As I first experienced sometime last August, the vibrant Portuguese community that currently occupies the formerly Jewish south-west of Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood periodically holds Saint Celebrations — street parades that shut down St Urbain between Mont Royal and Duluth.

The effect of shutting down the street proved to be incredibly pleasant. St Urbain is a largely  residential street north of Sherbrooke. Due to the fact that it is a one way thoroughfare that crosses the entire island, extending from the city’s Northern highways, through the residential Mile End and Plateau neighbourhoods, past the industrial area and highway overpass south of Rene Lesveque and, finally ending at Old Montreal, the street is effectively a highway. I live directly on St Urbain at Duluth, in a walk up, my bedroom window on the street, so I know intimately how busy St Urbain can be. Traffic zooms by at all hours of the day, at incredibly high speeds; if the vehicle is lucky to not be stopped by any red lights, St Urbain presents itself as a chute, sending cars zooming southwards.

St Urbain is not the most pleasant street. Though it boasts an incredibly large and beautiful stock of classic Montreal duplexes and triplexes, with the requisite local businesses sprinkled in between, the extremely high speed traffic detracts from the aesthetics of one of the city’s most important streets.

But when the street was closed to accommodate the Portuguese parade, I experienced a different kind of St Urbain. The kind of street that must have been the one Mordecai Richler spoke of so dearly. Gone were the constant wooshes of passing traffic. Rather, silence rued the day. The sound of birds, the summer breeze, the chit chat of passersby, the voices of my friends directly beside me, these were the sounds of the city restored to an otherwise inner-city highway, frozen to accommodate a different kind of traffic.

And then I looked up, and was delighted to see the windows and balconies that line the street populated by curious onlookers, children and adults, watching the parade, delighting in experiencing a St Urbain not characterized by the typical unassociated traffic, flinging across the island at an unbelievable speed from where-ever to some place, but rather, their neighbours, partaking in a cultural activity that evoked the participation not just of those in the parade, but the entire citizenry of the street.

This wonderful experience of St Urbain made me think what limiting the traffic would do to the street. If Montreal were to make it a two way street, which I think must have been its original usage, the pleasant calm that I temporarily experienced would endure permanently. The same happens, I suppose, in Sao Paulo, when every Sunday they close down the central highway that eviscerates the city’s core, handing it back over to the residents of the city, especially those who dwell in highrises that line the expressway. In Sao Paulo, on such a day, the usual racket associated with a superhighway stops completely, and is replaced by the chatter of an impromptu and inherently ephemeral market-esque streetscape.

I don’t expect St Urbain will ever be converted to a two-way street. Frankly, beyond these pleasantries thought up by a naive, idyllic urbanist, there is no need to restore quiet to St Urbain. I imagine that the street is a necessary north-south thoroughfare, accommodating a noticeably immense amount of traffic’s journey across the island. And it’s better than the alternative: a real highway, cutting up the unique Plateau urban landscape (see: autoroute Decarie).

I suppose that I’ll just have to enjoy the wonders of a temporarily closed St Urbain as they come and go.

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