Old Montreal descends into a filthy, crumbling neighbourhood

Pop Goes The News – Old Montreal, a neighbourhood of centuries-old buildings that draws visitors from around the world, has become a filthy, crumbling microcosm of the city’s overall decline.

“It’s nothing like what we expected,” a visitor from Boston lamented as he looked at garbage and old clothing piled on a sidewalk on Notre-Dame Street West. “At home we see images of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets in a vibrant historic district.”

Those horse-drawn carriages, or calèches, have been banned by the city and many of those cobblestone streets are littered with trash, abandoned construction signs and debris.

A homeless camp has been in place on Saint-Laurent at De La Commune for several weeks.

But that’s not all that has made Old Montreal less than postcard-perfect in recent months.

Vandalism and spray-painted graffiti is ubiquitous. At least one abandoned historic building is surrounded by metal barricades to protect passersby from falling debris. A large city-owned parking lot was shut down on Dec. 1 and surrounded by cement barriers. And, at least one homeless camp has been in place at a busy street corner for weeks.

Trash litters the street, where a concrete barrier has been tagged.

While the federally-maintained Old Port glistens with an observation wheel, skating rink and other attractions, drivers on adjacent De La Commune St. navigate around potholes, including one at the foot of Saint-Sulpice that has become an axel-busting menace.

MORE: Old Montreal tourists targeted by fake monks and nun

On travel sites like TripAdvisor, Old Montreal receives high ratings and almost entirely positive reviews, with visitors using adjectives like “beautiful” and “wonderful” to describe the neighbourhood. One person from Pennsylvania, though, called Old Montreal “past its prime” in a November review, writing: “Old Montreal looks like it is not doing well economy wise, it was very dreary and desolate.”

Another reviewer opined that Old Montreal was “more attractive and cleaner” in years past and a review posted in June noted “some buildings look almost like tear-down level.”

The turnover of businesses in Old Montreal has always been high as many struggle to pay the bills after the busy summer months but it appears that an increasing number of retailers and restaurants have been shuttered in the last year.

On one block of De La Commune, two abandoned restaurant spaces stand next to an inn with a city-issued “stop work” order in the window.

BELOW: A gallery of images taken in Old Montreal on the morning of Jan. 5, 2020.

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The problems in Old Montreal are symbolic of the rest of Montreal: crumbling infrastructure, vandalism, homelessness – as well as oppressive language laws that make it difficult for businesses to flourish.

Detectives search for clues following a shooting on Notre-Dame St. W. in July 2018.

There have been a number of shootings in Old Montreal in the last two years, including incidents in July 2018, January 2019 and October 2019 as revellers spilled out of nightclubs. 

A busy parking lot between Saint-Jacques and Notre-Dame was the scene of dozens of vehicle break-ins. On Dec. 1, 2019, the city closed the lot but signs warning car owners about the theft problem remain affixed to the window of the lot’s long-abandoned pay booth.

The sudden closure of the popular parking lot caught business owners and residents by surprise – and has caused further parking headaches in Old Montreal (Stationnement de Montréal declined to provide a reason for the closure and referred inquiries to the city’s 311 service, which referred inquiries back to Stationnement de Montréal.)

Just as mysteriously, crews erected barricades in front of a building at 42 Notre-Dame St. West that contains a ground-level store and several Airbnb units. (The fencing was removed after several days, but the building remains closed.)

There have been some recent “wins” for Old Montreal, though. In October, the owners of a discount shoe store at 29 Notre-Dame St. West pleaded guilty in municipal court to a 2017 ticket for blasting music and announcements onto the street. Local residents had fought for several years to silence the noise.

Police respond to one of several noise complaints against an Old Montreal shoe store in 2018.

And late last summer, a husband-and-wife who posed as a monk and a nun to prey on gullible Old Montreal tourists for cash were driven away by attention sparked by a report by Pop Goes The News.