of grungy factories, oil refineries and neighborhood markets that don’t put up masquerades for anyone. This is 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. 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. The urban sprawl ahead of us was successful in conjuring feelings of adventure and desire which was aching to explode in discovery. 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.
Just outside the old port, where the colonial French charm melds with the industrial cityscape sits a rather interesting building. Built in the style of a French Chateau which seems like it belongs more so in Quebec City than in the shadow of the Molson Brewery, this large edifice sits abandoned, it’s windows boarded up and rusting, it’s facade beginning to seem worn and tired. Seeing no indication at what this building was, I had to do research afterwords. What I found was impressive, mostly because there was no evidence hinting of it’s importance.
It’s official moniker is Place Viger, and was once both a grand hotel and railway station. Constructed in 1898, it was named after Jacques Viger, Montreal’s first mayor. Although combined stations and hotels were common in the United Kingdom in the late 19th century, the concept was unique to Canada. Place Viger was designed by Bruce Price for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and was built near what was then the central core of Montreal (Old Montreal), in proximity to the financial district, the city hall, the port and the court house. The mayor of Montreal, Raymond Préfontaine, strongly encouraged its construction in an area central to the French Canadian élites, in contrast to the rival Windsor Hotel to the west, which was perceived to cater to the city’s anglophone classes. Constructed in the chateau-style common to Canada’s railway hotels, Place Viger housed the railway station in its lower levels and a luxurious hotel on the upper floors. Place Viger enjoyed an enviable setting among the Viger Gardens, allowing both railway travelers and hotel guests to stroll along the garden paths.
The shifting of Montreal’s downtown to the south-west, and the onset of the economic depression of the 1930s, was disastrous for Place Viger. The hotel closed in 1935 and in 1951, the railway station was also closed. The building was sold to the City of Montreal, which then gutted the interiors and transformed the building into office space. Much of the Viger Gardens was destroyed in the 1970s to allow for the construction of the Autoroute Ville-Marie highway, and the remainder of the gardens was transformed into a little-traveled public square named “Viger Square”, with much-criticized ugly and rough concrete landscaping by artist Charles Daudelin. For decades, Place Viger sat isolated and neglected, and Viger Square is now a haven for homeless and rough characters.
If there is one street that gives an all encompassing look at Montreal, it’s Rue Notre-Dame. Running practically the entire length of the Eastern shore, the street runs along weedy industrial railyards and wastelands, through blue collar neighborhoods with their rows of brick town houses and the busy and ever changing downtown, an ever rearranging landscape of new high rises against a backdrop of cranes in the winter skies.
Knowing this, we headed North along Notre-Dame, underneath the massive Jacques Cartier Bridge and its stone abutments, and into the Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood. This is a rough and hardscrabble part of town. Notre-Dame is a 4 lane through way here, complete with pot holes and almost illegible street signs. The scenery consists of sprawling railyards, grain silos, factories and small neighborhoods with the occasional park in between – all covered with dirty left over snow that hasn’t quite melted yet in the rain that was falling. To get a better idea of Montreal and these neighborhoods, it is beneficial to know a little about the city’s history.
Montreal’s boroughs have some pretty long names, and that’s because before they were annexed into the city, they were all separate towns and villages that suddenly found themselves lumped together as a new city borough, which created some confusion and a lot of tense feelings. Most boroughs were named directly after the villages and towns they once were, given the long hyphened names.
Hochelaga was incorporated as a village in 1860. 2 years later, the railroad was extended North from the port into the village, increasing the demands for urbanization and catalyzing industrial development. In December 1883, Hochelaga was annexed to the city of Montreal despite public outcry. In response, displaced residents founded the village of Maisonneuve outside the newly extended city limits. However, in only 15 years Maisonneuve became an industrial slum. By 1918 the area was saddled with debt and aging factories and infrastructure and Ironically, it was annexed to Montreal the same year.
In 1960, the construction of the Autoroute 25 and the LaFontaine Tunnel created the demolition of many residential buildings in the neighborhood and created an East – West division. At this point, there had been a steady period of industrial decline since the 1920s, and many factories would continue to shut down well into the 1980s, leaving the borough ridden with poverty and a high concentration of welfare. This has led to a population exodus, high crime rates and a general negative portrait of the area. It is, still today, often seen as the French ghetto of Montreal.
Sitting admist a stark landscape of massive power lines and broken barbed wire fences barricaded behind large dirty snow drifts, sat this interesting abandonedment. 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 cool wavy 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. 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. The suburbs of Montreal, a landscape of identical row houses, chain linked fences, satellite dishes and power lines. I can get an understanding of why bamds such as The Arcade Fire (who happen to be from Montreal) got inspiration for their great album titled “The Suburbs”, inspired by feelings of angst, loneliness, isolation, despair and identity in the suburbs.
A few kilometers south-east of Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve is the neighborhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles. Known locally as “the Pointe”, Pointe-Saint-Charles sits on the Saint Lawrence lowlands at the gateway to downtown, separated from the city by the Lachine Canal, which was responsible for the neighborhood’s growth. 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 hardscrabble 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.
What was once an area set aside for farmland soon found itself in the grips of industrialization as the Lachine canal opened in 1840 and the construction of the Victoria Bridge (1854–1860) secured Montreal’s place as a railroad hub. By the 1860s the area was a busy industrial neighborhood, one of Canada’s first industrial slums. Like the rest of the area around the Lachine Canal, the neighborhood went into a long decline in the 1960s, caused by the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and sealed by the closure of the Lachine Canal.
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. Though its nice to see a neighborhood being rehabilitated and cleaned up, its current way of life and low income population may be threatened in years to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But unknown to most people, these barren grounds were once home to an entire community whose evidence was almost all but buried within the cold cold ground. Goose Village was a quarantine area where between 3,500 and 6,000 Irish immigrants died of typhus between 1847 and 1848. Due to a lack of suitable preparations, typhus soon reached epidemic proportions in Montreal. A total of 22 sheds were constructed to hold the sick and dying, with troops cordoning off the area so the sick couldn’t escape.
After the epidemic, Goose Village remained as a slum neighborhood until 1964, when mayor Jean Drapeau had the area bulldozed. There were several speculations at why the village was destroyed, the most common theory being that Drapeau didn’t want visitors to Montreal seeing Goose Village as their first impression of the city, especially with the upcoming Expo 67.
Today, the only indication of the former neighborhood is a monument referred to as “The Black Rock” - A large black rock that was erected in 1859 by workers to honor the typhus victims, whose remains were uncovered during the construction of the Victoria Bridge.
If anything, the yards give a great view of the city skyline, a great contrast of different worlds, and a best kept secret for those who are looking for a great view.
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. In the summer months, the restaurant parking lot is also a haven for car shows – a canvas of muscle cars and hot rods. Another thing I love about the big orange (not that the Orange Julep wasn’t enough)- this is real Montreal, before 5 star gourmet restaurants and martini lounges made their presence here. It’s more then worth the drive and dealing with the city’s confusing traffic laws for one of these, and if you’ve ever had one before, I’m sure you can testify to this.
Montreal is a city of contrasts, where the old coincides with the new and often influence each other creating something unique to the city’s culture. If there is one thing I have learned about Montreal after all the times I’ve visited, is that you never truly are “caught up” on things. The city is forever changing, and there is always something new to discover.