Montreal·Blog

What would you do with a Montreal time machine?

The CBC Montreal/Quebec Writers' Federation 2018 writer-in-residence, Joshua Levy, explores the connections between our past, present and future with his ingenious time machine.

Joshua Levy explores the connections between our past, present and future with his ingenious time machine

Members of the B'Nai Jacob Synagogue stare back as Joshua Levy time-travels along Fairmount Avenue. (Joshua Levy)

This is the latest in a series of blog posts by the 2018 CBC Montreal/Quebec Writers' Federation writer-in-residence, Joshua Levy


When I reach the Kondiaronk lookout in Mount Royal Park, the snow has stopped falling and people are busy snapping selfies by the edge of the mountain.

I overhear a little girl ask, "Is this one of the most beautiful places in the world, mommy?"

"Je pense que oui," her mother replies.

I nod to myself in agreement.

Although it is cold enough to give a snowman frostbite, passing joggers are dripping with sweat. A woman, silently gazing at the Montreal skyline, puffs enthusiastically on her e-cigarette.  A man hoists his little yapping dog onto the stone railing so it can share in the tranquil view.  

Nobody suspects why I am here.
This is Joshua Levy and Montreal, as they appear in early 2018. (Joshua Levy)

In other words, nobody suspects that I have a time machine in my pocket.

Slowly, carefully, like I am in an extremely low-budget version of Back to the Future, I hold up an old photo ...

... and time travel back to the year 1916.

This is what I see:

The lookout's stone railing begins on my left, curves through the black-and-white photograph in my hand, and continues on the other side in an unbroken arc. As long as I hold this photograph at this angle, the faded people in my hand seem almost alive —  or, at least, a little less dead.

They are dressed in early 20th century's finest fashions and seem transfixed by the Montreal skyline.

This is the view from the Montreal lookout, now and in 1916. (Joshua Levy)

What do they see? What, I wonder, did Montreal look like back then?

I don't need to wonder long. I have a time machine.  

Reaching into my trusty pocket, I remove another crumpled photograph and travel back, yet again, to 1916 — the year both photographs were captured by the legendary William Notman photography company.

Skyscrapers instantly vanish and are replaced by dirty factory chimneys. Cement and steel no longer obscure the Saint Lawrence River. In fact, the tallest downtown building is the Basilica at the corner of Peel and René Lévesque — ahem, Dorchester Boulevard.
Joshua Levy looks out over two very different Montreal skylines. (Joshua Levy)

I try to imagine the lives of those who stood here before me.

The Montrealers of the 1960s, who cheered during the construction of Place Ville Marie and Expo 67. They lived in one of the most powerful, modern cities in the world.  I wonder what that felt like?

The Montrealers of the 1950s, who could see the Forum from up here and wave as the Habs racked up one, two, three, four, five Stanley Cups in a row. I also wonder what that felt like.  

Or the Montrealers of the 1940s, who leaned against this stone railing and agonized over whether the Nazis were going to win the war in Europe and turn their sights toward Quebec.  

Even Jacques Cartier once stood here, admiring quite a different scene, before claiming it all, ahem, in the name of the French king.

I remember coming to this lookout as a child with my parents, as a teenager on dates, and as an adult with my wife. I hope that one day I remember coming here as an old man.

Calm of the cemetery

Burying my gloveless hands in my pockets in a futile attempt at warmth, I make my way towards the Mount Royal Cemetery.  

Yes, I am one of those crazy people who find cemeteries calming.  

Soon I am trudging past rows of headstones. There are famous people here, like the McGills, the Redpaths and the Molsons. But I am far more interested in reading the names and minimalist histories of the countless milkmen, maids, and masons: the Montrealers of winters past.

My absolute favourite headstone in the cemetery, if one is allowed to have such a thing, is not much of a headstone at all, but more of a park bench. The bench happens to be located a few meters from the final resting place of William Notman, the photographer who is posthumously providing me with the materials to build my time machine.
Joshua Levy visited the Assaly gravesite on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, in October 2017. He came here to put my past, present and future into perspective. (Joshua Levy)

Made from sleek black granite, with the name ASSALY etched in the stone in simple block letters, the tombstone is a bench where people often sit during the warmer months.

The Assaly family decided to use this allocated space to offer respite for the living. I have never been able to find out more information about the Assalys, but I can't think of a more beautiful legacy.
A ghost stands on St-Laurent Boulevard, as Joshua Levy looks north towards des Pins Avenue. (Joshua Levy)

On the Plateau Mont-Royal, I begin to time-travel again. It is addictive.

A horse is hitched up on Saint Lawrence Boulevard.

A 19th-century synagogue's facade is freed from its questionable mid-20th century alterations on Fairmount Avenue, and Laurier Avenue has a tram track running through it.    
Who wore it better? This is the façade of B'Nai Jacob synagogue, now Collège Français. (Joshua Levy)
In the 1920s, a tram track ran up Laurier Street. Joshua Levy is looking east towards Parc Avenue. (Joshua Levy)

Glimpse into the future

I mosey by a boarded-up building with a sign that shows a rendering of a proposed construction project.

The building looks born again with new glittering windows, additional storeys and Photoshopped Montrealers lounging and laughing in a grassy communal area.

For the first time today I think of Montreal's future, not its past.

I take out my smartphone and Google "future Montreal projects." Pretty soon, I'm scrolling through drawings and descriptions of what politicians and architects have in store for us all.
This is the City of Montreal's rendition of what Saint-Hubert Plaza will look like after its redesign. (City of Montreal)

Montreal's future looks exciting.

On a whim, I walk into the closest café (it is Café Olimpico, for the historical records) and take out a pen and paper. I write about my past, my present, and my hopes for the future. I really pour my heart out onto the page.

Then I place it in the envelope, write "to the future, from Josh," and plant the letter in the snow, outside.

All of this time traveling has made me hungry. I cross the street and order a half-dozen bagels.

They are still warm with the comforting heat of the present.  

If you had a Montreal time machine, what era would you want to check out? Share your ideas (and your great old photos of Montreal) on the CBC Montreal Facebook page.

Joshua Levy leaves a note in the snow to a future recipient. (Joshua Levy)

About the Author

Joshua Levy

2018 CBC/QWF writer-in-residence

Joshua Levy is the 2018 CBC/Quebec Writers' Federation writer-in-residence. A poet, writer and storyteller with deep roots in Montreal, Levy has contributed to CBC shows including DNTO and Wiretap, performed stories for QWF's This Really Happened, The Moth Toronto and The Raconteurs and been published in various literary magazines.

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