Annexe St-Ambroise in St-Henri, inside

For fans of the majestic—yet fleetingly-open—Terrasse St-Ambroise, this was a landmark weekend.

After a soft launch on Friday, the historic McAuslan brewery flung the doors open to a brand-new pub: Annexe St-Ambroise.

Spurred on by devout local Terrasse clientele, I was on hand to check out the new Annexe St-Ambroise in its first evening of regular operation. Take heart, St-Henri folk, because the prognosis for your district is very good.

signThe tastefully-restored room, which will be open 5 days per week, year-round, strikes a superb balance between stylish renovation and elegant preservation of its original features. In resisting the temptation to over-hipsterize, the Annexe promises to fill a sorely-needed gap between run-down 60s brasseries and overwrought drinking havens in the hood.

Though the taps are limited to St-Ambroise and Griffon, you need not dwell on this fact. Limitations such as these keep prices down and pretensions low. And at $6 per pint, the range of eight beers is more than enough to keep you stimulated all eve—from the bright abricot ale to a wholesome oatmeal stout. The simplicity of the offerings, combined with an uncomplicated bar staff, and the aforementioned décor, make for something truly lacking in town: a new pub. The thing is, I don’t mean retro-bar, gastropub, or reinvented bistro. I just mean a pub.

You’d be shocked at how few exist.

kegsAnother useful pub element of the Annexe is its nice mix of longer tables (for small groups), and two-seaters or stand-up counters (for couples). But the pièce(s) de resistance? The wooden booths, whose height and stature (I’m sad to say) puts even stalwart Irish Embassy to shame. Two men in blazers and ball caps broke away from their chattery crowd to occupy one of these sacred booths—leaning in closely to discuss something private.

There’s even a food menu (nachos or mustardy pretzels). But take heed: the Annexe should only be considered a dinner joint for those desperately hungry… or drunk.

I mean, I get where they’re going with with pineapples in the nachos, but they need to tone it down by about two thirds. Unmatched as the fruit should have been by meat of some kind or at the very least a sharper cheese, the oversweet lumps destroy this otherwise passable pub plate. If you want to do the pineapple thing, perhaps in the salsa, guys? But keep it subtle, please!

mcauslen-streetFinally, the floating back balcony gives you a primo view of St-Henri lore, with the Canada Malt plant looming to the east and the McAuslan loading docks stretched out to the south above the canal (trailers included). A sentence like that is doomed to reek of sarcasm, but in fact I’m 100% sincere. This odd floating hub was actually stage to some of the most fascinating conversations of the night, and made us feel connected to where we were drinking, a longstanding brewery on a strip with its own particular industrial legacy.

The Annexe St-Ambroise occupies the old Centre St-Ambroise, a historical centre for the brewery (5080 rue St-Ambroise), and is open 4:00 pm – 11:00 pm (Tues. – Thurs) and 4:00 pm – 1:00 pm (Fri. – Sat.).

Early Sunday morning, a train went off the tracks in St-Henri. Two locomotives and two wagons derailed near the intersection of St-Jacques and de Courcelle. Fortunately, they were only carrying grain and no one was hurt, though some diesel did spill. They were not carrying oil, but thinking about that prospect is more than a little unsettling for residents.

“It’s terrifying,” says Craig Sauvé, city councillor for St-Henri, Pointe St-Charles and Little Burgundy who also lives 500 meters from where the derailment happened, “one would hope that the CN would be a better corporate citizen in light of Lac Mégantic.”

So how do we ensure that something on the scale of Lac Mégantic doesn’t happen in such a densely populated area like Montreal, besides, of course, no-brainer though far-reaching solutions like not transporting so much oil? For starters, Sauvé suggests that residents put pressure on the federal government, which governs rail transport, to measure what’s being transported through our neighbourhoods.

He also pointed out that there is a more direct solution already at the disposal of the provincial government:

“For one thing,” he said, “the Gouvernment of Quebec can start applying article 8 of the Law concerning civil security.”

This law says, in a nutshell, that any person whose activities or property are generating major disaster risk is required to report this risk to the local municipality where the source of risk is. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start and one that doesn’t require any additional regulation being passed.

“The Québec government,”  Sauvé commented, “can certainly do its part to ensure that its own proper laws are applied.”

With a train derailment so close to home for many of us and thoughts of Lac Mégantic still in our minds, it’s becoming clear that something needs to change before it’s too late, even if that something is incremental at best. To do nothing is to invite more of the same or much worse.

St-Henri’s been getting me snickering lately, and I’ll gander you might agree. Folks have been trying to refurbish its tenement-of-yore, slant-floored, jute-insulated grandeur for a while. The speed of it is starting to show.

I remember 5-buck two-egg breakfast down at Restaurant Place St-Henri, with its onion soup-soaked “home” fries and its greenish eggs. What a rich, cultured scene! And bottomless, hopefully unburnt coffee, too. I remember hitting it nearly every morning, even when strapped, and all the other budget-prone freelancers in the neighbourhood doing the same—our own little wordless congregation. You could always get a booth, except on welfare-check day.

It’s been closed for a while – two years come February – and then John’s 2.0 burned / was burned down this summer. And as much as I’d love to hit Miracle Pizza every morning for a salmonella gamble, this all leaves fewer Quebie options to live by. This all used to be so cheap. Casse-croûte or die, but cheap.

Enter, as such, Midi 6—a tasty, not so expensive, or organized, or Quebie, compromise. It’s Saturday, so I’m hitting the undrinkable dark roast full tilt, caution to the wind. Three creams. Sugar. More sugar. Two eggs over easy, sausage and a croissant and all the coffee I can get down—$6,61 all in before tip.

As for the scene, the gentrifiers within earshot are rattling on about the hypoallergenic way to go, spoon-blitzing their irreverent offspring with gulps of organic purees. I’m also getting an earful of some young Dollard-seeming brunchers on about 30-day money-back guarantees, vacation accrual, and loud-mouthed Shoulda Switched to Telus and I’ve Found My Calling in Compliance boasts.

Everyone seems proper weekend pleased, on a wailer of a time. I catalogue factory-frayed stylings and the sight of sweatpants in public—taking notes on telling Montrealer allophone brain farts like “bang for your dollar.” It’s a little, pointless game; it’s a slow, late morning.

sweatpantsAll of them are so happy with it all I gather that I’m probably the ridiculous one. That the neighbourhood’s just moving on past whatever we thought it was. Whatever some think it to be.

For instance, after breakfast and a block over at the artisanal coffee beanery, the one-gear Fattal-ites are thinking up that the “real yuppies” are actually infesting NDG; that St-Henri is still, essentially, as punk as scabies. The steam wands of their smithy shall micro-foam on in resistance, and 3$ rooibos is about integrity. They sure seem pleased enough.

Meanwhile, cramping my eavesdropping style is a wild-haired, middle-aged behemoth, waiting out a French press in progress, who is railing on at the sweet quipster barista: “open your damn eyes!” the seas are death, the lizard folk, NAFTA, FATCA, the Military Industrial Food Complex (check your Eisenhower, please), the porcine gene pool!!!

It’s like a live-cast of a Rabble article, or my Facebook feed on most days. Yet another sample of the neighbourhood, he finally breezes on out of the shop, but only after having made everyone a little shushed. “Take it easy,” he says, baby smooth. A collective sigh. We are convinced.

All the while, I’m trying to polish off the end of David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing” essay—honing in long enough, here and there, to guffaw joyously at the “semi-agoraphobe” in him. He’s covering the Luxury Cruise experience aboard the “Nadir” megaliner, but barely leaving his room, and bingeing on Cabin Service. Last I looked back down, he had At-Sea-Cable on again, on his fifth whack at Jurassic Park, really empathizing with the raptors, trying like hell to escape all the “bovine” cruiserdom.

I’m trying to give him my undivided, but, you know, here’s the multi-ply kerfuffle I fancied I’d go out and probe. Hard not to look up; hard not to fret, or giggle. All this just seems to keep gusting along Notre-Dame, some westerly swindle. “Maybe it’s just you,” I think, to myself. “Take it easy,” I repeat.

Then “OK, let’s make some money!” blares serendipitously from someone’s VAIO—turned down in a panic, for shame. I gander it must be an endeared omen, right? I mean, what’s not to laugh at, right?

I couldn’t possibly have prepared myself to meet Jason Prince.

The unyielding torrent of information that came out of him was bewildering at first – who the hell is this guy?

Turns out I was interviewing a university professor, a specialist in social economics, collective entrepreneurship and community banking and above all an individual with his ear to the ground in a manner I haven’t seen before. Jason Prince is hoping to be borough mayor of the Sud Ouest borough, one of Montreal’s most unique and complex mega-neighbourhoods and he seems to know it better than just about anyone else. But it’s his perspective that gets me.

We talked for over three hours and worked through more coffee than I was intending to consume past 9pm. At one point he began illustrating some of his ideas by drawing on the flip side of his placemat. It was magic.

By the end of it all I think we were both completely exhausted, but at the very least I left the conversation with a far, far better idea of what’s going on in my borough and what some of the big-picture grassroots issues are. If that seems inherently contradictory, I’ll tell you now you’re wrong. And suggest strongly you speak with Mr. Prince.

We should be so lucky to bend his ear for an hour or two… Utterly fascinating in every way.

What do you want for this city?

Well, there was something I was just thinking about, like an AirBnB but for apartments in our city. Like if you have an apartment in St. Henri but you’ve always wanted to live in the Mile End you could organize a swap online. Something of that sort would be kinda neat no?

That’s a million dollar idea right there…

I’ll tell you what I want. I want a bus, an articulated bus, running on highway 20 from the far end of the West Island going all the way downtown. I want it to run in a reserved lane, on an express schedule, stopping at a select number of stops. During rush hour, I want one of these buses running every five to ten minutes.

Sounds like a BRT.

Yeah, except mine will be painted bright pink.

Come again?

To attract attention. You won’t miss that, no one will. And on the side of this bus, or perhaps integrated into its outlandish overall aesthetic, would be the following three phrases, in both official languages of course: free wifi, free newspapers, free coffee.

Free coffee?

Free with your STM-branded plastic travel mug of course.

You want a barista on the bus?

Ha. Well that might be a bit much, perhaps we’ll have to start off with those super-sized carafes for the first little bit, but I can imagine such a system as I’d like to see would have new, purpose-built buses. So perhaps we could make some room for an actual person who could serve the highest-octane coffee money can buy.

This is one hell of a bus!

Yeah. I think it’s the kind that will actually get people to give up their cars. Imagine all those people sitting in traffic each and every day on the 20. Imagine sitting there going nowhere fast, and every five minutes this big pink bus just blasts past you. And each one is filled with happy people comfortably zooming off to work. No traffic, no parking, no bad road conditions and no hassle.

This. This is how you get 40-50 000 people to give up commuting with their own car. If we can offer this kind of service to car-crazy suburbia, the STM will succeed not only in securing their own prosperous future, but will further have served the public good by taking a big chunk out of our yearly carbon emissions.

And it’s such a win-win situation. Less traffic means our roads and transport infrastructure lasts longer, means your car lasts longer and costs less to maintain. It means our streets get cleared faster after a snowstorm. It means fewer accidents. And best of all it will improve air quality and the overall quality of life.

Driving is fun, no one’s going to deny that. But commuting by car in Montreal is just idiotic, especially if there are other viable options. Who has two hours a day to give up, just to crawl along in traffic? We want people to take public transit, but in order to secure new ridership, we have to offer new options.

So you want BRTs over tram systems?

No, not necessarily. I think there’s room for both. But for starters, lets get some nifty new super buses on reserved lanes on our highways. Let’s do what we can to really cut down on commuter traffic.

redpath sugar
The former Redpath Sugar refinery in St-Henri (photo mybis.net)

This borough presents a lot of contrasts and people keep jawin’ on about how it’s going to be the ‘Next Plateau’ or something of the sort. There’s been a lot of gentrification already, but the shadow of de-industrialization looms long and large. What will propel this borough into the next plateau of liveability and economic sustainability. In sum, what will bring the jobs back to the Sud-Ouest?

We need to maximize all the potential economic benefits of the new superhospital. I’ve been working on getting the MUHC to incorporate a strategy for economic development and consider the hospital’s effect on employment, traffic, housing etc.

What caught my attention is the potential for former industrial space in Saint Henri to get recycled for the purposes of medical technology companies. Unlike Westmount and Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the Sud-Ouest borough has a lot of room to handle medical technology firms, research and development labs and a host of related economic activities. In sum, there may be a silver lining to this project many thought would be another white elephant.

But aside from that, did you know there are 240 manufacturers located in the Sud-Ouest?

That’s many more than I would have assumed…

Right, because they’re all much smaller than the giants that once powered the local economy. But what’s left isn’t nothing, it’s much more than that. It’s a foundation that can be built upon.

I believe Saint Henri’s future may not be strictly residential. We must avoid a condo ghetto here and that means taking a serious look at the economic agents which power balanced neighbourhoods.

We need to establish target goals and a preferred mix of activities and then plug in what’s needed to accomplish what’s best for this borough. While the MUHC hasn’t formally agreed to any specific economic spin-off model for the new superhospital, if elected, I’d certainly make it a priority to get them to adhere to a mutually beneficial model, one that allows Québec Inc. to plug into the MUHC and use the Sud-Ouest for new economic activity.

What does the Sud-Ouest need, more than anything else, from their next mayor and from the next municipal administration?

Access to good quality, affordable housing. Whatever the borough’s future, affordable housing must be maintained.

It’s unfortunate that the Régie de logement isn’t working as well as it used to, that the former administrations provided so many loopholes for developers to completely ignore the real housing needs of the city and that the CMHC doesn’t actually build affordable housing any more.

They don’t?

Nope, haven’t for some time either. And Harper’s mentioned he wants to scrap it outright, which could lead us to a mortgage crisis like they had in the States. But that’s another issue.

I had a delightful opportunity to meet Cindy Filiatrault recently, Équipe Mélanie Joly’s candidate for borough mayor in the Sud Ouest borough (which, for the uninitiated, includes Saint Henri, Point-St-Charles, Griffintown, Little Burgundy, Ville Émard and Cote-St-Paul). We met up at a crowded café St-Henri, realized there were no seats left as the joint was jam packed with insolent hipsters and then proceeded to walk down a bustling Notre Dame West to the Green Spot Diner.

On our way over, we passed a comic book shop celebrating its one year anniversary and something called the Quebec General Store which seemed to be having a going-out-of-business sale. There were boarded-up storefronts and dive bars next to businesses that are keen to welcome their first clients. Indeed, I couldn’t think of a better place for a stroll.

Notre Dame West is, like many of Montreal’s commercial arteries, a bit hit or miss, though if you continued walking east from where we were (and by that I mean if you cross Atwater) you discover the gentle lapping waves of a different kind of gentrification. For all that the Sud Ouest is, it is a study in contrasts.

Over too many cups of coffee I discovered a borough mayor candidate with some fascinating ideas, but perhaps more importantly, a real sense of attachment and conviction.

What are your plans for the Sud-Ouest?

Oh man, where do I start? Broadly, and I mean this with regards to the whole city, we need to make all pertinent data open to public scrutiny. And I suppose we’d need to hire a few people to compile this data too.

What kind of data are you looking for?

Well, I’d like to know what effect green roof initiatives have on reducing the effects of air pollution, not to mention an air quality break-down by borough too. Add to that list all public contracts so that the public can see where their money is going and how it’s being spent.

Rue_Notre-Dame_Ouest_(Montreal)_22-09-2006
Notre-Dame Ouest in St-Henri (image WikiMedia Commons)

So you don’t just want transparency, but a more engaged and active distribution of information?

Pretty much. Anyone can say they are being transparent, but I want to have free, unencumbered access to everything I need to make an informed decision on how our elected officials are doing. Currently, we’re all in the dark.

But you know, it goes a lot further than that. The city has to actively promote the services and programs it has that aren’t being used. There are myriad programs available to help small entrepreneurs, but it’s very difficult to find the pertinent information. Why?

A lot of these programs aren’t used simply because there’s no one at city hall making it a priority to get the word out. And perhaps the less I say about the city’s website the better.

Some politicians would argue making all information available for public consumption is going to bog down the political process because they’ll wind up having to explain a lot to people who really only want to kvetch about god knows what and will stick to their guns even if it’s apparent the information or data they have has been incorrectly interpreted or understood

So be it. Politicians are there to communicate openly and directly with their citizens. We can’t afford to keep the citizenry in the dark and the paternalist style of governing, the ‘dumbed-down’ approach has got to go.

I think all Montrealers are sick of being talked down to by a lot of rich, crooked, old white men. Besides which, I work in communications, you work in communications, and we both know that complex information can be made simple to understand.

Either way, look at where we’re at right now. Everything happens behind closed doors, the public is kept in the dark, the people have nearly zero faith in their politicians.

If there’s a reason why we’re pulling ahead in the polls, it’s because we’re the antithesis of the old order. We’re young, vibrant, energetic, connected and placing a strong emphasis on using technology – the technology that unites us in nearly all other aspects of our lives – and apply it to increase civic engagement, stimulate transparency and govern based on a real-time assessment of the people’s interests.

filiatraut joly
Cindy Filiatrault campaigning with Melanie Joly (image via Melanie Joly on Twitter)

Tell me something more concrete, more Sud-Ouest focused. What does this borough need to flourish?

Decontamination and revitalization.

Good answer.

Thanks!

Expand on that, please.

Much of this borough was industrial for a hundred years prior to the major phase of deindustrialization that swept through with the closing of the Lachine Canal. As a result, factories closed, but what they left behind is still in the ground.

As a post-industrial city, we need to keep track of what pollutants are where and in what quantities. We also need a plan to decontaminate the ground to ensure the health of our community.

Much of the borough is built on former industrial land and wedged between what was once an industrial canal on the southern edge and one of the busiest highways in Canada on the northern edge. Is it any wonder life-long residents of the borough have higher respiratory ailments?

Tell me something I don’t know about your borough.

You know Dave McMillan?

Not personally, but he owns Liverpool House and Joe Beef, right?

Right. In the winter he clears the snow from the alleyway behind his restaurants. He clears it by hand because the city doesn’t. And you know what he finds with nearly every shovelful of snow? Needles. That alleyway is littered with them but it’s thanks to Dave McMillan they get cleaned up.

That’s really gross. There’s a park just on the other side of that alleyway and a library and a community centre too

Exactly my point. On Notre-Dame it’s all fixed up, gentrified, you’d never expect that just on the other side is the borough’s reality of poverty and social pathologies related to mental health problems, drug addiction etc. Drug addicts shouldn’t be anywhere near areas used by families and children, even if it is an alleyway.

So what do we do with potentially homeless intravenous drug addicts in the Sud-Ouest?

We need a safe injection site in the borough and I’d push for it. How are drug addicts ever going to overcome their addictions if they’re forced out of sight into the nooks and crannies of the city?

These are people too. They should have a place to go where they can shoot up with clean needles, with supervision and access to help if they want it.

It’ll make our streets safer and we won’t have to worry about kids accidentally sticking themselves with dirty needles on the way to a baseball diamond or the local library. It’s a matter of basic respect for your fellow human beings. Frankly, I’m surprised we don’t already have one here.

Where would you bring tourists to give them a taste of this large, diverse borough?

I’d bring them for a walk along Notre-Dame, so they could see our past, present and future.