I visited Montreal for the first time.
Here are my general impressions of the city, based on walks around town and casual conversations with friends:
- Culture: My favorite thing about Montreal is its commitment to culture. French is the dominant language, which is partially why it feels more like Europe than North America. Restaurant names must have French in them. Starbucks is called Café Starbucks and a restaurant I went to yesterday called Darling is formally known as Le Darling. This respect for tradition shows up in beautiful buildings and a respect for culture as an end in itself that’s increasingly rare in the 50 States.
- Groceries: Maple syrup is sold in cans. Milk is sold in bags.
- Vibe: Architecturally, the city feels like a combination of Paris, Detroit, Amsterdam, and New York. The French fingerprints are evident in its Haussmann architecture, the Detroit feel comes from old manufacturing plants, the Amsterdam influence shows up in the narrow and walkable streets, and the New York vibe shines through in Art Deco office buildings and tenement-style homes.
- Cost of Living: Montreal is much cheaper than Toronto, in part because people need to speak French in order to work here. When fewer people move here, demand for housing falls, and when the demand for housing falls, so does the cost of living.
- Maid’s Quarters: Like Paris, the top floor of the Haussmann style apartment buildings are painted a different color and have a sun blocker over the windows. Today, we think of the top floor as a luxury. But before the invention of the elevator, these top floors were reserved for the maids who had to walk up the stairs.
- Density: Wages are further driven down by urban density. Like Paris, since so many of the homes are three-unit apartments, the city is dense even though there aren’t many high-rises.
- Moving Day: A disproportionate number of apartment leases end on the same day: July 1st. According to a 2013 estimate, 7% of the city’s population moves on this single day. The tradition began as a humanitarian measure instituted by the French colonial government so people wouldn’t be evicted from their homes before the winter snow had melted. But can you imagine the headache for moving companies? To make matters more difficult, apartments in Montreal don’t come with kitchen appliances which makes moving even more difficult.
- Staircases: Many homes have outside staircases that lead to 2nd and 3rd floor apartments. I was perplexed by them because they freeze in sub-zero temperatures, which make them dangerous. Why then would such a cold climate have outdoor staircases? Two reasons: (1) most homes are setback from the sidewalk to limit crowding and prevent ice from falling on pedestrians’ heads, and (2) putting staircases outside the home reduces the square footage, which limits property taxes and the amount of space you have to heat.
- Construction: I’ve never seen a city with so much street construction. On the 10 minute walk from my friend’s home to the gym, there are six different construction projects happening, half of which are blocking the entire street. The charitable interpretation is that the weather makes it hard to keep the roads in good shape. But locals blame organized crime. According to one whistleblower, the Montreal mafia controls 80 percent of road contracts. Another headline reads: “We rigged contracts and paid a 2.5 percent cut to the mafia.” Also, urban roads cost 46 percent more to build in Quebec than the rest of Canada.
- Toronto vs. Montreal: At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 50% of Canada’s GDP originated in Montreal. According to one estimate, it was also home to more than 70% of the country’s manufacturing, which is why Montreal is such a rail hub and had one of North America’s busiest ports. But Montreal’s dominance began to decline when the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of canals and channels that allow ships to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, opened in 1954. Since then, Canada’s economic center of gravity has shifted to Toronto. Succession is also to blame. Though the calls for Quebec to secede from Canada have died down, multinational companies like Sun Life anticipated the threat and proactively moved their headquarters to Toronto in 1978.
- Downtown Montreal: Based on the city’s architecture, it seems like Montreal lost a lot of momentum after the 1980s. For starters, the city hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics, which implies that it was quite prominent then. Walk through downtown and you won’t find many buildings constructed after the late 1980s. My two favorite buildings, the Royal Bank and the Aldred Building, were constructed in 1928 and 1931 respectively.