Norman Bethune Square, a tiny triangle wedged between the intersection of Guy St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd., is Montreal’s shittiest square. I mean that literally: it quite possibly has more pigeon shit per square inch than any other public space in the whole of Greater Montreal. I have no idea why pigeons like this place so much, but it’s almost like an homage to Trafalgar Square, filled as it is with twitchy flocks of little grey birds.
This small square also has the distinction of being the only square in Montreal named after a Communist. Born in 1890 and raised in small town Ontario, Norman Bethune moved to Montreal to join the faculty of McGill University as a thoracic surgeon. During his time here, Bethune was known for his support of free health care, and his leftist sympathies eventually took him to the civil war in Spain, where he provided medical assistance to the Republicans, and to China, where, in 1938 and 1939, he worked alongside Communists fighting the Japanese invasion. Bethune died of blood poisoning in 1939 when he was cut while performing surgery.
Bethune remained largely anonymous until his work was praised by Meo Zedong in an essay entitled In Memory of Norman Bethune. Bethune was one of the few foreigners revered in Maoist China, and statues of his likeness can be found throughout the country. Even today, Bethune’s name holds a certain resonance in China.
But what about his square in Montreal? Well, to be blunt, it doesn’t do the man justice. Although Norman Bethune Square is easily one of the busiest spots downtown, located in the midst Concordia’s bustling downtown campus, next to bus stops and Guy-Concordia metro, and surrounded by tall apartment towers, it is ratty and weather-beaten. Its pavement consists of cracked concrete and packed gravel, and the handful of benches that surround Bethune’s statue are of the most dilapidated and crummy variety possible. Crude wooden boards have been nailed to their seats to prevent people from sleeping on them. On the far east corner of the square, a single sickly pine tree struggles to survive amidst the constant buzz of traffic.
It’s a sad situation, if only because Norman Bethune Square has so much potential. Even given its insalubrious state, its benches are often full and there are always people lingering about the square. Thousands of people pass through it every hour. Cafés — a Java U, a Tim Horton’s and a Starbucks — overlook the square on all three sides and their terraces are always full. The surrounding few blocks probably has the densest concentration of 24-hour businesses in Montreal, so the area around Norman Bethune Square is reliably busy around the clock. If it was ever given a facelift, this would be instantly catapulted into the ranks of Montreal’s best public spaces.
So what is being done to improve the current situation? In 2005, Concordia announced an ambitious plan to completely revamp the square. De Maisonneuve Blvd. would be reconfigured, allowing the square to more than double in size. It would connect directly with the busy south side of the street. Sidewalk space on the north side would be expanded, too, and new trees, benches and paving stones would make the space cleaner and more inviting. It would become, in effect, the central gathering space for both Concordia and the entire west end of downtown.
Two years ago, when I talked about the plan with Clarence Epstein, Concordia’s director of public projects, he mentioned that Concordia and the city hoped to finish rebuilding the square by 2008, the 70th anniversary of Bethune’s arrival in China. He even hinted that the government of China might provide some sort of assistance to the project. Obviously, none of that has yet happened. In fact, not a word about Norman Bethune Square has been uttered since 2005. Hopefully that will change soon enough.