Kate McDonnell snapped this photo of a newsstand at Pine and St. Laurent in 1991. Back then, it was one of three remaining outdoor news kiosks in Montreal, along with one at University and Ste. Catherine and another at Place d’Armes. By 1996, they had all disappeared, the victims of declining business and a municipal government that was hostile to street vendors of all sorts.
The first crackdown on street vendors came with the election of Jean Drapeau as mayor in 1960. He reigned over the city for nearly two and a half decades, doing more to reshape its cityscape than any other mayor. While he deserves credit for some of Montreal’s boldest and remarkable achievements, especially Expo and the metro system, Drapeau was also a fussy and paternalistic man who tried to remake Montreal in his own clean-cut, conservative image. When it came to sidewalks, this meant getting rid of anything that might be perceived as unsightly or old-fashioned: newspaper boxes, food vendors, café tables and, of course, newsstands.
It took a good twenty years for most of the newsstands to vanish. In the 1960s, reported the Gazette, “the city’s streets were dotted with dozens of newsstands, many of them occupied by newsies who had been in the business for decades.” In a city with high volumes of pedestrian traffic and five daily newspapers—two in English and three in French—newsstands were an essential part of the local media.
Nevertheless, in the early 1970s, Drapeau passed a law that required newsstands to be demolished immediately after being vacated by their tenants. Needless to say, as their owners left or retired, they disappeared rather quickly. Since the city owned most of the kiosks, Drapeau justified his actions by claiming that there was no money left to maintain them. “They were ugly, rusted structures in condemnable condition,” he told the Gazette in 1996.
Of course, the was little more than excuse. There were plenty of ways to make sure that the newsstands were kept in good condition, but Drapeau just wanted them gone — whatever the cost to the city’s streetlife.
I can’t claim to be an expert in the business of selling magazines and newspapers. It’s certainly not easy — many magazine stores make the bulk of their money in tobacco and confectionery sales. But it’s almost inconceivable that newsstands could not succeed if they were reintroduced to a few high-traffic locations around town like the corner of Ste. Catherine and University, the plaza in front of Mont-Royal metro, Côte des Neiges Road or just about anywhere near the Concordia, UQAM or McGill campuses.
Although Montreal has been gradually increasing the number of street vending permits it hands out each year — craft and clothing vendors are now a daily fixture on Ste. Catherine Street and a weekly feature of the tam-tams — this city’s attitude to street vending remains far more conservative than that of the other big Canadian city, Toronto, where vendors number in the thousands rather than the hundreds.
The excuse today for continuing to restrict street vending is that vendors compete unfairly with retail stores. I don’t buy this for a minute. Not once have I seen evidence to back up this assertion — in fact, anecdotal evidence suggests exactly the opposite, considering that the cities with the most dynamic retail environments are also those with plenty of street merchants. When it comes to retail, there’s no such thing as too much competition.
Crossposted to Urbanphoto.