Thursday, March 13, 2003

Slate's "Well-traveled" column is visiting, of all places, Montreal--a city I know well, having inhabited it for five years as a child and two more as a postdoc. It is, without question, a beautiful city, and well worth visiting (in the summer, at least). There's a festival virtually every weekend in July and August, the old city (along with many other districts) is wonderfully picturesque, and the restaurants and nightlife are terrific. The atmosphere has a distinctly European-cosmopolitan flavor that is simply unique in North America.

It's also a rotten city in which to live. The economy has never really recovered from the rise of Quebec Separatism in the 70's, taxes are sky-high, municipal government is chronically corrupt and fiscally irresponsible, and the undercurrent of Francophone-Anglophone political tension adds a completely unnecessary layer of discomfort to everyday life. (And did I mention the horrible weather? Snow like Buffalo, and bitter cold from December through mid-May.) Anyone there with any ambition who can stand living in an English-speaking locale moves to Toronto or the US as soon as the opportunity arises. The locals who stay alternate between contemptuous denunciation of the deserters and rueful concession that their logic is inescapable.

In fact, I suspect that these two descriptions are not entirely unrelated. For a city to be elegant and picturesque, its inhabitants must value elegance and picturesqueness more than other things--say, economic progress or material comforts and conveniences. If a critical mass of the population embraces the former priorities, then those who value the latter ones will likely vote with their feet, gracing some other municipality with their philistine industriousness.

One thinks, for example, of "tourist trap towns" like Venice or Bruges in Europe, or New Orleans or Memphis in the US, where a core district has been turned into a de facto theme park. The inconveniences of inhabiting a tourist-ridden, tourist-priced, tourist-dependent city well past its historic prime are enormous, and the residents with the initiative and resources to leave who nevertheless stay, presumably do so out of devotion to the same rich cultural atmosphere that draws the tourists in the first place. The dyed-in-the-wool couldn't-possibly-live-elsewhere Montrealers I've known, for example, talk about the bagels, the smoked meat, the legendary neighborhoods and hangouts, and the city's numerous other traditions and institutions with at least as much love and pride as any materialistic suburbanite bragging about his or her new house or car or job.

The attachment is understandable; after all, local customs have always played an important role in giving people a sense of rootedness and identity. What's striking about the strong-cultured cities I've mentioned, though, is that they always hearken back to an earlier, greater time, to which their loving denizens cling with a kind of vicarious nostalgia--often for what they themselves never experienced. In Montreal, the glory years date back to the postwar period, when the city was truly Canada's first and foremost, the nation's leading center of culture, industry, commerce and politics--until the Separatists ruined everything in the seventies, sending terrified Anglos and their businesses scurrying westward to Toronto. The Montreal of Mordechai Richler, Schwartz's and the Main that Slate's Gary Shteyngart is celebrating this week is the Montreal of fifty years ago, not the Montreal of today.

One wonders if, say, the economically struggling Silicon Valley of fifty years hence will be full of people justifying their loyalty to their hometowns by sentimentally extolling the traditions that make it special--the casual khakis now viewed as elegantly chic; the low-paying jobs that still provide free lunches and massage booths, as in the old days; the popular obsession with "classic" electronic gadgets now decades out of date. Out of such quirky, archaic symbols, it seems, is the modern urban sensibility made, and made meaningful.

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