By Sergio Martinez – mtltimes.ca
In the old days, it was The Main, the main street that is. The Saint Laurent Boulevard (very few call it now Saint Lawrence) seems far from those glory days of the past. The divide between East and West in the city, the place where immigrants from all over the world converged, not only because they were living around the area, but they also were bringing there some of the flavours of their old countries in the form of the many ethnic stores established in the neighbourhood.
Of course, some of the old establishments are still there, transformed now in landmarks of the street. The traditional Jewish restaurant Schwartz’s and its smoked meat, the Vieille Europe, the Hungarian butcher shop, the Spanish Bookstore, and the Slovenia deli, among many more still reminding us of t this city’s history.
But if you look closely you also see a street in decline. One just has to walk up from Sherbrooke toward Pine Ave. and Rachel to see the number of empty stores, some of them in that condition for months even years. Empty spaces that are a cause of pain in what at one point was a lively neighbourhood, perhaps regarding the repercussions of the loss the most striking example is that of the ExCentris cinema complex, closed for many months now. That cinema was a focal point for francophone movie-lovers since it used to present movies originated in foreign countries or spoken in English with French subtitles, instead of the dubbed versions shown in almost all the other theatres that serve French-speaking audiences. (This habit of dubbing films goes back to the times when a large part of the francophone population was illiterate and, therefore, couldn’t read subtitles. Keeping this custom now when Francophones are much better educated is unjustified, and it certainly robs movies made in English or any language other than French, of their authentic voice).
Talking about this decline of the Main, some of the merchants in the area still blame the works undertaken by the city a few years ago. They claim that they disrupted not only traffic and parking but also the pedestrian access to stores. “Those works inflicted a damage from which many stores could never recover,” says one of the people with whom I talked.
There is something of that probably, but there are also some other more complex causes. A city is a living organism, always changing, sometimes for the better sometimes not. Saint Laurent and its adjacent streets were traditionally a place for working class and immigrants who by definitions were also part of the labour force. Then, since the 1990s the neighbourhood started a process of gentrification, suddenly the area became “fashionable” and renting in the area became more expensive, not only for residents but also for stores. Fancy boutiques and restaurants started to move into the area, displacing the small businesses which could not continue paying the new higher rental fees.
There was pretentiousness and the symptom of the nouveau rich in all of this. For example, when the ExCentris opened in the architecturally impressive building just above Milton St., the Café Mélies which has shared space with the old Cinema Parallele where you could drink a coffee and eat a muffin, moved to the new premises as well. However now converted in a high-class bar that—not surprisingly—stayed half empty most of the time. Too expensive for the neighbours, ignored by those with enough money to spend it there (they don’t live in the neighbourhood and in any case never heard of the new Mélies) the new Mélies is long gone now.
Most likely then, this tendency to gentrify the area in the end only brought some temporary illusions of richness betraying, in fact, the working class and immigrant vocation of the Main. It is not surprising now that many of those pretentious restaurants that dotted St. Laurent until the beginning of this century have left the area. The spaces left behind show now just boarded up windows and the ominous signs: “À vendre”/”À louer” or even worse, their abandoned windows covered by all kinds of graffiti.