How a Supermarket Shapes the City

steinberg.jpg

There’s something particularly iconic about supermarkets, especially in North America, where they first emerged in the 1940s and have a good half-century of history behind them. While supermarkets today are an entrenched part of the urban landscape, there was something particularly fresh and innovative about them in the 1950s, which you can see in those that have survived from that era without too many alterations.

But even those that have been altered significantly have left a big imprint on the shape of our streets and neighbourhoods. I never realized just how big of an impact Steinberg’s had on the Montreal landscape until Kate McDonnell pointed me towards a Flickr photostream containing a few dozen then-and-now images of Steinberg’s supermarkets around town.

Steinberg’s was one of those businesses that was more than just a business: in postwar Quebec, it was a cultural phenomenon, a Jewish-owned grocery chain that became an entrenched part of working- and middle-class francophone culture. “Je fais mon Steinberg” became a phrase housewives used to mean they were going out to buy food for dinner. At its height, it was one of the largest and most important food businesses in Canada, with stores throughout Quebec and Ontario and at least one location in each neighbourhood of Montreal.

Steinberg’s went under in 1992, the victim of a family dispute, and its assets were divided between Metro and Provigo, its two Quebec competitors. But its legacy lives on in popular culture. Fifteen years after it disappeared, pretty much everyone in Montreal still knows about Steinberg’s; its logo has even become a trendy accessory, thanks to buttons and t-shirts made by Montréalité.

But what really interests me is how the ghost of Steinberg’s continues to linger in Montreal’s commercial areas. In the photo above, for instance, you can see the Steinberg’s on Somerled Avenue in western NDG as it appeared in 1951, when it was first built, and today. It has lost a lot of its mid-century verve since the—the campanile has been inexplicably chopped down and the present-day Metro logo appears clunky and misplaced—but you can still see that is bulky presence has been maintained on an otherwise marginal commercial street.

I’ve always considered Montreal to be particularly well-served by grocery stores. I wonder how much of that had to do with Steinberg’s and the groundwork it laid when it built such a large network of stores throughout the city. Could it be that, more than leaving a cultural and architectural legacy, Steinberg’s continues to play a role in Montreal’s economy?

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday December 11 2008at 04:12 am , filed under Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “How a Supermarket Shapes the City”

  • slutsky says:

    There’s a Pharmaprix on Van Horne (more or less across from Outremont metro) that seems to have been an ol’ Steinburglar.

  • Steinburglar. Why does that word make me hungry?

  • No, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Steinburglar, but Dominion or A&P or something. The Steinberg’s in the neighborhood was one of the very early stores: it’s now the Quatre Saison on Bernard. It was upgraded sometime in the early 1980s, not long before the parent company folded. There was another Steinberg in Rockland Center–a much bigiger store–that became a Metro before it closed. The space housed a Chapters/Indigo for a while and now is part Pharmaprix and part SAQ liquor store.

    Mary