“What would Jean Drapeau Do?” asks Richard Bergeron in an essay published on Projet Montréal’s website.
It’s an interesting choice of role model for Projet Montréal’s mayoral candidate, as most of us have got, at best, mixed feelings for the man who ruled the city for three decades (1954-57 and 1960-86). Drapeau has a legacy of projects that radically transformed and modernized Montreal, only to feel embarrassingly out of touch a generation later.
Much like today, Montreal in the early 1950s was perceived as corrupt to the core. In 1954, 5000 charges were made against police force members and even Executive Committee members for collusion with mobs who ran the Red-Light district. And young Jean Drapeau was a lawyer with the “morality squad” who worked on the report.
But, over time, Drapeau’s campaign to clean up the city went beyond dodgy police practices. He also “cleaned up” plenty of working class neighbourhoods like the faubourg m’lasse and goose village by razing them to the ground. And then there were his efforts to “clean” the gay bars out of the downtown core in time for the Olympics, and his sudden decision to tear down the “pulluting” Corridart exhibit on Sherbrooke street just days before the ’76 games began.
Drapeau giveth and Drapeau taketh away….
One one hand you’ve got the glory days of the metro and Expo-67. But then there’s the Big Owe and the crumbling Turcot interchange to recon with a generation later. Drapeau tore up the city’s tramway network and demolished 30,000 homes in order to make way for automobile transportation. Then he went and built another 20,000 homes to try and lure Montrealers back from the suburbs.
As Bergeron himself points out in his essay: “Jean Drapeau was anything but a great democrat.”
So why put him on a pedestal?
Perhaps it is true, as Bergeron suggests, that projects like the metro would never have come to fruition if the mayor had not been such a hard-headed authoritarian. In his essay, Bergeron imagines how Drapeau would react to our current political climate: “Stop putting a monkey wrench in my projects with your forty thousand studies every time I try to lift a finger. After all, a metro, a world fair and the Olympic Games were a teensy bit more complicated to plan than the projects you’re talking about these days in Montréal!“
The leader of Projet Montréal also concedes that in today’s race Drapeau would have to learn to work with citizens. Well, enlightened ones, at least.
And what would Jean Drapeau do today?
Whatever it may be, Bergeron says it would be timely, ambitious, fast-paced, and it would be done with confidence and love for the city of Montreal.
So is this the kind of exhuberant, benevolent dictator we could benefit from in 2009?
And now our feature presentation…
If you want to get a feel for the young Mayor Drapeau in action, check out this 1955 documentary about traffic planning in Montreal. It features interviews with both Mayor Jean Drapeau and his head of Urban Planning detailing their plans for handling increasing automobile traffic on a grid conceived for horse travel and trams (they come in around 4:00).
I like the part where Drapeau says: “Il ne faut pas résoudre les problemes d’aujourd’hui seulement, mais éviter d’en créer d’autres…” (“We don’t only have to solve the problems of today, but avoid creating other ones…”)
Lesson: No matter how pure our intentions, the problems we face in the future may not be the ones we are anticipating today. Flexibility is key.
Image: Aislin, the cartoonist wrote: “When Drapeau finally retired in 1986 I drew this cartoon, comparing his presence in Montreal to that of Mont Royal, as a salute to him.” From the McCord museum archives.
Thanks to Kyle MacDonald for the tip about the film.