Downtown Scene


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Montreal, Quebec


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Hopeful that streetcars will once again find their place in Montreal.

It used to be that Toronto and Montreal weren't so different. La Ville reine had spiffy red streetcars; la métropole had cheery yellow and olive-green ones. But that changed in 1959, when Montreal, ever so fashion-conscious, scrapped the last of its trams.

Now, nearly half a century after they disappeared, it would seem that the people who run this town are determined to bring streetcars back to its streets. Yesterday, La Presse reported that City Hall will announce the construction of a new tramway line linking downtown, Griffintown, Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter as part of a broader transport plan that will be unveiled in May. Apparently, the federal government might be willing to cough up enough cash to pay for the project, but nothing is certain just yet. That hasn't stopped others from dreaming: today brought with it the news that officials in Montreal's Southwest borough want to reclaim disused CN and CPR tracks to build a tramway along the banks of the Lachine Canal.

If Montrealers are sceptical, it shouldn't come as a surprise. We've heard this kind of thing before, such as when Mayor Gérald Tremblay visited Paris, gazed upon its new shiny new streetcars and declared, with a strange look in his eyes, that Park Avenue would have a tramway by the end of the decade. Of course, nothing came of that and, considering Tremblay's new relationship with the people of Park Avenue, it's likely that nothing ever will.

But it seems clear that the mayor has latched onto the idea of leaving behind a new streetcar system as his legacy. After all, the project reported yesterday in La Presse did not emerge from thin air: it was first proposed in 2005 as a part of a plan to revitalize Montreal's harbour - front neighbour-hoods---a plan drafted by none other than heavyweights Lucien Bouchard, a former Quebec premier, and Bernard Shapiro, former principal of McGill University. If any tramway project is likely to be realized, it is this one. So here are the details: the proposed harbour tramway would start at Dorchester Square, a block from the busy intersection of Peel and Ste. Catherine. It would then travel down Peel Street, towards the harbour, before turning east and heading into the Old Port along the unused railroad tracks next to the water. It would finally pass through Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter and end at Berri-UQAM, the city's main metro hub.

I think this is a great plan for a couple of reasons. The first is that it would link uptown and downtown---or downtown and Old Montreal, if you prefer the more modern terminology---in a way that hasn't been done since Montreal's streetcar system was dismantled so long ago. More importantly, it would pass through Griffintown, a neighbourhood that was isolated from the rest of the city by highways and urban renewal but has recently undergone a revival with the rapid expansion of the à‰cole superieur de technologie and the construction of several thousand new residential units. Very quickly this has gone from being a totally marginal part of town to one that is home to thousands of new people---yet it is still underserved by public transit. The harbour tramway would provide it with a fixed link to the rest of the city.

I'm also intrigued by the idea of a Lachine Canal tramway. Opened in 1825, the canal was the catalyst for the industrialization of Montreal and, by extension, the whole of Canada. The neighbourhoods that arose along its banks are varied and fascinating, but they traditionally turned their backs to the noisy, dirty canal. After the St. Lawrence Seaway rendered the Lachine Canal obsolete in the late 1950s, though, it became downright pastoral as industry moved away and a bike path was built along its banks. Over the past ten years, old factories have been converted into residential and commercial lofts and the Atwater Market, located next to the canal at the foot of Atwater Street, has become a hub of new commerce and condos.

As gentrification has progressed, however, the canal has become increasingly disconnected from the working-class neighbourhoods that surround it. A tramway along its banks would help to reintegrate it into the centre of community life. It would also knit together all of the canalside neighbourhoods that were isolated from one another in the postwar era: Griffintown, Little Burgundy, St. Henri, Point St. Charles, Cà´te St. Paul, Ville St. Pierre and, of course, Lachine. It seems to me that many postwar public transit projects, including the Montreal metro, ignored traditional transit alignments. Building a tramway along the Lachine Canal would reembrace what is essentially an overlooked 182-year-old transportation corridor.

We'll see what happens. For now, though, this flurry of tramway interest makes me hopeful that streetcars will once again find their place in Montreal.




The following four photos are an artist's rendering of street cars in Montreal.
Above and Below: Actual photographs of the "good 'ol days." in Montreal.
Montreal Scenes