COLUMN

Walk of the town

The measure of any city's civility is its boulevards and byways

Allan Fotheringham April 20 1981
COLUMN

Walk of the town

The measure of any city's civility is its boulevards and byways

Allan Fotheringham April 20 1981

Walk of the town

COLUMN

The measure of any city's civility is its boulevards and byways

Allan Fotheringham

The measure of any civilized city is its walkability. The real test is to leave the door of your hotel and, if there is some unknown alchemy that compels you to set out on foot rather than hail a cab, you’re in a fortunate town. By these standards, Montreal, despite some recent woes, is still the most interesting city in the country. There’s more quiet pleasure in loping along the disintegrating sidewalks of Montreal, glomming the pedestrians, than there is in consummating yet another corporate take-over deal in a high tower in Toronto or Calgary or wherever. It’s a city of street people, aware they’re putting on a show, confident of their costumes whether Westmount cashmere-andtweed matron, steno in garish pink trousers or joggers—who have become the greatest peacocks of all—prancing proudly in their sweat. Montreal is outdoor theatre.

Toronto is not a city conducive to casual walking, mainly because of the strict grid pattern of its downtown core, which induces boredom, and its lack of prominent vistas—nothing in nature to look up at or down from. There are tons of enticing walks in Vancouver, of course, but almost exclusively on the seaside perimeters. The downtown core, while improved slightly, is basic Omaha. Calgary is a disaster, with the smallest proportion of green-to-asphalt of any major Canadian city. They’ve taken the prairie and paved it. I’m always reminded of a space-age Flash Gordon movie, where everyone is transported on raised platforms. Quebec City and Victoria don’t really qualify, since they fall into the category of built-by-Disney cardboard sets for the delectation of tourists-by-Kodak. Toronto’s Bloor Street, where the suede women from Forest Hill pursue the wily Gucci and the elusive Pucci, may indeed have captured the money title of Canada’s streets. But Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street, with Mount Royal on one side and credit cards on the other, is still the most elegant street in the land. Jean Drapeau’s civic administration, which always prefers circuses to bread, has the broadest sidewalk in Canada, resembling a mortar range as usual, but the stylishness of the strollers—especially the men—is undiminished. This end of Montreal still rather resembles Bond Street, with just the right raffish touch of punk rock providing the dill pickle on the sandwich.

As someone who likes to walk but has trouble finding streets up to my standard, the closest thing to perfection is the Ramblas in Barcelona, where the foot-sloggers are given twice as much room as the autos and there are more bookstalls and flower stands than in most cities. The Kurfuerstendamm in West Berlin is a people-watcher’s haven, a minor imitation of the Champs Elysées. (We won’t even get into a discussion of Paris here, since there are really two levels of cities: there is Paris, and then there are the rest. Somewhat like Wayne Gretzky: there is Gretzky and then another tier beneath him.) London, of course, is made for walking; the dog’s-hind-leg streets an invitation to explore the next bend. New York, despite the unyielding grid pattern and the potholed filth, so seethes with energy and vitality that one is exhausted just watching, let alone walking.

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

There is an exclusive Fotheringham theory, you see, that only walkable cities produce the Samuel Pepys types who can do justice to them. One of the puzzling facets of journalism is that the Toronto Star, the biggest and richest paper in Canada, has never since the days of Pierre Berton and Ron Haggart been able to produce a columnist who can transmit the feel of the country’s No. 1 city. (It’s interesting that the one writer who made a success of describing his walks around Toronto, Harry Bruce, now lives happily in Halifax, never to return.) The one successful “inside” column in Toronto, Gary Dunford’s wildly irreverent page in The Toronto Sun, deals with names and indoor shenanigans. Montreal, because it’s Montreal, has its Pepys in Nick Auf der Maur, who knows all the characters because he’s one himself. A shaggy brown moustache who is a city councillor (and practically Drapeau’s only visible foe in town), he was thrown into jail under the War Measures Act, has written a book detailing all the Drapeau Olympic scandals and is a celebrated boulevardier. What Auf der Maur is good at z giving is the texture of his 8 city. Montreal in many tways is like the New York g of the 1930s, where the “pattern of life shifted from saloon to saloon. There aren’t many Damon Runyons around anymore, but Auf der Maur knows his city and can describe it. In a recent column, from his standard perch in the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Stanley Street, he recalled the strip joints on the street where Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra used to warble, the jazz joints, the folkie hangouts where he used to clown with unknowns named Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. He ran over what’s on Stanley today: the Czech restaurant, the Japanese one, the Polish one, the sleazy kids’ disco, the gay bar, the male strip joint— 22 restaurants and bars in just three blocks. He was 39 last week, and 20 years in the Rainbow Bar & Grill gives a man confidence at his typewriter.

Montreal has Crescent Street and Mountain Street, where the boutiques divide and multiply like paramecia, and St. Denis Street, where the young Péquistes sip and argue. It’s a walkable town, which is still the major test of civilization.