Nothing is uglier—or divides and segregates a city more—than a wide, grade-separated highway. But in stunningly beautiful Quebec City, large concrete pillars provide an ideal canvas for enhancing the city’s outdoor art.
Many of the supports on the giant highway overpasses have every square inch covered in museum-quality frescoes stretching from the base all the way to the bridge deck.
An even uglier history
Clearly these pillars did not have a beautiful origin. On April 22, 1972, during the height of Canada’s push to build huge highways to accommodate rapid escapes from the city to new suburbs, 2000 parishioners of Notre-Dame-de-Saint-Roch, the cultural hub of the very working-class Saint-Roch neighborhood, received registered letters announcing (with no previous warning) that their homes would be demolished to build what is now called the Dufferin-Montmorency highway. The highway would (and still does) connect Quebec City’s main government buildings with suburbs rapidly being built along the coveted waterfront and island properties east of town that wealthy bureaucrats and professionals were increasingly calling home.
Parish priest Paul-Henri Lepage famously noted that “the elevated highway was built on the heads of the poor. The Parish of Notre-Dame has disappeared, and in its place have been erected the icons of the new religion of modernity: the cement totem pole.”
Saint-Roch took the brunt of highway construction in Quebec City for decades. Today the neighborhood, which borders the two Quebec City neighborhoods that nearly all tourists visit, remains visibly cut off by large highways that form its eastern, western and southern borders (its northern border is the St Charles River).
However, Saint-Roch, with its rich history and extremely close-in location, is now fully revitalized; it’s essentially Quebec City’s Brooklyn. Old factory buildings are filled with art studios, impossibly cool cafés and restaurants (that I tried to capture in photos which didn’t do any of them justice), hip indie boutiques, and murals covering the few remaining undeveloped spots . Even its giant concrete eastern and southern borders are now filled with art.
At the juncture where Quebec City’s two biggest interior highways converge, Saint-Roch’s industrious residents gradually found this normally depressing concrete nexus to be doubly advantageous.
First, they created stunning artwork (that is never vandalized): “Les Fresques des Piliers” (the Frescoes of the Pillars).
Secondly, Saint-Roch is no longer an industrial afterthought of the city’s elite. Thus, residents are probably relieved that the two highways (175 & 440) forming the southern and eastern borders create a visual barrier that keeps 99.9% of Quebec City’s tourists from walking either west from Old Quebec or north from Saint-Jean Baptiste. You can actually see tourists turn around once they spot the huge viaducts from over a block away.
Normally, city residents probably want as much tourist patronage as possible, but if you’ve been to impossibly beautiful “Old Quebec” or the neighboring Saint-Jean Baptiste neighborhood during the height of tourist season, you would completely understand how the residents living just a block beyond these borders might actually be thankful for the highways that serve as natural tourist deterrents. And Saint-Roch businesses are clearly not suffering these days, with or without international tourists.
As usual, the tourists are failing to experience a vibrant historic neighborhood that hasn’t been converted into tourist shops or been frozen in amber as a caricature. In Saint-Roch they would discover not just incredible art, but some of the best shopping and dining areas that are typically known only to locals. This is where the most authentic neighborhood experiences are found not just in Quebec City, but in nearly all major cities.
In fact, Rue Saint-Joseph Est, the main commercial street of Saint-Roch, is one of the greatest examples of a retail “woonerf” that I’ve ever seen in North America. As in all other woonerfs, cars pass through very slowly, and *people* dominate the urban space, rather than cars. It’s also getting a lot of press as being “one of Canada’s greatest streets,” so even the international tourists are starting to take notice.
A 400th anniversary project The pillar frescoes were commissioned as part of Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebration in 2008. Of the 11 major mural projects, these frescoes are the only ones that portray imaginary scenes, rather than depictions of Quebec City’s breathtakingly rich history.
Below is a a mural painted on the side of a historic home that’s now the home of an artists’ co-op. It’s located on Rue de Petit-Chaplain, by far the oldest commercial street in North America; it’s been continuously lined with businesses and residents since 1608.
Beautiful previews of a future Quebec City post
Quebec City is by *far* my favorite historic city in North America. Boston may offer more to see and do, but it can’t come close to matching the experience of walking through the much older and more dramatically undulating city of Quebec. People often say, “It’s like Europe without the jet lag.” But Quebec City is even more than that to me; it captures literally all of the greatest aspects of a classic European city in one relatively small area.
In fact, I’ll likely do a separate post that showcases so much beauty and history of Quebec City that you’ll almost certainly start researching a trip to Quebec City and Montreal. Most people fly into Montreal (which I highly recommend visiting for several days) before taking the easy train ride to and from Quebec City.
I also have a few posts planned for Montreal, which happens to be North America’s most bike-friendly big city, among other surprises that I’ll reveal.
In the meantime, here’s a brief preview of what awaits your visit to North America’s crown jewel of historic capital cities.
I’m curious: which ones are your favorite shots? 🙂
Click on any image to see the beautiful full-sized version.