Green light given to raze red light 

Despite numerous objections, the City of Montreal approves controversial plan

By Karen Herland

The window at Cabaret Cléo bears evidence of its battle with city hall. Magnifying glass

The window at Cabaret Cléo bears evidence of its battle with city hall.

When the Save the Main coalition formed early this summer, their vision encompassed a broad definition of culture worthy of protection. Their members included Concordia faculty and students.

The area around the St. Laurent/Ste. Catherine intersection has been an entertainment destination for Montreal even before the Monument National was constructed as the home of French culture in 1893. Since then the neighbourhood has housed cinemas, dime museums, nightclubs, dance halls and brothels, and has found its way into the work of Marcel Tremblay, Monique Proulx and Heather O’Neill.

Famed as the centre of Montreal’s red light district, the area attracts both clients and the curious. Municipal governments have a long history of ambivalence with such neighbourhoods; relying on the tourism they generate and taming them from time to time to earn votes.

Recently, Montreal has leaned towards a sanitized version of the district. The intersection marks the heart of the 2003-designated Quartier des spectacles, a concentration of museums, theatres, arts centres and summertime outdoor festivals.

It was in this context that the Angus Development Corp. proposed a 12-storey, $167 million complex with arts and socially responsible retail businesses on the ground floor, and offices (primarily for Hydro-Quebec employees) above. The block, on the south-west corner of the intersection, includes the Cabaret Cléopatra and the Montreal Pool Room. The owners of both businesses were not interested in selling to the project.

Last June, the project promoters faced off against a coalition of performers, heritage preservation groups, researchers, writers and residents in a public consultation involving 300 people and 32 briefs. The resulting report suggested many details of the project needed to be better defined. Even so, the City of Montreal passed the project, gaps and all, in late Sept. Those owners who were unwilling to participate will have their properties expropriated.

“One of the things that’s really amazing is to see people mobilize,” said Viviane Namaste, professor at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute. “This section of the city is so important for the history of Montreal. The process has been really encouraging to see people engage even when they know or even when they learn there’s a lack of transparency in the process.”

Namaste was drawn to the project based on her research into the history of transsexual communities in Montreal, published in 2005 in a volume titled C’était du Spéctacle. “Lower St. Laurent is central in that history and Cléopatra’s plays a pretty important role in terms of the spirit of diversity and tolerance and the spirit of fun and sex and labour. All of those things kind of mixed together.”

Namaste reviewed her research and the various documents produced by promoters to produce a report for the consultation. Preparing a brief meant “theoretical and methodological reflection on how we define heritage,” said Namaste. Although the buildings themselves, many dating from the turn of the last century, retain architectural value, heritage is also reflected in artistic significance (the role of the buildings in fiction, film and the cultural production of the city), historical value (the site once housed Ponton’s, one of Montreal’s first major costume stores in 1889) and also the symbolic value of the site. Although the project provides for preservation of the buildings’ façades, there was no evaluation of the potential heritage value of their interiors.

Namaste brought her expertise alongside that of heritage, architectural and cultural experts to bear against the project’s promoters. The Save the Main movement also included business owners, local residents and representatives of a number of communities who live, work and perform in the area. For instance, Café Cléopatra represents one of the city’s few small-scale cabarets for emerging artists, many of whom participated in the campaign to save the space.

Namaste is critical of city council’s bid to push the project through. She points out the promoters have five years to develop the project, thus there was no real urgency to approve the project.


Concordia University