I was wandering the St. Laurent Street Festival yesterday, a good barometer of Montreal life.
The crowds looked tanned, happy and totally chilled-out, despite our heat-challenged summer.
They ambled the Main at half the pace of the last street festival in spring — back when everyone looked like escaped convicts just sprung from their winter cell, scared of being recaptured by a freak June snowstorm.
Back then the Main was a disaster. I counted 28 shuttered shops in a four-block stretch, all decimated by a brutal winter and a year of political brutality.
But yesterday I counted only seven empty stores — not ideal but a step in the right direction. Even a long-abandoned storefront at the corner of Pine Ave. was finally under renovation in a city that needs a welcome sign saying: “Montreal Under Repair.”
Our city is recovering from a two-year sick spell that had us stressed out and exhausted — from the Summer of Student Strikes through the Cataclysm of Construction Scandals, through the Reign of Resigning Mayors and the PQ’s Charter-from-Hell debate.
Now all that feels like a bad dream, as if a sorcerer’s spell was lifted from our land. Maybe that’s why the PQ is down at 18 per cent support and talking about changing referendum strategies by moving to Scotland.
Life here feels weirdly normal and mostly very good. Here’s my report card on Montreal, summer 2014:
Mark — A: The Quartier des spectacles has been sizzling all summer, the place to go even when you have no place to go. This week the Festival of Mode and Design took over the streets with tentfuls of fashion but every week there’s something else happening — from the usual jazz and comedy megafests to mini-fests like punk rock Pouzzafest and the Circus-and-Bike-jumping Festival.
Most importantly, everything in the Quartier is free, a never-ending outdoor summer party that’s affordable for all — and unique I think in North America.
Now if we could just find a way make the party last through winter — by creating a Quartier des spectacles glass dome.
Mark — A: City planners have added numerous creative touches to our street life from the Quartier’s musical swings to 25 free outdoor pianos around town that all played together at lunchtime Wednesday.
The best new brainstorm is the extended wood patios being added to many bar-terrasses for the summer, letting them spread into the streets. It’s a way to create more street life without rebuilding our streets — and destroying the street in a cloud of construction.
These wood terrasses are growing everywhere like a new Balconville — from the Main and St. Denis St. to downtown, Outrement and a block-long stretch along Ste. Catherine, west of Guy, that’s usually packed.
It’s part of the rebirth of Ste. Catherine St. between Guy and Atwater — long a forlorn strip of empty storefronts that’s suddenly buzzing with new businesses and shoppers.
Throw in the vast emerging Griffintown development and our two superhospitals rising into the sky amid a flock of once-extinct construction cranes – and you can feel our city’s buzz and optimism again.
Two close friends have professionally accomplished daughters just returning to work in Monteal, after jobs in New York and L.A. — because they like the quality-of-life here. But I’m not sure they’d be coming back if this year felt like last year.
Mark — F: The city’s worst eyesore is now Beaver Lake, Mount Royal’s traditional jewel-in-the-crown. It’s been closed and fenced off for the third straight summer for renovations, brought to you by the Department of Inexplicable Construction Delays.
The city blames the delays on everything from unexpected flooding, to post-Charbonneau contract problems to the three supermoons and Jupiter being mis-aligned with Mars.
But whatever the excuse, low-income city-trapped Montrealers are again denied one of our greatest summer getaways.
Mark — B+: Politically, things look better than in a long time. We have an expansive, upbeat mayor and a calm, poker-faced premier who’s obsessed with jump-starting the economy, not jump-starting sovereignty.
Yet life here isn’t dull, as the firemen’s attack on city hall last week reminded us. Frankly, until that rampage I’d enjoyed the cops in camouflage, the firemen in skirts and bus drivers in pink hot shorts. I was waiting for civil servants to start wearing thongs.
But the mugging of city hall under the blind eye of police was embarrassing. What next — firemen watching as buildings burn? The Green Onions letting cars park illegally, without tickets?
Nope, that last one could never happen here.
The good news is that even Montreal’s problems are now normal ones like you’ll see in every big city — as we argue about union contracts, pension deficits, burough financing, snow-contracting parameters and … ya-a-aawn.
Enjoy the moment — you know things are good when the only thing most people are complaining about is the weather.
Republished with the permission of Josh Freed from the Montreal Gazette.