The corner of St. Laurent Boulevard and Ste. Catherine Street used to form a gateway to the lower Main: Montreal’s Red Light District. Home to organized crime, prostitution, illegal gaming houses, cabarets, brothels and strip clubs, the sex industry has a long, illustrious heritage in the city.
Since the late 19th Century, the area welcomed people on the margins of society. The spirit of diversity, tolerance and sinful intrigue boosted the city’s economy and tourism industry in the first half of the 20th Century. Beginning in the 1940s, different authorities worked to shut down the brothels and other “immoral establishments.” In the 1960s, large-scale urban renewal projects including the Ville-Marie Expressway and Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance razed even more of the district’s buildings. In a new wave of urban revitalization, the city is attempting to extend the revamped entertainment district Quartier des Spectacles into what remains of the lower Main, once again threatening the last remnants of this heritage.
In 2007, the city finally succeeded in expropriating a building that once housed a peep show and other adult businesses at the corner of St. Laurent and Ste. Catherine. It was replaced in 2012 by The 2-22, a flagship $20 million cultural centre. It contains La Vitrine - a cultural information service for the city, a French-language community radio station, an arts centre, bookstore, and gallery, as well as restaurants and a bar-terrace. Sheathed in glass and lights, it aims to turn the area into a more upscale arts hub, a viable extension of the Quartier des Spectacles. Most importantly, therefore, The 2-22 does not try to fit in with its neighbours or the locals, nor does it try to respect the existing usage and urban fabric. Indeed, in a 2007 interview, then Ville-Marie borough Mayor Benoit Labonté stated that rather than a moral cleansing, this was an attempt at creating a focal point for cultural activities with the aim of supporting the future of arts, tourism and business leaders. Conversely, a 2009 report from the Public Consultation Office revealed that President Louise Roy understood that the district “was once the centre of Montreal’s red-light district” and should be protected from development.
The developers of the cultural centre, Société de développement Angus (SDA), bought out most of the businesses on the west side of the lower Main in order to prepare for a new $160 million real-estate project that was announced in December 2013. Made up of nine lots, the SDA’s Carré Saint-Laurent would include a new food market on the ground floor and cultural uses on the first floor, followed by 150 residential units and office space on remaining levels. In fact, the former Parti Québécois government had already signed a 25 year lease that would house four government ministries and 700 workers. However, the project, which was to be carried out on public funds, was axed by the new Liberal government trying to balance the province’s 2015-2016 budget.
Several businesses have attempted to resist the renewal and gentrification of the area. Café Cleopatra now stands alone amongst a row of buildings, refusing to be relocated, while the Montreal Pool Room has moved across the street to make room for these new developments. Furthermore, strip clubs are still scattered across Ste. Catherine street. Though it is likely certain that more development projects will arise in the future, will the district survive urban renewal?
How does your city’s Red Light District operate within the urban fabric?
Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon. Data linked to sources.