Artists and architects in Montreal are upcycling old subway cars

An older generation MR-63 train is in the Beaugrand Garage. Image: Wikipedia.

Montreal’s Metro system celebrated its fiftieth birthday this October. And for a limited time its first-generation “MR-63” cars were available to buy for the bargain price of C$C750–1,000 (£445-£593), along with a C$4000 (£2,370) shipping fee. The two-ton, baby-blue cars make up the oldest fleet in North America. They are gradually being decommissioned.

Out of 30 submissions, the Société de transport de Montreal (STM) has picked seven projects that will receive cars. These include a high-rise community centre built from multiple cars stacked on each other; a 13-story building that will encase over one hundred cars; a car plonked in a botanic garden in remote northern Quebec; and an art-installation made of 16 sets of sliding doors. Submissions were evaluated by the STM on criteria that included optics, heritage value, feasibility and sustainability.

“We wanted to do something crazy, but not too “in-your-face” crazy,” said Frédéric Morin-Bordeleau, co-founder of Projet MR-63, one of the lucky finalist projects. “So we thought, let’s get eight metro trains, create a building out of it, make it self-sustaining and generate revenue, and showcase the culture of Montreal.” He expects the sculpture, which will house a café, bar, gallery and community space, to be complete in 2020.

Artist’s impression. Image: Project MR-63.

Morin-Bordeleau acknowledged that his love of the metro carriages, like many Montrealers’, is steeped in nostalgia for the “glorious era” of the sixties, when Montreal hosted Expo ’67, the world fair that marked Canada’s centennial and attracted fifty million visitors to the city.

On top of the metro system, which was hurriedly built to accommodate Expo crowds, remnants of this era include Moshe Safdie’s iconic Habitat 67 complex, the Montreal Biosphere (capped by a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller) and two large man-made islands in the St-Lawrence river, created and reshaped using rubble dug out by the subway construction.

While he was not alive in the sixties, Morin-Bordeleau’s mother was a photographer for Expo ’67 and “would talk about [it] with stars in her eyes,” he said. He sees the project, which he founded with his brother, as an homage to this period. “We want to make Montreal proud and the metro trains were exactly the symbol we needed. It’s a mix between the glory of the past and visions for the future,” he said.

The brothers were initially inspired by the Village Underground arts centre in Shoreditch, London, which rents out studio space in four upcycled tube carriages to artists and designers.

Parts of MR-63 cars will travel internationally in the form of a travelling art installation. Another finalist of the STM’s call for proposals is interactive art piece Thresholds, a corridor of 16 opening and closing subway doors that people can walk through. Created by Montreal artist Michel de Broin, it was exhibited in Montreal’s this summer and he plans on taking it abroad.

While he acknowledged that the “distinctive” doors of the metro were likely to have a particular effect on a Montrealer, he believes the experience of the piece “will work anywhere”. His website describes the experience as “recalling the digestive tract’s ingestion process as the installation breathes and swells”.

MR-63 cars that are not being upcycled are slowly being retired, a process that is anticipated to finish in mid-2018. Montreal-based metal recycling firm American Iron and Metal is recycling the cars at the rate of one a day, with a new car ferried each morning to their headquarters on a specifically-designed trailer.

The invitable metro map. Image: STM.

The question of what to do with old subway cars has been approached in a variety of ways by different cities. In England, tube cars shuttle passengers down the east coast of the Isle of Wight, while a 1967 Victoria Line tube carriage hosts a monthly supper club in Walthamstow.

In 2015, over 2,500 New York subway cars were dropped into the Atlantic to create an artificial underwater reef for fish and crustaceans. Two of Buenos Aires’ iconic 1913 wooden cars have been converted into diesel-electric buses, and Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore wants to transform his city’s old metro cars into one-bedroom prefab apartments for the homeless.

Back in Montreal, the subway is receiving a new generation of trains – but like their predecessors, the city’s new underground cars will arrive at stations accompanied by the faint smell of burning wood. That’s because designers have opted to continue making the tyre brake pads out of yellow birch sourced from Quebec’s forests. According to the STM, wooden brake pads are quieter than steel or graphite disc pads, and environmentally safer, given that they do not release of carbon dust into the atmosphere. To prevent friction or burning, the wood is saturated in hot peanut oil, left to drip-dry for 30 days, and soaked in salt water.

Montreal commuters have come off lightly with their subway’s trademark fragrance. Washington DC’s subway cars organic brake pads are often blamed for a lingering fishy smell.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.