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Travelogue F42

October 20, 2015

I sought to complete my circuit of Montréal’s sights with a walk through the old city a bright Saturday morning. Though the architecture was impressive both for its diversity and its age, relative to North America, my attention was, as usual, held by those elements or entities which pass mostly unheeded at the edges of daily existence. I counted among their number information panels relating the history of river traffic and trade and their perils, such as the presence of currents so strong as to require the usage of a towboat to progress upstream. It seemed that, farther upriver, rapids, themselves the result of a fourteen-meter drop in water level, had prevented for years the natural haven’s extension.

I read still further, through considerable graffiti and wear, of the icejams and flooding in the St. Lawrence, likewise halting the development of lasting infrastructure. In 1886, the passing ice piles reached some fifteen meters in height. The ice flood fresh in mind, the civil authorities raised a pier in the last decade of the 19th century in order to keep the ice floes from the shore and fend off the current. Only in 1964 did the arrival of icebreakers secure the Saint Lawrence’s navigation throughout the year.

The former Pier Mackay was not the only construction of its kind, for an artificial island had been raised at the harbor’s edge, around which the water flows, falling from one manmade level to another. Ducks were numerous that morning. They flocked to the cusp of the falls, hovering there, and found themselves, through almost imperceptible adjustments, at once in constant motion and outwardly still.

Back off the water loomed warehouse-showrooms, their lettering still visible in places, announcing ship goods and mercers, wholesalers and craftsmen. Although austere from the port side, the buildings, raised between 1830 and 1850, presented a rather more appealing face cityside. Divided in this way between trade and sales, they stood as beehives at the center of the bustle: on the ground floor, bulk sales and administration; the first floor the place of exhibitions and displays for shoppers; those above, anywhere from two to four in number as determined from a cursory glance outdoors, home to handling and finishing, as well as workshops.

My source made it known that the Port District’s time as a distribution center hit its peak in the 1850’s at a time when everyday items such as footwear and tobacco could be considered avant-garde industries. Yet the times had changed, and the floors with them, for, as I could determine at a glance, the bottom level now housed bars and restaurants. As elsewhere, services came to replace goods, which had disappeared to we know not where and perhaps in the framework of capitalism’s continuing dematerialization, its gradual emptying out of itself.

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