Welcome to Saint-Laurent: The Soul of Montreal
Welcome to Saint-Laurent: The Soul of Montreal
There are streets that reflect the soul of a city. Montreal’s Saint-Laurent Boulevard has played this role over the years. There is no other place in the Canadian city with more tradition, originality and development than that line that stretched from south to north.
Walking along the eleven kilometers of the boulevard is like time travelling, from the first French settlements to the most state-of-the-art face of the city. Explorer Chomedey de Maisonneuve founded Marie of Montreal Village in 1642. In 1672, a small street named Saint-Lambert was outlined and since 1717 there are reports of a pathway that communicated the town with the agricultural fields located to the north. The people used to call it the Saint-Laurent Road. Finally, in 1905 both roads merged into one artery known as Saint-Laurent Boulevard. That was when people began calling it The Main Street, short from The Main for English-speakers, La Main for French-speakers, or St-Lo for young people in love with the glamour of its night life.
Since mid-19th century, Saint-Laurent has entailed an imaginary border between English-speakers, who lived to the west of the city, and French-speakers, based to the east. Ever since, this limit has been respected, but there is no fanaticism on this matter. In 1945, Hugh MacLennan launched his novel entitled Two Solitudes, where he described communication problems between both communities. La Main has represented a space for both communities to coexist on a daily basis and, at the same time, to know the world by means of the amazing multicultural characteristic of this street.
'Street Art' at Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal. / J. PORRAS
The boulevard kicks off at Montreal’s Science Center, a few meters away from the marquee the host performances of Cirque du Soleil, the proud of all the people of Quebec. After a low hill you see the paved streets of the old port. Different eastern aromas can be smelled some meters later. By late 19th century, thousands of Chinese workers arrived in Canada as they were hired for the construction of the rail road track that would go across the country. Many of them died because of the intense days of work and most of the survivors decided to settle down to the east, mainly in Montreal. Step by step they were building their own sector, providing laundry and gastronomic services. So, Chinatown was born between Viger Street and the bounds of the red light (red neighborhood).
Nowadays, the people of Montreal visit tens of Chinese restaurants and the area’s malls, looking for new tasting experiences. Dragons and fireworks on party days, Johnnie To’s movies, the elderly practicing tai chi. This and a world more can be found in that area of the boulevard, which looks like a Hong Kong street.
Up north, you find what’s left of the old red neighborhood of Montreal. For decades, workers of the port, English-speakers, French-speakers and emigrants frequented this space characterized by tolerance and night entertainment. Its dance halls were always crowded, bars everywhere, camouflaged clandestine casinos, brothels, opium rising up through the air and jazz clubs with remarkable Afro-America musicians, who were escaping from the American racism. The red light lived years of prosperity during the Prohibition in the United States and, according to historians, several gangsters bought bars in Montreal and organized illegal shipments of alcoholic drinks to the south of the border. After the end of the Prohibition and the beginning of the Second World War, the red neighborhood suffered a deathly impact: the economy faced difficult years and many people enlisted.
This section of the boulevard also became a decisive space for the development of theater in Canada. With the inauguration of the National Monument in 1893, the city gained an important show hall that has witnessed some of the most outstanding moments of French drama and comedy. The hall has also hosted plays in English, Yiddish, Cantonese and Italian languages. Likewise, the boulevard has had other theaters and its houses and sidewalks have inspired some of the works written by Michel Tremblay, the country’s most prestigious French-speaking playwright.
The first movie screening in North America took place in La Main. On June 27, 1896, barely six months after the presentation by the Lumière brothers in Paris, the Palace Theatre hosted the screening of the first moving images. The number of movie theaters grew along Saint-Laurent, although the opening of premises with more seats in other areas of the city brought about the close of almost all the pioneer movie theaters at the boulevard. Only two of them are presently open, thus showing the diversity of preferences and styles featured by The Main: Excentris, an up-to-date hall dedicated to author’s movies, and Cinéma l’Amour, the oldest porn movie theater in North America.
Nowadays, there are just a few bars in this former sinful segment of Saint-Laurent. In 2003 several real estate projects were developed in order to turn this area into the new show neighborhood, including different artistic properties, over 30 halls and all artistic expressions, with scheduled events –like the Montreal’s Jazz Festival – or a dynamic and shifting program.
Inner view of Le Divan Orange, an Indie music property at Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal. / DIVANORANGE.ORG
Saint-Laurent subway station is nestled right in the corner of Maisonneuve Street, with an endless line of bicycles parked just a few meters away from its gateway. The next area of the boulevard showcases onerous restaurants and exclusive discotheques. Ferraris are usually seen at the parking lot and the customers show their finest clothes.
The hipster quarter is some meters ahead: modern cafés and showcases with organic products. There are art galleries, furniture stores and prestigious bookstores. Colorful businesses are not the exception in this area: tattoo studios, patisseries, costumes and wig stores. Indie music also has its space thanks to Barfly and Le divan orange, two of the most famous bars on this genre. It’s important not to forget that many of the initial sounds of Arcade Fire were put together in this area of Montreal.
The tour continues throughout the area that housed, since 1905 until the end of World War II, tens of thousands Jewish emigrants that mainly came from Eastern Europe; they were first running away from Russian pogroms and, subsequently, from Nazi atrocities. During the first half of the 20th century, Yiddish was the third most-spoken language in Montreal, right after French and English. Tens of factories were opened, mainly owned by the Jewish (presently used as studios for designers and artistic experimentation spaces) and the Jewish community contributed to the development of social movements, just like the 40-hour-long working week. The first celebration of the Labor Day in Canada was organized in 1906, at the Hebrew area of the boulevard.
Nowadays, there are symbols of that time, bagel stores and Schwartz restaurant, one of the utmost temples of Montreal’s cuisine, famous due to the roasted meat sandwiches it has been serving since 1928. The daily life of Jewish in this area of the boulevard can be read on the pages of some novels written by Mordecai Richler. Every time Leonard Cohen visits his hometown, he stays at a house located near The Main.