A huge bare modern atrium, tiled in shades of caramel and brown, fake wood panelling and escalators disappearing down tubular, Beaubourg-style shafts, all the signs (“arretez!” “pas ici” “billets“) in a neat sans-serif — when you arrive at Montreal’s Central Station, there’s no mistaking where you are. You’re in 1982.

All the signs are there, from the eight-booth, seven-closed, ticket desk of the national rail system, the sluggish departures board, the limited dining options, and above all, the sans-serif. Every sign, every direction appears to be a series of bop versions on Helvetica and Gill Sans. Every streamlined all-lower-case word screams the future. Sorry, le futur. What could be more forward-looking, than stripping letters of their aged curlicues? A bas les curlicues! The place looks like a sci-fi movie on late night TV, and you expect people in leotards and silver foil helmets to stalk in at any moment.

Instead, it’s occupied by Montrealeans: the grey-goateed fifty-somethings in turtlenecks, women d’un certain age in Bardot mascara, and the city’s speciality, the impossibly elegant young. Boys who look like they’ve broken off ski instruction to finish their MBA and stylish cafes full of earnest big-glassed Jewish brunettes, underlining passages from Badiou, over un cafe allonge (don’t say americano). A la maniere Francaise, they’re all with weedy Woody Allen types, while the ski boys they would elsewhere be with are with, well, other ski boys.

Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song is playing. Leonard Cohen, in Montreal. Scratch the sci-fi concept. I’m in an obscure political thriller. Someone will soon be shot by a silenced pistol in the mens’ room. Everybody Knows will start to play as theme. Titles will soon appear across my knees. They will be in a stylish sans-serif.

OK, excuse me for being giddy, but coming from New York, it’s the best arrival in North America, a ten-hour ride in the luxurious sprawling seats of the Amtrak, out of the Walmarts and Kwik-e-Marts, the basic cable and Super-8’s, slipping quietly, by darkness, into a city both French and American, lost in some dream of itself. Outside, there is nothing that doesn’t confirm that view. From the monumental relics of the Olympics, to the enormous Place des Arts at one end of downtown, the grim Corbusier-esque metro entrances, the brutalist skyscrapers, flying wedges of concrete.

Montreal is the place modernism came to die, the last city that really believed in it. Here, the world’s fairs that had started with the Paris exposition of 1844, breathed their last, with Expo 67, and its eye-popping exhibition of future living, “Habitat 67“.

This extraordinary housing complex still stands, on a stretch of the river, a monument to a future we never got — one in which the expressive power of modernity wasn’t constrained by the demands of the corporate box. Expo 67 gained the greatest audiences, per capita, for any world’s fair of the twentieth century, but its optimistic cast towards the future was cut short by the recession of the 1970s, a recession the West never recovered from, either economically or in terms of morale.

Standing in front of Habitat — a 2D representation can’t express the way it carves up space, redistributes it, reorganises your place in it — is like paying your respects, graveside. When things got moving after the long slump of the ’70s, the dynamic imagination had shifted from buildings to bytes, and the immaterial architecture of information. Instead of genuine transformation and modernism, we got Reagan-Thatcherism and postmodernism, a radical movement in some ways, easily adapted to corporate needs.

Boring skyscraper? Put a DayGlo pink pyramid on the top, have the black-skivvied architect allude to its neo-Palladian double-coding, win prizes, repeat until the city looks like a mall made from cardboard. And if Expo 67 was the triumph and death knell of a post-war modern trend, the Montreal Olympics were its memorial service. The huge and striking stadia — architecturally, they have not yet been bettered, even by the Beijing Birds Nest — were supposed to be a grand-slam victory by Montreal supermayor, Jean Drapeau, and Pierre Trudeau’s social democratic government, Trudeau then at the height of his near unbroken 15-year reign.

“But the Montreal protests were something else as well — a forward defence against the encroachment of capital’s latest technique for domination: life-long debt.”

Look what a progressive state can do, was the visual rhetoric. But cost overruns, fuelled by corruption on a heroic scale, made it a fiscal disaster, bankrupted the city, and Montreal ’76 became a poster for social democracy’s enemies, a measure of what the state can’t do. The next Olympics, after the troubled 1980 Moscow games, were those in 1984 Los Angeles. Indeed, LA got the games by default; after the Montreal games, no-one else wanted to bid for them. They became the first Olympics to mobilise private money and sponsorship with the promise of logo space.

It’s a measure of how crucial the Montreal-LA dual Olympiad was to the changes in our era, that, while the LA approach seemed utterly shocking at the time — Coca-Cola and McDonald’s given pride of place in a global public event — it is now the Montreal approach whose logic is hard to recall. An Olympic Games, paid for by the state and taxes, with all that potential cultural capital left uncommodified just … existing … as free human activity? Such thoughts are of a vanished civilisation.

But they persist in Montreal, for better and for worse. The city preserves a feel of the way things were when place still existed in North America, when cities were not yet Identi-Kit assemblages of exurbs. They have achieved this by the simple expedient of not doing anything for 25 years, sustaining one of the longest slumps in the Western world.

Montreal’s long ’70s continued well into the ’90s, produced by a the perfect storm of Left nationalism: a resurgent Parti Quebecois made French the principal language of the province, with English a poor cousin. It also kept taxes high as other provinces began the neoliberal race to the bottom. The result was that 300,000 English speakers departed, taking a lot of businesses with them. Though the PQ shifted rightwards in the ’80s, it took another decade before it could create a more capital-friendly environment, and pay off the damn Olympics.Thus, Montreal got its neoliberal revival, but it was pretty partial. As anglo-Canada came under the increasing sway of anglo-American neoliberal influence, Quebec’s post-war social democratic tradition provided a bulwark of sorts against a hysterical worship of the market. The patchwork nature of the revival has created an uneven sort of urban development. Cities that are thoroughly neoliberalised are also rapidly gentrified in their inner areas, as public tenants are chased out, the working poor priced out, and a new class of immaterial workers move in, followed by property developers catering to their needs. The process is self-consuming — areas attractive because they were shaped by a rich social-cultural ecology are reduced to a monoculture that preserves those moments in imitatio and in aspic.

The process is often taken to be inevitable, but it has more to do with the collapse of living wages, and the turn away from inclusive public housing policies than anything else. In Montreal there has been less of that, and areas of a different “granularity” survive side-by-side. It’s another way in which the city calls back to mind the way we lived before the neoliberal revolution. Walk down St Catherine St, the long main drag, and you will pass quickly from the schmicked-up downtown centre, to the St Denis area, a strip of broken down old brick terraces, tattoo parlours, DVD exchanges, student coffee shops and bars and some of the mankier “hands-on” lapdance venues for which the city has become famous over the last decade.

But there’s also hardware stores and corner shops, small cheap hotels that aren’t flophouses, and so on. Elsewhere, and perhaps here in ten years, these will all be gone, given over to bistros and galleries of bad art, and upmarket bookshops, if they still exist. What has kept this richer poutine* going is the residual francophone-European sense that there are limits to the market, a belief that survives even when the people themselves believe that a bit of anglo-US neoliberalism is exactly what they’d like. The same contradictory impulse that, in France, elected Nicolas Sarkozy, and then stopped him doing anything much (in which pursuit they were aided by one N. Sarkozy), puts the breaks on the truly annihilatory neoliberal process here.

Though many Quebecois of the Left would deny it — having hoped for socialism in the ’70s, they see the current muddle as a social apocalypse — a communal commitment to such values has proved surprisingly resilient. Thus it was that the city surprised the world this year, when a series of student protests, ostensibly at an increase in tuition fees, grew far beyond the usual size of the recent Occupy protests, and then engulfed the entire city, drawing mass social sympathy, a march of 500,000 people in a city of 1.5 million, and bringing down the provincial Liberal government in the September elections.

In keeping with the city’s retro-modernist character, the protests looked forward from a position that, elsewhere, was far in the past. Quebec’s university system has remained substantially unmolested by the “destructive destruction” visited on it elsewhere, and a francophone sense of education as an essential social good survived. The trigger for the protests was a proposed rise in fees from $2000 per year to $30,00 per year, both figures a pittance compared to standard North American fees.

The fees are merely part of a more far-reaching reorganisation of the university system on neoliberal lines, and the protests are at least in part a stand against that. Their size and fervour surprised so many across the world, because we have not seen anything like them for 20, or even 40 years, when the last round of protests at the process failed in their aims in other places. The Montreal protests were our Dawkins-era education protests fused, the point at which the whole social being of the university was redefined.

But the Montreal protests were something else as well — a forward defence against the encroachment of capital’s latest technique for domination: life-long debt. Sure twelve grand for a four-year course isn’t in the league of US universities of equal calibre, where one hundred to two hundred grand must be found, or committed to. But it’s a step on the way, and the Occupy movement and whatever comes out of it is increasingly, and rightly so, focused on this shell game, whereby the general level of minimum qualifications for jobs is remorselessly raised, with no great gain in social return, and a debt-monkey degree becomes essential, simply to compete.

The process not only extends capital into new areas, it makes any discussion of shortening the working day impossible — because millions of people are flat chat under a dual education-mortgage debt burden. The strength of the Montreal protests came from that impulse to mount an attack on those deeper social processes — the bookshops bristle with essays and pamphlets from small presses discussing the events from a Lacanian-de Certeauesque perspective, francophone Christmas stocking stuffers — from wide social solidarity, and ultimately from the fact that their opponents in the Liberal government shared many of the protesters’ misgivings about the full rightwards trip (their defense of the fees raise is that Quebec is suffering from student influx costs relative to Canada, and needs to equalise) and thus could not feel the righteous nihilism necessary to advancing the neoliberal cause.

That was a high point for Montrealeans. But more recently another aspect of the communal/neoliberal clash has come to the fore, and that’s corruption, which has been immense for decades. The city has always had its mafia, based on the ethnic clannishness of a European city in an anglo country, but when the money started coming back in in the ’90s, it became supercharged, especially in the construction area.

You can tell from one glance around a city how corrupt it is, merely by registering the state of its road projects. Does the place have towering half-finished overpasses, highways in which extra lanes are being added at a glacial process, main streets disrupted by endless works that seem to leave little of benefit, and side roads going to rack and ruin? Then the city is rotten through, and by that measure, Montreal is cheese curds.

After years of mounting pressure, and public statements by a couple of police whistleblowers, the provincial government established the Charbonneau Commission in 2011. It has been running ever since, exposing a vast network of kickbacks, fake projects, useless projects, brown paper bags, secret meetings in up-market lap dance clubs — it being Quebec, some of these places have a Michelin-level menu — and a triangular relationship between politicians, construction bosses and union heads, and mafiosi, outdoing any other North American city.

In early November, the commission claimed a big scalp when Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay resigned after revelations that he was “aware of” hundreds of bribes for lucrative construction deals. It’s a measure of the commission’s seriousness that its live coverage, and its parade of mobsters, journos and pols, was riveting, even in French, in a city you had no knowledge or great attachment to. This was good old fashioned corruption, where people took the time to sit down, share a cream-heavy meal, stick fifty dollars in the garter of a law student — probably work-named “Serif” — and generally enjoy life. None of your hurried Cayman Island payments. This was old-world elegance, slow graft.

Taken together, the protests and the inquiry mark the end of an era in Montreal, Quebec and Canada, a long hangover from an era when the hope of a communal modernity survived, of being in the wide world, but still at home. Whether the place proves to be the end of something, or the start of a new way of putting things together — a possibility dependent on its resurgent nationalist movement — is something for le futur, that elusive element, its monuments and arks scattered across the last modernist city. Roll credits, sans-serif.

*poutine — the Quebec national dish, french fries soaked in cheese curds, and variously topped with bolognese, chili etc. A nap-inducing carbfest which comes out the other end like a wolf class U-boat leaving the Bremen docks.