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Leonard Cohen’s Montreal doorstep became a shrine on the announcement of his death. City and provincial leaders want to create a more last tribute. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)
Leonard Cohen’s Montreal doorstep became a shrine on the announcement of his death. City and provincial leaders want to create a more last tribute. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)

Honouring Leonard Cohen in Montreal is easier said than done Add to ...

Leonard Cohen’s final trip to Montreal was so stealthy that he was underground before almost anyone knew he was dead. A week after his homecoming and prompt burial, Montrealers are in deep discussion about how to enshrine his name on a corner of their city more prominent than the headstone at his family plot.

This is a town that loves to put names of the notable dead on the map, literally. Memorializing worthy Quebeckers with a street sign or park designation is seen not just as a way of saluting an individual, but of preserving le patrimoine.

There’s no doubt that some avenue, park or other public area will be renamed in Cohen’s honour. Warm and unusually personal tributes came from both Mayor Denis Coderre and Premier Philippe Couillard, who called the songwriter and poet “un grand artiste québécois,” and named his own favourite Cohen song: Dance Me to the End of Love. Flags dipped to half-mast at City Hall and the National Assembly, and the province opened a book of condolence online and at the Grande Bibliothèque. Coderre promised an appropriate memorial, and Culture Minister Luc Fortin took up the task of organizing a commemoration that could include a ceremony and something more permanent.

Part of giving a name to a public place, says the city’s web page devoted to the subject, “is expressing, through names, certain aspects of our culture … and crystallizing the feeling of belonging to a collectivity.” The city maintains a bank of names of citizens who may deserve to be drafted, posthumously, into this crystallizing process. There are already more than 400 names on the list, although no one is saying that Cohen needs to get in line.

There is also a list just for women, called Toponym’Elles, which was created last spring. Only 6 per cent of Montreal place-names commemorate women; more than 50 per cent celebrate men. Toponym’Elles is meant to establish a deep list of Quebec women who merit a street or park, with the aim of coming up with 375 names, in honour of Montreal’s forthcoming 375th anniversary.

You can see the gender imbalance, perhaps, in the different lengths of time it took the city to name a park after jazz pianist Oscar Peterson (two years after his death) and folk music doyenne La Bolduc (half a century). But nothing has yet happened with hockey legend Jean Béliveau, who died in 2014, perhaps because finding the right site for any particular individual can be a challenge.

Some have suggested putting Cohen’s name on Parc du Portugal, the small park in front of his house on the Plateau. There are several recent precedents for that: Peterson, Maurice Richard and Kate McGarrigle all have their names on sites close to where they lived or grew up. But in terms of crystalizing the feeling of belonging to a collectivity, taking the park away from the Portuguese community to give it to Cohen looks like a zero-sum game.

It might be better to look at the larger park right behind Cohen’s childhood home in Westmount, which at the moment is named after King George VI. But many locals have never accepted the king’s dominion, preferring the old name of Murray Hill, and might carry on that way even after a renaming for Cohen.

Changing a street name is more problematic, and a harder sell to the public. That became obvious when former mayor Gérald Tremblay led a campaign, only partly successful, to get some major pavement for former premier Robert Bourassa. But commemoration of a politician is always going to be more contentious than renaming a street for a man whose words stirred the hearts of millions and rarely, if ever, offended.

But which street? Some have suggested Marie-Anne West, which runs past Cohen’s house on the Plateau. That would obliterate a sweet accidental resonance with one of Cohen’s best-known songs. Given the launch of Toponym’Elles and the plan to name more public places after women, it might also seem a step backward to remove a woman’s name in favour of Cohen’s.

But the Marie-Anne for whom the street was named was merely the daughter of the notary who owned the land in the early 19th century.

Marie-Anne Ouest isn’t an especially busy road, so there would be nothing sadly prophetic in Cohen’s lyrics to his 2001 song Boogie Street: “I’m wanted at the traffic jam / They’re saving me a seat.”

Another way to commemorate a musician is to name a theatre after him or her, as Concordia University did for Oscar Peterson. Place des Arts has two good contenders: Théâtre Maisonneuve, and the Cinquième Salle, which has had a place-holder name for way longer than seems credible in Montreal. Some have suggested putting Cohen’s name on the adjacent Place des Festivals, but that would go against the fierce branding efforts of the Quartier des Spectacles, unless it were called the Place des Festivals Leonard-Cohen, which no one would ever say.

Perhaps a more subtle tribute is in order, one that also respects the scale of Cohen’s achievement. The tallest building in Montreal is the steeple-roofed post-modern tower at 1000 de La Gauchetière. I propose that it henceforth be known, informally or not, as the Tower of Song. Everyone who cares about Cohen will know what that means. “You’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone / I’ll be speaking to you sweetly / From a window in the Tower of Song.”

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

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