Behind Our Scenes

Montreal: The Unknown City

By Ian Ferrier

A review of Montreal: The Unknown City by Kristian and John David Gravenor

Published on October 1, 2002

Montreal: The Unknown City
Kristian and John David Gravenor

Arsenal Pulp Press
$19.95
paper
214pp
1-55152-119-9

As a columnist in the Montreal Mirror, Kristian Gravenor has been rooting out the city’s dirty (and some not so dirty) little secrets for years, so it’s fitting that he and his brother, John David Gravenor, were chosen as the writers for the latest in the Unknown City series.

As a longtime Montrealer who feels he barely knows anything about the place, I was downright thirsty for info – and speaking of thirst, one suspects that the authors might have chased a pint or two, as the most talked about item in the book is beer. There are two full pages on where to find beer and another two on who makes beer. These are followed by what happens to numerous Montrealers after drinking beer. The Gravenor brothers don’t hesitate to name names here, including one member of Montreal’s finest who used both sides of the Decarie Expressway to help keep his car pointing forward before being apprehended in a nearby parking lot with his pants around his ankles.

The author had other tough assignments, like determining the city’s best strip joint (Le Paree, as long as you don’t mind being shot at from time to time), where to go if you want to swim naked (Oka, although it’s unofficial), and where you might get arrested even if you aren’t naked. Seems that old Outremont mayor Jerome Choquette didn’t like the sight of a body in a bathing suit, and so banned their use in any park in his city. I’d like to say this backfired when the whole of Outremont started parading around in tight little cutoff shorts instead, but it just isn’t the truth.

To show how far we’ve come, the authors provide a full page of places where you can publicly disrobe. For the more modest, they also include a guide to the best public washrooms in the city. But the height of nudity news in the Unknown City came via one of the two most amazing facts in this book: behind an anonymous-looking door, there’s a nude beach on rue St-Paul in Old Montreal.

To top that (is it possible?) there’s the story of the people “buried alive” in the 1800s. Dominion Square (now called Dorchester Square) used to be a cemetery, and was used during a cholera outbreak to inter both the living and the dead. The dead were being buried as fast as possible to keep down the spread of the disease. The living who were interred were those who had succumbed so powerfully to the morphine used as a cholera cure that they only seemed to be dead. (Speaking of burial, you never do rest completely in peace. The lease on a grave on Mount Royal must be renewed every 99 years.)

There are all sorts of other odd facts in the book, such as where to find the Cosmodome, which I thought was a tribute to Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer but turned out to be a Space Camp in Laval. There’s also the amazing story of Veronica Lake’s alcoholic late life in Montreal.

The Gravenor’s have found out things like the name of the hotel where an unknown lounge pianist was looking to rekindle his career, and changed his name (for better or worse) to Liberace.

Of course I had to check the most important fact about the book, which is whether I was in it (yes!) and what they said about me. Having read this carefully, I can now wholeheartedly recommend this book, which says a lot about this city you won’t find anywhere else, both for tourists and residents.

Tourists will get a great unconventional introduction, and locals will discover new dimensions to old places. And for those of you with a lot of your portfolio in high tech stocks, the Gravenors provide a list of soup kitchens throughout the city. mRb

Ian Ferrier is a poet and musician well-known for literary performance. His current collaboration — entitled For Body and Light (forbodyandlight.org) received superlative reviews at the Kraine Theatre in New York this winter and is currently touring cities in Western Canada. His next book of poems is scheduled for publication in French in 2015.

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