Montreal journalist’s method “for calling up ghosts”

By P.A. Sévigny on October 8, 2013

Walking sometimes in the streets of the town

I live in and thinking of the people who

lived here once and fill the space I fill —

If they’d painted white trails on the sidewalk

everywhere they went, it would be possible

to see them now.                                                        


~Al Purdy: A Method for Calling up Ghosts

While the pictures are worth a thousand words, Montreal journalist Alan Hustak’s Montreal Then and Now also does a lot to remind its readers that you never really know what you’ve lost till it’s gone. During a recent event in the Dorval Library, attendants had to bring in more chairs in order to accommodate the SRO (Standing Room Only) crowd after which the veteran journalist used a power-point presentation to illustrate his own search for the city’s lost time. 

“Imagine if you had a time-machine,” said Hustak. “Imagine what the city would look like if you could go back to what it looked like a hundred years ago. Some things might look different, but you would be surprised to see how much of the city looks like the same one you left a century ago.”

Hustak then opened his presentation with a simple century-old snapshot taken of a well-dressed woman who was staring at the city’s skyline while standing by Montreal’s mountain-top belvedere. Minutes later, a second snapshot set the tone for the rest of the evening as another woman dressed in a mini-skirt stands in the very same spot as she stares at the city from the very same spot as the other one did a century before when the city still dominated the nation’s economy. 

“The mountain hasn’t changed since both of these pictures were taken,” said Hustak, “…but the view has and so has the city.”

Citing the opening lines of Canadian poet Al Purdy’s ‘A Method for Calling up Ghosts’, Hustak’s lecture combined his own passion for his adopted city with a journalist’s discipline in which he just sticks to the facts while the story tells itself. Even as the before and after pictures of the city’s assorted street scenes tell their own story about what the 20th century did to the city, Hustak’s book is full of anecdotal detail that provides both the depth and detail which helps  define both the city’s heritage as well as its history. While some of the century-old images reflect a bucolic calm worthy of a Constable painting, it’s still hard to believe that the horse and buggy in the picture is making its way down the city’s busy Sherbrooke Street near the Guy Street intersection. Other images prove that complaints about mid-city traffic have been going on long before the car began to take over the streets of Montreal. While it’s hard to believe that farmers used to drive their cattle over the mountain and down Guy Street on their way to the market, Hustak’s picture of a herd of cows making its way down Cote-Des-Neiges on their way to their date with a willing butcher indicates that  most of the city’s massive urban development occurred over the early decades of the twentieth century before the city’s population began to makes its move into the suburbs. Following the Second World War, the city entered its golden period when a combination of both power and money sparked a massive construction effort which still defines the city’s skyline to this day. As the price for land within the city’s downtown core began to soar, commercial developers had little choice but to add dozens of floors full of office space to accommodate both the city and the nation’s expanding economy. While many of the book’s images are all that’s left after the developer’s bulldozers finished their day’s work, other pictures tell the story as more and more of the city’s streets are reduced to being little more than a canyon between tall faceless walls made of concrete, glass and steel. Following more than a couple of decades of complacent, compliant and sometimes complicit city administrations who made a point (and sometimes a profit) as they looked the other way, Hustak believes that the destruction of the Van Horne Mansion sparked the beginnings of the effort to save what was left of the city’s heritage architecture.

“It was a beautiful home;” said Hustak, “…and Canadian Pacific could have done something to prevent its destruction.

Located on the corner of Sherbrooke and Stanley Street, the home was a classic greystone building that was built in 1869 for the Honorable John Hamilton who was the president of the Merchant’s Bank of Montreal. In 1889, Sir Cornelius Van Horne purchased the property after which it remained in his family up until 1973 when it was bought and demolished by a developer who replaced it with a commercial concrete tower block. Despite the public outcry over its proposed destruction, former Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau  declared that it could not be preserved for cultural or historical reasons as “it was not part of Quebec’s culture – its history being more Anglo-Canadian than French-Canadian”. With Drapeau’s support, it was bulldozed in the middle of the night after which the developer made a point of installing a cornerstone that marks the date of the mansion’s destruction along with the tower’s construction.

While much of Hustak’s book refers to a lot of beautiful buildings that are gone forever, his book continues to reflect a certain respect and affection for what’s left of a city which he deeply cares for and of which he is evidently proud to call ‘home’.


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