Montreal's Cast of Characters

Is Montreal Canada's happiest city? I have wandered a lot of streets in a lot of different cities in my life and I have never encountered so many happy surprises. Indeed the city does have a "joie de vivre" that doesn't exist in other cities, or perhaps it is just the Holiday (Happy) Season. 

After wandering the streets of the city for the past 10 days Montreal has become my happy place.  I thought Portland and Austin were happy places, but Montreal wins hands down with its crazy cast of characters and shops.  

I am not just speaking of the people, who indeed seem to be happy even in winter when it is snowing but also the many man-made characters I encountered as I wander Montreal's Rues and Avenues.  

I hope these photos will convey to you how Montreal's sense of fun and surprise combine to create a happy sense of place.

 I found this character at the Christmas Market at the Convention Centre. I believe he/she might be a costume from the Nutcracker ballet as this was Les Grands Ballets' Nutcracker Market with benefits going to the Nutcracker Fund for Children.    

I found this character at the Christmas Market at the Convention Centre. I believe he/she might be a costume from the Nutcracker ballet as this was Les Grands Ballets' Nutcracker Market with benefits going to the Nutcracker Fund for Children.   

  These fun characters sit on top of the entrance from St. Catherine's Street to Montreal's Underground City. 

These fun characters sit on top of the entrance from St. Catherine's Street to Montreal's Underground City. 

  Found a wall of these portraits in the lobby of the Concordia University building while shopping at their pop-up Christmas Market.    They captured my off-the-wall imagination.

Found a wall of these portraits in the lobby of the Concordia University building while shopping at their pop-up Christmas Market.  They captured my off-the-wall imagination.

  This fun character is from the world's largest Barbie Doll collection exhibition located in Montreal's Underground City.  

This fun character is from the world's largest Barbie Doll collection exhibition located in Montreal's Underground City.  

  This guy was keen to ham it up when I asked if I could take a photo.   

This guy was keen to ham it up when I asked if I could take a photo.  

  I am not sure if this mythical character is throwing a football or a baseball or perhaps just getting ready to work at Jeans Jeans Jeans.  

I am not sure if this mythical character is throwing a football or a baseball or perhaps just getting ready to work at Jeans Jeans Jeans. 

  These hipster heads brought a quick smile to my face. Montrealers love their winter hats and scarfs. 

These hipster heads brought a quick smile to my face. Montrealers love their winter hats and scarfs. 

  I was gobsmacked by the amazing murals tucked away in alleys and the back of buildings everywhere in Montreal.  I love the DIY outdoor art gallery they create.

I was gobsmacked by the amazing murals tucked away in alleys and the back of buildings everywhere in Montreal.  I love the DIY outdoor art gallery they create.

  Loved this old world sculpture and reflecting pond that looked like something from Paris or Rome in the World Trade Centre building in Montreal's International District. 

Loved this old world sculpture and reflecting pond that looked like something from Paris or Rome in the World Trade Centre building in Montreal's International District. 

  Another of the fun characters at the Nutcracker Market - this time real life. 

Another of the fun characters at the Nutcracker Market - this time real life. 

  I spent a lot of time looking up at the old buildings checking to see if there were any strange characters looking down at me like this guy. FYI: In the entrance of the St. James Church there is a note saying technically a gargoyle should be a water sprout; this was news to me. 

I spent a lot of time looking up at the old buildings checking to see if there were any strange characters looking down at me like this guy. FYI: In the entrance of the St. James Church there is a note saying technically a gargoyle should be a water sprout; this was news to me. 

  For 20 years Montreal's World Trade Centre has been celebrating Christmas with eight life-size Santa characters from around the world, including this Black Peter an evil-looking companion of Santa in the Netherlands in their lobby. 

For 20 years Montreal's World Trade Centre has been celebrating Christmas with eight life-size Santa characters from around the world, including this Black Peter an evil-looking companion of Santa in the Netherlands in their lobby. 

  Found this guy on the side of an ordinary older building that seemed to have no historical significance at the corner of St. Hubert and Duluth Ave.  It is a good example how almost every block has something strange or surprising that made for great flaneuring.

Found this guy on the side of an ordinary older building that seemed to have no historical significance at the corner of St. Hubert and Duluth Ave.  It is a good example how almost every block has something strange or surprising that made for great flaneuring.

 We were just wandering to a thrift store on Rue St. Hubert when I noticed a huge banner with for what looked like a contemporary exhibition titled "Workwear."  It wasn't clear if the show was inside but we decided to explore and sure enough Little Italy community centre was hosting a contemporary exhibition from Italy about fashion and workwear.  It makes us most happy when we just stumble upon something interesting - the thrill of the surprise. 

We were just wandering to a thrift store on Rue St. Hubert when I noticed a huge banner with for what looked like a contemporary exhibition titled "Workwear."  It wasn't clear if the show was inside but we decided to explore and sure enough Little Italy community centre was hosting a contemporary exhibition from Italy about fashion and workwear.  It makes us most happy when we just stumble upon something interesting - the thrill of the surprise. 

 Found this window while walking along St. Laurent Boulevard. Nothing makes me happier than great window displays.

Found this window while walking along St. Laurent Boulevard. Nothing makes me happier than great window displays.

  Loved this great use of bike as a prop for some winter greenery and summer flowers on the sidewalk in front of a florist shop. 

Loved this great use of bike as a prop for some winter greenery and summer flowers on the sidewalk in front of a florist shop. 

  Even in the suburbs we were able to find something to make me happy, including this modern sculpture outside the tired Plaza Cote-des-Neiges (shopping centre).

Even in the suburbs we were able to find something to make me happy, including this modern sculpture outside the tired Plaza Cote-des-Neiges (shopping centre).

  Found this cast iron 1939 bank at the St. Michel Antique Market.  I was tempted to buy it, but resisted.  Spent a very enjoyable 2.5 hours exploring the market, definitely worth a visit if the "thrill of the hunt" makes you happy. 

Found this cast iron 1939 bank at the St. Michel Antique Market.  I was tempted to buy it, but resisted.  Spent a very enjoyable 2.5 hours exploring the market, definitely worth a visit if the "thrill of the hunt" makes you happy. 

  Crew Collective & Cafe is located in the landmark 1920 Royal Bank headquarters building that was once the tallest building in Canada.  It made me happy the space is still available to the public and if you live in Montreal this could be your office.  Imagine going to work here everyday! We were there on a Saturday afternoon and the huge space was packed with people happily working away. 

Crew Collective & Cafe is located in the landmark 1920 Royal Bank headquarters building that was once the tallest building in Canada.  It made me happy the space is still available to the public and if you live in Montreal this could be your office.  Imagine going to work here everyday! We were there on a Saturday afternoon and the huge space was packed with people happily working away. 

Last Word

One the the key elements of a "happy city" in my mind is how friendly people are to strangers.  Montrealers couldn't have been more friendly to us.

From the store owner who offered to drive us to the St. Michel Market when we asked if we were going in the right direction (it was just 5 blocks away) to the couple who shared their bottle of wine with us at Les Jardins des Panos restaurant when they realized we didn't bring any wine (it is a bring your own wine only restaurant).  

Or how the young lady working at the LNF vintage store was more than willing to share her hot tips with us on where to get the best finds.  She even gave us her name, phone number and email if we wanted to contact her later. 

Don't believe people when they say Montrealers won't speak to you in English.  We never once encountered a local who when we said "Bonjour, do you speak English" wasn't willing to talk to us in our native tongue. We loved how many Montrealers said with a smile,  "You practice your French and I will practice my English!"  We loved that!

Next year Montreal is celebrating its 375th Anniversary, if you are looking for someplace interesting to visit, Montreal should be at the top of your list.   

For me, Montreal has definitely become one of my happy places.    

If you like this blog, you will like:

Mexico City: Full Of Surprises

Treasure Hunting In Portland 

Austin is more fun than weird

Bow/Crow: There is something happening here?

For many years I have been flaneuring the “no man’s land” underneath the Bow Trail, Crowchild Trail interchange bridges (Bow/Crow).  The idea for a pedestrian bridge below Crowchild was Dave Freeze’s, a Calgary businessman who lived in Eau Claire and walked the Bow River pathways into his 80s. As he got older he thought there should be a river crossing between 14th and Edworthy Park. So he contacted his friend, architect Bill Milne (who was also the architect for the Calgary Tower) about the idea.  Milne came up with a simple bridge, which Freeze decided to fund. No need for city funding and no community engagement – a good idea so just build it.

As an urban street photographer, Crow/Bow it is hidden gem with its view of the river, downtown, prairie sky and the walkers, joggers and cyclists and the dramatic lighting and concrete landscape (I could spend all day here).  It has also become a place for  “pop-up” public art and more recently, a DIY skatepark. 

Link: Calgary Skateboarding: The Bridge Spot DIY

  I love this black and white photo of a lone walker on the Dave Freeze bridge that sits on the support columns of the Crowchild Trail bridge just above the Bow River. 

I love this black and white photo of a lone walker on the Dave Freeze bridge that sits on the support columns of the Crowchild Trail bridge just above the Bow River. 

  I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to have a bench at this location under Bow Trail.  It has to be one of the most brutal urban places in Calgary. 

I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to have a bench at this location under Bow Trail.  It has to be one of the most brutal urban places in Calgary. 

Rock Art

Over the past few years, I have regularly encountered mysterious rock formations along the shoreline and in the huge gravel beach just west of Crowchild Trail at the Bow River. 

Backstory: I believe there was an active gravel operation in the river in the ‘50s and maybe ‘60s.  Given its proximity to downtown and the fact that each year’s spring run-off means more rocks naturally gather here due to the sharp turn in the river, it made an ideal spot for a gravel operation.
 This huge archimedian spiral was created in the summer of 2015.

This huge archimedian spiral was created in the summer of 2015.

  Mini Inukshuks only 6 to 12 inches high and were all over the West Hillhurst beach in the Bow River in 2015. 

Mini Inukshuks only 6 to 12 inches high and were all over the West Hillhurst beach in the Bow River in 2015. 

Pop-Up Public Art

This past spring, I happened upon an unknown artist (there was a hand done sign but no name) who created a temporary art project entitled “Rock The River: harmonizing Calgary’s Shoreline."  It was like a little village of rock sentinels and sticks, something like what a family might build on vacation at a beach.  Later I found out  the artist is Luke Materi who has done numerous rock installations along the Bow River.

Another time I found the words “Love Art” spelled out in rocks along the north bank of the river – like something right out of the ‘60s hippy culture or today’s “new age” culture. 

Link: CTV News Calgary Artist’s Cairns

 Rocks on the River, Feb 2016

Rocks on the River, Feb 2016

 Rocks on the River, February 2016

Rocks on the River, February 2016

 Love Art, February 2016

Love Art, February 2016

 Love Art, February 2016

Love Art, February 2016

DIY Skate Park?

The latest quirky addition to the no man's land under the Bow/Crow bridges is a DIY skateboard park.  What a great idea? 

Backstory: The first choice for the Shaw Millennium Park skateboard park was under the 4th and 5th Avenue Flyover bridges in East Village next to the Drop-In Centre.  However, the Drop In Centre’s senior staff protested (Yes, more NIMBYism). They didn’t want a skateboard park next to them and felt parents wouldn’t want their children to be near the Center, which was home to many drug addicts, dealers and criminals (their words no mine).  So, it became part of the new Millennium Park in West Downtown in 2000. True story.
  Under the Bow Trail bridge is a no man's land that is quietly becoming a DIY skatepark. 

Under the Bow Trail bridge is a no man's land that is quietly becoming a DIY skatepark. 

Quietly, a group of experienced Calgary skateboarders on their own initiative and with their own money and sweat equity have converted an abandon section of a pathway under the Bow Trail flyover for cars and LRT into a small skateboard park. The day I was there six guys ranging age from 30 to early 40s were working building a new jump, cleaning up the site and painting over graffiti.

They looked at me a bit strange when I first arrived with my camera but when I explained who I was and what I was doing, they were most friendly and helpful.  You could tell they were proud of what they were doing and felt they were making a meaningful contribution to making our city a better place.  

They haven’t asked for permission.  They just cleaned up the barren, brutal space and made it into a DIY skate park. Shouldn't that be rewarded?
  Welcome to THE BRIDGE signage!

Welcome to THE BRIDGE signage!

I understand the police have visited several times and love the idea that they have taken an abandoned space and given it life. I really hope the City won’t shut down the place or take over the space, spend a couple of million dollars and try to make it into a formal park.  There is something authentic about a “guerrilla warfare” approach to this skate park that makes it attractive to skateboarders. 

It seems to me the DIY skatepark is the equivalent to any one of the hundreds of DIY outdoor skating rink the City allows in their parks. Yes one is year-round and the other is temporary, but they are both the result of Calgarians wanting to invest their own time and energy to enhance the recreational opportunities for others. Perhaps all the City needs to do is put up a sign saying, “Play at your own risk!”

Besides, I am told by skateboarders part of the fun of skateboarding is to skate where you are not suppose to.  It is about thrill of new places that create new challenges to do their tricks. It is about creating their own place. 

Link: Forest Lawn DIY skatepark

Everyone is invited to enjoy THE BRIDGE skate park. I was even asked if I wanted to give it a try.  I declined.

While was there people came and went, some were helping to build and fix up the park, others were there to try it out.  There was a wonderful sense of community and camaraderie. 

Last Word

While places like Shaw Millennium Park and other sanctioned parks are great, there is still a need for the true “underground” (or in this case “underbridge”) skateboard experience.  The same is true for Materi’s artwork, which like street art, seem more real than sanctioned public art, which too often seems contrived and out of context. 

I am thinking Calgary should be fostering these kind of DIY (tax free) initiatives, which help make our city more attractive and interesting. Indeed something special is happening under the Bow/Crow bridges. 

If you like this blog, you will like:

Poppy Plaza Review

Austin's Wonderful & Weird Outdoor Gallery 

Freakn Fun in Freak Alley 

Mexico City: Full of Surprises