I was rummaging through some of my old photos this evening when I came across some that were taken in the fall of 2002. It is so recent yet, in some ways, so much has changed since then. Not long after I took the photo above, for instance, a large residential development was built on the land at the corner of Mountain and Notre Dame. There’s now a Couche-Tard where I was standing.
Across the street, the old Émile Bertrand Restaurant, the only place in town that served home-brewed spruce beer, is now gone. Its owner, Barbara Strudensky, died last year of lung cancer, earning an obituary in Maclean’s. Her husband still brews the Émile Bertrand spruce beer — a century-old recipe — and sells it at Paul Patates, a diner on Charlevoix St. in the Point.
My first experience of urban exploration came thanks to an abandoned steel foundry on St. Ambroise St. in St. Henri, on which there was still a piece of 1995 referendum-era graffiti urging us to vote “Oui.” My girlfriend and I walked around the building, exploring some of the more easily accessible areas on the ground floor.
Just as we were about to leave, two kids from the neighbourhood came up to us. “Do you want to see something cool?” they asked. We followed them to a steel garage door that had been pried open, squeezing ourselves underneath and into a dark building.
The boys ran up a staircase to the left. Upstairs was a large room, brightly lit by the setting sun, filled with huge piles of debris, toilets and empty bottles. “GOGGLE AREA,” read a sign hanging crookedly from the ceiling. “Wear your safety goggles. Portez vos lunettes de sûreté.” As I looked around, flipping through the pages of 1980s fashion magazines that were sitting in a pile on the floor, the two boys started picking up bottles and smashing them on the ground.
“Do you want to watch us light things on fire?” one of them asked. We declined.
In 2003, the old foundry was razed and replaced by the Quai des éclusiers, a luxury condo development.
On St. Laurent, facing a row of Bengali businesses and below the strip of mysterious Chinese import/export places, a tall loft building stands at the corner of Ontario. Back in 2002, it was filled with artists and small businesses, and a friendly-looking halal cafeteria, Restaurant Le Soleil, occupied the ground-floor retail space. Then, in 2003, the building was bought by a property developer with ambitious plans to turn it into a trendy condo development called “Sleb,” a SoHo-esque acronym meaning “St-Laurent en bas.”
Work proceeded at a steady clip until 2005, when it suddenly stopped. Something was wrong: the developer had gone bankrupt. Now the building sits empty.
It’s a similar story at the nearby Wilder Building, part of the larger Balmoral Block that stands at the corner of Ste. Catherine and Bleury. In late 2002, its tenants were evicted for a Parti Québécois plan to incorporate it into a new symphony hall and office development. When the Liberals were elected in 2003, they cancelled the project, leaving the Wilder Building (and its more architecturally significant neighbour, the Blumenthal Building), abandoned and rotting. The state of the Wilder is now so bad that it might even be condemned.
Imperial Boots Bellefontaine Wigs, below, was one of the businesses forced to move out when the government bought the property.
Two blocks away from the Wilder, on the southeast corner of Sherbrooke and Park, was a vacant lot. There’s a four-storey greystone apartment building there now. It’s hard to imagine today that, as recently as five years ago, there was a large empty lot, overgrown with weeds, at a major downtown intersection, especially one along Sherbrooke Street. As I write this, here’s a 35-storey hotel and apartment tower under construction less than 100 metres from where this vacant lot used to be.
The last photo I’ll post is a sign at the rear entrance of the Casse-Croûte du Vieux-Port, a little diner on McGill St. that vanished sometime in 2005 or 2006. It’s now a trendy restaurant.