Crassly Ste. Catherine


Looking at these old postcards of Ste. Catherine Street — the first one is a drawing from the 1930s and the second a photo taken in the 1960s — reveals a downtown thoroughfare that was decidedly upbeat, bright and giddy with neon. Like a northern Broadway, Ste. Catherine’s cinemas, nightclubs and restaurants advertised themselves with gaudy attention-grabbing signs and bold advertisements.

I can’t help but long for this era. Ste. Catherine is still a brash, exciting street, but it is decidedly tamer than it was in past decades. All of the old theatre marquees and neon signs have long disappeared. Billboards and other advertisements have been scaled back. But something about this seems wrong. Montreal is a big city and every big city deserves at least one place where its most crassly commercial instincts can prevail, a place where people flock to feel immersed in an ocean of noise, bright lights and rushing crowds. Every city needs a place where the village mentality that insists on calmness and quietude is overcome by the raw life of the metropolis.

Such places capture the imagination of city-dwellers around the world: Times Square, Soho, Mongkok, the Gran Via. So I was somewhat perplexed at the knee-jerk outrage last month when the Ville-Marie borough announced that it would consider allowing the installation of a large video screen at the corner of Ste. Catherine and McGill College. Le Devoir broke the news with an article entitled, “Une imitation de Times Square au centre-ville ?” The readers who responded seemed to think it a question of national identity that Montreal remain “distinct” and free of such horribly American intrusions as video screens.

But wouldn’t a video screen simply be a modern take on the blinking neon and flashing lights of 1960s Ste. Catherine? I can’t think of anything more in keeping with the character of Montreal’s downtown main street.


This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday July 21 2007at 05:07 am , filed under Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “Crassly Ste. Catherine”

  • Chris says:

    I share your nostalgia for a time when Ste-Catherine was brighter, nosier and crasser (although my 21st Century mentality of fear of near-futrue environmental apocalypse makes me wince at the amount of energy all these neon signs would waste) I disagree with you on the video screen. The difference between the video screen and most of the neon signs in these pictures is that the neon signs were fighting to get your attention so you would visit whatever exciting place of business was immediately below them. The video screen however, will be a souless advertisement with no connection to the street below it or, if advertising a generic product, Montreal as a whole. I feel there is a difference between a garish sign yelling at you to visit the strip joint, cafe, or theatre below it and a video screen yelling at you to buy the latest and biggest SUV or electric razor.

  • Yes, I agree that an advertising screen per se wouldn’t have much connection to the city (although the one at Ste. Catherine and Drummond does — most of its ads are for downtown businesses). But the potential of video screens is so great that I think it would be a shame to squander this opportunity. Wouldn’t it be entirely possible for a video screen, or at least a portion of the broadcasting on each commercial video screen, be devoted to local arts and artists? Imagine seeing a short film or visual art clip while walking down the street.

    Hong Kong has hundreds of video screens but they all serve fairly distinct purposes. Many of them show mostly news with the occasional advertisement (no different than what you’d find on, say, RDI or Newsworld). There’s one outside a movie theatre that shows trailers for what’s playing inside.

    As for energy consumption, neon is actually more efficient than incandescent bulbs. But LED lights are most energy efficient of all: they use a tiny fraction of the energy a regular light bulb uses and they last pretty much forever. They can also can colours. They’re pretty much the ideal solution for lighting up a street without using ghastly amounts of electricity.

    This photo at the top of my November post on urban light is one that demonstrates the potential of LED lighting perfectly. This is a Seoul department store that was built in the 1970s. Until recently it had a blank concrete facade. With the installation of energy-efficient LED lights on the exterior, it becomes something akin to a glowing lantern that changes colours and displays text.

  • slutsky says:

    God… those pictures… so beautiful…

  • Edie Beale says:

    I totally agree
    I love the neon lights
    I want my Montreal to sprakle at night
    I want a giant anything anywhere in the city
    At some point in time
    Some idiot decided to turn this city
    Into a village
    I say if you like the country
    Move there
    Le Devoir sucks anyway
    And with it’s barely 50,000 readers
    All living on the boring plateau
    It doesn’t have much influence now
    does it