By Katherine Gombay
Back lots can be appealing. Like overheard conversations or intercepted winks, there is often something slightly illicit and titillating about them.
Whether they are made of tinted glass and concrete or framed by pillars and quarried stone, the facades of the buildings on McGill’s downtown campus tend to be grandiose, no matter when they were constructed. But the backs of these same buildings tell another story, one that’s more quirky and multi-layered – of years of quiet accommodation and expansion, of striving, bustling activity as the buildings have adapted to the needs of a changing population over the years. One of the best ways to discover the hidden history of McGill’s buildings, along with sweeping views of the city and some of the University’s hidden gardens is to visit the campus’ many parking lots.
Just ask J.P. Chateau. The McGill Parking & Transportation Services officer has spent close to five years ticketing cars parked illegally behind McGill’s many buildings. It’s a job he loves – not because he is mean-spirited and takes pleasure in giving out tickets, but because he is able to spend his days listening to music on the radio and driving the city streets. With close to 60 parking lots around the downtown campus to visit several times each day, Chateau’s time is spent weaving in and out of the warren of construction zones, one-way streets and alleyways between the University’s more than 150 buildings.
After first working as a cook and then in cleaning, Chateau is happy to be where he is now, touring the McGill campus and taking in its sights and sounds through the seasons.
And he definitely has his favourite lots, like the one behind the Royal Victoria College residence in the spring, when the apple tress are in blossom and the dulcet tones of diligent students playing their instruments serenades everyone through the open windows of the Strathcona Music Building. “I love the view from the upper residences parking lot in winter when the trees are bare and you can see east through the city towards the Jacques Cartier Bridge,” says Chateau.
“I always tell new guys that as long as they think of it as a big square and don’t go past Peel on one side, or Ave. du Parc on the other, you can’t get lost,” says Chateau. But in fact, to visit a parking lot beside the Currie Gym, we travel far beyond the limits of this square in order to be able to come back again, forced to do so by a series of prohibited left hand turns.
The lot itself is a strangely sinister spot – something to do with the clash of architectural styles in a space bounded by the curve of the Molson Stadium, the tall, flat brick wall of the Currie Gym, the open galleries of the old houses on Pine Avenue and multiple architectural accretions of the Montreal Neurological Institute.
One of the cars parked in this lot has accumulated over $300 of parking fines, although the tickets themselves are given out by a city-parking official who Chateau calls after first giving out a warning, rather than by McGill. Chateau has little patience for drivers like these who abuse the system, especially if the cars are blocking emergency exits or fire hydrants.
Chateau often has to deal with angry drivers when he approaches them for the first time with a ticket. “People have this deer in the headlights look when I come up to them. I always let them vent and scream,“ he says. “When they realize that the first ticket is only a warning they look so relieved. Some of them almost thank me.”