April 16th, 2012
The lower Main in 1997. Photo by Kate McDonnell
One of the defining features of Montreal’s cityscape is the abundance of vacant lots. Weedy, gravelly blocks of land, they can be seen in every neighbourhood, in some areas on every street, delineated by rows of misshapen concrete blocks, like boulders left behind by the retreat of urban development. (The concrete blocks, required by municipal law, serve to prevent illegal dumping.) Ten years ago, as the real estate market boomed, many of the lots were transformed into new apartment buildings and hotels. Streetcorners defined by the absence of buildings were reworked into the urban fabric.
Despite the progress, however, new vacant lots are still being created. Part of the reason is the alarming tendency for Montreal buildings to burn down. But mostly it comes down to a lack of foresight by City Hill and a far too cosy relationship between politicians and developers. It’s never hard to find an example. Here’s a recent one: the block of St-Laurent between Ste-Catherine and René-Lévesque.
For decades, this stretch of the lower Main was seedy but lively, and it embodied the schizoid character of Montreal’s downtown core. Under the elegant gaze of the Monument National marched a procession of strip clubs, peep shows, restaurants and dive bars, as including some venerable institutions: Canada’s oldest Middle Eastern grocery store, founded in 1903; the Montreal Pool Room, which had served classic Montreal-style hot dogs since 1912; and Café Cléopâtre, a classic strip club with a flair for the burlesque. It was grimy and past its prime, but it worked in that typically ragtag Montreal way. It was a place where you could get a steamed hot dog, attend Pecha Kucha Night, spend your change on a peep show, buy some smoked paprika and stumble out of a Club Soda concert at midnight — whatever.
October 6th, 2010
I often groan while looking at then-and-now photos, since the “now” is usually so bland and graceless compared to the “then.” This new compilation by Guillaume St-Jean, which depicts the corner of Sherbrooke Street and St-Laurent in Montreal, leaves me rather more dumbfounded. How on earth did that end up looking like this?
July 14th, 2009
Photo by Arianys León
Twice a year, a few weeks before and after the summer solstice, the setting sun aligns perfectly with the east-west axis of Manhattan’s streets in a phenomenon that has been dubbed “Manhattanhenge,” a reference to the way the sun aligns with Stonehenge during the solstices. It got quite a bit of attention this year, especially around its first instance, on June 1st. Sunday marked its second occurrence and there are Flickr photos to prove it.
Even though Manhattanhenge has been rather grandiosely described as a “unique phenomenon in the world, if not the universe,” it is replicated to some extent in other cities. Last month, Spacing Montreal’s Émile Thomas speculated that Montrealhenge might happen each year on June 12th. But the same effect is achieved almost every day: one of the things I miss most about Montreal is the way the sun sets in alignment with the city’s north-south streets, such as Park Avenue or St. Laurent, which pierces them with long bands of evening light. I would often walk up Park just as the sun was setting, admiring the long shadows and pillowy softness of the light.
July 20th, 2008
St. Laurent Blvd. just below René Lévesque Blvd.
July 15th, 2008
8pm near the corner of St. Laurent and René Lévesque.
July 9th, 2008
Earlier this year, when I marvelled at Boston’s still-functioning system of public fire alarm boxes, Kate McDonnell pointed out that Montreal once had such a system, too. Unlike Boston, though, Montreal removed all of its boxes, but one still stands outside the firefighters’ museum at Laurier and St. Laurent. Naturally enough, it’s bilingual.
June 29th, 2008
This morning, my friends—all of them Spain supporters, except for one, who kept quiet—decided to watch today’s Euro Cup final between Spain and Germany at the Club Español de Quebec, the unofficial hub of Montreal’s Spanish immigrant community. We arrived early, at noon, to secure a table and have lunch, but it was already packed. By the time the game actually started the building was crammed full beyond capacity, the noise of the crowd deafening.
By the 85th minute of the game it became clear that Spain would win; they had scored a goal early on and Germany seemed incapable of holding onto the ball. When the game finally ended, after 95 minutes of play, the crowd poured outside onto the Main, cheering and waving flags. Police were on hand to keep people out of traffic, but it was useless: after letting a few final cars through, they closed the street completely, and Spanish supporters flooded the pavement.
Montreal doesn’t have as many Spaniards as it does Italians or Greeks, so the street party wasn’t quite as raucous as when Italy won the World Cup in 2006 or when Greece won the Euro Cup in 2004, but it was still exhilarating to stand in the middle of St. Laurent surrounded by so many happy people. Passersby stopped to watch, take pictures or wade into the ecstatic crowd; up and down the street, people leaned out of windows to watch the celebration. (Incidentally, I had never realized that the Clube Portugal de Montreal is right across the street from the Club Español — amusing coincidence or a case of wry Iberian humour?)
Not too long ago, a friend proclaimed Toronto and Montreal to be the best places in the world to watch international soccer championships: it doesn’t matter who wins, there will always be people celebrating in the streets.
January 28th, 2008
If Chinatown’s Jewish heritage isn’t obvious, it’s probably because it has been erased by time and redevelopment, swept away like Chenneville St. and its quietly imposing synagogue.
Makom: Seeking Sacred Space, an ongoing exhibition at Hampstead’s Dorshei Emet synagogue, examines the historical traces of Montreal’s Jewish community with photos of former synagogues near the Main.
“The exhibition raises some really interesting questions about the way that spaces that are claimed by one group of people or one community are also claimed, in their own way, by other communities,” said Leanore Lieblein, a retired McGill English professor who helped organize the exhibition. Even in a synagogue that has been renovated and used for something else, she added, “you can feel the presence of past lives in that building.”
Chenneville’s synagogue was a case in point. Located on a small street (now shortened and written as Cheneville) between St. Urbain and Jeanne Mance Sts., below Dorchester (now René Lévesque) Blvd. and above Craig (now St. Antoine) St., it was built in 1838 by Montreal’s oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel.
In 1887, when Shearith Israel moved to a much larger home on Stanley St. – following the westward migration of Montreal’s older generations of Canadian-born, anglicized Jews – the synagogue was rented by Beth David, a congregation of Romanian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century, part of a huge wave of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Over the next three decades, the area around present-day Chinatown – with Bleury St. to the west, Sanguinet St. to the east, Craig to the south and Ontario St. to the north – became the heart of Jewish Montreal, a haven for Yiddish-speaking immigrants who established businesses, synagogues and many of the Jewish institutions that still exist.
Israel Medresh, a journalist for the Kanader Adler, a Yiddish-language daily newspaper, sketched a portrait of the neighbourhood in his 1947 book Montreal Foun Nekhtn, translated into English in 2000 as Montreal of Yesterday.
“The corner of St. Urbain and Dorchester was the very heart of the Jewish neighbourhood,” he wrote. “Nearby was Dufferin Park, then a ‘Jewish park’ where Jewish immigrants went to breathe the fresh air, meet their landslayt (compatriots), hear the latest news, look for work and read the newspapers.”
September 3rd, 2007
Bingo Villeray, demolished this week
Major demolitions on the Main. Older buildings flattened and replaced by megastores, old folks’ homes, condos.
Not the plot of a dystopian movie: it’s begun this summer on Boulevard Saint-Laurent above Jean-Talon, but the long shabby decline of that part of the street means it’s not at all necessarily a change for the worse.
Saint-Laurent north of Jean-Talon is not a strolling street. If you exit de Castelnau metro and walk north, on your left is the massive institutional pile of the Centre 7400 (left, photo taken during last year’s World Cup; built in 1921 and still property of the Clercs de St-Viateur religious order, mooted to become a satellite campus for Université Laval), then the long green stretch of Jarry Park. North of the park there’s a secondary school and some institutional buildings, headquarters of unions and professional guilds, and then eventually Crémazie and the highway. Teenagers throng around the secondary school when school’s in, but, besides them, very little foot traffic passes along the boulevard.
On your right, for many blocks, is a jumble of dodgy buildings, much of it characterless small-industry boxes and the sort of bleak apartment buildings you hope you’ll never have to live in. The Main has its livelier and its more subdued zones, but between Jean-Talon and Crémazie far more of it is moribund than any soi-disant main street has any right to be.
April 18th, 2007
St. Lawrence above Duluth during an election campaign in 1950. Election signs in Yiddish, English, French and Russian can be seen
For more than fifty years, from the turn of the twentieth century until the early 1950s, St. Lawrence Boulevard was the robustly beating heart of Montreal’s Eastern European Jewish community. Here, set amidst the daily bustle of commerce and industry, was one of the world’s hubs of Yiddish culture. Poets and writers published their work in the daily Keneder Odler; the Yiddish theatre scene was reputed to be the third-largest in the world after Warsaw and New York.
Mordecai Richler, one of Montreal’s most well-known English writers, grew up near the Main. “All day long, St. Lawrence Boulevard, or Main Street, is a frenzy of poor Jews, who gather there to buy groceries, furniture, clothing and meat,” he wrote in Son of a Smaller Hero. “Most walls are plastered with fraying election bills, in Yiddish, French and English. The street reeks of garlic and quarrels and bill collectors: orange crates, stuffed full with garbage and decaying fruit, are piled slipshod in most alleys. Swift children gobble pilfered plums; slower cats prowl the fish market.”
In many ways, the Main was defined by its years as the centre of working-class Jewish life in Montreal. At a time when French and English Montreal really were “two solitudes,” the Main was the literal and symbolic home of the ethnic other. That, combined with its raucous streetlife and bazaar atmosphere, left it with a legacy as Montreal’s most diverse and accepting street.
March 18th, 2007
Browing $1 books during the Main Madness street fair
Yesterday, a St. Laurent Blvd. institution began a new life on St. Viateur St. The bookstore S.W. Welch, which for 15 years has been a treasure trove of used English books on the Main, has moved to Mile End, pushed north, its owner says, by incessant construction and rising rents.
Work crews began digging up St. Laurent last year for an ambitious renovation project. The century-old water pipes underneath the street are now being replaced and, later this year, sidewalks will be widened, allowing for more trees, bicycle parking and street furniture. In the meantime, however, St. Laurent is a hassle to navigate, pushing customers away.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, S.W. Welch’s landlord announced earlier this year that he would raise the store’s rent from $2,500 to $3,000 per month. “We decided it wasn’t worth the hassle,” said Stephen Welch, the store’s owner. He closed shop earlier this month.
Last weekend, though, Welch and his family opened their old store for one last hurrah: three days of $1 books. As usual, Welch was found sitting behind the counter in the front corner of the store on Friday, greeting customers. He was accompanied by his son Patrick, 17, and their cat, Khan.
March 12th, 2007
The past few months haven’t been kind to St. Laurent Boulevard, known locally as the Main. Work crews have been haphazardly tearing up the street, doing their best to scare away anyone in the mood for a light-hearted stroll. The local business association cheerfully warns its members to expect a twenty percent drop in business until the construction is finished next year.
By than, hopefully, the Main will have spacious and elegant new sidewalks, the better to accommodate the throngs of people who flock to Montreal’s consummate street, the long, straight artery that has been the scene for immigrant dramas, artistic revalations and drunken all-nighters. Over the next several weeks, look forward to a special focus on the history, culture and streetlife of the Main.
October 9th, 2006
Woman strolling on the Main, Montreal
In the sun at the Roddick Gates, Sherbrooke Street, Montreal
September 30th, 2006
Open Da Night (Café Olimpico) on the weekend, Montreal
Ripple’s Ice Cream on the Main, Montreal