The new mayor of Montreal, Michael Applebaum, in his office at Montreal City Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. Photograph by: John Kenney , The Gazette
"Today, I promise you sincerely to erase this stain upon our city," Applebaum said at his swearing-in ceremony this month.
But on his home turf in Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough, reviews are mixed about whether Applebaum, a former shoe salesman who got into municipal politics in 1994 to save the outdoor skating rink across the street from his house on Earnscliffe Ave., is the man to rally rival factions and clean house at city hall.
The city's first anglophone mayor in a century, and the first Jewish mayor in history, Applebaum is the unifying figure Montreal needs to usher in a new era of open government, La Presse columnist Lysiane Gagnon wrote Saturday. A Léger Marketing survey for The Gazette and Le Devoir found that 53 per cent of Montrealers — including 69 per cent of anglophones and allophones — approve of the interim mayor.
For some local residents, Applebaum is the hardworking borough mayor responsible for a $15-million sports centre on Monkland and Benny Aves. that opened last year. A CLSC is under construction across the street and work crews will break ground for a long-promised library and cultural centre next spring.
"I believe (Applebaum) will try his best," Susan Mott, a watercolour artist and dog-walker in N.D.G. "It's a big job he's got in front of him."
But for others, Applebaum is a fiercely partisan politician who rides roughshod over opponents and came under fire for working as a real-estate agent while presiding over the borough's closed-door zoning committee from 2002 to 2009. He gave up his real-estate licence and quit the Comité consultatif d'urbanisme (CCU) when he was named to the city's executive committee.
Acrimonious disputes over the closing of the Fraser-Hickson Library in 2007 and the future of the Empress Theatre have left many residents of N.D.G. — a neighbourhood with a long tradition of community activism — with a bitter taste.
"The Michael Applebaum we know is not the Michael Applebaum of collaboration and bi-partisanship," said Jason Hughes, a co-ordinator at Coop la Maison verte and long-time community organizer in N.D.G. who was on the volunteer board of the Empress Cultural Centre.
Hughes is among those in Applebaum's district who are surprised by his sudden ascension to Montreal's top job — and by his rebranding as a reformer dedicated to reaching across party lines.
"It seems to be a great change of heart," said Warren Allmand, who served as a Union Montreal councillor under Applebaum from 2005-2009 and was a long-time Liberal Member of Parliament for N.D.G.
Applebaum's promise of a more open, responsive city administration is a turnaround from his partisan approach to politics in the past, Allmand said.
Allmand said Applebaum consistently opposed his efforts to make the borough administration more democratic. For example, he said, Applebaum rejected Allmand's proposals to provide documents to citizens and the municipal opposition, and to open meetings of the local zoning committee to the public.
Allmand also criticized Applebaum's harsh treatment of N.D.G. councillor Peter McQueen of Projet Montréal, the lone opposition councillor on the six-member borough council.
"I may not agree with everything Peter says but I don't think you treat a minority member of the borough council like that. They were too hard and too oppressive," he said of his fellow Union Montreal councillors.
Last month, the borough laid a complaint against McQueen with the province's Municipal Affairs Department for speaking to a local Caisse populaire about the plan to redevelop the Empress Theatre, where the Caisse would be a major tenant under a redevelopment plan.
But Applebaum branded critics as a small but vocal minority.
"It's always the same five or six or seven people," he said. "Those are people who have always been my political opponents at election time."
He said his achievements over 18 years, including $36 million in new or planned facilities at Benny Farm, have garnered broad-based support.
"I will never have 100-per-cent support from everybody," he said.
"But if you take a look at the numbers of votes that I receive, you would see very clearly that I have the great majority of support from the community," he said.
Raised in Saint-Laurent, Applebaum was a quiet student who faded into the background at Sir Winston Churchill High School, recalled classmate Stuart Nulman. "He was the person we least expected to run for student council, let alone run for mayor of Montreal," Nulman said.
Applebaum dropped out of his studies in commerce at Dawson College to work in the family business, a discount shoe store on Notre Dame St. W. founded by his grandfather in 1913. He is fond of saying he quit CEGEP because one of his teachers was habitually late.
"He basically grew up in the shoe store," said former city councillor Jeremy Searle, who served on council with Applebaum when the pair were the only two candidates elected under the banner of the now-defunct Montrealers Party in 1994.
Searle recalled the poorly heated shop, stocked with seconds and factory samples, where Applebaum toiled from age 13.
"It was a cutthroat business and they were best at being cutthroat," he said.
A workaholic who favours conservative suits, Applebaum lambasted the waste of taxpayers' money when in opposition. He once tracked down a blue-collar worker hiding in a luncheonette all day while earning $21 an hour.
Applebaum became an independent and jumped to two other parties before becoming one of the first city councillors to support Gérald Tremblay in 2000. Tremblay named him borough president when he took power in 2002.
He has an uncanny ability to pick the winning side, Searle said.
"Sometimes he makes almost instantaneous decisions," said Snowdon councillor and Applebaum ally Marvin Rotrand. "He seems to have an ability to look at the heart of the problem, cut through the foliage and say, 'This is what needs to be done.' "
But Applebaum disappointed many N.D.G. residents when he allowed the Fraser-Hickson Library to close in 2007. The private, non-profit institute, founded in 1885, had provided free library services to generations of N.D.G. residents and was a vibrant community centre.
Despite two petitions of 11,000 and 13,000 names, the spacious library on Kensington Ave. was sold when the borough refused to extend funding.
"There was just a feeling of hostility," Raj Ramtuhol, a software developer and former member of the Friends of the Fraser-Hickson, said of Applebaum's attitude toward efforts to save the library.
Applebaum claimed that it would be cheaper to build a new library than renovate the Fraser-Hickson's airy stone building, constructed in 1959. A city study had tagged the cost of renovating the library at $4 million.
"You would think 13,000 signatures might sway most politicians," said Ramtuhol, noting that the district still sorely lacks library services. The borough plans to build a $21-million library and cultural centre at the Benny Ave. site.
"It really took away the spirit of civic duty I felt I had," Ramtuhol said. "Even today, a lot of people feel like that."
Hughes described Applebaum's relations with local citizens trying to revive the Empress Theatre in similar terms.
"It was a rancorous relationship," he said.
Rather than working hand-in-hand with citizens' groups, Applebaum pitted non-profit organizations against each other by setting up a contest for proposals for the 1927 Egyptian-style landmark on Sherbrooke St., which closed in 1992.
"It's not about what's best for the neighbourhood and working collaboratively. It was about politics," Hughes said.
"There was so much energy and brains around the table to do something collaborative with each other," he said.
The thin-skinned Applebaum often lashed out at borough residents who asked questions he perceived as critical, Allmand said.
"He would often reject them out of hand simply because he perceived it to be an attack on him or an attempt to dislodge him from power, that these were people who were trying to take his place or they were from an opposition party," he said.
"I used to say to him, 'Michael, it would be better if instead of reacting to these suggestions, even if you see them as your perceived enemies, it's better if you say we'll take them under consideration,' " Allmand said.
During a public question period in 2008, Applebaum threatened to sue Margaret Rumscheidt, a terminal cancer patient who asked him whether he would give up his real-estate practice since he presided over the borough's zoning committee.
"If somebody is going to come out and attack my integrity, then of course I will defend myself," Applebaum said in an interview.
But Hughes said that despite the antagonistic atmosphere that has often prevailed in the borough in the past, he hopes Applebaum makes good on his promise of bipartisan co-operation and open government.
"I believe in my heart people can change," he said.
"He is a doer. If he can put that energy toward working with people and really building bridges and looking at a new way of doing things, then I wish him all the luck in the world. But I need to see it. I need to see the action."