Philly, the American Montreal

By Graham Dodds on June 12, 2008

As a lifetime Philadelphian who moved to Montreal three years ago, I watched the Canadiens-Flyers NHL playoff series with mixed emotions, torn between my childhood hometown and my adopted home. Hockey fans in both cities heartily booed each other and ridiculed their opposing partisans, but with my split loyalty, I’ve been struck by just how much the two cities have in common.

Let’s start with geography and history. Both are eastern port cities with a long history. Montreal was founded in 1642 by Paul de Chomedy and Catholic missionaries, Philadelphia was founded in 1681 by William Penn and the Quakers (the Society of Friends). The cities are roughly the same size:

Philly has 1.5 million residents with another 4 million in surrounding areas, while Montreal has 1.6 million habitants with another 2 million in nearby municipalities. Physically, both cities have compact, modern downtowns marked by restrained development: buildings cannot surpass the 233m Mount for which Montreal is named, while in Philly a “gentlemen’s agreement” held sway until 1987 that said buildings could not rise higher than the hat of the statue of William Penn atop City Hall (167m), which was the tallest building in the world from 1901 to 1908.

In terms of character, both cities have considerable charm and a rich cultural heritage, including fine museums, world-class orchestras, wonderful parks, great architecture, and elite universities. But both can be dysfunctional, too.  Even for those of us who love them, Montreal and Philly can seem like chronic underachievers that stubbornly fail to live up to their potential. Both cities have long suffered from mediocre leadership and inefficient municipal workforces. (Remember the 2006 expose that found Montreal’s blue collar workers spent more time at donut shops than fixing potholes?) Montreal’s potholed avenues and crumbling infrastructure aren’t much worse than Philly’s, and both burgs have expensive and unreliable public transit systems.

At the human level, the people of both cities have a similar collective personality. Both cities are essentially loose collections of distinct neighbourhoods. And just as the Quebecois self-image is generally hard-pressed, working-class, and “salt of the earth,” the fictional struggling boxer Rocky Balboa has been proudly embraced as the quintessential common-man hero for lunch-pail, blue-color Philly.

Historically, both cities have been divided: Montreal linguistically, Philly racially. Indeed, the flight of tens of thousands of Anglos from Montreal since the 1970s is mirrored by the “white flight” Philly has suffered since the 1950s. Montreal’s old division between French East and English West has been blurred by multilingualism, new immigrants, and an easing of linguistic tensions, but it’s still there, as evidenced by recent concerns that francophones might no longer constitute a majority on the island. In Philly, the divide is racial, with nearly equal numbers of white and black residents, and although racial tensions may be lower now than in previous decades, the black-white division is still geographically stark, with many segregated neighbourhoods.

Of course, some Quebeckers have invoked the politicized parallel between the linguistic and racial divides, as with Pierre Vallières’s polemical 1968 book “White Niggers of America” and old admonitions from Anglo bosses to their Franco workers to “speak white.” And in both places the formerly oppressed groups have risen up to claim political victory: Quebec Premier Jean Lesage’s 1962 rallying cry of “Maîtres chez nous!” is echoed by Philly Mayor John Street’s 2002 boast that “the brothers and sisters are running the city…We are in charge!”

And sometimes Philly can play language politics, too. The famous South Philly cheesesteak shop Geno’s probably has never heard of Camille Laurin’s Bill 101, but it adamantly refuses to serve customers who don’t place their order in English, despite its increasingly diverse clientelle. And just as courts occasionally question Quebec’s coercive language laws, Geno’s own linguistic dictates have also met with legal challenges.

Speaking of food, cuisine is yet another area in which the cities are similar. Both have distinctive, indigenous foods, that tend toward unhealthy amounts of calories and cholesterol. Montreal’s smoked meat, cretons, and bagels are the dietary and cultural equivalents of Philly’s cheesesteaks and hoagies, scrapple, and soft pretzels. (Poutine seems to have no analogue; it is unique.)

Both cities have a problematic relation with their state/province, as they’re much more diverse and liberal than the rest of Pennsylvania and Quebec. Thus, both enjoy an ease and familiarity with differences that are much more controversial in the hinterlands, as evidenced by Quebec’s traveling “reasonable accommodation” commission and April’s Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania. The cities also have a complicated rivalry with their respective countries’ primary metropolises, New York and Toronto. Philly was America’s largest city until 1830, when New York surpassed it, and Montreal was Canada’s largest until the 1970s, when Toronto surpassed it. Philadelphians resent living in the shadow of New York and its smug claim to be the center of the universe, just as Montrealers are staunch critics of Toronto’s self-importance within Canada.

And both cities are sports-crazy, with many knowledgeable, passionate fans who on occasion even boo their own teams. Montrealers fondly recall the Habs’ last championship in 1993, while Philly fans have to go back a decade earlier: despite having teams in each of the four major professional sports leagues, Philly hasn’t won a championship since the 76ers topped the NBA in 1983. But despite the tensions of the recent hockey series, the two cities remain very similar: Philadelphia is the American Montreal.


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