Thursday, March 3, 2016
March 3, 2016: Montreal Memories: Vieux Montréal
[Late last year, I had a chance to spend a few days in Montreal, my first extended visit to the city. Among the many reasons I loved it was the plethora of compelling spaces and ways through which the city remembers its social, cultural, and artistic histories. So this week I’ll CanadianStudy a few such spaces, leading up to a special post on a few Canadian colleagues!]
Three telling spots that together capture the complex past and present of Old Montreal.
1) The “First” Public Square: A small sign on the side of a historic building on Place Royale designates that area (known then, at its 1657 origin point, as Place du Marché) as “The First Public Square of Montreal.” Which makes sense with that important “of Montreal” modifier in place—the New France settlement (really fort, initially) had been founded just fifteen years earlier, in 1642, and I certainly believe that it took that long to organize enough of a true city that it would need and feature a public square. But as that last hyperlinked piece notes, there was already an existing First Peoples village, known as Hochelaga, when the first French explorers arrived in the area—and I think it’s safe to say that its inhabitants had public gathering places of their own. So that “first,” while technically correct in its context, represents the same kind of historical elision I’ve highlighted in the week’s earlier posts.
2) Notre-Dame Basilica: I think it’s just as safe to say, however, that the village of Hochelaga encountered by Cartier and his fellow explorers did not have a Catholic church. Neither for that matter did the settlement of Montreal for its first three decades—the city had a small Jesuit parish from the outset, but it was not until 1672 that the church of Notre-Dame (on which constructed began in 1657) was completed on the Place d’Armes. And while that church was apparently much larger and more impressive than the first, it was only in the early 19th century that the stunning cathedral we know today was built. That’s one thing that Notre-Dame reflects, then: the multi-century development of Montreal, from that initial frontier outpost through its gradual expansion and into its enduring status as one of the world’s great and most cosmopolitan cities. But as any 21st century visitor can attest, the city and its region are also defined once more by the French heritage with which they began, and Norte-Dame is a vital symbol of that cultural presence as well.
3) The Waterfront: Montreal wasn’t settled by the French because of religion, though—it was settled because of its prime location as an island on the St. Lawrence River, and what that would mean for the fur trade and the overall development of New France. It’s been a long time since the waterfront served such a vital purpose, as the imposing presence of the abandoned Canadian Malting Silos illustrates. But that doesn’t mean that the waterfront, like Old Montreal more broadly, doesn’t have a role to play in the 21st century, and while there I had the chance to experience one example of how that historic waterfront has been remade: Bota Bota, a Nordic baths spa located in a refurbished and refashioned barge. Spas alone aren’t the answer to revitalizing a historic neighborhood, of course—but neither is simply preserving historic sites without finding ways to make such areas new at the same time. As Bota Bota reflects, Old Montreal is working to do both, and it’ll be exciting to see where the neighborhood and city go from here.
Last memory tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Sites of collective memory you’d highlight?