Square St. Louis Story

I love Square St. Louis in Montreal. Project for Public Places calls it “The closest thing to a European neighborhood square you’ll find this side of the Atlantic.” That may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure: it is a crazy, mixed up, and odd place — at times peaceful and gorgeous and other times overrun by thugs and druggies. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between, which is how I like it.

I’ve lived most of my Montreal life within a few minutes walk of the square and have spent countless afternoons and evenings there, plunked on a bench by the fountain, reading, or just people watching. It was my favorite place to pass the long days during my frequent bouts with unemployment in the first few years I lived here. Weekdays were the best, because it wasn’t so crowded with weekenders. It was just me and the other idlers.

Square St. Louis is a small park, as urban parks go, but it crams a lot in. At one end is an old stone pissior that was built in the 1930s as a make-work project for unemployed victims of the depression. It’s now an ice cream stand. Dead-center is the spectacular two-tiered classic Victorian fountain. The fountain and its pool attract most of the weirdos, which is why it’s always been my favorite place to sit.

I used to see a guy on a bicycle playing the harmonica. I could hear him playing the blues from about a block away. The sound would get louder and he would ride — while playing — right up to the fountain, and circle around it once or twice. Then he’d stop and put his foot up on the wall of the pool and wail away for five minutes with the most rip-roaring blues you could imagine. Then he’d get back on the bike and pedal away, still playing.

One hot day I saw a well-dressed man in a shirt and tie stand up from his bench and leap into the pool with a magnificent belly-flop. Even though the water is only knee deep, he swam — fully clothed — across to the other side, got out, and sat down again. Later, dried by the sun, he stood up and walked away.

crazy guyAnother time, I saw one of the local drunks sitting in the lower pan of the fountain. How he got up there I’ll never know. He sat there for a while, laughing and having a good old time, and would occasionally stand up and pound his chest like Tarzan. He was a funny guy — one of the more sociable of the full-time boozers who spent all their time in the square that summer. I even took a few photos, which I found last week when I was digging through some old slides.

Eventually he decided it was time to come down, but how? Being one of the blunter knives in the drawer, he decided to jump. Remember, the water is only knee deep. Down he came, feet first, with a big splash. I didn’t hear the crunch, but there must have been one. He just sat there in the pool for a while, with a forlorn look on his face. Eventually he dragged himself over to the edge, where all his buddies were doubled-over laughing and guffawing. A few of them pulled him out, after which he just rolled onto the ground and moaned.

About ten minutes later the ambulance showed up and took him away.

A week later I was back in the square, positioned as usual near the fountain. I heard a bit of a commotion and turned to look. There he was, triumphantly returning to re-stake his territory. He rolled around the fountain in his shiny new charity wheelchair, letting out whoops and cat-calls, the full-length casts on both legs signed with dozens of illegible scrawls and cigarette burns. The other boozers were happy to see him, and so was I. With free entertainment like that, who needs a job?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Update: The photo of an artist that I posted on the Monday Morning Photo Blog was taken in Square Saint Louis around 1990. I probably should have linked to that when I first made this post.

23 thoughts on “Square St. Louis Story

  1. “About ten minutes later the ambulance showed up and took him away.”

    Excellent! This is one case where the entertainment value supersedes the worry of tax money being wasted.

  2. Héhé! And being on the net, that was a really worthwhile investment!

    I really have a love/hate relationship with the park. It can be a fantastic place at evening, at spring or summer time. But living nearby and being the closest place to walk the dog, I really hate it too. The junkies, the 450’s and other tourists from the Grec avenue don’t help either.

  3. The last time I was ever with my father was hanging out on one of those benches. We parted ways later that day, and we never spoke again.
    Here’s another tale about Carré St-Louis: both the north and south parallel streets run one way in the same direction, towards the west. Before, the north street (can’t remember the name) ran east-ward. Therefore, the park was quite popular with prostitutes, as cars could simply drive around the square, window shopping, if you will. When this became a problem, they reversed the direction of the north-end street, eliminating the “problem.”

  4. Thomas, I have no problem with a health care system that doesn’t discriminate. Particularly since at the time, about the only difference between that guy and me was I knew my idleness was temporary. Oh, and that guy had more friends.

    Raoul, I’m one of those 450s now, but I claim “grandfather” status, so it’s OK. ;-)

    Michel, thanks for those details. Your comment is like a treatment for a novel.

  5. Blork: how is the neck hair growing?

    PS: I meant the real 450s: the ones that think going into town for a nice restaurant equals Duluth or Prince Arthur.

  6. http://www.google.ca

    Define: 450 –> I am feeling lucky!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Area_code_450

    Area code 450
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Jump to: navigation, search

    Area code 450 is a telephone area code in the Canadian province of Quebec, encompassing the suburban area around Montreal. Within Quebec, the 450 area code is surrounded entirely by area code 819.

    Communities served by the 450 area code include Laval, Longueuil, Joliette ,Saint-Hyacinthe, Granby and Vaudreuil-Dorion.

    ========================================

    Excellent, I just learned a new local derrogatory term! I love it!

  7. Blork,

    I’ve just got around to reading Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs.

    She does an accurate job of describing Square St. Louis and it’s “feel”.

    Such a coincidence that I would be reading about it while on the crap… err, that I should be enjoying that passage in the comfort of my reading room this very morning.

    You might recall, you convinced me to bring my daughter there for ice-skating around the Square many years and a few relationships ago…

    Meanwhile, spring looms large!

    Happy St-Patrick’s Day – Harry

  8. Thomas: it’s exactly that: the 450 area stands now for the south shore and the north shore of Montreal (including Laval).

    It’s a condescending knikname for suburbians.

    Among the 450s are the fantastic ‘Coupe Longueuil’ (aka mullets, hockey hair, etc.) .
    Longueuil is the main immediate city on the South shore. Different cities were merged 2 yrs ago in that area, the main debate was about the name of the new city: chosen based on the main city: Longueuil. Several cities have demerged now. Was it only because of the name? of course, not, but for many, it was just unsellable.

  9. I like to think I am leading the vanguard of the “new 450s.”

    Heh heh. As if.

  10. as mile end has no charming equivalent to the carré st. louis, i often make the trek down in the summer. there are nice parks a couple blocks away in outremont, sure, but it’s *outremont*. nothing crazy happens there.

  11. Interesting fact about the name of the park: “Square” in the name is not an anglicization, but in fact the official French name of the park. “Square” in this context is an archaic French word for park. IOW, “Carré St.-Louis” is not a translation into French from English, but an entirely different French name for the place.

    I also wonder if the PPS page isn’t mistaking Square St.-Louis for Parc du Portugal on the Main, alongside which Leonard Cohen actually does own property (and so does Michel Pagliaro)?

  12. From Blork:

    Square St. Louis Story. Square St. Louis is one of the most wonderful places in Montreal. For about 6 years I lived quite literally around the corner from the park, and so I passed a lot of time there. The mix of people – dowagers in black, punks, home…

  13. Michael, that line about Cohen is clearly a mistake. Otherwise, it’s clearly SSL they’re talking about.

    Regarding Lennie’s house on Parc du Portugal, as far as I know he still owns the house but he hasn’t lived there in about 30 years. It’s amazing how mythologies are created and maintained (and compared!) Related to that: when Lennie did live there, he often took his meals at a nearby diner called “Cookie’s Diner.” That place closed more than 20 years ago and was taken over by new owners — it’s now called “Bagel, Etc.” Yet there is a persistent mythology that “Bagel, Etc.” is “Leonard Cohen’s favorite restaurant.”

    As if.

  14. On the odd chance that someone reading this post and comments is thinking that Square St. Louis is a nice place to visit, and should be added to their itinerary next time they visit Montreal, it isn’t and they shouldn’t. It is somewhat bearable in the dead of winter, when the blasting cold keeps it more or less free of people. But otherwise, I would not recommend it.

  15. It’s funny we had the same thing. In the early 90’s, 312er’s were in the city and 708er’s. In college, we 312er’s banded together against the 708er suburban snobs. But that all got blown to hell with the cellphone boom. Now there are two codes in the city and at least six in the metro area. It’s bound to happen here eventually when every child is implanted with a cellphone at birth.

    Can I join the new 450 vanguard? How about a splinter cell with our own code?

  16. Although Bagel etc. shouldn’t be thought of as Leonard Cohen’s “favourite restaurant”, there’s no question that he has frequented the place in its current incarnation — albeit not very often in recent years — and is well known to the current owners. Also, he owns more than just the house on Place du Portugal (currently the Zen Centre). I don’t know whether he has property on Square St. Louis, but it’s not out of the question. Oh, and great post. I love the square too, despite its creepy side. You give an accurate picture; there’s no need for potential visitors to feel either warned or invited: some will enjoy it, some won’t, and most people are smart enough to know which side they’re on.

  17. When I was new to town I was in Square St. Louis one day, hanging out, sketching, and I took out my camera and snapped a couple of photos. Later I realized I had taken a picture of a drug deal going down – and the guys were looking right at me, but figured me for a tourist and never said a word! I like it too, though.

  18. I like it too. Every year, I sit there, and draw a version of the fountain. The slope in Park Lafontaine, leading to the lake next to the Theatre de Verdure is a similar place.

    When I first came to Montreal, had the good fortune to stay with a Albertan friend who had a place on rue Drolet, just off the Square. I’d injured my knees, tromping a long way on concrete with a heavy backback, so for thw week I stayed, never went much further to read or set up with a notebook than the park. Saw the winos washing in the fountain early in the morning, and thought of Deny LaFreniere typing his novel in the park, “How to Make Love to a Negro without getting Tired.” Richly Montreal, though as a recent arrival from Calgary, I was worse than a 450.

  19. Jack, when I read your post I realized that I had posted a photo taken in SSL on my photo blog just a couple of weeks ago. The photo was taken around 1990. (I posted an update, above, with a link.)

  20. Edwina–Long time no hear so I looked you up. Seems like you’ve been busy blorking. C’mon out to Santa Cruz…JD

  21. Blork, et al–Been reading your blog for a long time now. My heart is in Montreal but my body lives in South Florida making the money to spend our “free” time in Montreal, adjacent to the Square. We have been renting a place on the south side of the park for 4 years, summer AND winter and call it our Montreal home. For a “772”, it is the quintessential snapshot of Montreal and its people. I’m not sure I would be as happy perched over any other piece of green—with its endless parade of characters, varying decibels of activity, the alternating grudge of the hardscape with the beauty of the growing things… oh I could just go on and on. Please know, we do not eat on Prince Arthur—it is simply the path to Second Cup and the excitement of the Main. We eat on St. Denis and other spots around the city, but always feel the dark coolness when we return to the Square and home. It is a Montreal treasure, if you are open to its possibilities.

  22. Wow, Linda, it sounds like you’ve got a great setup! Twice I’ve come close to renting on the Square (both times on the north side) but the first one was too small and the second one was too grim — it was in that one really ugly building.

  23. NPR’s Fresh Air played an interview with Leonard Cohen last night (http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?
    prgId=13&prgDate=05-22-2006&view=storyview)

    I really got the impression listening to that interview that he still lives in that property near the Parc du Portugal. He mentioned finishing a poem there last winter while looking out at the park.

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