In 1881, Mark Twain described Montreal as a city “where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” In 2016, we might describe Montreal as a city where you can’t throw a brick without hitting something beautiful. Seriously, you can’t even walk to the pharmacy, on a warm June night, to pick up some garbage bags, without being left speechless again and again and again. Oh, and let me be clear, the beauty of which I speak, the beauty of this great city, is not the natural and thus accidental beauty of BC or Banff. Vanity is a virtue here in Montreal, and the city’s beautiful because it wants to be.
Something wonderful is happening in this city. Despite corruption scandals that would make a Latin American dictator blush. Despite crumbling municipal infrastructure that’s made much of downtown look like the perfect place to shoot a post-apocalyptic disaster movie. Despite all of these things, and against all odds, there’s a buzz of creativity here right now unlike anything I’ve seen before in my lifetime.
What real city would be a real city without dreamy drifters and nomads possessed by a seemingly insatiable wanderlust? I love these people. They make delightful dinner guests and fascinating friends. Even so, you can’t build anything long-lasting or worthwhile with poetic people like this. Because they always leave. Sooner or later. To function well, cities need to have a critical number of people like Niccolò Machiavelli: people who can say: “I love my native city more than my own soul.”
Urban dwellers love to pride themselves on their open-mindedness, and yet I can’t help but notice that the sine qua non of any real city is a kind of closed-mindedness. All real cities (e.g., Paris, New York, Montreal) contain a critical number of chauvinistic citizens who simply cannot imagine living anywhere else, narrow-minded people who believe (wrongly, of course) that their city is the best city in the world. Much as sophisticated cosmopolitans love to disapprove of these people, a city really isn’t a city without them.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)