While Bostonians have engaged in three decades of self-flagellation over the neighbourhoods they lost to inhuman highway and urban renewal schemes, Montrealers are different. Most of us don’t seem to realize just how much of the city was destroyed in the 1960s and 70s for massive renewal projects that, arguably, left Montreal in worse shape than it was before.
One of these projects was the Ville-Marie Expressway, which tore through a swath of downtown from Victoria Square to the Molson Brewery. Its construction in the late 1960s entailed the demolition of hundreds of buildings and many small streets. Viger Square, once among the city’s most elegant, was ripped apart and rebuilt as a concrete maze beloved by no one. The expressway’s path took it through one of the oldest parts of town; almost everything that once stood between St. Antoine and Viger Streets was demolished, if not for the highway itself, then for the parking lots that flank it. It’s hard to imagine just how much of Montreal’s heritage was lost because of this.
We can, however, get an idea of what this section of downtown was like before the Ville-Marie Expressway came and trashed the place. Last week, I posted an old photo of the Craig Terminus, a streetcar hub that stood on Craig Street, a section of St. Antoine. The STM’s archives contain even more images of the area around the terminus, which was a busy, eclectic retail district favoured by Montrealers for its television, radio and camera shops. Its buildings, in height and architecture, resembled those of nearby McGill Street.
Today’s St. Antoine is a sad excuse for a street. Even though a number of its buildings survived the expressway construction and onslaught of parking lots, its one-way traffic flow — designed to push cars as quickly as possible to and from the highway — killed any pedestrian friendliness it once had. Recent efforts to rehabilitate St. Antoine have given it spacious new sidewalks and attractive street furniture, but the recently-expanded Palais des congrès treats it as a back alley, with only a few retail spaces and plenty of blank walls.
If there’s an upside to all of this, it’s that the Ville-Marie Expressway was built in a trench. It can easily be covered and, eventually, it will be. The tightly-woven urban fabric that existed before, a product of centuries of piecemeal development, will probably never be recreated. But we can at least repair the highway’s damage as much as possible.