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2006 01 20
Full Circle – An Unintentional Walking Tour of Montreal [Heather Pokotylo]

Full Circle – An Unintentional Walking Tour of Montreal

by Heather Pokotylo

About a year ago I was over at a friend’s place when we began talking about Montreal. Like myself, he was also an outsider, in this case a San Francisco import. Our conversation began with how much we loved this city—even in the winter….but soon he made the point that although he loved it here, he regretted the fact that most of his friends in the city were Anglos…more than that, they were, in the majority, fellow West Coasters. This got me thinking about my own circles of friends in Montreal, and I had to admit, he was right; most of my friends were also West Coasters, or from another city at least. Even the large part of my francophone friends had come from someplace else. What did this say about my version of Montreal? I was at a bit of a loss.

There is certainly something about this city, I think that attracts many people from other places. It calls their names from across the country, the continent, and even the world. A siren song so soft it barely registers, yet works upon us with grave insistence. The promise of a many-splendored place where the people are beautiful, the city abuzz with art and culture, the summers warm, the winters prehistoric, and the parties go on all night. It captures the imagination—a collective dream—and some dreamers decide to live it, to come to this city and experience the Montreal they’ve heard so much about. They come and find one another amongst its streets.

It is the streets of Montreal that I love most, I think. The most remarkable thing about Montreal, for me, is how eminently walkable it is, and how many worlds one is able to travel through simply by following a street to its end. Last year I met a girl from France who was in town for a month to do research for her thesis in geography. The subject of her thesis was Sherbrooke Street, and before she left, she showed me some of the data she had collected through interviews. What fascinated me the most with all of this were the maps she had asked each interviewee to draw of Sherbrooke Street for her. They were all on blank sheets of paper, and they were all vastly different: Some were incredibly detailed affairs, yet these details were limited to a small zone of blocks in the neighborhood where the cartographer lived. Others attempted to map the entire breadth of Sherbrooke from East to West, yet there were often large discrepancies in these maps: certain areas were either dilated or contracted relative to their actual physical proportions, presumably depending on how familiar or unfamiliar the drawer was with that section of the street. The areas at either East or West extreme were often the haziest in this regard. Nevertheless, they were all fascinating examples of individual psychogeographies of the city, and Sherbrooke Street in particular.

I come back to this study and those maps because when first asked to write something about Montreal, I was at a bit of a loss as to where to even start. I’ve lived in Montreal for two and a half years, and in that time I’ve moved three times, once living out as far as Hochelaga in the East, by Metro Cadillac—three stops from the end of the Green line. When I first told people where I had moved, the initial reaction was as if I had dropped off the face of the planet! “That’s so far,” people would exclaim, “how can you live out there?!” Yet it was great in its own way, and hardly far from downtown at all, in all honesty. The longest it would take by Metro to get to McGill station downtown was 30 minutes, still much faster than the 45 minutes (on a good day) that it would take me to drive into Vancouver’s downtown when I lived in Richmond. And in the summer there was a great a bike route that started in Parc Maisonneuve and proceeded along Rachel right into the heart of the Plateau which also took about half an hour.

Until it was stolen at the end of the summer, I would often ride my bike up Cadillac to Sherbrooke, then down Sherbrooke until I hit Parc Maisonneuve and got onto the bike path. And it is the images of the different neighborhoods of Montreal that flashed by as I would ride my bike into the city that first sprang to my mind as I tried to reflect on what Montreal means to me as an outsider coming in. And it is the ride along Sherbrooke that made me think of my friend’s project and all those hand-drawn maps of the streets. Which got me thinking of other psychogeoghrapic maps of Montreal that we each carry around with us, and how those might differ or not for someone arriving here from elsewhere.

Outsiders often have different perceptions of the boundaries within a given city. When I say “boundaries,” I am referring to the unmarked borders between neighborhoods, between places where it is safe or reasonable to go, and those where it is not wise or acceptable to tread. With this lack of boundaries, the distances it is acceptable to cover are likewise altered. For people who have lived in a city or a neighborhood for a long time, the amount of distance that is considered “far” often begins to shrink: walking around one neighborhood might be okay, but crossing through two or three begins to seem like a huge feat.

For example, when I was a student at UBC in Vancouver, I had a summer job working at the Museum of Anthropology, way out on the tip of Point Grey, where all of UBC campus is located. UBC is very isolated from the rest of Vancouver, and especially downtown (take a look at this map, downtown is to the far right of the map, where it indicates Denman Street and Beach Avenue). One day, while I was working at the museum, a German couple approached me asking how to take a bus back into the city. I began explaining to them how to go back to the bus loop and go from there. They just looked at me blankly. It turns out that the streets I was naming, which I had assumed they would be familiar with, having had to take them to get to the museum in the first place (there are only so many roads that lead to UBC), meant nothing to this couple. You see, they had walked. Oh sure, lots of people have to walk a little bit to get here. No, they replied, they had walked all the way from their hotel downtown. I was floored. To me, as a native Vancouverite, that kind of walk was simply unthinkable. And yet they had done it.

Sometime in July of 2004, I inadvertently did something very similar.

I began innocently enough.

I had gone out to have dim sum with my roommate at a place over in Chinatown. At the time, we were living by St. Denis and Ontario, so we had walked there. After dim sum, my roommate walked with me along de La Gauchetière until St. Denis, where she hopped on her bike and rode off to work. Now reasonably, the most predictable thing would have been to walk home from there, which is what I was planning on doing, but for some reason I decided to keep on walking down de La Gauchètiere. Who knows why. There was something, if not exactly inviting, then most definitely compelling about the street that lay before me and I couldn’t resist. I had no plans for the day anyways, so why not walk? As I continued to walk, the Cartier bridge gradually loomed before me, and I remembered a friend of mine telling me how she had walked across the bridge one day (living slightly closer to it than I did). With that precedent in mind, I decided to walk across the bridge as well and go down to the water by Parc Jean Drapeau.

The first thing you notice about Cartier bridge as you walk across it is the noise. Then the vibration of the sidewalk beneath you as the cars scream past—especially the huge trucks. Then, at a certain point, the steel bars that arc cagelike over you and hum like a million Buddhist monks in meditation as they striate your view of the water and the city below you. And only then, finally, do you notice the mighty St. Lawrence and the unexpected view of Montreal, from an angle that you don’t normally approach the city (or at least that I normally didn’t see it from).

It really is quite something to walk across that bridge. In a car or even on a bike, I don’t think you have quite a sense of just how large it is, or how far it spans. Instead, you simply whiz by on it at the pace of modernity for which it was designed. Yet that bridge is HUGE, and it makes you feel very tiny and insignificant in size as few things do these days. And you also feel incredibly vulnerable, suddenly aware of how high up you are, and just how little separates you from the water far, far below—especially as the pavement shakes below you and leaves you with a nagging sense of insecurity, since this is not what pavement is ever supposed to do….

I stopped a few times during my crossing to look at the view before me and especially at the water below me. I was drawn to the water, to taking my feet to the edge of the sidewalk and letting them hang just a little bit over, not even sure how high up I was, but liking the thought of my toes somehow floating on the air. There are many strong currents in the St. Lawrence and I became lost in them. I felt myself being sucked into the heaving eddies, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine myself sliding over the edge and slipping off into the down-below waters. I even wrote these words about halfway across the bridge:


Looking through the railings as I cross the Pons Cartier, I feel drawn to the churning waters below me like a magnet. And I feel that if I let myself get too close to the edge, that point where metal meets void meets air, that my body will turn to liquid and then all of me will just trickle down through the railings and drop down to join with the waters, the river, running- swirling out to join the sea…

It was an uneasy, yet intoxicating sensation, and as I came out of this reverie, I realized that those bars that were blocking my view and rattling so insistently were put in place to block more than just the view! They were, in fact, a suicide barrier, and as I thought this I remembered the statistic that the Cartier Bridge has the second highest rate of suicides after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco—I had even read an interesting article a while ago in the New Yorker about the history of suicides on the Golden Gate, and yet, the people of San Fransisco still oppose putting up a suicide barrier. I had wondered, at the time of reading the article, what such a barrier would look like, and here I was now staring one in the face! Thoughts of such things continued to swirl around in my head as I completed my journey across the bridge and found myself in Parc Jean Drapeau.

Parc Jean Drapeau is a place I have visited a surprisingly large number of times, given the length of time I’ve lived in Montreal. It was actually one of the few places I visited during my first trip to Montreal during December of 2002. A friend had recommended the Biosphere as someplace to check out. To this day, I’ll never know whether he had actually told me the Biodome and I just got it wrong when I took a look at the metro map with the best friend I was travelling with, or whether this guy had actually thought it was a top tourist attraction, even during the heart of winter. All I can say with certainty is that there are few things to compare with the desolation that meets you upon emerging from the Jean Drapeau metro station on an afternoon in late December. The ice was inches thick everywhere, and unforgivingly treacherous as we attempted to make our way over towards the Biosphere, our puny Vancouver winter jackets no use against the bitter wind.

This was my first impression of Jean Drapeau, and I’ve never been able to get it fully out of my head. Not even after I attended an open-air concert there during the first week after my move to Montreal (Björk). Not even after spending a few sultry summer afternoons idling by its ponds during various piknik electronics. The memory of cold and snow and ice carved itself too deeply into my bones that first visit, I think, and so, as I walked about the park that day, I kept seeing visions of icy expanses all before me.

After wandering about for a bit, I decided it was probably time to head home. I had, I thought, two options: go back across the bridge, or take the metro, yet neither option seemed terribly satisfying. I still felt like walking, but I also didn’t want to retrace my steps. Looking out across one of the small ponds in the gardens, I noticed a bridge and decided that is must certainly be able to lead me back to the city. As I approached the bridge, conditions looked favourable. There was a sign that stated “Centre-Ville” and the bridge appeared to be going in a direction that would lead me back into Montreal at a point much closer to my home than the Pons Cartier (an important factor, since I had been walking for over two hours already without planning to, and so without even a bottle of water—not the brightest thing to be doing during July!). However, as the bridge ended, the road didn’t end up going in the direction I expected it to, instead, with Old Port clearly visible across the water from me, the expressway extended out west in a long, straight line that seemed to have no end in site. I was worried that I might never make it back to downtown this way and would have to backtrack very far in the end…but, no, hadn’t that sign read “Centre-Ville”? I decided to stick it out, and as I continued walking I was suddenly up close and personal with Habitat 67 that had been built for Montreal’s Expo 67.

I had seen Habitat 67 before, of course, but only from across the St. Lawrence from the landings at Old Port, and, I will confess, from such a distance, it had always appeared rather ugly to me, like some half-finished lego building that a child abandoned in a fit of distraction. But now, as I walked across from them, the apartments of the Habitat looked more to me like a modern Hanging Gardens, and I could understand why people were on long waiting lists to make them their homes.

Finally, the road began to curve, and I followed it under the Victoria Bridge and over to the Lachine canal. Again there was a sign indicating “Centre-Ville” to the right (I was beginning to feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland, with signs ordering “Centre-Ville” in place of cakes ordering “Eat Me”), so I went to the right and found myself right by the old Five Roses flour factory. Suddenly, although I’m now quite closer to the city, an air of decrepitude unrelentingly works its way into the scene. Despite the fact that the Victoria Bridge is close by, there’s any eerie silence that hangs in the air, amplifying the sense that I am alone in an abandoned industrial wasteland. Even though I’m probably supposed to follow the path that lies closer to the canal, I find myself drawn to the train tracks at the foot of the massive grain elevators that once stored the harvests from the “bread basket of the world” before they were shipped out across the globe when Old Port was still a bustling shipping centre. Those days have since passed, and the elevators now lie abandoned and empty. One of them has been turned into something called the silophone, and as I walk by it, I can see the wire running along the outside that must connect the microphone at the little stand across the canal with the speaker inside the silo.

In fact, as I walk along, I can see that others have also ventured inside these structures. There are broken windows and graffiti up at the top of the buildings. There are also the signs of the general degradation that happens to all abandoned buildings, particularly industrial ones. It is at once sad and yet beautiful. Perhaps I see this beauty because, just the night before, I had been watching Stalker, and this place seems to bear a striking resemblance to the haunting images from Tarkovsky’s film. I begin to imagine myself moving through The Zone—if I had bolts and strips of bandages I would be throwing those around. Instead I rip some strips of paper from my notebook and tie these to my bracelet and toss that in the direction I wish to walk, as Stalker did. Maybe it’s my fatigue and dehydration kicking in at this point, but this entire strip of land has suddenly become the most beautiful, most magical, most wondrous place I have moved through in a long time. I distinctly remember coming across a series of concrete blocks with rusted bits of twisted rebar sticking out of them, now being overgrown with moss. I throw my paper-and-bracelet projectile into the centre of the circle they form, and as I slowly approach, the light suddenly hits the surface of one of them at such an angle that it catches a cobweb that carpets the entire face of the stone and now glows crystalline in the sunlight. It’s so beautiful that I stand still to watch it, moving my body slightly forwards and back to make it shimmer a bit before approaching it again and losing the spectacle. I linger in this space for sometime before resuming my journey, only allowing myself to leave once I’ve promised to come back sometime in the future with a camera.

Then I’m crossing a small footbridge and am suddenly in Old Port. The shock of familiarity is overwhelming at this point, and, I will admit, that the rest of my walk is a bit of a haze in my memory. I had been walking for about four and a half hours without water or food in the heat of a July afternoon, so I suppose I went on autopilot once I returned to the known grids of familiar Montreal streets. There are vague recollections of ice cream and water in old port and buying groceries in Chinatown on my way home, but I can’t be sure.

This fog during the last leg of my walk stands out in harsh comparison to the earlier hyperlucidity of moving through new and unknown city spaces. I’m not sure if I’ve been able to capture it, but there was a sense of wonderment and magical unfoldings throughout my entire trek. It felt as if the city were opening itself up to me in a special way that few experience (though this might just have been my exhaustion and dehydration at the end)…and I felt like somehow, Montreal had become more mine in the process—that I knew it more intimately, somehow, after having walked so many of its out-of-the-way and less inviting paths. It’s the kind of walk that many people thought was crazy when I told them about it afterwards, just as I had thought that German couple in Vancouver a bit mad, and that leads me to wonder once again whether outsiders to cities are more open to such ramblings….

….Montreal is a great city for such walks, and that it is one of the things I love about it. There are so many routes to explore both above and below ground—I’ve spent hours walking through all the underground tunnels that connect up the metro stations, and there are plenty of little-known treasures to be found there (just check out the passageways connecting Place D’Armes and Square Victoria, for starters…a friend and I were able to create this there…). And, in the end, you don’t have to be an outsider to access this side of the city, you just have to be willing to suspend some preconceptions of how the urban space is laid out and divided up to begin to engage in your own derivé.

Happy Wanderings!

- Heather Pokotylo

[[ Heather Pokotylo ]] moved from Vancouver to Montreal in the summer of 2003. During her time in Montreal she has been both a student and a teacher. Heather loves to walk and wander around cities––at home and abroad––perhaps she is unconsciously trying to live up to the heritage of her surname, which means “tumbleweed” in Ukrainian.

editor: tobias c. van Veen
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