Back from a Deep Winter Slumber…


Or not. After I speculated about ending the blog, a few kind and disappointed readers urged me to attempt heroic measures to revive it, so I’ll give it a shot. Last fall’s labour was exhausting and expensive, leaving me scrambling to pay bills and to meet other commitments. And then to look around in the spring and–after 5 1/2 years of labour and expense–to see that we’re still years and many thousands of dollars away from the prize! Dispiriting.

It’s not just being broke and housed in a construction site that pokes holes in the spirit. The collection of graffiti on a concrete retaining wall running along rue Knox was painted over a few years ago as a public art project. Gone the bicycle propaganda, gone the primitive but effective trompe l’oeil painting of a bike path going through the wall. Gone the stock epithets about bankers and capitalists. All replaced by a weird and ungainly panorama of history, racial essentialism, and idealism.

_DSC7990 It begins on the east side of the wall with First Nations peoples looking down on the masts of European ships in an otherwise unpopulated landscape. The classically stern-faced Natives, seen from the back, are prelude to celebrating hordes crossing the

IMG_0141Lachine canal, leaving a smoking industrial Gehenna behind them as they arrive in the promised land of the Point. (But wait! Don’t factories provide jobs?) A black trumpet player raises his instrument, his lips and face contorted in impossible embouchure.

IMG_0140 Cheerleaders cheer, men (of whom there are few) and women shout, youth (represented by Irish shamrock green and Quebec fleur de lis blue) dance with elegant abandon.


Women–old, white, black–are the sages and demiurges of this wall, associated


with imagination and verdancy. Point St. Charles is Eden regained, but this time, inclusively populated. There is no snake but, at the western extremity of the wall, coyotes watch from leafy cover.


Yes, yes, I know, most people seem to love the painting, and point out details to their children. I saw a little girl studying the wall with her mother and stopping at the image of a large-beaked, curly-haired man carrying a baby in a bag-looking thing on his chest. “Is that the baby Jesus?” the girl asked her mother.


Otherwise, one is less certain about the species of those depicted than about their race or ethnicity.


My rancorous old-cootism is inspired by more than the juvenile idealizations bordering rue Knox. I often have a problem with public art, and sculpture in particular. I dislike the gigantism of rusty iron slabs that look like dog houses, and the over-reaching, pick-up-sticks confections that poke through leafy park land and say…what, exactly?


“Look at me, humanity has landed amongst all you useless trees!” Feh.

The rue Knox wall is deliberately cartoonish and accidentally ugly in its idealizing fervor, but more skilled hands can do an equally egregious job of representing the world. A decently-executed painting on the front wall of St. Gabe’s school, just down the street, shows a nicely-dressed, slim and healthy (if headless) clutch of  filles du roi apparently enjoying their lives in New France.


The faces of children superimposed on their skirts are also suffused with joy.

_DSC7986 Who, I wonder, are those children? Natives? There’s a strong hint in the features of one.

_DSC7984 Of course those impoverished French women who endured the long and deadly passage across the Atlantic to marry men they had never met were happy to educate those little Native girls. They seem to have gotten along so well!

The Knox and St. Gabe’s paintings have in common that left-to-right march of progress feel. St. Gabe’s also begins with Natives (with the Vulcan-eared woman in the power


position in the stern), and imposes 300 years of development on the women’s dresses to arrive at the present day, in which a smiling woman tends medically to a child and the


modern city looms in the background. Thanks, ladies!

Every organization idealizes itself and wants to represent its history with images of the ideal. The bronze castings of 18th century heroes that surmount public fountains may well have been fools and brigands in life, but they represent a principle, if not a reality. States, churches, and families all do that, and I suppose it’s not all bad, but I do miss the honest and spontaneous touch of resistance that appeared on the old rue Knox wall. The new painting unhappily co-opts that independence of spirit.

Part II of Public Art is forthcoming!



Posted in Art, Blogging, Photography | Tagged | Leave a comment

Death of the Blog

Part I: Prologue

I started this blog a little over five years ago with the intention of writing about life and home renovation in Point St. Charles.

Point St. Charles houseIt was to be a diversion from the unrelenting labour of single-handed demolition and, eventually, reconstruction. Over time, though, “life in Point St. Charles” has merely become life and, while the Point is still a fascinating place, it no longer makes me feel as if I’m away on safari.

This summer’s construction goals were ambitious, expensive, and entangled.

Renovatiuon Point St. Charles Stucco to cover the patchwork of old and new brick, complicated prep for the two separated structures of fence and deck, followed by lots of screws and lots of wood.

The stucco guys did a so-so job, and left many details undone. The prep work for the next step was endless and dispiriting. The foundation needed deep repointing above and below grade. These repairs couldn’t be put off because the deck would make this stretch of wall inaccessible.

Pointing stone foundation wall A rotting and useless basement window also destined to be covered by the deck had to be repaired and protected with a concrete well to keep the frame dry. Old fence and porch footings and piers had to be dug out by hand. New piers and footings had to be dug in by hand.

Digging hole for deck footing By the end of October, I had mixed 1500 kilos of concrete, also by hand, and, with help from Patricia, poured it.

Quikrete concrete All that was advance work. Next: building the structures.

Deck and fence structure

The point of this laboured recitation is just that: labour. Doing it was onerous enough. Paying for it was ruinous. Finding the motivation to write about it was not in the cards.

Time, of course, plays its useful little tricks. Thanks to a massive El Niño, and to global warming, and to the absence of the polar vortex of the last couple of years, it’s possible to sit on the almost-complete deck in comfort on Boxing Day and to contemplate the death of this blog.Contemplate on deck in Point St. Charles It may yet become a revenant but, for the moment, it’s a matter of final goodbyes and writing about all the stuff I should have written about before thinking of putting it to rest.

Watch for Part II: Public Art

Posted in Blogging, Construction, Demolition, Foundation, Renovation | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Mortar Bored

When you gut a house, you get to see how it’s been messed up. The carelessly notched joists, outdated wiring, crotchety plumbing, and uselessly soggy insulation are boldly on display, and the necessary fixes are usually pretty evident. If the joist sags, sister it with another. If the plumbing leaks, replace the offending pipe with copper or Pex. If the insulation is bad, seal the wall with foam and jostle some new batts of fibreglass or Roxul between the studs.


With old stone foundations, detecting problems can be hard. Take it apart to get a good look and your house will fall down.

Our foundation is slate, which isn’t a hard stone, but it breaks with nice, flat surfaces and it shapes easily, which makes for tight joints. The foundation wall is also about two feet thick, so it’s unlikely that we will suffer a catastrophic collapse if it’s not in perfect shape. That said, an old stone foundation will probably need tuck pointing, a process of renewing the mortar holding the stones in place.

My journey to masonic enlightenment started with a visit from Myke Hodgins, a talented landscape architect I had met at the home of a friend designing a garden for an international competition. Myke generously came by to take a look at my back yard to advise me about grades and drainage and to answer a few questions about deck-building. Before leaving, he also suggested that I dig a couple of feet down beside the foundation wall before covering it with a deck.

The next day, I took a look at the above-ground foundation, really seeing it for the first time. The rock itself was almost hidden because it had been slathered with different patching materials of many shades of grey. I poked at one of these patches with a cold chisel and a maul and it fell away like a thick fish scale. With the joint exposed, the sand behind it–sand, not mortar–poured out like water, along with some desiccated bug casings.


I banged and dug some more and discovered voids in the foundation between 1 and 15 inches deep. Other patches were adamantly attached to the foundation stones, and the chisel just bounced off them.

After hours of digging a trench in sour-smelling, wet dirt that the neighbourhood feral cats liked to crap in, I had an inspection trench beside the wall.


There, two feet below grade, dirt had replaced the mortar in some of the caverns between stones, and some of the stones themselves had crumbled.

At which point, my neighbour, Tony, came over and made the gnomic observation that “renovation is like dominoes.” Well, yeah, but really, really big dominoes.

Mortar may not be everyone’s thing, so some history may make this lesson a little easier. The different rock-like substances we build with (cement, concrete, stucco, mortar) are made primarily from a binder of some sort and a filler or aggregate of stone and/or sand (e.g., concrete is a binder of Portland cement and an aggregate of stone and sand. Mix with water and serve). One hundred and twenty years ago, the binder most likely used in mortar would have been lime, not concrete. Lime mortar is softer, weaker, and doesn’t seal in water. It’s not even a structural material in the sense concrete is; it just holds the stones in place, it doesn’t hold the building up. During the freeze-thaw cycles of the year, it lets water escape so that it doesn’t freeze inside the very frangible slate and destroy it. Instead the lime mortar itself slowly breaks down. Masons call it “sacrificial.”

I hope I’ve been clear enough for you to see this next bit coming. If an 1890 lime mortar wall is tuck pointed with modern, super-hard materials containing Portland cement, it’s the cement-based materials that endure, not the foundation stone. Why? Because the modern products hold the water in, and the stone, trapped inside this hard material, freezes and crumbles.

I didn’t know what to do. A This Old House video advised the use of modern “Type S” mortar. A mason I spoke with said to use Type S, as well. A restorer in New England mixed “Type O” with sand. Two calls to the Quikcrete company brought one “I don’t know. Our engineers will call you back” and one “Use Type S above grade and Type N below grade. Our engineers will call you back.” Masons in the UK rebuilding 500-year-old churches mix their own mortar from lime and sand. You have to be careful with the lime because it’s corrosive, and it requires a very, very long time to cure. Oh, it can blind you, too, if you’re not careful.

I forgot to say that the multiple promises of call-backs from Quikcrete were just that.

The only satisfaction I gained from this long safari through contradictory information was encountering two factoids: the letters indicating the hardness of mortars–“m” through “n”–are all the letters in the word “mason”; the sand used in mortar should have sharp edges (i.e., not beach sand, which is smooth like beach glass) or it just slides off the trowel.


Then, after following scores of threads in construction fora,  I ran across a couple of videos and blog entries that convinced me there wasn’t a solution to be found in Home Depot. This was followed by the discovery of a U.S. government document advising lime-based mortar for historic preservation. At the end of this odyssey, I found a great company, Daubois Inc., in Montreal, that imports lime from France, compounds their own mortars for every use imaginable, and retails them through construction yards specializing in masonry products.

When I phoned Daubois, I was a little self-conscious because I imagined that most of their callers were other companies or from the trade, and not from ordinary home owners. However, Daubois was not Quikcrete. The cheery and competent people I spoke with put me in contact with Alain Jetté, with whom I spent a very instructive and pleasant half-hour on the phone learning everything I needed to know. Alain is an exceptionally patient teacher, but be prepared to use at least some French should you need to contact him.

Daubois has a soft mortar, Restomix (Type O!), recommended for the work I have to do and it ain’t cheap ($25/50 lb. bag).

DSC_6174 But it applies easily and adheres well. Needs to be kept damp for three days of curing, but it should take the foundation through another 120 years.

Posted in Construction, Foundation, Renovation, Tools | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Number of Electricians It Takes to Change a Light Bulb

The sorry truth is that I write a new entry in this blog when I’ve been charmed, appalled, defeated, or flushed with victory.  Clearly, my long absence suggests that it’s been a pretty dull winter. There was reason to be appalled, though. The coldest February in 150 years with a frost line downtown (over soil unprotected by snow) of 2 ½ metres is pretty appalling, but not very interesting.

LastSnow-1 To the best of my recollection, there’s been little charming and no victories. Defeat, of course, is on 24-hour call, but hasn’t shown up yet.

There is no end to the challenges, however. I’ve been trying to learn how to frame with lumber that twists and bows like it’s a snake trying to escape my grasp. Why is this a challenge? Because wallboard goes over the framed walls and if the studs aren’t lined up in a pretty decent approximation of a flat plane, the finished wall will be wavy.

Lumber-1 The workaround isn’t so much a workaround as a new technology: steel studs. But not a good idea, I suspect, when one side of that steel is against an outside wall.

There have also been hardware challenges. Interested in a pocket door that’s not a bankroll-busting Häfele? Get Johnson, from the States…but don’t expect to find a Canadian retailer. Same thing with good bi-fold door hardware. And don’t trust if you’re in the market for hard-to-find hardware or tools! I regularly see sellers who must be individual importer/scammers offering Rikon tools or Johnson hardware for two or three times their real cost.

Some expenses can be sidestepped, though. My success in this department (falling short of victory) has been a substitute for spray foam, a poor man’s insulation that’s leagues more effective than the sawdust that insulated the walls of my grandfather’s house.

Our house doesn’t have a frame, strictly speaking. Its construction is called “stacking board”


(in French, “carré de madriers” and “maison pièce-sur-pièce”  and it’s nothing more than large planks of Douglas fir held together with dovetails—a method of joinery that’s usually reserved for drawers but, here, has developed a case of gigantism.

The rough fitting of the lumber provides lots of opportunity for air exchange with the outside world. In the 19th century, that was acceptable because coal was cheap. Since that’s no longer the case, the only option is to seal the wall, but without sealing in moisture that will create a happy micro-climate for rot and mold.

Recipe for Poor Man’s Insulation on an outside wall

1) Seal the cracks between boards on the inside so moisture cannot migrate inwards and condense when it hits an air-conditioned finish wall or framing

2) Cover the walls completely with 1” DuroFoam from Plasti-Fab (gotta love those names)

DuroFoam-1 being sure to seal all spaces between the insulating panels and joining the panels with Tuck tape. The panels insulate, provide a thermal break and resist the migration of moisture. In other words, they do much the same job as spray foam.

3) Frame against the insulating panels with 2 x 4s or, if you don’t care about the loss of interior space and want super-R walls, 2 x 6s.


4) Insulate between the 2 x 4 or 2 x 6 studs using Fibreglas or a more skin-friendly and sturdier substance like Roxul

5) Cover all with a polyethylene moisture retarder.

Bingo. Just about as good as spray foam but at a fraction of the cost.

It’s hard to tell what the summer construction season will bring. Our neighbour has been patiently waiting for a fence. But the fence will be integrated with the structure of the deck that runs along the side of the house, and the design of that integrated structure is still a mystery to me.

While the walls are still open, we’re approaching the time when plumbing and wiring should be given some serious thought. And remember, in Québec, the building code is so tough that you practically need a licenced electrician to change a light bulb. The workaround here is to do the work yourself but to have it approved, inspected, and wired to the panel by one (or more) licenced electricians.

Although they’re not known to change light bulbs, pretty much the same is true for plumbers. Tip: Don’t try to learn how to do your plumbing or writing from an electrician or plumber who’s ostensibly there just for a quote. Instead, prepare your questions in advance and ask for a paid consultation. This is only fair to the tradesperson and it will help develop a relationship you can depend on for code-compliant advice.

One day later: Spent an hour with a young electrician, Chris, from Electric Eel, here in the Point. Chris gave me advice about current Electrical Code (residential) requirements, took a careful look at the work I’ve already done, offered suggestions about running cables, and warned me off some kinds of LED pot light sockets. A consultation well worth the investment.


Posted in Construction, Design, Renovation, Trades and Tradesmen | Leave a comment

Chipman, NB



The matter of the concrete pavers in the back yard was starting to look dire. I offered them to the world in the last blog, but the world responded with indifference. A listing on Craigslist produced Joe from Vermont, who definitely wanted them. Then he noticed that Montreal was, well, not even in the same country.

For the past couple of years, one corner of our property had been securely anchored with about 500 kilos (11,000 pounds) of concrete paving stones, enough to begin the construction of a new Great Wall. We pulled them up from the back yard where, like some ancient city square, they had begun to sink into the earth.


They were ugly, but the surfaces that had been pressed into the earth had some interesting patterns etched into them. We’ll seal the etched sides and put them to some creative use, we told ourselves. Of course, I said something similar about the triangular iron nails I used to save when we were demolishing the first floor. Four years later, I hope never to see another iron nail or have one snap off when I strike it and shoot toward my eyes like a speeding bullet.

After a brief discussion, Patricia and I agreed to stop romanticising the potential of the old pavers. Perhaps we could even make a few bucks by selling them. After all, they cost $5 each new. In my imagination, I could hear the clinking of gold coins.

Joe from Vermont was as close as things came to a buying frenzy. Some people tapped out cellphone messages like “U stil got stones?” Those must have been inquiries about my masculinity rather than my pavers, because no one ever got back to me. Then, one evening, came a friendly, country voice on the phone.

“Hi, there. This is Lloyd calling from southern New Brunswick about those pavers.”

New Brunswick, in case you don’t know eastern Canadian geography, isn’t close to Montreal, and no major highways connect them.


“I’m about 500 miles away,” Lloyd helpfully added. “How much were you thinking about for those pavers?”

There was something so trusting and self-confident about Lloyd’s tone that I couldn’t help but take his interest seriously. He was actually going to drive 500 miles to pick up six tons of concrete paving stones, sight unseen. I even tried to discourage him a little. I mean, I started to feel responsible for this likeable guy’s welfare and time. And what if he got here and was disappointed?

Lloyd was imperturbable, though–and talkative. He told me that he lived in a 5-bedroom Victorian farmhouse in Chipman, New Brunswick, that he had a well in the basement that had been walled with stones for the first 35 feet of its depth, and that he wanted to use the pavers as a new basement floor. So we struck a deal. He’d come get the pavers and, in payment, haul away a cubic metre or so of brick and asphalt rubble.


One night, a couple of days after our first conversation, I heard from Lloyd again. He and a friend were at St-Laurent Boulevard and Rachel, in Montreal’s Plateau district, and they wanted directions to my house. I assumed they were at a hotel and would show up the next morning. But about half an hour later, I received another call. “There’s no more streets between us and the water,” Lloyd said. At that point, I understood that they had found their way south to Old Montreal and the St. Lawrence River and wanted to pick up the pavers that very night. Shortly, Lloyd, smiling, white-haired, hand extended in greeting, stood at my front door, a truck, driver, and 15-foot flatbed trailer behind him, fresh from Chipman.

We spent the next couple of hours loading the pavers in the snow and cold. They weren’t very heavy individually (about 20 kilos) but there were hundreds of them. We tried to balance the load on the trailer, whose tires became more and more compressed. After putting the last cold paver in place, I suggested hopefully that we just forget about the pile of rubble. I was tired.

“Nope, that wasn’t the deal,” Lloyd  cheerfully said.

“We can use the asphalt to repair the driveway,” Lloyd’s driver friend said.

The asphalt was frozen to the ground and had to be coaxed from it with the help of a heavy iron bar. Some chunks of the tarry stuff weighed about 50 kilos.

When everything was loaded, I gave Lloyd and his friend a tour of the house and we spoke manfully about renovation, pretending that we hadn’t just  worn ourselves out shifting an ungodly weight of stuff into a modest trailer that didn’t nearly look up to the task. Then they drove off, no maps, no GPS, with their truck pointed in the general direction of Chipman.


Two days later, I got a call from Lloyd. He and his friend were just fine, he said, though it had taken them two days to get back. “Some of those mountains in Maine, we had to put ‘er in low gear,” he said. “Some people thought we were a little crazy driving to Montreal like that. But [my friend] and I like our adventures.”

I mentioned that my legs and back were a little sore from their adventure. “Not used to that kind of work, eh?” Lloyd  chuckled. “Hey, you ever go ice fishing?” Then he extended an open invitation to visit and stay in his farmhouse in Chipman.

I haven’t been ice fishing in a very long while, but I can’t imagine a better companion than Lloyd to share an afternoon on New Brunswick’s Grand Lake. I might even be amenable to helping him lay out those pavers around the well on his basement floor.

Posted in Discovery, Life Otherwise, Renovation, Yard Work | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Fall Offcuts

invasion1Once again I’ve been outed as a member of the advance guard in the barbarian invasion of Point St. Charles. What follows are quotations from Facebook responses to my last blog entry:

He is not the only one that has bought cheap and renovated in hopes that it would change and the people would change? What does he want them to do? move out? suddenly have more money in their pockets just because the “newcomers” look down on them… Fuck them they can move right back on out


I don’t know if I am mistaken, but I get the impression that there is a sense of indignation and/or ‘outrage’ from the writer (or people moving in) mixed with a certain amount of contempt or disdain for the people who have always lived there (e.g. the entry about the ‘sad’ memorial for the girl that was murdered).

Well, yes, I do have a big problem with people dealing drugs to kids, shitting in my back yard, thieving, threatening my life, harassing women, and trying to kill each other. No, I don’t expect them to change, but I also don’t think that municipal housing authorities should countenance the existence of crack houses beside my house or the home of any other resident of Point St. Charles.

What angers me to the point of incoherence is the deeply patronizing and entirely unexamined assumption of the Facebook commenters that drug addiction and violence are a desirable or integral part of the fabric of poor urban areas. This is an ingrained attitude in the minds of some middle class people that renders them incapable of seeing the world for what it is. They let anti-social actions huddle protectively under the all-excusing umbrella of “culture” and “community.”

Guess what. No one likes to be threatened, to be robbed, to be sexually accosted. When an innocent is murdered and a memorial is erected under the bridge where her body was found, you’d better believe it’s sad. Murder and grief are not colourful, valuable, and inalienably integral elements of the lives of “people who have always lived there.”

One more thing. Why should it be assumed that, as a “newcomer,” I’m not from the same social class as Pointers. Because I know words like “inalienably” and “integral”? Words that Pointers couldn’t possibly know, right?


When I’m not sweeping down from the steppes to assault the values of my neighbours, I can often be found struggling to make my house habitable. This week, it was back to the future (or forward to the past) with the never-ending work of demolition. I’d left 1” x 2” strapping on the ceiling after taking down the plaster in the hope that it could be used to hold up plasterboard. However, a closer look made it clear that the strapping wasn’t flat or level. So it all had to come down . . . with the kilos of plaster dust above it and the countless iron nails holding it up.

Square Nails 800 px wide

Then cut into regular length sections and bundled for municipal garbage pickup.


This service must be one of the great semi-secret perks of being a taxpayer. The city will pick up 5 cubic metres of properly-packaged construction debris at a time. If you leave a great chunk of stuff like that out for the garbage guys, please do it right. Bundle wood sticks (I wrap them together with that plastic film that sticks only to itself), remove or bend down nails and sharp metal, and keep the weight down to about 20 kilos per package.


Put offcuts and plaster in thick plastic bags that are sold for construction purposes. And no paints or poisons. That kind of stuff goes to the Eco-Centre.

Speaking of stuff. I’ve kept count. Since we bought this house four years ago, I’ve left out 995 bins, barrels, bags, and bundles for the garbage guys and they have uncomplainingly taken it all. At a guess, I’d say that’s about $1500 worth of container rentals from Recybac Conteneur, my company of choice.


Speaking of companies of choice, let me add Fenestration Vitrerie Experts to the very small list. Alfredo da Silva started the business and now runs it from the dubious comfort of his tiny office. Alfredo handles mid- to high end windows and takes all the time necessary to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each. He even drove us from his west-end business location back to the Point just to double check the squareness of a rough opening made by my regular contractor. The crew who installed the window were also fantastic. It was important to the crew chief that we understand everything about the window from maintenance to sealing to the importance of keeping the lintel open so it would “breathe” and not rust.


Fenestration Vitrerie Experts is more expensive than the big box retailers like Home Depot but, in this instance, you really do get what you pay for.


As long as I’m shilling, I should mention a couple of great products. The first is an LED headlamp made by Energizer. Lots of light, high quality construction, and good fit. It’s an excellent piece of kit if you can find one.


Of course, it uses batteries. I use a lot of batteries, particularly in portable electronic flashes. Here are the dead ones I have to cart to the Eco-Centre.


But I have a solution. This Powerex charger is pricey only in the short term and, with rechargeable Sanyo NiMh Eneloop batteries, saves a ton of money and waste.

 Powerex ____________________________

I have a whole mess of 18″ x 18″ concrete pavers to sell for next to nothing if you pick them all up. There’s about 300 of them. They need a wash and sell for $4.98 new.

18x18paver allpavers

Posted in Construction, Crime, Demolition, Point Housing, Renovation, Trades and Tradesmen | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Social Vitality

Derrick, the counter man at a local electrician’s, recently told me about a boyhood scare. He was a young teenager walking home on rue Centre one night when a car pulled up beside him. The passenger door swung open, and a man tried to grab him. Derrick ran and eluded the man in the back lanes. Closer to home, a neighbour warned me about leaving construction debris in the back yard because he remembered the time when enthusiasm for the traditional Victoria Day bonfire/riot would inspire local pyromaniacs to share the warmth. When we moved here, almost four years ago to the day, some of our doors had as many as four locks on them, and even the second-floor windows were imprisoned behind iron bars.

Two peaceful months after moving in, Patricia heard what sounded like cries for help late one night. The next morning we stepped out to see bloody handprints on a neighbour’s door.


There is a long trail of blood here. A couple of years ago, the body of a girl who had been missing since 1999, when she left home for a quick trip to a dépanneur on Charlevoix, was found under a bridge. There is still a sad little memorial behind scratched Plexiglas to her there.



Kathy Dobson, the author of With a Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood has written of other sadly compelling stories of violence from the point.

The truly terrible stories are rare, but the potential for violence of all kinds in the present-day Point is exacerbated by the presence of crack houses and concentrations of troubled people in shabby and low-rent apartment buildings.

One of these buildings, near the end of our block, has been the scene of a murder, and receives regular visits from police and firefighters. The residents are often loud and drunk, the drug dealing is obvious, and the condoms in the lane speak for themselves. More than once, neighbours have seen these people taking a crap in the lane or in a back yard unprotected by a fence.

This summer, when carpenters were cutting the rough opening for the window on our ground floor, the street suddenly filled with police cars. A rumour that there had been a murder in the apartment building spread quickly. The police closed off the area because, I heard, the perpetrators had been seen running down our back lane. When I went down to commiserate with the carpenters, whose trucks were trapped there, I found them being interviewed by a police detective.


As it turned out, no one had been murdered. A man was just stabbed repeatedly in the face with a broken beer bottle. That’s all. It was them, not us.

Then, some weeks later, I was putting the finishing touches on a cedar fence and used a noisy power tool (mid-morning on a weekday) for a few minutes. The open windows of the apartment building overlook the fence and a man suddenly appeared in one. I took off my ear protection to hear the end of a string of curses followed by “If you don’t turn that off, you fuckin’ bitch, I’ll kill you.”

I’m not used to receiving death threats, even ridiculous ones from idiots, so it took me aback. After a moment, though, I just felt angry, and part of me wanted to invite him to come down and give it a try. I’m not always above my own stupidity, but I let that impulse go, stewed for a while, and called the police. The officer was polite and receptive, said he knew the building and its residents well, and expressed frustration with the inability of the police to do anything. He also let it slip that police worked undercover in the building. But the big shocker was his mention that the building is under the stewardship of the Société d’habitation et de développement de Montréal. Come again? The Société’s web site lists its lofty goals, which include the provision of “affordable quality housing” and contributions to the “social vitality and economy of districts.” Come again? I’ve been inside the building, and I have spoken with residents. The interior is penitential, the filthy washrooms and showers are shared, scores of feral cats leap in and out of the windows and prowl the halls and, of course, there are the people.

Stories about Pointers who conducted their own battles against thugs, prostitutes and crack dealers found their way to me. The worst of these was from a couple living just a few blocks away. A lady whom I’ll call Caroline had scrupulously documented the goings-on in a next-door crack house for what she characterizes as her “hellish first 7 years in the Point.” Caroline and her husband wouldn’t even make improvements to their home because they were afraid its value would be destroyed by their squatting neighbours. “We did nothing to stop it, fearing reprisals if we did,” she said. “But the [final] straw was the day I was threatened by a hooker saying ‘They will know who the real whore is when they find you dead in a ditch.’ It was only then that I decided to fight back.”

And fight back she did, beginning with meetings with the police chief, politicians, neighbours, and bureaucrats. She mailed reams of letters to civic authorities with the power to seal off doors, evict squatters, and clear out the trash. A paragraph from a supporting letter written by one of Caroline’s neighbours deserves quotation: “I have had to put up with harassment, verbal abuse, trespassing, stalkers, theft, vandalism, attempted assault, constant garbage, syringes, condoms, continuous influx of dangerous tenants, mentally ill drug addicts, not coincidentally wanting to be my boyfriend… just doing yard work is a risky activity.”

Caroline’s amazing industry, anger, and persistence eventually won the day and the building was cleared. Here’s the rub, though. Caroline’s last message to me specifically mentioned a resident of her “crack hotel” by nickname. “I felt a little guilty when you mentioned the cats and the flophouse on your street,” she wrote. “They were all living next to me and got shuttled over to your side!!! I don’t know if they are the same characters but there was one special one that started one of the fires, his name was ‘Cowboy.’ He always wore a cowboy hat and boots. He is no longer allowed on my street I was told.”


I recognize many of the people who have lived in our crack hotel, but I know only one by name. Just guess.

Posted in Crime, Point Housing, Point People, Point Places | 1 Comment

This Is Not a Fence

The signs of my dereliction of duty to this blog are mounting. Folks are writing to ask if I’m well or if the house has collapsed or if the urban bears that terrorize Point St. Charles have eaten me. Here it is early August and the visual theme of my last entry is snow. Yesterday, while nosing around at Canadian Tire looking for a way to put our new canoe on the ceiling, I saw that hockey equipment had pretty much pushed camping supplies off the shelves. P.K. Suban has just signed an 8-year deal with the Canadiens and the sports reporter on the CBC says he “just can’t wait for hockey to begin.” The snow is surely on its way, but not yet, for God’s sake!

Forgive me if I wander from the Point for a minute. This summer has been a full one even though the blog has been dormant, and I have to bring myself up to date to make sense of it all. In May, we drove to the east end of Algonquin Park and bought a used, 16.5 foot Kevlar and epoxy canoe (42 lbs.) which is currently airborne above our kitchen-to-be.

DSC_4341 At around the same time, we steeled ourselves for the necessity of reclaiming a 42-inch strip of asphalt-covered property beside the house that the previous owners had, in effect,


ceded to the neighbours. Then there was the matter of designing the room on the first floor at the back of the house. This narrow little extension had previously held an enclosed stairwell from the second floor, a shower room (the toilet was elsewhere), and a kitchen. Patricia re-designed the space as a gloriously-lit, hanging-out area beside a deck. But wait! There was a ramshackle, two-storey side porch where the deck was supposed to be! And where was the glorious light to come from? Well, the porch had to be demolished and a window and sliding door had to be chosen, purchased and installed. Whoops. Forgot to say. Holes first had to be cut in two back walls to hold those windows and doors.



DSC_4324 And the deck? It has to be integrated with a fence on that side of the property . . . but there is no fence.

All of which returns me to a familiar theme. Houses are like ecologies, with each nail and joist, it seems, related to and dependent on every other nail and joist. That’s why in-residence renovation is so damn hard. That why a young couple we know from rue de Liverpool is talking about moving out, knocking it all down, and starting from scratch.

Facing this great lot of work and the first intimations of winter, we decided to take out a loan based on our equity in the property. Damn the financial consequences and hire someone to help get it done! It turned out that we were safe from our financial exuberance, though. A visit to my bank loan officer revealed that we don’t have any equity because the evaluation of the house was lowered when the inspector saw that one floor was no longer rentable (much less liveable). In other words, the mortgage is worth more than the house, even after almost three years of making mortgage payments. The value of the house is a dream of the future, not a current reality.

OK, so that left us, not for the first time, having to make do. I started building a tall fence

_1010149 on the border of our reclaimed 42 inches, then we left for a week or so to pursue a photography project in the States, and then we came back to finish the fence. But that was just a start on this summer’s goals.

I’m of two minds about the part of the blog devoted to construction. I want to pour out everything I’ve learned about fence construction, but I don’t want people to feel like they’re reading a recipe book written in Old English. Following my long piece about levelling floors and sistering joists, a couple of otherwise engaged and discerning readers complained that they hadn’t understood a word of it. I also don’t want to write a piece of the sort I recently did for Reader’s Digest. My editor there asked for instructions on “how to build a gazebo in 250 words and five steps.” There it is, in the June 2014 issue, if you really need to know.


So I’ll compartmentalize. I’ll write a follow-up that’s dedicated entirely to fencing know-how and you can skip or read as you wish. And for relief from how-to, a blood and guts entry about attempted murder in the old Point will follow. Got to make amends!

Posted in Blogging, Construction, Design, Renovation | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Spring Flowers

When I stepped out my front door a couple of days ago, it was very, very hard to believe that the vernal equinox was exactly one week away. It has been a mean winter, with record hydro bills, and countless nights I had to leave the bathroom faucets dribbling so the pipes wouldn’t freeze as the water made its long trek from the basement up through the unheated first floor. I even bought a portable construction heater to keep the washing machine in the basement from freezing up as it did last year.

Point St. Charles winter

The week before spring hadn’t produced a single spring crocus, but it did see the warming of the provincial election campaign and the emergence of familiarly jaw-dropping political idiocies. I say “familiarly” because I was here during the first election of the Parti Québécois and the first and second referenda on separation. I remember pushing my infant daughter along a bicycle path beside the aqueduct canal and watching the stroller’s tires roll over stencilled orders to “Kill Anglos.” Then veering off the bicycle path past the wall of the factory that pleaded “SOS FLQ.” (The FLQ was a separatist terrorist organization noted for putting bombs in mailboxes in the 60s. In 1970, they murdered Minister of Employment and Labour Pierre Laporte.) Then, completing our grand tour, returning home via a lane with “Anglos go home” painted on the back walls of tenements.

But, we’ll let that bump in the path toward social peace pass. Instead, we’ll fast forward to 2014, when the government puts forth a bill to ban hijabs, turbans, crosses and presumably, Egyptian ankhs and Zoroastrian faravahars, in any part of the public service, from hospital cleaner to university professor. One Parti Quebecois candidate posts a picture of a topless woman on Facebook. She’s giving the viewer the finger as the text beneath her declares “Fuck Islam.” Another PQ candidate complains about the “Kosher tax,” which white supremacists and anti-Semites the world over insist is a hidden tax paid into the pockets of rapacious rabbis.

Enter “PKP,” Pierre-Karl Péladeau, star PQ candidate and super-wealthy inheritor of printing and media giant Quebecor, a company started by his father, who famously declared that Jews “take up too much space” in Quebec . PKP, who formerly disdained politics is suddenly driven by the need to “give [his children] a country of which they will be proud.” Of course, this sharp turn to plutocratic hopefulness caused a few ripples of concern.  Premier Marois literally pulled PKP away from a microphone when he was pledging his devotion to separatism and soothed us with certainties. She reassured us that, after separation, Québec would have no borders and Quebecers could, for example, travel to Vancouver any time they wanted. Oh, yes. Not to forget that Québec, the sovereign and independent country, will continue to use the Canadian dollar and Quebecers will have a seat on the governing board of the Bank of Canada. Why, golly, it’ll be just like being a Canadian province!

Meanwhile, a poll revealed that a considerable majority Francophone Quebecers feels that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat. After all, towns like Trois Pistoles and Magog, as well as other regional hotbeds of excessive accommodation, have to protect themselves. There’s no telling what might be hidden under a head scarf.

So. By all means, full speed ahead. Rip those head scarves off and save the state, the culture, and the home. Have a say in monetary policy in the foreign country of Canada. Erect no borders and declare free trade. Canada, split in two, will surely love it! And thin the Jews out, for God’s sake. Then we’ll finally be able to afford groceries!

So was it any wonder that I couldn’t stay inside a moment longer, couldn’t be within earshot of a radio newscast, and had to search for a crocus trying to crack through the vast sheet of ice that’s been covering us for 4 months?

Hulk Point St. Charles

I didn’t see any real signs of election fever in the Point. A few tattered and faded flags, but that’s ordinary. La guerre des drapeaux hadn’t yet begun, and may not.

Canadian flag in snow

Politics in the Point is still dominated by the old-fashioned, Us vs. Them themes of a class-conscious industrial economy.

Political sign Point St. Charles

(Not that those issues are irrelevant or gone, but in the Point the political fight appears to have narrowed to affordable housing vs. condos and gentrification. Shouldn’t the battle instead be linked with other issues like education and job creation, or practices of exclusion in the trades themselves? Case in point: an electrician told me that he has to have a number of hours under his belt as an apprentice before he can get his full certification. However, companies will only hire him off-book at lower wages. And since it’s off-book, his hours don’t count. As a result, he’s professionally frozen out.)

So, as I was saying, I decided to take a walk in the windy -9 degree weather to see what else Point St. Charles might have to show me a week before the first day of spring. I am sorry to report that I discovered a fatality. Santa, apparently overcome by the long winter, clearly became deflated and, well, I’ll let the image speak for itself.

Point St. Charles Christmas Santa

There have been many coyote sightings in the vast chunk of land around the old CN maintenance yards. I went looking for tracks but, unless coyotes walk with short hops, I suspect this is evidence of another animal entirely. I’m pretty sure it was a bear.

Rabbit tracks Point St. Charles

A major discovery! The final resting place of old urinals, now at peace.

urinals Point St. Charles

I couldn’t resist visiting my favourite Chinese restaurant, incongruously named “Restaurant ‘Jean-Guy’ Epicerie.” Inside, you will find neither Jean-Guy nor an épicerie, but a Chinese chef wearing a traditional chef`s hat, and seating for four. Please note the orange child’s mitt on the gate. Someone picked it up off the sidewalk a year ago, but it’s still unclaimed.

Point St. Charles restaurant

I was disappointed to see that someone has tagged my favourite Impressionist mural behind the Point’s only tanning salon.

Point St. Charles Impressionism

Here’s one of the faces that was lost.

mural face

And here are a few views to soften the hearts of those who left, and yearn for,  the Point.

railroad tracks Point St. Charles

houses and icicles Point St. Charles

back lane Point St. Charles

Oh, yeah, the spring crocus. This is as close as I could come.

crocuses Point St. Charles

Posted in Point Housing, Point Places, Politics, Renovation, Trades and Tradesmen | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Our mean-spirited winter and my recently acquired physical debilities have made me a little more philosophical about this project. We’re now 3 ½ years into it, with no end in sight. I’m particularly conscious of this because our new neighbour across the back lane hired a contractor to gut and renovate his place and it was done in something like 6 months. I’m envious but, on sunny days, I do wander around downstairs appreciating the potential of the space, smelling the fresh-cut spruce, and accepting that this work has become a way of life as well as a means to an end.


Anyone who undertakes a project of this sort has to like doing it. Otherwise, you’ll fail, or sell, or give up, or destroy your property value, or ruin your marriage. You have to love the work for its own sake and, most likely, be prepared for some post-partum depression when it’s done. I’ve already made my preparations. When the house is done, I’ll start designing and building furniture for it. Have you seen how disposable and crappy even a lot of high-end furniture is?

Since I’ve called this entry “Entr’acte,” I suppose I should open the program folder during this intermission and say a few things about what’s to come. I haven’t written about the history of the house, which I can do because we have all the elegantly handwritten bills of sale dating from 1892. There are also the ancient newspapers I found in the walls, offering fascinating snapshots of life in Montreal going back almost as long as the house has been here. And construction hints. I’d like to do a piece on interior insulation that’s as good as spray foam but at a tiny fraction of the cost. Casting the net a little wider, there’s eating in Point St. Charles. I bet I’ve found a place or two that will surprise you. And another bigger and vaguer idea. During this long, illness-inspired hiatus, I’ve received messages from other home owners in the Point who are enduring some of the same hopes and trials that we are. I’d like to occasionally profile some of these other projects. With pictures, of course, and words of advice from other renovators.

Anyone interested?


cleotex_condoms Some readers may recall the weird treasures that fell from the walls, ceiling and stairwells of the house during demo. One of the most amusing was several beautiful, and beautifully preserved, packages of CleoTex “pure latex” condoms from the ‘20s. old_condoms A more recent find of Altex Liquid Latex Condoms (“Tested Individually” as well as guaranteed five years) wasn’t up to the test of time.


Three things that have recently come to my door:


1) A neighbour balancing an armful of New Yorker magazines. The Canada Post mail carrier had dumped a bagful through his letter slot and the neighbour was reading the subscription labels and delivering them throughout the Point


2) This indecipherable, hand-made message about Marxism, race, and several community organizations, including the Point St. Charles Clinic


pierrette_patates3) An ad for Restaurant Pierrette Patates. Pierrette’s lugubrious expression and high-voltage hair may say something about her chips, but I’m not sure what it is.


  And a final note on the Point’s rep in the outside world. A while ago, after hearing someone on the radio say there was “open warfare” in Point St. Charles, I wrote a ridiculous piece claiming that gangs in the Point, armed as they were with AK-47s, should stop shooting each other in the CN Yards. Instead, I argued, we should put them to work shooting the urban bears that plague the Point, and those bears (fur, meat for sausage) could be the basis of a new industry. I received numerous e-mails saying “Those poor bears!” or “I didn’t know you had bears….” Not a soul expressed doubt about the existence of gangs with machine guns whose incessant chatter keeps the terrified citizenry awake at night.

Posted in Blogging, Construction, Point People, Renovation | Tagged , , | 2 Comments