Once upon a time, before it became a playground for tourists, the east end of Old Montreal was a real, functioning neighbourhood. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Place Jacques Cartier, one of Montreal’s oldest and most picturesque squares. For more than 150 years, from 1803 until the end of the 1950s, it was the heart of a busy market district that extended down from City Hall and east towards the Bonsecours Market. Twice a week, merchants from across Quebec gathered in the square to sell fresh produce and other goods.
While the farmers’ market was swept away by a postwar distain for such things, vestiges remain in the form of flower vendors and artists. In the summer, Place Jacques Cartier is pedestrianized and it becomes one of the most pleasant public spaces in Montreal. But, as nice as it is, it feels entirely removed from the life of Montreal. With its faux-French eateries, obsequious street performers and artists selling saccharine landscapes, it could just as well be located in the lower town of Quebec City. For all of the square’s history, it lacks any real historical presence; it has been polished and gift-wrapped for visitors.
There’s a square in Rome called the Campo de’ Fiori, with a commercial history very similar to that of Place Jacques Cartier. Like all of central Rome, it’s very touristy, but it nonetheless retains a balance between the interests of locals and visitors. Every morning, a fruit and fish market occupies the square, providing daily necessities to nearby residents while giving tourists a picture-perfect scene of everyday Roman life. In the evening, the square becomes a popular destination for café- and restaurant-goers.
As Old Montreal’s residential population grows, and Montrealers become more interested in fresh, locally-produced food, would it be far-fetched to think that Place Jacques Cartier could, for at least a couple of days per week, bring back some of its old market life?