Babylon, P.Q.: Whale lights and white nights

Whale lights and white nights

The New City Gas complex

They just don’t make revolutions like the industrial revolution anymore. And the societal trickle-down effects of that ridiculously rich epoch in the evolution of Montreal still, in certain special places, a century and a half later, hang in the air like coal smoke. Or perhaps whale smoke.

If you were the cultural equivalent of a Hydro-Québec maintenance worker nearly 200 years ago, you weren’t bombing around town in a million-dollar toolbox – half Brink’s truck, half space station – punching up diagnostics on your laptop. Or, more likely, sleeping. Because in 1816, the year Montreal got its very first street lights on St-Paul – at that time the city’s principal commercial avenue – you’d have been up all night filling those brightly shining stinkpots with whale oil. (Fact: Whale oil smells like ass even when it’s not on fire.) And in the morning you’d climb the poles all over again to snuff ‘em out. Romantic work it was not, and it wasn’t until 1837 that the nightly stench of burning baleine was replaced with cleaner kerosene.

By 1859 – bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this – gas was the new kid on the city block, and so construction began on Griffintown’s massive New City Gas Company complex (bordered by Ottawa, Dalhousie, Wellington and Ann Streets). New City Gas burned coke to produce the gas that lit the lamps on Montreal’s streets. Nowadays, coke is way too expensive to burn. Ahem.

Anyway, gas too would fall out of fashion, and the New City Gas company would go on to become the Royal Electric Company, then Montreal Light, Heat & Power and would later, like all the rest of the independent gas companies that were converted into electricity-producing operations in the province, wind up consolidated under the heading Hydro-Québec. And we all know what happened after that…

But more than 150 years after the fact, the legacy of Montreal industry lives on in the red brick factory facades and cathedral-like interiors of the New City Gas complex’s two principal buildings (which are connected to smaller, adjoining outbuildings) located at 950 Ottawa and 141 Ann. They’re possessed of an extraordinary and awe-inspiring architecture that is part time-machine, part cavernous playpen, and are two of the very few industrial buildings of that age remaining in Montreal.

Unfortunately, one of the best perspectives on the unique and antiquated character of the buildings is to be found at the window of the elevated Via Rail trains that roll almost directly overtop of them. To the unknowing, Toronto-bound soul, it might appear as though they’ve outlived their usefulness. Nothing could be further from the truth…

"Currently, at 950, we use it mostly for storage, and 141 we use for artistic purposes," explains Techno-Lith plant manager Dominic Roussel (Techno-Lith is a paper company housed within the New City Gas complex owned by entrepreneur, philanthropist and Griffintown heritage activist Harvey Lev, who also has title to the complex). "There are two 8,000-square-foot lofts that are iconic in the neighbourhood. They’ve been used for photo shoots, short films, made-for-TV movies and a lot of other things."

Among those other things are the annual Nuit Blanche festivities, and last year’s Nuit Blanche at New City Gas was nothing short of a revelation: a Roman orgy of arts visual, musical, poetical, gastronomical, er, dance-ical and popsicle (hey, it was cold outside) in a dynamic and inviting historical setting that fairly screamed Montreal. Honestly, after spending the night there, I didn’t feel like I needed to be anywhere else.

Apart from his nine-to-five responsibilities at Techno-Lith, the hardworking Roussel also acts as assistant to the producers of Griffintown: Developing Culture (GDC) – responsible for administering arts and culture endeavours at New City Gas – and is producing the Bouge d’Ici dance event Bare Bones Dance, one of the dozens of Nuit Blanche presentations taking place at New City Gas, on two floors of 141 Ann, from 3 p.m. to 4 a.m., Feb. 26.

"During Nuit Blanche, [141 Ann] is going to be used for dance, music, live DJs, poetry, and it’s going to host the One Day Bombay Café – [Lev's wife] Esther Hageman is a fantastic cook, an actual chef," says Roussel. "And we have the World Symphony Orchestra, which will be a 30- to 40-piece orchestra comprised of Canadian citizens who are immigrants.

"Also, local land owners, city politicians and sustainability activists will be there discussing how some of the sites in the area are changing and how their use can be redefined. And there’s an obscene amount of art decorating every square inch of the walls. It’s really beautiful actually, and I’m really impressed with how they used the space."

If you found all that earlier talk about stinky whale distillate and first generation street lights and having gas as fascinating as I do, as part of Nuit Blanche, Heritage Montreal’s Dinu Bumbaru will be hosting a conference (followed by an informal walking tour) titled "Brief Light History in Montreal" at Le Dalhousie (at the corner of Dalhousie and Ottawa Streets) starting at 8 p.m. Best of all, it’s free.

For a full schedule of the many Griffintown Nuit Blanche activities, and for a detailed look at some of the grave issues threatening the historic neighbourhood (such as the proposed high-traffic bus corridor right beside New City Gas, part of the city’s plan to redevelop the Bonaventure Expressway, and which would almost certainly spell the end of the complex), visit www.griffintown.org.

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