Pipe Dreams: Montreal’s hidden underground

Andrew Emond, Riviere St. Pierre in Cote-St-Luc
Andrew Emond, Riviere St. Pierre in Cote-St-Luc

Andrew Emond moved to Montreal from Toronto in 2006. Like any urbanite, he sought to get a fuller picture of his new home by visiting landmarks and walking the streets. Then he started discreetly lifting manhole covers. To better learn about Montreal, a city whose skyline is made of high-rises and factories as much as parks and churches, all straining for the sky, he decided to go the opposite way: underground.

There, in the maze of sewers and dim tunnels, he began to learn about and curate this hidden aspect of Montreal. With experience in exploring, researching, and photographing various industrial structures — both above and below the surface — coming from previous urban exploration projects, it came naturally.

To most people the subterranean world is a blind-spot on the urban radar. We go about our lives wholly dependent on the network below our feet yet we are unaware of the thousands of kilometers of infrastructure, added over many decades, which lie below our foundations. This is what Emond and those like him seek to illuminate.

Emond is an urban explorer, a member of an intrepid community that makes the time to appreciate man-made landscapes. By the most common definition, urban explorers search for and study anything industrial, usually structures which are seldom seen or appreciated, such as abandoned or hidden architecture. Part urban explorer, part artist, Emond created a virtual repository for the project, UnderMontreal.com, and began detailing his encounters to the public, whom he encouraged to participate in the idea through online media and interaction.

It’s a project of impressive scope, digging deep into the historical and contemporary factors that have made Montreal what it is. He has explored hidden rivers, pushed below by urban sprawl, and written about Montreal’s waste-treatment system. Historically, he’s amassed written records stretching back nearly 150 years. His most impressive experiences have been navigating brick sewers built in the latter half of the 1800s, an architectural feat he considers unique in the city. All the while he’s taken spectacular photos of gigantic sewers, snaking waterways and spooky crevices.

His uncommon lifestyle oftentimes causes numerous run-ins with the law. Normally able to explain himself to the authorities, he was once arrested in Toronto for trespassing through their underground network. When you operate in the grey zones of legality, exploring potentially dangerous urban spaces, such consequences come with the job.

“It helps to be able to communicate your intent and to have a purpose for doing what you do that goes beyond ‘because it’s fun and exciting,’” he said.

According to Emond, Montreal’s permanent urban explorer community is small. Most come and go, their curiosity sated after a few underground forays. To him, it takes more than curiosity. It takes an addiction to come back time after time and trudge through the many kilometers of winding tunnels – sometimes dead ends – where the ultimate payoff could be a change in architectural aesthetics or a junction different from the one before.

“There’s a lot of drudgery and monotony involved in this sort of thing that isn’t for everyone. You can’t go into it expecting to see all kinds of wonderful things or at least you can’t expect to see things without [being] willing to walk several kilometers through featureless sections to get to them,” he says.

Now back in Toronto, he’s continuing to explore, with numerous other projects in the works. UnderMontreal remains dormant, perhaps permanently.

It remains an incredible repository of Montreal’s hidden underground and well worth a look. As for urban exploration, “if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll begin to understand how all this came to be; what was happening above ground at the time, both technologically and socially speaking. You begin to get a bigger sense of how the city’s underground is very much a reflection of its past.”

We may not be able to put in the time or find the passion and join in, but thanks to Emond’s efforts to showcase his discoveries, it’s almost like we’re there.

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