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The back alleys of most cities are ugly, collecting puddles and trash. In Montreal, by contrast, they’ve been growing into surprisingly lovely neighborhood hubs, and more than 250 blocks of them have recently banded together as official Ruelles Vertes, or green alleyways. They feature gardens that give residents leafy space for trick-or-treating, block parties, pop-up restaurants and more. Now the alleys are not only providing gathering places, but also giving visitors back-door peeks into Montreal’s daily life.




In one of North America’s most bike-friendly cities, tour companies like Fitz & Follwell (Fitzandfollwell.co) and Spade & Palacio (spadeandpalacio.com) are now including Montreal’s green alleyways in their tours. Fitz & Follwell, which calls the routes “laneways” for greater appeal, has created an alley-specific bike tour. For the independent, the local environmental nonprofit Regroupement des Éco-Quartiers has developed a smartphone app, Parcours Verts et Actifs, which translates to Green Paths and Assets (eco-quartiers.org/parcoursvertsetactifs), to point urban explorers down verdant back routes. While only in French, the app transcends language with photos and maps, giving users license to duck down alleyways as if on a scavenger hunt.


“In a big city it can be difficult for people to find community, but the laneways bring people together,” Shea Mayer, founder of Fitz & Follwell, said. It’s not uncommon for visitors on his company’s tours to be invited to join in a neighborhood potluck or onto a back balcony for wine.




While a few neighborhoods in the United States, like San Francisco’s Chinatown, have begun to touch up their alleys, Montreal’s wide-ranging embrace of the spaces stands out. The city incorporates its back routes into events, from Restaurant Weeks that include alleyway pop-ups to “white alleys” with winter sledding and ice rinks.


Montreal’s several thousand alleyways started as country routes along old agricultural tracts. By the early 20th century they’d developed into social centers where children played and merchants delivered ice and coal. Informal alley use continued through the decades. Danny Pavlopoulos, 29, a Spade & Palacio co-founder, recalled playing hockey behind his neighborhood’s row houses growing up. Now he’s among the Montrealers formalizing their communal spaces by seeking a Ruelle Verte designation, his in the immigrant-heavy Parc-Extension area.




Block by block across 19 boroughs, residents have gathered to beautify their alleys. Community groups pushed for the official designation, and in 1997 the city started funding the effort, typically granting $10,000 to $20,000 per block.


On a recent alleyway tour, Martin Coutu, a guide with Fitz & Follwell, wheeled his bike down the Ruelle Demers in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, taking visitors past a yellow windmill, bubbling fountain and lush ferns planted down the alley’s middle. A bearded Quebecer man glared at first. After Mr. Coutu greeted him in French, the man introduced himself as Fred Gougeon, a fourth-generation Ruelle Demers resident. Within minutes Mr. Gougeon was pulling out a calendar of his family’s decades along the alleyway. It featured photos including an uncle alongside a vintage car and one of his mother in her wedding dress there. Then Mr. Gougeon unlocked the gate to show his private garden, overflowing with flowers and his welder grandfather’s metal sculptures.




Alleyways make people open up, Mr. Coutu explained. “I find Montrealers very engaging when we meet them in the alleyways,” he said. “It’s like sharing their backyards — still a private feeling but public as well, like a shared secret.”


Before 2010, Éco-Quartiers had assisted with the establishment of 62 Ruelles Vertes. Between 2010 and 2016, that number grew by 188, to 250 Ruelles Vertes today, said Nicolas Montpetit, the director of Regroupement des Éco-Quartiers, which gives guidance and installation support. “In the past six years the number of green alleyways has just exploded,” he said. “There’s a little competition with the boroughs on which can have the most.”


Many blocks have added planters, benches, murals and imaginative touches. The Bélanger-Des Écores alley in the family-friendly Rosemont neighborhood, for instance, features a wooden display of characters from “The Adventures of Tintin” comics. Other alleyways work with what they’ve got. In the bohemian Mile End (home to the band Arcade Fire), one block has maintained a dozen grapevines, some more than a half-century old. They lend shade and grapes to share, Mr. Coutu said.


Some Montreal alleyways share wine, hosting regular happy hours where visitors are welcomed. One Thursday evening in the Villeray neighborhood, Normand Ranger poured family and friends Côte du Rhône at one of his alley’s 34 annual events, which include block sales and movie showings. Mr. Ranger showed off communal herb planters and painted outlines of games like Four Corners as area children played. “The first step was to green the alleyway. Now the project is to have a better life with the neighbors,” he said. “Each year we try new things.”






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