Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sidewalk Gardener

On a breezy Saturday morning, across the street from a looming factory building at the corner of Casgrain and Maguire, Diane Boyer gave out cotton gloves and advice .

"When you're an urban gardener you're also an archeologist," she told a small group of people. "You'll find glass, metal, plastic. The soil is compacted. So you take the hoe, remove the top 4-5 centimetres of cedar mulch. Set it aside on a groundsheet," she instructed.

"With a shovel or pitchfork, work the soil. Turn it," Boyer demonstrated. "It's a good opportunity to take out the weeds. We'll add a little chicken manure in there as fertilizer, then we'll put the mulch back on top."

Boyer was leading a workshop on her personal passion: tree square gardening.

Boyer first started planting flowers around the trees by her loft on St. Viateur East three years ago. She won an éco-quartier contest for her initiative. The following summer she took over more tree squares, and then decided to quit her job in film to study horticulture.

She finished her studies this year and started a new job as project manager at the éco-quartier du Plateau Mont-Royal. When she proposed using tree squares as a way to get more citizens gardening, her colleagues liked the idea.

Now Boyer is responsible for a pilot project that's put176 tree squares up for adoption in the eastern, semi-industrial portion of Mile End. In an area notable for its lack of greenery and large garment factory buildings, each tree has a numbered plaque strung around its trunk and instructions for adoption: call éco-quartier.

Residents, schools and daycares jumped at the chance to adopt these patches of dirt.

Plateau Mont-Royal horticultural department  supplied the soil, hearty perennials and brightly flowered annuals. Boyer and her éco-quartier colleagues distributed them, along with planting tips, to willing gardeners.

Some people adopted the spots right in front of their homes. Others, like Deborah Kramer and her three-year -old daughter, Luna, have come from five or more blocks away, eager for the chance to garden.

"There are no tree squares on my block," Deborah said. "I saw the signs: 'Tree squares  for adoption.' They provide tools, earth, a lesson, and there you go. It's cool. We live in an apartment so it's nice for us. We've adopted this tree.  Now we have to take care of it."

Pushing a wheelbarrow  of gardening supplies (donated by Rona at Parc and Bernard), Boyer answered questions from new gardeners. "Horticulture is trial and error," she advised. "There's nothing like trying."

"I've always  wanted a community garden but the waiting list is four years long. Plus, this is more my speed. I'm a novice," said Deborah.

"One tree square is small but if we all get together we can make a difference and make things cleaner and brighter in the neighbourhood," said Boyer. "A garden is so much better than a piece of garbage."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shop talk

Near the Rialto Theatre on Parc Avenue,  the curlicued white lettering of an old sign reads, "Bijouterie Rothschild, Horlogerie, Objets d'Art." From the outside, the narrow store appears dim and quiet, almost abandoned.

But inside, Moïse Rothschild is busy serving a steady stream of customers. People come in to browse for rings, get a watch, a chain, or an earring repaired, or to find out if a piece of old jewelry is actually gold.

Rothschild wears a jeweler's magnifying visor over his silver curls, a dark jacket, and a copper-gold ring set with a bright green oval of malachite from his native Iran. He gives his age simply as "over 70," and says he'll keep working at the store as long as he has the energy.

"I've known Moïse for twenty years!" grinned one woman. Many of his customers have been coming to him, "the man on Parc Avenue," for decades. 

 "There's a difference between someone who's just interested in business and someone who's studied humanities, who has a human point of view and who won't let clients leave without a smile," reasoned Rothschild who has PhD in comparative literature.

He brought his family to Montreal after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and took over the jewelry store in 1980, running it part-time while he worked as a French teacher and principal at a Hasidic school. Rothschild sends out most of the repairs, saying it's his vocation to find the best workmanship for his clients.

These days Rothschild opens the store from around 1 p.m. until early evening. He runs his business on terms some people may consider eccentric.

"Sometimes I refuse to sell to people who buy a lot of things from me," he said. "If they're buying on impulse, they might regret it.

"You have to be a psychologist," he continued. "If somebody comes in to change a battery and watch  band and I feel they're not able to pay much, I ask very little. I don't lose money, because the same person comes back and brings other customers. And some people give tips."

A father and a little girl in search of a gift for Mom, examined the rings and earrings in one of the cracked display cases. After a lengthy deliberation they chose a vintage amber pendant and to the girl's delight, Rothschild threw in a bracelet for her. It was stainless steel filigree set with tiny bits of coloured glass.

"I've never seen a business person like you," remarked Ginette Gauron, a long-time client and friend. She has stylish dark hair, black framed glasses and red lipstick. Her most recent Rothschild purchase was a diamond, but today she came in just to chat.

"He feels sorry for people," she said. "He's not a person, he's a soul. When he's gone we'll have to put up a statue on Parc Avenue."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Desire lines

Sasha Johnson stepped out his front door on Jeanne Mance shouldering a giant 35-pound backpack. He picked up a blue folding chair and set out toward the railroad tracks.

At the sculpture garden near Clark and Van Horne, he stepped through a hole in the fence and walked to a grassy spot along the tracks, well away from any rail traffic. He put down his chair, undid the pack and pulled out a gleaming tuba.

"I'm a little bit tucked away here," he said. "I'm between  the St. Urbain underpass and the train tracks. The odds of someone telling me to be quiet are very small. It's not that I get a lot of complaints at the house, but I like to give the neighbours a break."

The light bounced off the golden bell of his tuba as he played scales. A breeze buffeted the music, carrying the low resonant notes down the tracks and through the trees along the chain link fence.

An orchestral tuba player, Johnson, 39, first fell under the spell of the instrument's breadth and power when he was 12.

"There are many more musical possibilities with the tuba than people think. Most people just know about Oompah and Oktoberfest but it can also sound very tender." To demonstrate, he sent a heart-rending passage floating over the tracks. It was the scene of Juliet's death from Prokofiev's ballet of Romeo and Juliet.

A few years ago, Johnson took lessons with the tuba player from the New York Philharmonic who encouraged him to play outdoors as a way of preparing for auditions.

"The tuba is designed to be the foundation of an 80- to 100-piece orchestra," said Johnson. "Auditions are in concert halls. Playing in a tiny practice room is nowhere close to that. Outside is the largest place possible.

"Now I tell my students to play outside. In fact, I teach out here sometimes," added Johnson who is an instructor at Schulich School of Music at McGill and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He also commutes to work in Toronto with his main employer, the National Ballet of Canada.

"I love playing outdoors and I love coming to the tracks, but it's no fun having to worry about getting a ticket," he  said.

The Canadian Pacific police give $144 tickets to anyone they catch crossing the train tracks or setting foot in the green space along the railroad. People in Mile End, Little Italy and Rosemont are actively protesting the ticketing and lobbying for the establishment of a level crossing at the tracks at the spots where people want to cross the tracks, sometimes known as desire lines.

"I'm breaking the law just by being here," Johnson pointed out.

He stepped back through the hole in the fence to head home and a woman enjoying the sun on a bench in the sculpture garden said: "Thanks for the concert."