Montreal's red-light district going dark

Submitted by anya on Mon, 2009-08-31 01:26.

Montreal's red-light district going dark

Graeme Hamilton, National Post Published: Friday, May 29, 2009

The Café Cleopatra strip club on St. Laurent is one of the last businesses in Montreal's once busy red-light district. John Mahoney/Canwest News Service The Café Cleopatra strip club on St. Laurent is one of the last businesses in Montreal's once busy red-light district.

MONTREAL -- With its sign promising "strip-teaseuses " and "danseuses à go-go," Café Cleopatra is one of the last vestiges of what was once a bustling red-light district on St-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal's Main. Now, most of the storefronts on the block are boarded-up, and if a city-backed developer gets its way, the red light will soon flicker out. Cleopatra's strippers and drag queens will make way for office workers.

Demolition is slated to start in January, clearing the ground for a 12-storey office complex and trendy street-level shops. The building facades, dating back to the late 1890s, will be preserved, but little else will remain of what once defined the street. Johnny Zoumboulakis, owner of the Cleopatra, has been told his land will be expropriated by the city if he refuses to sell to the developer, and he is not happy. "Do we connect with our past and our history, or do we just bulldoze it down and keep the facade, and everything is forgotten?" he asked in an interview.

In its heyday after the Second World War, the area around Rue Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent was Canada's unrivalled vice capital, where liquor flowed, bookies operated and prostitutes by the hundred worked the streets.

"You could easily get all you wanted in Montreal if you liked that kind of scene," said historian Pierre Anctil, author of Saint-Laurent: Montreal's Main.

Mr. Zoumboulakis, who began tending bar at the Cleopatra in 1976, remembers crowds so thick on the sidewalks that come 3 a.m. closing time, staff would physically clear a path for customers leaving the bar. "It was very busy, very active, very alive," he said. "The Main before was the nightspot for Montreal."

Surveying the street now, it is hard to imagine. Many of the buildings have suffered decades of neglect, and in some cases they are literally falling down. A hot-dog spot recently had to close for good after bricks from the building tumbled onto the street. The only thing obstructing traffic on the sidewalk one recent afternoon was a woman passed out against a wall, an empty cup for panhandling at her feet.

Christian Yaccarini is president of Angus Development Corp., the non-profit company spearheading the proposed $167-million development. His outfit, which made its mark with the successful redevelopment of rail shops in Montreal's east end, was invited by the city to take on the St-Laurent project. The plan, part of a major initiative to create a sprawling downtown entertainment district, also includes a cultural centre across from the office complex. Mr. Yaccarini has little time for those who wax nostalgic about the red light district.

"What is called the red light has not existed for 15 years," he said in an interview. "In the sector where we are working, most businesses are closed, with sheets of plywood in the window.... People are trying to portray the Cleopatra as something extraordinary. However it's simply a strip club. That's all it is."

Angus has already bought up most of the block and is in discussions with four hold-out owners. The city is proposing a bylaw providing for expropriation if Angus is unable to negotiate purchases.

The Angus project includes office space for workers from Hydro-Québec and distinctive shops that will focus on socially responsible goods. The cultural centre across the street will house arts groups and a community radio station. "We don't want the 14th Zara or the eighth Second Cup," Mr. Yaccarini told a hearing into the project this month. He has expressed a willingness to incorporate the Montreal Pool Room, famed for its late-night hot dogs, into the new complex, though it is debatable whether a place charging $1.25 for a hot dog can survive on a swept-up Main.

Mr. Anctil, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa, said it is pointless to try to recapture the Boulevard St-Laurent of the past. "The Main has always changed," he said. "The Main is not folklore. It's something alive and constantly evolving, especially in this area of town, where there is enormous pressure now to clean up. I think that's for the best." Now laregly an eyesore, the area has the potential to become an artistic hub. There is already the Monument National Theatre next to the projected development and across the street the Society for Arts and Technology, which focuses on digital arts. "The arrival of young, urban, more dynamic, art-oriented people will displace this kind of seedy environment," Mr. Anctil predicted.

Still, for Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal, there is a vision lacking in the proposed development. "There's more than just stones there. There's definitely a bit of a spirit to the place, and it has to do with the fact that there is a sense of age and time, a sense of urbanity. It's not super-organized. There are things that are a little rough on the edge," he said.

Incorporating the Cleopatra into the new project would ensure the edges are not too smooth. "What I love about the Main is there was always room for everybody, any political affiliation, any religious affiliation. It didn't matter, as long as they had good intentions," Mr. Zoumboulakis said. "But now there is no room for Cleopatra." He points out that his bar includes a second-storey cabaret that features regular transvestite and fetish shows. A coalition of alternative performers has formed to protest the proposed closing of the Cleopatra, launching a petition this week on Facebook.

"Of course, we're really happy that the city is finally investing money and we're not against the revitalization of that area," said Émilie Laliberté, finance co-ordinator for Stella, a Montreal group defending the rights of sex workers. She is worried that performers will lose their only stage if the Cleopatra's cabaret closes. "There's a way for all the diversity of people to stay in that area," she said.

For Linda, a stripper who said she has been dancing at bars in the neighbourhood for 30 years, losing the Cleopatra is unthinkable. She said it is the only strip club in the city that welcomes dancers of varying body shapes, ethnic backgrounds and ages (she's 49.)

"I know they want to change the area, but this is still an entertainment place. We do shows on the stage," she said, declining to give her last name. Asked what she will do if the Cleopatra closes, she responded: "I think I would f---ing retire. Where can I go to work? A place with 20-year-old girls?"

National Post



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