Images follow the author’s journey chronologically.
It’s Halloween in Montreal.
Below downtown, there are more than 20 miles of underground passages. Spaces in which history is not transfigured, but dimmed.
Large tracts of the underground city are not underground. I enter through the aboveground Palace des Arts.
The soil beneath the underground city is the Great Darkness; the reign of Quebec’s strongman Premier, Maurice le Noblet de Duplessis, from 1936 to 1959.
His tenure is defined by anti-urbanist policy, corrupt patronage, family values backed politically by the Catholic Church, WWII, the French connection, the psychiatric institutionalization of 20,000 orphans falsely certified as mentally ill, and the Padlock Law, which makes it illegal to propagate communism “by any means whatsoever.”
The underground city emerges in a lobotomized dialectic.
It is the vision of futurist planner Vincente Ponte, who completes the first segment, the underground shopping mall at Place Ville-Marie in 1962, during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, 18 years after the death of futurism.
Ponte is described thusly by a Montreal Star columnist: “His sleek elegance combined with a certain sinister air, generated by the dark glasses he invariably wears, suggest that he is either a smooth playboy or a rather chilling mafioso.”
He has dictatorial ambitions. He compares himself to the renovator of Paris, Baron von Haussmann.
“All the great cities of the world were created by kings and emperors who had taste…[Haussmann] rooted people out of their homes, with no compensation to do it. Not democratic at all,” Ponte says admiringly in a public interview.
Ponte’s future is a restored past pulled from beneath the rubble of itself.
He dreams of the underground city as a futurized version of the Parisian arcades, connecting all downtown cultural centers and Metro stations. Yet, he dreams as Haussmann, whose renovation project destroyed most of the arcades.
A comic denouement.
Despite Ponte’s plan and charisma, the underground city evolves piecemeal, virus-like, under the whims of different parties over 50 years.
“We consider the underground city part of the city above, and that’s why we don’t have a specific plan for the underground,” says urban planner Jacques Besner, who helps developers link projects to the underground passages in the 80’s and 90’s.
“It is discouraging to leave the past behind only to see it coming toward you like the thunderstorm which drenched you yesterday.” (William Gass, The Tunnel)
“I am alone, I thought, and they are everybody.” (Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground)
In 2012, student strikers occupy the underground city’s Metro stations, libraries and shopping malls.
Tourist guides feature the underground city as one of Montreal’s biggest attractions. Though everyone uses the passages and central hubs, most Montrealers don’t even conceive of there being an underground city. It’s not a thing to the collective conscience.
But there is an underground city, which has rich and poor districts.
Utilitarian tunnels to the northeast with little infrastructure. A pornographia of references to what isn’t there. I see a few homeless bodies. I see a man shooting up in a dark space beneath the stairs near Place Bonaventure. He sees me too, and appears to be crying. I continue south, haunted by the coleslaw eyes of a submissive.
The ghosts of material things.
More and more half-attempted references in the exposition halls to the southwest.
Maternity store, flower store, creperie, bar, food court, sandwich store, shoe store, chocolate store, gelato, train station.
No cops, fortunately.
In a few places, there are men in suits who will give you a free map of the underground city.
It is totally illegible.
The city changes colors and swallows its limbs. Passengers become confused and die before reaching the end.
As if a city could have an end.
In most cases, the passenger neither dies nor reaches the end, but simply gets lost.
A wrong turn.
Une mauvaise sortie.
A portal to the outside.