APS News

Welcome to Montréal, Where Down is Up and the Sun Sets in the North

By Alan Chodos

I grew up in Montréal in the fifties and early sixties. Many things were different then. There were streetcars instead of subways. It was pre-world's fair, pre-Olympics, pre-major league baseball (which now seems to be leaving again), and the Montréal Canadiens dominated what was then a six-team National Hockey League. Most importantly, it was pre-separatist movement, and the English-speaking community in Montréal dwelt in a cocoon whose fragility would only be revealed by subsequent events.

But some things remain the same, dictated by the immutable geography of the city. Montréal is located on an island in the St. Lawrence River—more precisely, the St. Lawrence flows by to the south, and the island's northern border is the smaller Rivière des Prairies. Rising steeply but not all that impressively behind downtown Montréal is an 800-foot hill called Mount Royal, from which the city may have taken its name. Importantly for what's to come, the island itself is sharply angled, with the St. Lawrence changing its easterly course to a more northerly one as it flows past the island.

These facts explain why Montréalers are directionally challenged. I grew up thinking that the sun sets in the north, and being unable to tell up from down. I was also under the misapprehension that the St. Lawrence flowed away from the ocean toward the Great Lakes. Why all the confusion? The explanations are simple.

Downtown Montréal is the strip between the river and the mountain. The streets there were laid out with the convention that the river flowed from west to east, which it predominantly does as it makes its way from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic. But as it goes past downtown Montréal it is flowing much more south to north. Hence the main east-west streets, like Sherbrooke and Ste. Catherine, are really north-south, and the main north-south streets, like the fabled St. Lawrence Boulevard, are basically east-west. On a summer evening, you could look "north" on St. Lawrence Boulevard, and see the red sun just about to set. An unnerving, or at least a disorienting, experience.

Naturally enough, Montréalers' notion of up and down derive from the mountain. "Up" is taken to mean in the direction from downtown toward the mountain, which is "north" (really west). So, "his office is two blocks up Peel Street" means two blocks toward the mountain and away from the river. This all makes perfect sense. When I was growing up, though, we lived in Outremont, a residential area on the other side of the mountain from downtown. But to my mother "up" continued to mean "north" (i.e. west). So when she would tell me to go to the store two blocks "up" Rockland, what she meant was literally down, away from the mountain. And vice versa. I've never quite forgiven her for this.

The confusion over the St. Lawrence River was strictly my own fault. It arose from the mismatch between two pieces of data. The first was any normal map, in which north is up and the St. Lawrence flows from left to right. The second is the view of downtown Montréal and the river beyond that I often enjoyed from the lookout on the "southern" (really eastern) slope of Mount Royal. Since the river flowed from left to right on the map, I couldn't shake the intuition that it was also flowing from left to right as I looked at it from the mountain, notwithstanding that this meant it would be flowing away from the Atlantic and toward the Great Lakes.

As the years have gone by, Montréal has evolved into a city that is probably much more interesting than the one I grew up in. I'm looking forward to going back for the APS March meeting, and I'm sure it will be an enjoyable experience. Just don't ask me where to stay or where to eat—I'm clearly not up to the directional challenge.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette