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Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Montreal: City Report

Hooked on Francophonics

By Richard Carreño
As a Philadelphian, it stands to reason that comparisons between this place and the City of Brotherly Love spring readily to mind. For one thing, Montréal -- even the historical bits in the Old City -- isn't as, well, attractive as Center City Philly. This is actually saying alot in that Philadelphia has less than stellar architecture to brandish -- though lots of quite pleasing 18th and 19th-century building stock (did anyone say Independence Hall?) on display. Parts of Philly actually do look like London. Parts on Montréal -- a far cry from Paris to be sure -- look like the former Block tenderloin in Baltimore.

That's not entirely surprising. Montréal is still a party town. Second only to New York for the number of 'restos' (that's what they call restaurants here) per capita. Oh, yes, the capita. At about 3 millions (that's including Centre Ville, or Ville Marie, and suburbs), this town is about twice the size of Philly. It doesn't look it. But certainly feels it. Every night the streets in Centre Ville (around Ste Catherine, the main drag) are humming.

Cosmopolitan. Gritty, urban turf. World-class shopping. Around-the-world access via two international aeroports. Foreign consulates. Sophistication. And snow. Philly can't compare. We even don't get much snow anymore.

Still, Centre Ville here is hardly a dense, skyscraper city. (Philly is that). Even the island on which Montréal's dozen or so arrondisements, and outer burbs, are located is open land in many areas. Unlike an Eastern American city, Montréal looms amidst a still barren prairie. So, again, population stats can be deceiving. For example, Philly might technically be a smaller city. But counting its densely populated burbs and Camden, it blows this city out the water. (Canada's total population, after all, is only about 20 millions).
Moreover, downtown here doesn't seem very residential. But this doesn't prevent hordes, natives and tourists from around the globe, from sampling restos and nightlife. It's been this way since, at least, during the time of Prohibition, when Montréal (thanks, too, to the Bronfman/Seagrams and Molsen clans) made this city the North American drinking capital.

Franco Phonies
Funny thing about that. This was against a backdrop of Protestant Puritanity that ruled official circles here until after World War II, when the Anglo nomenclature and its hypocrisy gave way to Franco nationalism and new waves of Third World immigration. I saw a physical remnant of that today when I walked through Dominion Square. The Holy Trinity. Or the Holy Horrors. On one side is the Reine de la Monde cathedral (established religion). On another corner is the Sun Life Building, a monument to commercial greed since 1933 (established commerce). And there's the Square itself (the established state).

It was different time. The post boxes in the Sun Life Building (something akin to the Parthenon in its genre) were, when the building was constructed, part of the Royal Mail system, not Canada Post. I thought a picture of one of the boxes might be interesting. No photography, a guard warned, waving a white envelope in front of my camera lens. I tried to suss out some symbolism in this -- the Man attempting to tamp down free press, for instance -- but I really couldn't find any.

As for the Man keeping the Franco community under its heel before the War, I saw plenty of evidence of this when I visited the McCord Museum of Montréal history today. Photographs of the period showed street and shop signs almost exclusively in English. I spoke to a curator about this, and she told me the reason is at least two fold. There were no laws governing the language of signage then (as there is now) and that -- this I didn't quite believe -- that, proportionally, there fewer French speakers then. She told me that, since the War, Montréal's francophone population as been increasing, while its Anglo population has been decreasing.

Francophone Home
Chamber of Commerce types now like to credit Montréal as being the second largest French- speaking city in the world. I think that's subject to argument. Depends how you figure, especially since the city has large numbers of 'others,' people who don't speak English, nor French. Tourist honchos would be better off saying the city is second largest official French-speaking city. Anyway....

I suspect that there wasn't really a statistical ethnic shift after the War, as I was told. Rather, the Man -- who owned everything -- used English because he didn't care. There was a time, albeit long ago, when workers couldn't/wouldn't be employed unless they spoke English. No one complained -- not even the spiritual advocate of the Franco faithful, the Roman Catholic Church. The Church, of course, was in cahoots with the Anglo Establishment to keep 'em down. For the Church, that also meant down on their knees in prayerful ignorance.

There's one distinction that Montréal can boost proudly, and can't be disputed. (Go ahead, I dare you). It's its status as having the best public transportation system in North America. Not the largest (New York). Not the cheapest (Boston, for one). Not the most fuel efficient (Los Angeles). Just the finest.

Hold the Francophone
The reason for this is the city's Métro (Métropolitan) subway network, an astounding subterranean network like no other I know of on this side of the Atlantic. To my mind, Paris has the best subway anywhere, and like the one in the largest French-speaking city (no dispute there), Montréal's runs (almost silently) on rubber wheels. (Washington also has a rubber-wheeled underground).

The wheels are the same. The carriages aren't. Never mind. They're clean and numerous. Trains run to 10 carriages or more. Directions are easy to follow. Like everyone else in Canada, workers are polite and helpful. Stations are attractive, well-lighted, clean, spacious -- and safe. All this for C$2.50 for a one-off, full-fare.

I could go on. But one last point needs to be stressed. Philly subway creepiness is nowhere to be found. In my time here, I have yet to encounter one African-American home-boy thug, nor a Puerto Rican gang-banger. Above ground, as well as below ground. What makes the Métro work is that -- like all first-class transit systems -- everyone from all classes use the system. Not just the poor underclass, as is the case with Septa in Philly.

That's not to say that residents don't drive. On-street parking -- at least, for an out-of-towner -- is confusing. Off-street parking is expensive. And petrol runs about US$3.72 per gallon, when translated from litres. Would Americans put up with this price? They already are. So what's all the whining about?

By Americans, that is. Like national health insurance. Americans are always quick to criticise Canadians. But what choice do Yanks have? When it comes to public transit systems, put up or shut up. Otherwise we get Philly's Septa. Under funded, under used, and underclassed.
Does fantastic public transportation make Montréal the world-class city it aspires to? In fact, this city has a way -- a long way to go -- before it can claim that prize. It has a fine symphony, but no great museum. It has hockey, of course, but lost its baseball team.
What makes Montréal rich, dynamic, and, yes, even unique is its exhilarating blend of Québec and French cultures. Created and largely nurtured here has been an unparalleled arts community, fostering fine and modern arts, dance, music, literature, and cinema, that because of its Franco influences couldn't exist elsewhere. As an Anglo city, this place would simply be a colder, more northern version of Cleveland. Good symphony. No great museum.