Culture & Society

Montreal Shows What a City Can Be

The charming metropolis proves that North Americans can be a truly urban people

With its mix of old and new, and its safe and vibrant urban culture, Montreal provides a great example of what a city can be. Image Credit: Patrick Donovan/Getty Images

My wife and I spent a week in Canada in May (it fit our vacation criteria: easy to plan, relatively cheap and familiar—yet counting as foreign travel). We started in Toronto, drove to Niagara Falls and then drove to Montreal, where we mostly didn’t touch the car for the rest of the trip. We liked Montreal the best.

We did all the tourist stuff: the city’s three major churches (skip Notre Dame, unless you like entry fees and fake electronic candles), a couple of museums and a stroll along the Old Montreal riverfront. But—perhaps because we didn’t plan enough—we also did a lot of somewhat aimless walking; no, make that exploring. We logged over 30 miles, traversing more area, much of it unremarkable from a tourism point of view, than probably any other city I’ve ever visited except Washington, D.C.

Because of all that walking, I got more than the usual tourist’s sense of what the ordinary parts of the city look and feel like. And while I mostly only know what I saw (along with what I learned from a couple of Montreal-based Twitter acquaintances I met in person), Montreal made me think about cities a lot. And the more I thought, the more impressed I was about the example it sets for what cities can truly be.

Montreal’s ‘Fine Grain’

First of all, Montreal looks like a hybrid of an old European city and a modern city—or, maybe, it looks like a city, and we just haven’t retained many of them in North America. What Americans think of as “old towns” or “historic districts” are, in fact, cities. They are the cities that were spared urban renewal. They are rare and historic only by virtue of having survived a destructive revolution. It turns out a modern glass-and-steel downtown is much more pleasant when nestled into an old-town fabric than it is when surrounded by urban expressways and parking lots.

Canada, both its English- and French-speaking portions, has plenty of typical American-style suburban sprawl—strip malls, detached houses, the equivalent of interstate highways and some urban highways. But there is less exurban sprawl, and less large-lot “McMansion” development. It’s sort of like the Canadian land-use pattern followed the American pattern but stopped a little bit short, combined with much less “urban renewal.” The result is, in distinction to the United States, a pleasant mix of relatively traditional cities and earlier, denser suburbs.

Other than its slightly European flavor, one of the first things I noticed about Montreal was that outside of a relatively small core business district, its streets are mostly low-to-mid-rise, repetitive—and lovely. Block after block after block of two-to-four-story attached buildings, each only two or three windows wide, each ornamented and styled a little differently. Each of these was presumably built by a cast of people in a moment in time, not all at once or master-planned. It resembles the pattern of Baltimore or Philadelphia or Brooklyn, but with even more visual variety.

It looks, in other words, broadly “the same” as other pre-automobile Northeast/Mid-Atlantic cities. But it’s a sameness that we like, and that we create over and over again when permitted to do so. Walking Montreal’s numerous commercial and mixed-use blocks reminded me of those old chase scenes in cartoons where the same background repeats over and over. But I loved it. And there was more continuous urban fabric, and more business and street life, than any North American city I’ve visited.

There’s a lot of what urbanists call “fine grain” here: a consistent pattern of small-scale development, which permits much smaller enterprises to flourish. The physical structure of the city complements and reinforces a diverse, distributed commercial and social milieu. It literally makes room for people and enterprise. A great deal of what is called “urbanism” is really life and commerce at a small scale.

All of this is not to mention the Montreal Underground City, which my wife and I didn’t even get to visit: 20 miles of pedestrian tunnels under the city’s core which connect transit stations to stores, offices, theaters and more. While it might in some ways resemble a mall more than a city, it creates a textured, multi-use walkable space particularly useful in the city’s famously cold winters. (Houston has a similar system, if much less extensive, which protects against opposite weather.)

A Different View on Crime and Safety

The other thing that was impossible not to notice was crime-–or, rather, its absence. Montreal is big: about 1.7 million people in the city proper, and over 4 million in the metro area. It’s not huge, but it is certainly large enough to qualify as a “big city.” And it is the only big city I’ve ever been in, certainly in North America, where I didn’t feel like I had to be street smart and occasionally look over my shoulder.

In Montreal, many people were out on the street, and relatively late at night. People use the term “in broad daylight” to convey shock at a crime, as though crime, like monsters under the bed, simply arises in the dark. But a desolate city block in the daylight is hardly any safer than one at night. As Jane Jacobs understood in the 1960s, it is people—lots of ordinary people doing their various things—who keep streets orderly (in a certain sense) and safe. Crowded streets, streets full of shops and restaurants and families and single people—those are almost invariably safe streets. And that’s how Montreal felt to me: safe and pleasant, simultaneously relaxing and vibrant.

As much as I wish it wasn’t the case, I’ve never really felt that in another big city. For me, cities were always places that took mental energy simply to be in—half of that energy expended to avoid the crazy drivers, half to holding onto your wallet. The cars pose a much more likely risk, as it is, but both impose a psychological tax.

What makes Montreal feel so safe? Canada in general—Montreal, in particular—is somewhere between Rudy Giuliani’s New York City and Chesa Boudin’s San Francisco when it comes to police and law enforcement. Montreal’s rather notable sense of safety—and beyond that, of cleanliness and pro-social behavior—is probably mostly not a law enforcement issue. Nor, as some would inevitably suggest, is it because Montreal is overwhelmingly white (which it isn’t).

It seemed like people living there mostly just like the city and appreciate it and take care of it. It’s like a timeline where America’s post-1960s anti-urban narrative simply never formed. The city is just a place where people live. Some like it, some don’t. It’s fine.

But while Montreal might not be tough on crime, per se, it isn’t—at least not that I’ve ever heard—comically permissive or dismissive of urban problems in the way that a certain portion of America’s urban progressives are. Canada is progressive more in its generous healthcare and social programs than in its tolerance of crime and anti-social behavior and its insistence that the law-abiding majority tolerate those things too.

Those American urban progressives are truly an outlier, in regard to this cluster of urban problems: crime, homelessness, general disorder and quality of life concerns. Some of them really do seem to downplay crime in a way that doesn’t jibe with how most people experience it. Denying, for example, that being mugged is traumatic, or displaying indifference to the experience of using public transit, and tolerating the use of its stations as de facto homeless shelters. Tut-tutting riders that their comfort isn’t more important than the deprivations that its often-erratic characters no doubt suffer. These progressives seem, in short, to champion cities and yet believe that they will never really be objectively nice places to live. They view urban problems like broccoli—eat it and don’t complain.

Yes, I am talking about progressives on the internet. But I’m also talking about folks like John Hamasaki—the former police commissioner of San Francisco, mind you—who tweeted back in March: “Would getting your car window broken and some stuff stolen leave you ‘scarred forever’? Is this what the suburbs do to you? Shelter you from basic city life experiences so that when they happen you are broken to the core?”

This American idea, that living in cities is a sort of self-abnegation, is entirely absent in Montreal. The city’s people and its pleasant atmosphere exist in a virtuous circle.

The Nonideological City

What stands out in a European city, and in Montreal, is that urbanites do not seem to be making an ideological statement by choosing cities, or by walking or biking. They are not playing a role, or acting out a creed of environmentalism. These things, freighted in the United States with enough culture-war recriminations to fill a container ship, are neutral in real, functioning cities.

As far as I have seen in my work, this is a uniquely American phenomenon, and much of what passes for discussion of urban issues in America is the escalating argument between this permissive progressive contingent—which loves cities but seems indifferent to their thriving—and the often-cruel tough-on-crime crowd—which claims to want cities to thrive yet does not seem to like them very much.

So perhaps what the United States lacks is an urban culture, where an orderly hustle-and-bustle is just normal. Perhaps our cities are so unpleasant, by global standards, because we refuse to live in them as they are meant to be and designed to be lived in. Montreal is important not because it is unique, but because it proves that—in North America, in the middle of a largely car-oriented, suburban country—a vibrant, pleasant, safe and truly urban big city can thrive.

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