Good article about Turcot Yards and some creative types <smile> who share their ideas about it in today’s Montreal Gazette by Andy Riga.
Abandoned Turcot rail yards come to life with creative vision
ANDY RIGA, The Gazette
Published: Monday, February 05, 2007
It’s a sprawling wasteland scarred by graffiti and dotted with tall, drab, decrepit concrete pillars – a scab on Montreal’s landscape that grumbling commuters inch past in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
To you, maybe.
To photographer Ken McLaughlin, the Turcot interchange and abandoned rail yards in west-end Montreal are a visual feast, a hiking trail, an online passion.
To visual artist Doug Scholes, the interchange is a creative inspiration, a temple for the automobile that evokes Britain’s Stonehenge.
To archaeologist Daniel Marchand, it’s an unfinished work of art that he’s anxious to complete, paint can in hand.
They’re among Montrealers filling the void as Quebec studies what to do with its 85-hectare swath of real estate.
Transport Quebec bought it in 2003 for $17.8 million, saying it would fix the interchange or tear it down and start over. It also expects to sell most of the empty yards to private interests, perhaps for light industry.
Several scenarios are being studied and Transport Quebec expects to unveil a proposal this spring, followed by public hearings, a spokesperson said.
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The Turcot Yards, bounded by Notre Dame de Grace, St. Henri and Highway 20, was once a bustling place, a major train hub first for the Grand Trunk Railway and later for Canadian National Railways.
Legend has it that two Grand Trunk locomotives are still buried somewhere in Turcot, having derailed into a swamp. The area – a railway passage since the 1800s – was once traversed by the St. Pierre River.
Grainy black-and-white photos from the 1930s and 1940s show row after row of train tracks, the air thick with smoke as hundreds of machinists and boilermakers toil in soot-covered overalls. Some worked on steam locomotives in dozens of stalls in Canada’s largest roundhouse service building, in the centre of which stood a turntable for rotating engines.
In 1961, CN shifted maintenance to Point St. Charles. Turcot became a depot for containers being transferred between trains and trucks, a role it kept until 2002. Today, Via Rail and freight trains use remaining tracks along Highway 20.
The roundhouse was demolished in 1962 to make way for a new marvel – the Turcot interchange, some of whose supporting pillars soar 30 metres.
It was part of a flurry of road building to prepare for Expo 67. A 1965 Gazette headline about it proclaimed: “Dream highways soon a reality.” In 1966, a Montreal Star caption under an aerial construction photo said the interchange resembled a “dream development of the future.”
Along with the Decarie Expressway, the $25-million interchange opened just under 40 years ago – at 6 a.m. on April 25, 1967, two days before Montreal welcomed the world to Expo.
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Standing under the interchange shin-deep in snow last week, Ken McLaughlin can see why, for most Montrealers, Turcot long ago lost its lustre.
He knows its failings well, having walked the yards repeatedly, in the summer sometimes taking the 40-minute trek daily. For over a year, he has been documenting his wanderings on a blog, Walking Turcot Yards.
McLaughlin looks up and sees how parts of the interchange’s underbelly are exposed, the concrete having fallen off. Rusting reinforcement bars are visible. Coverings are affixed to some areas to prevent more debris from falling.
Then there’s the rush-hour traffic commuters endure daily on the interchange – a seven-kilometre tangle of roadways linking Decarie, Highway 20 and the Ville Marie Expressway that was dubbed “spaghetti junction” by CN workers who worked under it.
“I’m sure people driving by or stuck in traffic think, ‘How can they improve this piece of s—?’ ” McLaughlin said during a walk on the desolate stretch that he describes as the world’s largest urban abandoned space. “But a lot of people have no idea what was on the ground here.”
They also probably haven’t meandered underneath, appreciating the view. He realizes his walks are illegal, but he has only ever been stopped once – by a Surete du Quebec officer who warned him he risks a $142 fine.
“Image-wise, it is very interesting because it looks so different at different times of the day. I like the shapes, the lines, the lighting, the fact that you’ve got this huge open space in a big city,” said McLaughlin, who is in his 50s and wears his greying hair in a ponytail.
“I like the dramatic sky – you see a lot of big sky at Turcot Yards,” he added, pointing to an expanse that is clear blue but for a few wisps of cloud. “There are also subtle little things – the way things grow here. You’re constantly seeing nature trying to grab something back.”
McLaughlin has taken 1,500 photos of the place, 75 of which he has posted online: colourful graffiti on pillars; views from a now-demolished observation tower; shots of stuff he comes across – an empty suitcase, piles of rocks, locked bikes.
He also points visitors to other sites focused on Turcot, such as Urban Exploration Montreal, a group of people who trespass to explore, then document their endeavours online. At Turcot, they picked through the detritus of abandoned (now razed) buildings, then posted pictures and videos of the adventure.
On Walking Turcot Yards, visitors find historic photos and tidbits about the area’s past. They also view pictures and articles about creative ways other cities are dealing with transportation and other urban projects: a colourful, functional and innovative highway/sound barrier in Melbourne, Australia; a green-and-yellow interchange in Dallas; an urban garbage dump turned into a 3-hectare public park in Cairo.
McLaughlin envisages a park at Turcot – “some kind of public space that connects to St. Henri and that has staircases coming down from N.D.G.”
In the summer, he braves swarms of mosquitoes to walk a trail along the Falaise St. Jacques. The poplar-lined escarpment on the property’s north perimeter is used by migratory birds and is one of the city’s protected “ecoterritories.”
It’s “literally an unknown green space in Montreal,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a place where you can take a nice hike, a unique type of hike. The traffic noise doesn’t bother me – I’m here as a tourist.”
The interchange keeps turning up in Doug Scholes’s art.
“It has always fascinated me, particularly from underneath – its monolithic scale and its monumental and sculptural qualities,” he said. “If you’re on site, there is a sense of awe and wonder at its sheer size,” an experience he compares to entering a Gothic church.
When Scholes looks at Turcot’s tall stone-like pillars joined at the top by horizontal beams, he sees Stonehenge, thought to be an ancient place of worship.
In one work, Scholes created a montage of photos of Turcot, with an image of a Stonehenge-like structure in the centre. “The cars are like those who paid homage at Stonehenge. As they are caught in traffic, slowly moving across, it’s like they are travelling around Mecca.”
For another piece, Scholes created a 45-second video, shot above, under and beside the interchange, the sound of traffic humming in the background.
The video was part of an exhibit set up in a real Montreal taxi. Works from 11 artists were shown, with a GPS system triggering different videos depending on the car’s location.
Scholes, 45, lives in St. Henri, close to the interchange. He has researched its history and sees it as a symbol of 1950s and ’60s urban idealism, when the raised highway was like something out of the Jetsons.
“There was always this underlying idealistic view that they were going to somehow make city living better (and) be able to move through the city freely without inhibiting or damaging the communities,” he said. “In fact, it damaged the communities, creating fissures.”
In the case of Turcot, parts of St. Henri and Cote St. Paul were decimated, a process he hopes Quebec tries to reverse in any new interchange plan.
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Archaeologist Daniel Marchand was on his way to a dig near the Lachine Canal in 2002 when he looked up and stared. The interchange he had driven by countless times, he suddenly realized, was a work of art, but something was missing: colour.
“They’ve been talking about renewing the southwest (neighbourhood that Turcot goes over), about improving the quality of life,” said Marchand, 55, who is also a visual artist. “Well, people there don’t appreciate very much that big mass of concrete.
“I looked up at it, laid my eyes on it and said to myself, ‘I’m going to take care of this.’ “
His proposal – supported by some officials, local groups and celebrities – calls for the sides of each section of the interchange to be painted a different colour. A website that promotes the $8.4-million proposal features photos of the interchange, colourized using 12 vibrant hues – from “pure yellow” to “sky blue.”
Marchand says he has assurances from a paint company that special paint could be used that would not chip off or fade. The supporting pillars would be black. “Painting them black would give it the illusion that it’s floating in the air. It’s like you would lose the pillars; you don’t see them anymore.”
Though Turcot’s grey facade is ugly, Marchand says the structure is anything but.
“If you look at the whole thing, it’s beautiful: It’s round, it’s harmonious.
“It’s just not finished. It’s as if engineers created something but stopped before completing it – from an artistic point of view, of course.”
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Links to websites that find interchange worth exploring
Walking Turcot Yard: http://neath.wordpress.com
Meandres Urbains Essentiels: http://www.meandres.org
Urban Exploration Montreal: http://uem.minimanga.com/abandoned/turcot/
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007
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