For a long time I've been trying to gauge my personal feelings about this building:
This is the old Canada Malting factory. It's in the heart of Saint Henri, in Montreal, next to the McAuslan brewery on Notre Dame, right on the Lachine canal. I live about a 20 minute walk away. It's huge, intimidating, in extreme disrepair and very well-graffitied. It's been abandoned for decades.
Ferreting out my reaction is not as easy as one might imagine. Introspection, at the best of times, is a tricky business.
But, hey, I can try. My immediate reaction is to be in awe. It looks like something out of a dystopian future - like there's been some horrific war, or we've run out of oil, or the Machines or the Apes or the Party have taken over. You vaguely expect Mel Gibson to show up on a motorbike.
My reaction is fed somewhat by its proximity to the Saint Ambroise beer terrace, operated in the summer by the McAuslan brewery itself. It sits comfortably on the foothills of the factory. It's an interesting view:
I like the beer terrace. Aside from the beer itself, which is good, there's something melancholic about the setting as well, about drinking oatmeal stout beneath the ruins of Montreal's once glorious industrial past. I suspect it's a feeling shared by a lot of Montrealers - it's a matter of savouring the contrast between a civilized evening in a comfortable location that is nevertheless in very close proximity to a vast, looming, derelict, abandoned malting site that, on its own, exudes an aura of civilization gone to pot. It's neat, though I totally understand it's not everyone's cup of tea.
There's been some talk of the city finally demolishing the silos and selling the land to private developers. Predictably, this has met with fierce opposition from some quarters. Ostensibly, from the flyers I've seen, it's not so much the demolition that's the problem, but rather the condos that would inevitably spring up in its wake. Saint Henri is a loudly working class neighbourhood, and the very notion of condos seems to offend a lot of people here. Condos built over the corpse of a once productive factory would, I guess, just add insult to injury, as the saying goes. I think there are people who would rather see those silos crumble to the ground than to have them replaced with condos.
On some level, I do get it - like I said, the building is pretty neat - but on another level, I sometimes find it hard to sympathize. Take this, for example:
This is the Saint Henri Cafe, on Notre Dame (everything of interest in Saint Henri seems to either be on Notre Dame or off of Notre Dame).
I like the place. It isn't a Starbucks. They don't do six different kinds of mochachinos. But they do roast their own coffee beans and, according to some, serve the best lattes in Montreal. It's more expensive then, say, Tim Hortons, but the coffee is fair trade and, if I'm honest, much better.
As you can see, the front is marred with graffiti. The fact that they serve lattes at all, as opposed to just plain old coffee, is enough, I'm sure, to damn it in some people's eyes. It's been tagged more than once, and more than once the graffiti has read "Fuck Gentrification". I see this kind of thing, and I fume a bit (because the graffiti is, at least indirectly, referring to me), and I begin to wonder if the impulse to deface the Saint Henri Cafe and the impulse to preserve the Canada Malting silos stem from the same desire - a desire to preserve a past that's perhaps no longer as relevant as it once was. A desire to encase the entire neighbourhood in ice, and prevent from evolving into something else.
There's a bit in "Schwartz's: The Musical" where the protagonist comments that people complained when they straightened the floors at the 85 year old delicatessen. The scene was played for laughs, but I sometimes think that the quip hides a speck of truth about a lot of Montrealers.
Then again, maybe this is all blindingly obvious to everyone but me. I mean, the provincial motto is "Je me souviens", for crying out loud.
So, digging a little deeper, I'd be lying if I said my feelings on the whole thing weren't a little bit mixed. I find the silos fascinating and I dearly wish the city had taken better care of them but, seeing as how the ship sailed on that possibility long ago, there's a part of me that just wants the whole thing torn down. Because, at the end of the day, I find that obsessing over the past like this is unhealthy.
At the end of the day, the Saint Ambroise Beer Terrace will still be there, even when the Silos are gone. And the beer will still be good.