Quebec City's 400th Anniversary

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 7, 2008. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 7, 2008. Partner content is not updated.

Quebec City's 400th Anniversary

It is odd to land in a city celebrating its 400th birthday and discover that everything is brand new. The expanded terminal at QUEBEC CITY's Jean Lesage International Airport opened less than a month ago; it's clean-lined, spacious, relatively rational as airport design goes, in the mould of not-quite-as-new terminals in Ottawa and Toronto. A taxi took me downtown to the Hotel Pur. Fresh from a year-long renovation - it used to be a frumpy Holiday Inn Select - it now greets guests as a swanky boutique hotel, the kind with sofas in the lobby that only supermodels can perch on without listing to starboard. "It's so cool," a flight attendant from Chicago (United now flies into Quebec City direct) told her colleagues as we rode up in the elevator. "So modernized."

Outside, St. Joseph Street teemed with shiny new retail boutiques (Hugo Boss, Mountain Equipment Co-op), cocktail bars, austerely gorgeous restaurants with eight-course tasting menus. "It's almond milk," a black-clad waiter at l'Utopie explained as I pondered a golfball-sized white ceramic sphere with a drinking straw poking out of it. "It will bring your mouth back down to the ground after the explosion of flavour from everything else."

Every city feels a little like another city, but I was astonished to find that in its bustling optimism, Quebec City reminds me of today's Berlin. Not so much a historic capital as one reborn.

Well, in parts. Up in the Haute-Ville, the streets inside the fortified walls remain a kind of living museum, swarming with tourists and cheerful locals. The Château Frontenac, the Rue du Trésor with its artists hawking endless watercolour landscapes, the St. Jean Street drag haven't changed in any serious way for decades. Surely nobody minds. I lived in a third-floor walk-up inside the Old Town's walls as a student in 1987 and almost every pub and dépanneur I used to frequent remains.

Outside the walls the upper town is still block on block of unprepossessing residential real estate, tidy little houses whose main distinguishing feature is many owners' enduring fondness for above-ground backyard swimming pools as a substitute for central air conditioning.

But elsewhere, much is new in a city that never used to seem to change. The year-long celebration of Quebec's 400th anniversary comes to a head on July 3, which by popular reckoning is the date Samuel de CHAMPLAIN and his shipmates established the first permanent white settlement in North America in 1608. But it's increasingly clear the preparations for the festivities have been only a catalyst for longer-term renewal. A serious real estate boom is underway. And the epicentre of the boom is where my swanky hotel was, in a neighbourhood called St. Roch, in the Basse-Ville or lower city, a few blocks west of the Old Port and the imposing old train station with its tall copper ski-slope roofs.

A visit to St. Roch used to be an unutterably depressing experience. In the last decades of the 20th century, two of the most devastating urban-design decisions anywhere in Canada combined to cut the neighbourhood off from the rest of the city and bludgeon the life from it.

First, dozens of lanes of highway came swooping in from the north. Designed to facilitate access to the National Assembly and the office towers around it freshly built to house the bureaucratic armies of the Quiet Revolution, the highway incidentally wiped out the city's main Jewish and Chinese districts and put St. Roch on the wrong side of brutal expanses of concrete from everything else in Quebec City. It fell to Jacques Gréber, the French landscape architect who made Ottawa's Sparks Street into one of the most uninspiring pedestrian boulevards under the eye of God, to deliver the coup de grace by coming up with exactly the same bright idea for St. Joseph. Cars were banished from the street, once St. Roch's main commercial drag.

Then local merchants had what they seemed to think was an even better idea: since customers were fleeing the downtown for sprawling malls in the suburbs, they decided to plop a roof onto several blocks of St. Joseph Street, transforming it into an ersatz downtown mall. It looks so glamorous in a conceptual sketch from 1968 that adorns architecture historian Lucie K. Morisset's invaluable book about St. Roch, La mémoire du paysage (The Memory of a Landscape). Mustachioed fellows in Cardin suits escort their wives in hot pants past elegant boutiques.

In real life the Mail, or mall, was a disaster. The roof was cheap and claustrophobic. Clients fled, rents plummeted, chain stores couldn't draw clients and shuttered their doors, to be replaced by lower-rent stores in a 20-year spiral of declining standards. By the late 1980s joblessness, drug abuse and petty crime were endemic in St. Roch. The rosy-cheeked good cheer of residents in the upper town had no equivalent in the hollow-eyed despair that was too frequent down here.

It seemed an awful coda to a sometimes glorious history for St. Roch, and it is germane to our discussion of Quebec City's 400th anniversary, because here's the thing: Samuel de Champlain's first hardy colonial settlement in the 17th century, the very adventure being celebrated by multiple tiers of government with truckloads of taxpayer dollars this summer, that settlement was built down here at the foot of the cliffs, in what later became St. Roch. The picture-book prettiness at the top of the cliff, the Château Frontenac and the boardwalk and the tourist restaurants with their gluey tourtière - that came later and its form has been frozen by generations of tourist boards. The roots, the evolution, the living Quebec City, for better and for worse, has always been down here.

"The history of St. Roch is, precisely, not the history of the capital," Morisset writes. The neighbourhood at the bottom of the cliff has, over the centuries, sometimes served as a bedroom community for the capital above, or as the industrial centre that primed its economic pump, or as the elegant shopping and theatre district for the capital's francophone, Scottish or English swells. Later it became a polluted and ill-managed embarrassment best ignored. But for almost all those years it was tucked away, mentally as well as geographically, from the rest of town. Morisset points out that only in the earliest maps of Quebec City is St. Roch in the middle of the grid. By the early 18th century the cartographers' attention had moved a few kilometres south and a few hundred metres uphill: on those maps you can't see St. Roch because the maps' legend is usually printed on top of it.

Only in the last 15 years, thanks to the pugnacious former mayor Jean-Paul l'Allier, has a revitalization begun that puts the historic heart of Quebec City back in touch with the districts that came later. First the roof came off the fake mall. Auto traffic was permitted back on St. Joseph Street. The Église St. Roch, the city's largest church, was renovated and spruced up to take back its role as a centrepiece of community activity.

Software firms and a university campus were coaxed into the neighbourhood, luring the artists and loft-dwelling aesthetes who are always gentrification's first wave. Funky bookstores and patchouli-scented cafés started to open next to the used-furniture shops and dime stores that had been the bad old days' last commercial survivors. Finally the insane abutments of the soaring highways were rebuilt and simplified, making a trip from on foot from the Old Port feel like less of a trek into the badlands. The rebirth of St. Roch brings a very concrete meaning to the notion that this year, Quebec and the rest of Canada are rediscovering the city's roots.

During my stay I walked the other way, eastward out of St. Roch, under the soaring highway and into the Old Port to watch the event that is the centrepiece of the Quebec 400 celebrations if anything is: the Image Mill, a nightly sound-and-light show created by the maverick theatre director and conceptual artist Robert Lepage. Lepage grew up in Quebec City and, like everyone, he used to look across the water to the row of grain silos the Bunge company uses to load its cargo onto St. Lawrence River freighters. Now every night Lepage projects a panoramic history of his city onto the immense, 600-metre-long concrete "screen" formed by those silos. It is, promoters say, the largest sound-and-light show in the world.

Covering four centuries in 40 minutes, Lepage's spectacle combines animation, archival photos, film and television footage to skip, cleverly but lightly, over the city's history. The silos become the candles of the Catholic Church, the stations on a radio dial, the soldiers of two world wars, the keys on a piano in a postwar nightclub. A few inconvenient events are simply ignored. Lepage offers no evidence that Quebec City was the operational headquarters for two secession referendum campaigns. His smartest strategic choice was to keep the show short: by the time you realize Lepage is using gorgeous pictures to say very little, the show's over.

Many of the official exhibits and events to commemorate Quebec City's 400th anniversary are similar to Lepage's show: they are lovely to look at, even a privilege to attend, but it is not always clear what light they shine on a city or its people. At the Musée nationale des beaux-arts, the city's main art museum, six galleries have been converted into a reasonably convincing replica of the Louvre's display spaces, for an ambitious display of nearly 300 relics and artworks from the great French museum's vast collection. Pierre B. Landry, the exhibit's soft-spoken curator, told me he'd taken care to bring in pieces from eight of the Louvre's constituent departments, including Egyptian Antiquity, Islamic Arts, Sculptures, and Paintings. Landry's dedication is being rewarded with big, appreciative crowds. (Quebec City in general is busy this summer, but during the weekend I was there, never unpleasantly so.)

Still, I was happiest when I escaped the crowds in the Louvre galleries to explore the nearly empty rooms dedicated to the museum's permanent collection of Québécois artists, landmark works by Alfred Pellan, Jean Dallaire and others. At the Musée des Civilizations, a stunning exhibit, Gold of the Americas, delivers an avalanche of what the title promises: Aztec gold, Inca gold, gold from the Klondike, gold from Hollywood stars. Only near the end, with a row of Olympic gold medals bestowed, in a half-dozen Olympic cities, on predominantly Québécois athletes, does the exhibit acknowledge any direct link to its host city.

So, as rewarding as the official sites and events were, I found the most interesting parts of my latest return to a city I have loved for 30 years were when I simply wandered around St. Roch, pausing to read Morisset's book and look for signs of her narrative in the buildings around me. Here I had the feeling of a city that wasn't built for display cases and polite crowds but one that was alive, not always happy, but capable of growth and renewal.

I reached Morisset by phone. She was riding a bus through Lac St. Jean with a busload of university students, on her way to Shawinigan. "Sometimes it feels like it's not 400 years of history we're celebrating in Quebec City, just a fourth centenary. As if Champlain arrived and then nothing else happened." In the neighbourhood Champlain founded, that's not the way it feels at all.

Maclean's July 7, 2008