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"Great events' city has a great fall

When a 55-ton chunk of concrete fell from the outer wall of the Olympic Stadium here last summer, the immediate casualty was the rest of the home season for the Montreal Expos, the city's baseball team.

But because the stadium is a landmark, the crumbling of its wall was taken by many here as a symbol of the economic and social problems that have gnawed away at the city's self-confidence.

Many Montrealers say their city, like the stadium, has become a monument to broken ambitions, a place where spectacles and illusions overwhelmed reality.

In the 1960s there was Expo '67, a shimmering world's fair.

In the 1970s there were the Olympics and a new airport.

In the 1980s, Montreal's leaders boasted that the city was becoming the most international on the continent, a Paris of North America that would add the charm of its French culture and 18th-century architecture to inflows of capital and technology from Asia, Europe and the United States.

But in the 1990s the city is in the grip of bitter self-reproach, centering on a realization that the billions of dollars spent on the "great events" of recent decades created a bubble that has burst.

In 1986 Jean Dore, the city's 47-year-old mayor, led a reform movement that took over city hall from Jean Drapeau, the mayor who ran Montreal as a personal fief for a quarter of a century.

For those seeking a scapegoat for the current problems, Drapeau, now in retirement, is an easy mark. But Dore said Drapeau's era had to be seen in perspective.

"In the period from 1960 to 1985, those "great events' put us on the map," he said. "But we paid a price, and that was that we did not adopt a strategy for basic economic renewal until the mid-1980s."

Much about Montreal, particularly the old town, with its snug cafes and theaters and art galleries, remains as alluring as ever.

Elsewhere, the markers of distress press in: rising rates of violent crime; heightening racial tensions between the police and immigrant communities; a 20 percent unemployment rate among the city's 1.3-million people; crowded soup kitchens and homeless shelters; vacant development lots and abandoned construction sites.

Along with these problems, common across Canada in the recession, there is a distinctive and painful one for a city that has been the energizing heart of French Canada since its founding 350 years ago: A flight of middle-class Quebecers to the suburbs, which has reduced the proportion of inner-city residents speaking French as a first language to barely half.

As native residents move out, immigrants, many unemployed, move in. About 25 percent of those on welfare are immigrants, and a rising proportion of these, many from Haiti, are black.

Economist Marcel Cote says the city has declined not only relative to Toronto, its traditional rival, but to cities in the Northeastern United States, including Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Dore disagrees: "Even if our economy was slow for 10 years, we'd still not be in as big a mess in terms of social problems as Detroit or New York."