There’s a ribbon in the willow and a tire swing rope,
And a briar patch of berries takin over the slope,
the cat’ll sleep in the mailbox and we’ll never go to town,
til we bury every dream in the cold, cold ground
—Tom Waits, “The Cold, Cold Ground”
A short walk from the Convivium office in Montreal, anonymous, stubborn pedestrians have cut a person-size hole in a chain-link fence. Knowledgeable locals tell me the opening is only the latest and longest lasting in a series of citizen-directed modifications to the fence, built and owned by Canadian National Railway. Without the hole, which is really a wholesale peeling back of the metal upon itself, like a surgical patient’s skin, walkers on the west side of the Place-Saint-Henri metro station would be denied a natural shortcut at the end of a short dirt path that determined feet have created. Knowledgeable locals tell me that for years CN did, in fact, diligently patch up unauthorized access and egress. Lately, Canada’s largest railway seems to have accepted the iron will of city dwellers intent on proceeding as they wish.
I was unaware of these fencing skirmishes until April 2014 when our Montreal winter finally gave up its sulk and stepped aside for spring’s arrival. In fact, I was unaware of the path itself until Convivium colleague Michele Beacom said she had seen people walking where it seemed impossible to go, and wondered how they got there. On her adventurous lead, we took an exploratory walk on a cold, sunny Sunday during a break in the production of the magazine and came to the path, then to the fence, and ultimately to its illegitimate but very handy hole. Since then, path, fence, hole have provided the route between my office and the metro. They have in turn become, in their own right, markers of meaning in the daily ritual of coming and going from home to work and back again. Each step through the hole in the fence imbues that ritual with a small, slightly comic, air of urban defiance.
Choosing to follow the dirt path and go through the hole rather than skirting the narrow sidewalk of rue Charlebois or being penned in by traffic noise and fumes on rue Saint-Jacques further north, is a gesture of common-front pedestrian politics. It asserts, even when there’s absolutely no one around to receive the petition, the human urge to follow the path that it is reasonable and natural for humans to follow. It stops short of a rebellious, violent overturning. The low, bare crossbar of the fence still obliges all who approach to bob and duck in kind of secular genuflection. Yet the gape in its middle obliges the fence to soften its authoritarian posture enough to accommodate common sense, common need, indeed common life as it is actually lived. It opens to what the great Lachine-born novelist Saul Bellow calls “good-natured forms of resistance and free choice.”
The result is a sotto voce, rather than shouted, slogan that one is determined to walk in a different Montreal than our civic and corporate guardians bid us experience. In that sense, the hole in the fence corresponds to time tunnels and other fantasy portals: it is a curb on the hubris of civic physics. It becomes a collective opening for each passer-through to embody an alternative, and individual, story of the city.
For as Simon Fraser University historian Nicolas Kenny contends in his new book, The Feel of the City: Experiences of Urban Transformation, “a city is but lifeless matter until its occupants infuse it with significance. Geometrical lines drawn by urban planners become meaningful elements of people’s lives as they are incorporated into what [theorist Michel de Certeau] calls ‘spatial stories’: the narratives through which individuals relate their experiences and define their identities.” CN’s fence is but a species of the urban planner’s perfected geometric abstractions. It was built for the best of reasons, and with every legal right. It was to protect CN from trespass and citizens from harm on the railway’s tracks and right-of-way, which curve through the centre of the once apocalyptically deindustrialized and impoverished neighbourhood of Saint-Henri.
Where the good intentions of the fence makers went awry was forgetting the reality of human movement, in this case urbanized human movement, and the “spatial stories” that naturally arise. What they ignored was that until the hole was cut in the fence, the fence itself cut apart the linking histories of Saint-Henri. The path to the hole in the fence may only be a dirt diversion, but it is still physicality, location, place. Because our familiar means of transport have allowed us for a century to be borne mechanically from place to place in cars, buses, trams, we are inclined to think of paths primarily as metaphors. We follow our own path. We are on the right or wrong path. We regret the path – to success, to happiness, above all to love – not chosen. We internalize the Buddhist wisdom that the path is the goal. Yet paths are material as well as metaphoric. They are the physical result of real footsteps dug into the tangible surface of rock and dirt. They are history marked in earth.
The path to the hole in the Saint-Henri fence, then, is a critical, incarnate element in the linkage of linear paths that run from rue Saint-Rémi in the west all the way to Atwater in the east. The first of those paths runs right alongside the old schmatte building where Convivium is located. To walk out of the ElPro Building is to move through the heart of what long ago was named the Village des Tanneries. European fur traders tanned pelts on what became the village ground as far back as 1685. A literal cottage industry grew up in the 1700s around leather tanning operations in small sheds built a few kilometres up the St. Lawrence from Ville-Marie, the forerunner settlement to modern Montreal. The entire village was at one time named for a single family, la famille Rolland, and in the year of Canada’s birth, 1867, settled into existence as Saint-Henri des Tanneries parish during that happier time when Holy Mother Church functioned as the boundary commission for faith, work, family and life in general.
Acknowledging that all history is local history, there remains a significance to this particular past-in-place that outstrips mere golden-glow nostalgia or patriotism for minor plots of earth. It is the significance of continuity noticeable now only by its erasure and residual leavings. It is the continuity of incarnate story; not, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s immortal phrase, the pastness of the past but its presence. For out of the transition from fur trade to rag trade grew a massive concentration of industry, nourished by the waters of the Irish-navvy-built Lachine Canal, forming the foundation for the Canada of 19th and 20th century modernity. Nicolas Kenny reminds us eloquently in The Feel of the City of our tendency to forget that the foundation was built not by pure economic equations of supply and demand or labour and capital, or ephemeral political categories of progress and reaction, but by the tensions of economics and politics working upon human bodies, human arms, legs, shoulders and backs.
“Industrial work was, by its nature, physical work,” Kenny writes. “The worker’s body was frequently put forth as a metaphor for industrialization itself, and represented as a machine, a tool for production. Like the machines that required large shipments of coal and vast hydraulic resources to operate, so too the working body needed fuel. Like the machines whose output sullied the air of the city, so too did the working body pollute its own environment. Like the machines that required upkeep and maintenance, so too was the working body susceptible to overheating and malfunctioning.”
The faces of those “machines” stare out at me daily from century-old photographs that line the lobby of the ElPro Building. They are women seated within inches of each other at sewing machines making shirts and collars for the Tooke Company. They are young men, and even some children, building the Lachine Canal. They are speck-like silhouettes, arms raised, fingers pointing, leaning in, talking, in the panoramas of Saint-Henri’s ubiquitous industrial grounds. Long dead, long forgotten, every dream buried in the cold, cold ground, their physical existence nevertheless remains visible and available to current passing eyes through the portal in time that is the photographic artifact. We can stare at them, even if they can no longer look back at us from their side of the hole in the fence, and find in them more than memory, certainly much more than mere nostalgia. We can find in them a constant source of awareness that the work of human hands is the fulfillment of human nature. Cast out of Eden, compelled to earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brow, we have made from it our spiritual drink, as the beautiful language of the Eucharist phrases it, forming the foundation of who and what we are.
At the turn of the last century, Montreal was the epicentre of the transformation of who Canadians had been into what we were to become. In The Feel of the City, Kenny makes the case that Montreal was the ideological and physical 19th and 20th century force that pushed Canada into modernity with all its triumphs and tensions, progress and impoverishment.
“In Montreal… by far Canada’s largest industrial centre in terms of production and employment during the period, the shift from small-scale manual production to massive, mechanized factories employing scores, even hundreds, of workers was largely complete by the 1870s,” Kenny writes. “During this time, Montreal industries manufactured primarily consumer goods such as food, clothing and shoes, while machinery and other mechanical equipment formed another branch of specialization. As the city’s manufacturing force continued to expand throughout the turn of the century, production increased [in] textiles, tobacco products, electrical equipment, steelworks and rolling mills. Between 1890 and 1910, both the value of manufactured goods and the number of people employed in industries doubled.”
The effect of such a doubling went far beyond the arithmetical or statistical. It was simultaneously ideological and physical, rational and felt. Or, to borrow a phrase from political theorist Eric Voegelin, “in short, modernity without restraint.”
Modernity had, at its heart, faith in the immanent and unbounded ordering possibilities of progress. It was, as Kenny summarizes it so well, the belief that “the idea of change mattered as much as the changes themselves… that the inventions of the day were inherently temporary, destined by their very nature to be soon replaced by newer and superior iterations.”
Just as workers’ bodies were metaphoric machines, so the physical space of a city such as Montreal became, in the modernist project, the simulacrum of an industrial works using the techniques – and the visions – of rational production to produce wealth, yes, but also reliability, direction, order, control. Yet, modernity itself came with a hole at the centre of its ideological structure: human nature.
“Modernity,” Kenny writes, “[was] the continual back-and-forth between efforts to rationalize the layout of cities and the behaviours of their residents… the intuitive ways in which people apprehended [its] transformations…. [the] tension between the haggard self and the turbulent world that besieges it….”
The collapse of Montreal’s industrial foundation in the 1970s and early ’80s, coeval with the final rattling gasps of progressive faith, is evident in the abundance of blackened-brick factories, whether they sit abandoned and exfoliating or are newly reclaimed as fertile swathes of hipster loft-land. It is even more powerfully remarkable in the sight of Nature herself re-covering the entire landscape, less in some dystopo-enviro fantasy of rage against the human than in an enfolding embrace, a gathering in, a growing up, over, alongside and around. Exploring the path from its origin where the Village des Tanneries once stood all the way to the Place-Saint-Henri metro, the hole in the fence, and then further, as far as Lionel-Groulx metro is to feel oneself following modernity not sequentially into post-modernity, but backward to pre-modernity, even to a slightly out-of-kilter medievalism.
Much of the entirety of the island city of Montreal, of course, feels affected these days by that same backward-drifting fate. A Toronto friend of mine once said frankly, while not meaning to be unkind, that every time she visited Montreal, she felt as if she were stepping out into the streets of the tipping over cities of Latin America. While serious efforts have been made at both the official and citizen levels in recent years to revitalize certain quartiers of Montreal, it remains true that standing in much of its public can leave one feeling as though one has reached the late pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel where the wraiths of old costeños smile wanly in the mosquito-ridden air and try not to stoop too much under the eternal burden of forgotten aristocracy.
On the path to Saint-Henri’s hole in the fence and beyond, though there is a distinct feeling of the disintegration of “the briar patch of berries taking over the slope,” pace Tom Waits, the sense of loss seems to exude a curious vitality. There is, in the mixture of green leaves and urban rust, the hope forever reborn in the dying cadences of Philip Larkin’s poem “The Trees.”
The trees are coming into leaf?
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again,
And we grow old?
No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In full grown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Trees along the Saint-Henri paths seem poised to engulf whole building walls. Grasses bearing forth wildflowers appear to surge like surf toward the sills of lower storey windows. Fences drown in creeper vines. Graffiti art is framed by vegetation that amplifies its primitive energy and points broad fingers toward its cave wall origins. Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the link of linear path that retraces the rail bed of Montreal’s first railway. The implacably intertwined branches of low trees keep the path in a shade of darkness even at noon in summer. For someone walking through the right “spatial story,” the aboriginal, even the chthonic, is invisibly immediate, at least until the point where the path curves into the light again.
Resonance is redolent walking through the Parc du Premier-Chemin-de-Fer commemorating the Montreal and Lachine Railroad, which opened in 1847 and ran for 12 kilometres through the centre of Saint-Henri, roughly parallel to the Lachine Canal, pointed directly toward modernity. It was a corporate grandfather of the Grand Trunk Railway that, ultimately, became Canadian National and lost a battle over a hole in a fence to stubborn Saint-Henri pedestrians walking the downward path from the apogee of modernity. But perhaps even the suggestion of movement in the word “downward” is a misnomer. It may play into what Kenny identifies as a chief propaganda tool of urban modernity, namely the panorama. The panorama, Kenny points out, was a visual trick to hide what was deliberately being obscured in order to exaggerate what was deemed desirable.
Some apostles of late 19th century and early 20th century modernity sought to transmute the cold ground on which cities were built into airy abstractions that aggregated “places, ideas and activities” into forms of aspiration and achievement, Kenny writes. The way to do that was to show Montreal, for example, as if looked upon from a cloud castle – or at least the highest point of its geography, Mount Royal. To look, draw or photograph from above was to create “portraits of the city in which flaws were overlooked in favour of a coherent whole.” It turned the city over exclusively to knowledge gained through the eyes, insulated it from the tangibility of smell and touch (no mean goal in a booming metropolis of factory chimneys and outdoor toilets), and provided intellectually accessible evidence of ordered growth, of progress directed by a politics of rationality, discipline and intelligent control for the greater good of all.
“From the heights of panoramic viewpoints, the sense of sight was directly engaged in presenting the physical environment as proof of modernity’s hold on and governance of the city, its ability to not only keep its potentially unwieldy expansion in check, but also to thrive in its growth. Many saw in the panorama a grand layout of modernity’s promises for wealth and progress, the material realization of human intellectual and entrepreneurial potential.”
It would be romantic naïveté at best, dogmatic duplicity at worst, to insist that modernity utterly failed to bring to earth its grand plan of ever increasing wealth and, depending how the word is understood, progress. The distribution was – and remains – far from equitable. The promise itself impoverished, indentured, exhausted, injured, maimed, even killed generations of the human “machines” lured into its spell and made ignorant of older ways of living. Yet the very faith in reason that drove modernist ideology was the means by which, time after time, it moved past its own worst excessive instincts. Its credo of change as a source of common good freed it to follow the good path toward increasing fairness, equality, respect and healthfulness. Its positive legacy is a distribution of material wealth that makes possible an ease of life historically unimaginable this side of Eden.
Whatever is gained, of course, comes at a loss. The hubris of civic physics that let the last generation of modern Montrealers believe their city would endure as a limitless industrial powerhouse cost them the explorer’s sense of adventure and also the walker’s grounded perspective and perspicacity. It bred a politics of barriers and multitudinous isolations: economic, cultural, social, linguistic and perhaps, above all, spiritual. It cut them off, at least temporarily, from the linked paths of their own history, even from their own sense of destiny as a place of arrival, of discovery, of proudly going up but also humbly coming down the mountain.
When the cold, cold ground of economic reality rose up to effectively bury the city’s industrial economy as 20th century modernity slouched toward 21st century post-modernity, upwards of 50 per cent of Saint-Henri’s working age citizens were left unemployed. Other Montreal neighbourhoods were devastated, too, though few, if any, were harder hit. Expo ’67-era exuberance responsible for the ghastly multi-ramp Turcot Interchange and Ville-Marie Expressway had peeled Saint-Henri apart like grotesque incisions from some incompetent surgeon’s knife. Where architect Ludger Lemieux once fashioned, in the heart of street upon street of working-class homes, a gracious art deco enclave, brutalist-style public edifices were slammed down amid the tipping over factories and at the expense of the neighbourhood’s eponymous Catholic Church, demolished to make way for a public high school. Avenues took on an outskirts outpost feel. A ribbon in the willow and a tire swing rope would not have been out of place twisting, abandoned, in the wind.
And yet, anonymous pedestrians cut a hole in the fence, saw it patched up, stubbornly came back to cut it open again and again until the path was left to connect, until the walk from east to west or west to east, until the daily ritual of comic defiance could be completed without anyone being forced to walk the long way home. The hole in the fence is the gap inherent in the grand, panoramic plans and promises of modernity. It is the overlooking of the natural human refusal to be foreclosed from enduring. It is obliviousness to the aspect of our nature that insists not on resisting change but on obliging it, over time, to account for us, poor banished children of Eden though we are.
“What is nature but change?” writer Lynda Sexson asks in “Implicit Tree,” her recent beautiful essay. “What elm-and-ash intelligence makes possible a repeated springtime?”
Or to again borrow from the literary legacy of Saul Bellow: “There may be some truths which are, after all, our friends in the universe.”
It is true that winter will soon cover the old path, obscure its linkages. Snow will make impassable the hole in the fence until the frozen sulk of April passes. Then we will step through it once again, afresh, afresh, afresh.