“Let Toronto become Milan. Montreal will always be Rome.” Thus remarked Jean Drapeau, Montreal’s longest-running mayor and the man credited with transforming a smallish port city into a world player by the end of the 20th century. Indeed, his administration is behind Montreal’s most ambitious projects and enduring icons: the Expo 67 world’s fair; the 1976 Summer Olympics; a state-of-the-art metro (“second only to Paris,” locals still claim); an artificial island in the St. Lawrence River, created from excavated land; a stadium whose tower is the tallest inclined structure in the world, and whose striking silhouette is rivalled only by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome turned Biosphere; and the Mount-Royal cross. All of which have become synonymous with the city over the years.
Montreal had a vitality and sophistication that made other cities look hopelessly parochial by comparison, and when I made the move there for university, decades later, I found my parents reminiscing fondly about their youthful jaunts to la belle province for unofficial but just-as-vital tourist attractions: late-night poutine, buzzing terraces and the weekly drum circles by the George-Étienne Cartier monument. Montreal: the place where you couldn’t help but feel like one of the cool kids.
While the glow of this golden era has since somewhat dimmed – political scandals and construction headaches have kept the city in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons – the party picked up again in 2017 as the city matched Canada’s 150th with a year’s worth of celebrations for its own 375th anniversary. Whimsical, city-wide events and installations have abounded, from giant marionettes parading the streets to a tribute to Leonard Cohen to an interactive light installation on the Jacques Cartier Bridge.
More than just another excuse to make merry, the milestone has been an opportunity for residents and frequent visitors alike to rediscover a city merging old-world charm with innovation. To get to the heart of this juxtaposition, I skipped the burgeoning hipster boroughs of Mile-Ex and Griffintown and went to the city’s most unlikely spot to unearth something new: Old Montreal.
Officially designated a historic district in 1964, over the years Old Montreal became a fossil trapped in amber, offering little more than horse-drawn calèche rides between mediocre restaurants and souvenir shops. And while its building exteriors and cobblestone streets often double for Europe in Hollywood movies – styles in the area range widely from Gothic Revival to Italian Renaissance to Art Deco – until recently there was little to appeal to locals, whether they were in search of a well-made cocktail or a litre of milk.
“It was a picturesque nothing,” states restaurateur Daniel Notkin bluntly. Co-owner of Notkins, the city’s best spot for brackish bivalves (not to mention a champion shucker himself), he is a bona fide local luminary whose ties to Old Montreal go back to the early 2000s, when he found it to be a corner of the island with surprisingly affordable loft spaces. “When I first moved in, there was really nowhere to go at night,” he admits, “but I had a hunch that there would be a turnaround if one or two people took a risk.”
Enter Chuck Hughes. The now celebrity chef opened his first restaurant, Garde Manger, back in 2006 and, according to Notkin, led the charge for a wave of new bars, restaurants and cafés that would revitalize Old Montreal as a dining destination – beyond house wine and steak frites.
As we down Malpeques in Notkin’s eponymous, two-floor restaurant, he tells me of happy childhood summers spent by the ocean in Massachusetts with his family, diving for lobster and crabs. This nostalgia saw him forge an immediate connection with the city’s Old Port – where all the fresh seafood once came into the city – and inspired him to launch Montreal’s annual Oysterfest seafood festival, a charitable initiative that brings together the city’s best chefs, musicians, bartenders and shuckers.
Yet with great success comes great responsibility – and rising rents. But despite the declining availability of affordable commercial spaces for entrepreneurs such as himself, Notkin remains steadfast in his love of the area. “It was bound to happen. Living on an island means we can’t really expand or sprawl like other cities, but the adversity is what keeps us creative.”
It’s a remarkable transformation for an area that once resembled an open-air museum.
As I head down the cobblestones toward the Old Port, I quickly see what Notkin is getting at. Formerly neglected, perpetually À Louer buildings have been converted into luxury condos, office spaces and eateries. I step into Crew Collective & Café – a regal 1920s bank building turned communal workspace – and find it full of both local creatives and curious tourists. It’s a remarkable transformation for an area that, even a decade ago, resembled an open-air museum. As I round a corner onto Rue Saint-Pierre, one of the area’s particularly impressive conversion projects comes into view: Two formerly abandoned buildings dating back to 1861 have found new life as one of the city’s most innovative arts destinations.
The Phi Centre was founded in 2012 by Phoebe Greenberg, an heiress of the Ottawa-based Minto property group. She first made her mark on the Montreal social scene in 2007 with DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, an independently funded gallery located a few blocks east. The LEED-certified Phi Centre was Greenberg’s idea of a future-forward cultural sandbox: an evolving space in which to both make art and experience it. Its five floors and terrace comprise a cutting-edge digital production studio (recently upgraded by temporary resident Red Bull Music Academy), a multi-purpose acoustic space and a small cinema perfect for private screenings and indie film fests.
The crowning jewel, however, is the Virtual Reality Garden. Installed in 2015 after the overwhelming success of the Sensory Stories exhibit – which included a music video for Jeff Buckley and a film featuring LeBron James – the VR Garden gives the public an opportunity to experience a new form of immersive storytelling. This is where Myriam Achard, Phi’s Director of PR and Communications, finds me, goggles on, watching (and reaching for) an imaginary Iron Giant-like robot trying to reattach its hand.
“Phi doesn’t plan so far in advance, about four months, so we can react quickly to new exhibit offers,” says Achard with a typically laid-back Montréalaise laugh. “We try to be flexible, like the building itself. We’re not sure what’s on tap for 2018, but for us, that’s part of the fun.”
This flexibility has no doubt been a factor in the Phi Centre’s ability to attract a broad swath of renowned musicians and artists who would normally fill stadiums. Achard nonchalantly recounts memorable film screenings with Nick Cave and Henry Rollins, the first foray of Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def) into stand-up comedy and the night when Diplo and Madonna joined Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne and Win Butler on stage for a DJ set in support of the Haitian charity KANPE. “Artists love it here,” she says. “Our spaces are very intimate and reassuring.”
According to Achard, however, the Phi Centre’s appeal goes beyond its artistic ambitions and extends to the city itself. “We would have never set up Phi anywhere else in the world. The people here are hungry for culture and very open to new things. They love their city.”
For another old-meets-new architectural project hiding in plain sight, I wander over to nearby Rue Saint-Vincent and William Gray, the city’s newest boutique hotel. The property comprises two 18th-century buildings (including one built by sheriff and merchant Edward William Gray) and a sleek new eight-floor glass tower. Walking through the eye-catching, lightbox-like entrance and into the airy atrium dubbed the Living Room, I can instantly see how this hotel differs from so many around it: While the minimalist suites cater to the style-conscious traveller – with exposed concrete ceilings and Le Labo amenities – it is the public areas of the hotel that highlight local pride. Corridors are adorned with colourful, artfully cropped photos of Montreal’s Modernist metro stations by Jesse Riviere. In the lounge, a communal library is stocked with a curated selection of titles (including graphic novels by Montreal authors and artists) from independent Mile End publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
Across the hall, an offshoot of Montreal streetwear boutique Off The Hook aka OTH promotes local brands, including Naked & Famous denim, Want Les Essentiels bags and the shop’s own “Chez Nous” line – a range of graphic tees that celebrate the city’s neighbourhoods, from Saint-Henri to Villeray. A quick walk through the shop and I’m standing in my favourite Montreal institution – only I’m not. It’s Café Olimpico, the second outpost of the 47-year-old Saint-Viateur mainstay. According to barista Joey Caputo, the new Olimpico, like its predecessor, has been adopted as a café for the community – a meeting point where people come to chat, work and relax. Much to his surprise, it has also attracted some familiar faces who wouldn’t have otherwise made the journey.
“The people who live or work in the area really want that local coffee spot,” he explains, deftly pouring a dollop of milk into my macchiato. “But we’re also seeing a lot of regulars coming down to Old Montreal on the weekend to have a coffee and wander around. It’s really changed the vibe of what was always just a tourist ’hood.”
Montreal is a work in progress that seems to work best when it’s at play.
That evening, on Caputo’s advice, I go up to one of the hotel’s two rooftop terraces for what he assures me is the best view in the city. It’s a crisp but not too cold evening, perfect for nursing a gin cocktail finished with local honey and lager. As I gaze out over the St. Lawrence River, the evening sun casts a soft orange glow over the cityscape’s most famous faces: the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, Farine Five Roses, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67. It’s a postcard view that, save for some new building developments, remains comfortingly timeless. But by now I know that, at street level, the city is moving beyond its glory days, with its sights set firmly on the future. Montreal remains the unconventional island it has always been – creative, artistic, pioneering, decadent – a work in progress that seems to work best when it’s at play. The cool kids are still here, they’ve just grown up a little.