Do you know Lachine? Thanks to the canal, pretty much every Montrealer is familiar with the name. I’m sure most are even aware of the borough. But have you been there? Do you know anything about it except as “that place at the end of the Lachine Canal”?
For those who don’t know, I’ll let you in on a secret: Lachine is one of the most fabulously bizarre places in Montreal. That shouldn’t be a surprise because, according to the rules of Montreal weirdness, the more isolated, working-class and far-flung a neighbourhood, the stranger it is. Lachine wins on all three counts. Although it is located on the lakeshore-canal bicycle superhighway, and autoroute 20 passes along its northern border, Lachine is not exactly central. By bus, it’s 35 minutes away from Angrignon metro, the end of the line. Downtown Lachine, a small area bordered by Victoria Street on the north and the St. Lawrence on the south, is removed from pretty much any major transportation corridor.
That is to say, any modern transportation corridor. Lachine’s entire reason for existence is the Lachine Canal, through which every ship heading to and from the Great Lakes used to funnel. Although Lachine has existed as a settlement since the 17th century, when it was a fur trading post, it started to develop as a proper town only after the canal opened in 1835. By the early twentieth century, it was a burgeoning industrial suburb. Of course, by the 1970s, deindustrialization and the closure of the canal dealt a significant blow to Lachine. It’s only now recovering.
I ventured out to Lachine last spring to check out its newly revamped public market, the smallest of Montreal’s big four (the others being Jean-Talon, Atwater and Maisonneuve). To get there, I took the 90 bus west from Atwater. It dropped me off on Provost Street in the newer part of Lachine. Provost is a decidedly unattractive mix of depanneurs and fast-food joints; its one claim to fame might be a Kentucky Fried Chicken that has somehow escaped rebranding: its signs date from at least a few decades back.
The real attraction in Lachine is the waterfront downtown area, a 15 minute walk from Provost. There, you’ll find a quaint mix of twentieth-century duplexes, nineteenth-century cottages, the aforementioned public market and Montreal’s most pleasant and relaxing waterfront. What really interests me, though, is Notre-Dame Street, Old Lachine’s main drag. On a bright Saturday afternoon it was eerily quiet; look between the vacant storefronts, however, and you’ll find a few surprises.
The first might be the number of new immigrant businesses. Some of the businesses along Notre-Dame’s ten-block commercial stretch include French bakery run by a Cambodian guy, a Somali couple’s halal butcher, a black anglophone grocery selling Caribbean products and a modest Chinese supermarket. Near 10th Avenue, a Russian man sells old tapes, CDs and records. Best of all is a huge, labyrinthine junk store run by an old couple from Texas. They say they’ve lived in Lachine for 30 years, but their accents are still as thick as if they had been plucked right off the Texan plain.
All along Notre-Dame, makeshift plywood boxes serve as community bulletin boards. They may look silly, but not even the Ville-Marie or Plateau boroughs offer this kind of legal postering space. It’s a shame that, in Lachine, they remain half-empty, with nearly all of the posters advertising yard sales or lost animals. If these things were placed on St. Viateur or the Main, they’d be covered — several layers thick, too — within a week.
Notre-Dame, unfortunately, is not the main street it used to be. Most Lachine residents shop for their essentials at nearby malls and big box stores, of which there is an abundance in adjacent LaSalle and Dorval. Considering how quiet it has been every time I’ve visited, few people from outside the neighbourhood seem to stray onto Notre-Dame.
Instead, they head to the waterfront, and for a good reason: it’s one of Montreal’s most picturesque. It’s also the finish line for many cyclists who bike along the canal from the Old Port. (Although the bike path continues all the way to Ste. Anne de Bellevue, it’s a pretty ambitious ride from downtown.) St. Joseph Boulevard, which runs along the water, is dotted with pleasant cafés and restaurants whose terraces bustle on sunny days.
For me, though, the most rewarding destination after a stroll in Lachine is an unassuming restaurant located in an old cottage on Notre-Dame St. at the corner of 25th Avenue. La Shangri-la bills itself, somewhat dubiously, as a Nepalese, Indian and Italian restaurant. Turns out that it’s run by a Nepalese family that worked in an Italian restaurant in Kathmandu before coming to Montreal. Normally, I would expect something like that in Park Ex or Côte des Neiges. But, well, you know… it’s Lachine. You’ll be surprised.
More photos after the jump.