Dances with Bagels

By Tooker Gomberg, Montreal, Canada.

Montreal’s great growing pains.

To survive in Montreal one must learn a special dance. The dance of the jaywalker. Apparently the word doesn’t exist in French. If you’re here, and want to walk over to there, you just do it – being careful to dance out of the way of the hurtling vehicles.

Recently the city launched a media campaign, replete with slogans painted on the sidewalks, in an attempt to get pedestrians to stop jaywalking,. The campaign was widely ridiculed, especially in the media. People seem to like the freedom to walk where and when they wish.

Montreal also has special smells. Where I’m staying the air is laden with the distinctive and fragrant smell of hand-made, wood oven fired bagels. After being away for fourteen years I find it hard to resist savouring a steaming sesame seed bagel.

Times are tough here, they say. Montreal is caught in the crossfire of language and history. Tormented by politics and anxiety, the city seems stuck, unable to imagine a future for itself. In the meantime the economy languishes, unemployment rises, and business and enthusiasm head for the highway.

That’s one picture, repeated with regularity by the mainstream media. Often overlooked, however, is the city’s incredible spirit. Its joie de vivre. Its spunk.

Since arriving a few weeks ago, I’ve attended nearly a rally a week. One group protested speeding traffic on Park Avenue, a major artery. Another rally protested against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant right next to Mt. Royal. Some people didn’t like its location, others pointed to the poor nutritional quality of the food, the slaughter of animals, and the destruction of rainforest for cheap burger meat.

Another day I joined a small Critical Mass bicycle rally which reclaimed one lane of downtown streets away from the petrol beasts, if only for a short while.

It’s a greener Montreal than when I left. In the late 1970’s I founded Vieilles Nouvelles / Old News, a group running one of Canada’s first curbside recycling programs. Recycling was marginal then. We fought long and hard to try to get governments and citizens to support recycling programs. Today I walk the streets and see green recycling boxes by the curb almost everywhere.

In those days we struggled for bicycle paths and increased bicycle parking racks. Today Montreal boasts one of the most extensive networks of bicycle paths of any city in Canada. Hundreds of racks have been installed, with hundreds more soon to come.

But the greenest thing about Montreal is also the most subtle – the design of the older parts of the city. One of the most important hallmarks of an ecological city is having things nearby. The older neighbourhoods have grocery stores every few blocks. These stores even stock beer and wine, and staff will gladly deliver the goods to your place on a special bicycle equipped with a front carrier to carry the boxes.

There is a hardware store within a block of where I am. Why drive to a megastore to get a hammer when one can be had in the neighbourhood at considerably less hassle? A YMCA, a pharmacy, numerous restaurants, bars, all night cafes, new and second-hand clothing stores, and a library are all within a few blocks. And surprisingly, there isn’t much traffic.

The buildings are of a human scale, usually three stories high, and thanks to the density, people choose to walk around, ride their bikes, or take transit. There are buses every eleven minutes because there are enough people to support the system, and people take the bus because service is frequent.

Montreal’s strength is in its diversity. A cosmopolitan city, it brings together people with varied languages, cultures, foods and ideas. People seem tired of the language battles. A recent poll showed that most would be happy to wait at least ten years before having another referendum.

Last weekend at a conference, Montrealers grappled with ideas about their city’s future. A common theme was how Montreal gets caught in the middle of political battles between Ottawa and Quebec. A few people suggested that Montreal might flourish as a city state like Singapore, or with a special status like Hamburg, Germany, or Brussels, Belgium. Someone commented that Montreal is unique, and shouldn’t be treated as Chibougamau South or Mississauga East.

In the end, however, Montreal’s French and English solitudes will remain apart as long as they wish to. But when they decide that they want to get to know each other better, there must be a thousand ways to do so. Perhaps the best way to bridge the chasm of culture and history is with imagination, said Luc-Normand Tellier, author of the book VIVE MONTREAL LIBRE! Why not, he suggested, allow two-year exchanges between kids in English and French language schools? He suggests that the greatest asset of the city is its bilingualism. I’d like to listen to a bilingual radio station. Why not?

When millions of minds ponder how neighbours might live together, amazing things can happen. Perhaps Montrealers are ready to transcend the shadows of the past, build on their strengths, and envision a future together. And if that can be done, who knows, the whole nation might celebrate, and dance together.

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