Urban Canada

Like I previously mentioned, Montreal has never really been a city that was on my radar, which is a bit of a shame, because as far as cities go, it's pretty awesome.

(from manumilou from Flickr)

Unfortunately, the limited time I spent in the city means my observations are limited to what I saw downtown. I stayed in a hotel near McGill University, and ventured up and down Rue St. Catherine, but otherwise, wasn't able to explore any neighborhoods outside of the core. Even so, downtown provided me with more than enough observations about Urbanism in Montreal.

A True 24-Hour City?
The truth is, most places are not 24-hour cities; which is a shame, because there's something almost magical about a city that has something going on all the time. Remember when I mentioned my unexpected attraction to the movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist? Deep down, I know it's because I want to experience New York in a similar way that they did.

But back to the point... I saw at least two 24-hour Second Cup coffee shops in downtown Montreal. Maybe they're the only two in the city, maybe there's more. I don't know. But that's still two more 24-hour coffee shops than most cities have. I wasn't actually awake past midnight, but I did notice decent pedestrian traffic around downtown, even at 11pm.

I don't want to jump the gun and declare Montreal a true 24-hour city, because I simply didn't see enough of it to honestly draw that conclusion, but at least it's a city that's busy and open for business after dark. That's something I definitely appreciate.

Graffiti Everywhere
Here in DC, you don't see graffiti covering everything in the "nice" parts of town. And you'd definitely never see it in a Metro Station. In Montreal, it's everywhere.

(from canadapost on Flickr)

Admittedly, it made me a little uncomfortable at first - not because it's inherently problematic, but because I've been conditioned to expect that graffiti exists in the bad parts of town and gets painted over in desirable neighborhoods. It didn't seem to bother Montreal's locals though, who went on with their lives as if it didn't exist. I can barely imagine an Apple store in a neighborhood with graffiti covering the nearby walls, and yet, in downtown Montreal, there it is.

This really poses bigger questions about crime. Despite the fact that graffiti is everywhere, and police presence seemed rather thin (at least compared to what I'm used to seeing), the streets still felt perfectly safe. There were enough pedestrians and "eyes on the street" to put you at comfort. To me, it goes to show that busy streets make for the safest streets, all else equal.

Bikes, Trains and Getting Around
When bike sharing was the hottest topic in DC, I heard a lot about Bixi of Montreal. Their system is closed for the winter, so unfortunately, I wasn't able to see how it compares to Capital Bikeshare; but it's a good example of the progressive stance the city's leaders take on transportation issues.

I did use the Metro system, which, from what I experienced, is convenient and pleasant. It's the third busiest heavy rail system in North America, and carries more people everyday than Metrorail in DC. The conversation I had with locals leads me to think it's as much a part of the local culture as a transit system could be.

Another World Underground
Typically, I don't think that anything that takes people off the streets and puts them someplace else is good for urbanism. I also understand the desire for this type of environment in a city where it's very cold. Ultimately, I feel torn, because Montreal's Underground City is vast and people use it for practical purposes; but it doesn't seem to detract from the environment on the street above either.


    On January 20, 2011 Mel said...

    Re: graffiti. I noticed the same thing in Toronto, especially in the Kensington Market area. I think it oddly added to the aesthetic and urban-vintage feel to the neighborhood.

    But, as you, I felt "on my guard" at first -- until I realized that nobody else seemed to mind.

    On January 26, 2011 rdi said...

    Grafitti in Canadian cities doesn't carry the gang associations it seems to in the US. In some areas it's even a legitimate art project.