After nearly two years fenced off, Cabot Square, or as many know it, that park you run through to catch your connecting night bus at Atwater, is open to the public once again. It looks different, and by all indications, it will be different than what it was before.

As someone who, for years, saw this space as a stopover on my way home but now lives very close to it, I am definitely interested in what it has become and what it will be. More importantly, what will happen to the largely homeless native people who lived in the park for years?

On The Surface

The new Cabot Square, located between Atwater and Lambert-Closse, Ste-Catherine and Tupper, feels bigger. The sidewalks surrounding it, where people wait for busses, seem wider. There are also plenty of new bus shelters around the square.

A good portion of the park is now paved with stones gelled together and treated to form a somewhat smooth surface for walking or cycling. There are new benches, some standing alone and some integrated into decorative concrete dividers.

Cabot Square Montreal (18)

As for actual nature, it is somewhat sparse. Islands of grass and other sorts of vegetation surround the trees in the park. There is also a garden of flowers and other plants covering most of the south of the square, right up to the sidewalk.

The entrance to Atwater Metro (via tunnel to Alexis Nihon) is where it always was. The small kiosk that was once a restaurant on the northwest corner is now being called the Vespasienne and will be used again in the redesign.

There are also water fountains, a giant chess board, freestanding historical slide viewers and free WIFI. In the brief time I was able to check things out yesterday, it felt like there really was life in the park.

Cultural Activities

The revamped Cabot Square will play host to cultural activities, quite a few of them, in fact. There will be swing dancing, yoga classes, movie nights and even Shakespeare in the Park.

I’m trying to imagine catching a flick or enjoying the Bard as people wait for or run for their bus just meters away and coming up short. This is, after all, a major transportation hub, day or night. I also wonder how yoga can work in a space that isn’t exactly the mountain or even a regular park but rather a glorified large traffic island downtown with people criss-crossing through it all the time.

That’s the skeptic in me speaking. I honestly hope it works. The city is looking to host three such events a day, so maybe they know something I don’t.

First Nations Included

This project initially seemed like gentrification designed to evict native people who had been living in the park for years. They will not be excluded; at least that’s the plan.

Friday night is aboriginal night in the cultural programming of the square. There will also be soapstone carving workshops.

Cabot Square Montreal (15)

Meanwhile, half of the Vespasienne will be a coffee shop called the Roundhouse Café run by L’Itinéraire and employing homeless and at-risk people. The other half of the building will serve as an office for an outreach worker to help natives in the park going through difficult times.

Making this happen was a bit of an uphill battle at times. Nakuset Shapiro of the Native Women’s Shelter told CKUT’s Native Solidarity News (Cabot Square discussion starts at 46 minutes) how the city needed to be encouraged and assured that this support plan would work.

Regardless of what brought us here, Cabot Square is now re-open and it promises to be an interesting addition to Shaughnessy Village and the city in general as well as a development that respects the people who frequented the original park.

Will that turn out to be the case? Time will tell. For now, all I can tell for sure is that now we can once again cut through the park to catch a bus.

* photos by Jason C. McLean

Banh mi by sodani chea via flickr

To me, spring in Montréal means a renewed appreciation of open air food and drink.

Banh miTranslation: Banh Mi on a park bench, coupled with cold lager. It might well be the city’s most underestimated pastime.

You’ve probably heard of banh mi. It’s that magnificent cultural collision that succeeds, against all odds, at marrying French and Vietnamese culinary sensibilities. Initially the product of colonial encounter, the banh mi has long traced its own legacy, and offshoots can now be found in virtually any city in the world.

It’s an unlikely marriage that on paper seems almost jarring. From the French we procure baguette, liver-based patés, mayo and a penchant for charcuterie (er, deli meats). From the Vietnamese we grain chilis, cilantro, pickled root veg and various traditional cuts of meat.

The magic lies in the skepticism…you bite in expecting a mistaken mashup. But then, amidst the salt, spice, dough, vinegar, fat and cilantro, your palate stops trying to compute—somehow it all just works.

Though Montréal is not particularly known for its Banh mi, it shouldn’t stop you from trying. It may be because our Vietnamese population is not so huge (less than half of Toronto’s, for example), or possibly just because the places that do sell these magical mouthfuls tend to be humble and unassuming–flying almost under the radar. Perhaps one day a hot local chef will publicize the form (à la ramen or tacos) and we will be. But if it hasn’t happened by now…it’s doubtful.

Wondering where to start?

Banh mi on park bench
Spring means Banh mi and park benches, preferably combined

Below is but an introductory platter of banh mis, tried and tested by me. They’re biaised toward the city centre because I don’t get out much. But I can vouch for them. Each is worthy of a spring park fling based on the following 3 criteria:

– fresh and authentic ingredients
– located near a picturesque public space
– within steps of a dépanneur (to buy beer)

1) Hoang Ong Sandwich (1071 St-Laurent)

Hard to beat. Probably the freshest I’ve tasted, ironic because they tend to pre-make them in advance of the lunch rush and hand them to you readymade in little plastic bags. If you go for the spicy option, beware that while excellently fierce, the chilis are sometimes bunched into one deadly, surprising bite.

2) Cao Tang (1082 St-Laurent)

Probably the most famous in town and possibly the oldest. Very simple counter with 12 options on the wall, always reliably good. Closes early.


–  (1089 St-Laurent)

Eat outside at:

– The little park & steps off Gauchetière, sandwiched between Chenneville & Côté (across from Complexe Guy-Favreau).
– Parisien inspired Square Victoria
– Lesser-used Place Jean Paul Riopelle

3) Vua Sandwich (1579 St-Denis)

Upstart Vua has provided the notoriously-touristy Quartier Latin with a good option for workers and students alike. Quick, very fresh. Carrot/daikon in my opinion are the best here. About 50 cents more than its Chinatown counterparts but well worth the “splurge!”


Couche-Tard (1555 St-Denis)

Eat outside at:

– Benches or steps around UQÀM, or picnic tables or benches at Place Émilie-Gamelin
Square St-Louis

As for banh mi beer pairings, something light or bright works best. But if you don’t want to think, just grab a Pabst from one of those next-door dépanneurs. Banh mi + a Milwaukee brew for LESS than $5? That’s what I call an adult Happy Meal.

If you’ve tasted others, especially in banh mi-loving Villeray (where parks and beer, I’ve heard, also exist) please spread the springtime joy. Let us know in the comment section below or via twitter if you’ve got first-hand knowledge to share!

Cover photo by Sodani Chea via Flickr.