Cabot Square Montreal (8)

After nearly two years fenced off, Cabot Square, or as many know it, that park you run through to catch your connecting night bus at Atwater, is open to the public once again. It looks different, and by all indications, it will be different than what it was before.

As someone who, for years, saw this space as a stopover on my way home but now lives very close to it, I am definitely interested in what it has become and what it will be. More importantly, what will happen to the largely homeless native people who lived in the park for years?

On The Surface

The new Cabot Square, located between Atwater and Lambert-Closse, Ste-Catherine and Tupper, feels bigger. The sidewalks surrounding it, where people wait for busses, seem wider. There are also plenty of new bus shelters around the square.

A good portion of the park is now paved with stones gelled together and treated to form a somewhat smooth surface for walking or cycling. There are new benches, some standing alone and some integrated into decorative concrete dividers.

Cabot Square Montreal (18)

As for actual nature, it is somewhat sparse. Islands of grass and other sorts of vegetation surround the trees in the park. There is also a garden of flowers and other plants covering most of the south of the square, right up to the sidewalk.

The entrance to Atwater Metro (via tunnel to Alexis Nihon) is where it always was. The small kiosk that was once a restaurant on the northwest corner is now being called the Vespasienne and will be used again in the redesign.

There are also water fountains, a giant chess board, freestanding historical slide viewers and free WIFI. In the brief time I was able to check things out yesterday, it felt like there really was life in the park.

Cultural Activities

The revamped Cabot Square will play host to cultural activities, quite a few of them, in fact. There will be swing dancing, yoga classes, movie nights and even Shakespeare in the Park.

I’m trying to imagine catching a flick or enjoying the Bard as people wait for or run for their bus just meters away and coming up short. This is, after all, a major transportation hub, day or night. I also wonder how yoga can work in a space that isn’t exactly the mountain or even a regular park but rather a glorified large traffic island downtown with people criss-crossing through it all the time.

That’s the skeptic in me speaking. I honestly hope it works. The city is looking to host three such events a day, so maybe they know something I don’t.

First Nations Included

This project initially seemed like gentrification designed to evict native people who had been living in the park for years. They will not be excluded; at least that’s the plan.

Friday night is aboriginal night in the cultural programming of the square. There will also be soapstone carving workshops.

Cabot Square Montreal (15)

Meanwhile, half of the Vespasienne will be a coffee shop called the Roundhouse Café run by L’Itinéraire and employing homeless and at-risk people. The other half of the building will serve as an office for an outreach worker to help natives in the park going through difficult times.

Making this happen was a bit of an uphill battle at times. Nakuset Shapiro of the Native Women’s Shelter told CKUT’s Native Solidarity News (Cabot Square discussion starts at 46 minutes) how the city needed to be encouraged and assured that this support plan would work.

Regardless of what brought us here, Cabot Square is now re-open and it promises to be an interesting addition to Shaughnessy Village and the city in general as well as a development that respects the people who frequented the original park.

Will that turn out to be the case? Time will tell. For now, all I can tell for sure is that now we can once again cut through the park to catch a bus.

* photos by Jason C. McLean

Saint-Henri_Montreal_1859

St-Henri’s been getting me snickering lately, and I’ll gander you might agree. Folks have been trying to refurbish its tenement-of-yore, slant-floored, jute-insulated grandeur for a while. The speed of it is starting to show.

I remember 5-buck two-egg breakfast down at Restaurant Place St-Henri, with its onion soup-soaked “home” fries and its greenish eggs. What a rich, cultured scene! And bottomless, hopefully unburnt coffee, too. I remember hitting it nearly every morning, even when strapped, and all the other budget-prone freelancers in the neighbourhood doing the same—our own little wordless congregation. You could always get a booth, except on welfare-check day.

It’s been closed for a while – two years come February – and then John’s 2.0 burned / was burned down this summer. And as much as I’d love to hit Miracle Pizza every morning for a salmonella gamble, this all leaves fewer Quebie options to live by. This all used to be so cheap. Casse-croûte or die, but cheap.

Enter, as such, Midi 6—a tasty, not so expensive, or organized, or Quebie, compromise. It’s Saturday, so I’m hitting the undrinkable dark roast full tilt, caution to the wind. Three creams. Sugar. More sugar. Two eggs over easy, sausage and a croissant and all the coffee I can get down—$6,61 all in before tip.

As for the scene, the gentrifiers within earshot are rattling on about the hypoallergenic way to go, spoon-blitzing their irreverent offspring with gulps of organic purees. I’m also getting an earful of some young Dollard-seeming brunchers on about 30-day money-back guarantees, vacation accrual, and loud-mouthed Shoulda Switched to Telus and I’ve Found My Calling in Compliance boasts.

Everyone seems proper weekend pleased, on a wailer of a time. I catalogue factory-frayed stylings and the sight of sweatpants in public—taking notes on telling Montrealer allophone brain farts like “bang for your dollar.” It’s a little, pointless game; it’s a slow, late morning.

sweatpantsAll of them are so happy with it all I gather that I’m probably the ridiculous one. That the neighbourhood’s just moving on past whatever we thought it was. Whatever some think it to be.

For instance, after breakfast and a block over at the artisanal coffee beanery, the one-gear Fattal-ites are thinking up that the “real yuppies” are actually infesting NDG; that St-Henri is still, essentially, as punk as scabies. The steam wands of their smithy shall micro-foam on in resistance, and 3$ rooibos is about integrity. They sure seem pleased enough.

Meanwhile, cramping my eavesdropping style is a wild-haired, middle-aged behemoth, waiting out a French press in progress, who is railing on at the sweet quipster barista: “open your damn eyes!” the seas are death, the lizard folk, NAFTA, FATCA, the Military Industrial Food Complex (check your Eisenhower, please), the porcine gene pool!!!

It’s like a live-cast of a Rabble article, or my Facebook feed on most days. Yet another sample of the neighbourhood, he finally breezes on out of the shop, but only after having made everyone a little shushed. “Take it easy,” he says, baby smooth. A collective sigh. We are convinced.

All the while, I’m trying to polish off the end of David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing” essay—honing in long enough, here and there, to guffaw joyously at the “semi-agoraphobe” in him. He’s covering the Luxury Cruise experience aboard the “Nadir” megaliner, but barely leaving his room, and bingeing on Cabin Service. Last I looked back down, he had At-Sea-Cable on again, on his fifth whack at Jurassic Park, really empathizing with the raptors, trying like hell to escape all the “bovine” cruiserdom.

I’m trying to give him my undivided, but, you know, here’s the multi-ply kerfuffle I fancied I’d go out and probe. Hard not to look up; hard not to fret, or giggle. All this just seems to keep gusting along Notre-Dame, some westerly swindle. “Maybe it’s just you,” I think, to myself. “Take it easy,” I repeat.

Then “OK, let’s make some money!” blares serendipitously from someone’s VAIO—turned down in a panic, for shame. I gander it must be an endeared omen, right? I mean, what’s not to laugh at, right?

angus

Well here we go again. The Société de développement Angus (SDA) just announced a $160 million, 12 floor development project for the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine, the heart of Montreal’s historic Red Light District and current Quartier de Spéctacles.

They’re calling it Carré Saint-Laurent. There’s supposed to be a market similar to Marché Atwater at street level, cultural organizations on the first floor and the rest of the floors split between residential and commercial space, the latter leased by the Quebec government for 25 years as office space for employees currently working in the Centre de commerce mondial.

If this sound familiar, it’s because just a few years ago, Angus tried to expropriate and demolish almost the whole block and build the Quadrilatère St-Laurent, a giant office tower for Hydro Quebec with a few boutiques and restaurants at street level. They failed.

Café Cléopâtre, a business located in a historic building with a strip club downstairs and an independent burlesque, drag, theatre and fetish performance space upstairs, refused to leave. Artists, heritage experts and people defending the rights of sex workers fought the PR battle while Cleo’s owner Johnny Zoumboulakis challenged the expropriation in court and won.

While the similarities are obvious, there are a few key differences. First, look at the promoters.

Current state of the lower Main (photo by Donovan King/optative.net)
Current state of the lower Main (photo by Donovan King/optative.net)

Angus and its head Christian Yaccarini were front and centre last time around, joined by then-mayor Gerald Tremblay and his Union Montreal administration, who had given Angus a no-bid contract to complete the project. While Hydro Quebec had agreed to rent out the space, the Charest government largely stayed out of the debate.

This time out, Angus and Yaccarini are again prominent but Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is by his side and was part of the announcement. The city hasn’t said much, aside from new mayor Denis Coderre appearing in the photo op.

As for the opponents, last time everyone, be they history buffs, anti-gentrification activists or ordinary people who felt that the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine needed buildings that were at a more human scale, gravitated to the cause to save Cleo, making Zoumboulakis and the artists he housed their champions. This time, it’s not so simple.

Café Cléopâtre is not in the wrecking ball’s crosshairs, at least not yet. While I wouldn’t be surprised if Yaccarini’s plan is to drastically change the neighbourhood around Cleo so it will stand out like a sore thumb and want to move, that hasn’t happened yet and is not part of the official plan.

That means arguments that Quebec and the SDA want to evict a bunch of artists from an entertainment district can’t be made. Also, Zoumboulakis can’t wage any legal battles over who his neighbours will be.

If the fight to save Cleo the first time out was turned into a movie, it would be emotional and riveting. This would be the sequel where Brad Pitt (I guess Zoumboulakis) has to take a supporting role.

While many of the same artists seem to be on board for the fight (if the Save the Main Facebook page is any indication), it’s not going to be about them or the Cleo. The fight against this development has to focus on heritage and what role that will play in the future of the lower Main. Instead of focusing on what Yaccarini and Marois are proposing, it should focus on what they’re not proposing.

A market with small, independent vendors is a good idea and one that should occupy some of the space. But what about other nightlife to compliment Cleo? Maybe a live music venue or two? Another bar?

This area needs small businesses that are independently owned. Kind of like those that were there before the SDA decided to expropriate everyone.

I’m all for residential space, but not condos as they are proposing for the St-Catherine side. This isn’t an area for condos, it’s an area for nightlife and could be a great place for those who thrive in that nightlife (such as independent artists who may not be able to afford condos) to live.

Above all, this is not an area for government offices or tall buildings. There are other parts of town where such things fit, the lower Main isn’t one of them.

The lower Main was, is and should always be about Montreal. It’s not about the Quebec state or upscale establishments, just look at how the 2-22, Yaccarini’s other project across the street, is failing.

The lower Main needs to be redeveloped based on what the area is and has always been. That was happening on its own organically a few years ago, but then the SDA and the city put a stop to it.

I think the best way to proceed is for someone to expropriate all the properties that the SDA seized a few years ago from the SDA and sell them at affordable rates to a bunch of independent business people who get the street-level, independent nightlife vibe and who can actually get things moving the right way. Clearly Christian Yaccarini and Pauline Marois don’t know what this area needs.

funeral for the main

I’d like to take a break from the revolution for a moment to say goodbye to a few old friends: several historic buildings that were part of Montreal’s fabled Red Light District. That’s what the activist artists in the Save the Main Coalition did this past Sunday as they staged a Funeral for the Main.

The mock funeral, complete with a priest (heritage activist and Infringement Festival creator Donovan King) giving the last rights, pall bearers (FTB contributor Laurence Tenenbaum and others), hysterical mourners (burlesque dancer Velma Candyass and others), a coffin and everyone dressed in black, drew 40 people in front of Cafe Cleopatre. The same group had spent the past couple of years trying to save the storied performance venue from eviction in order to build an office tower in its place.

They were successful. The Cleo will remain. Unfortunately, her neighbours, all buildings populating the west side of St-Laurent Boulevard between Rene-Levesque and St-Catherine and dating back over a century, have a date with the wrecking ball.

While there has been talk of preserving some of the facades and stones of these historic structures, the living, breathing culture that once inhabited them is already dead. It hasn’t been that long, though.

In 2009, the area was going through a resurgence. New performance venues like Katacombes complimented more established spots like the Cleo and legendary fast food restaurant Montreal Pool Room.

Then, Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay handpicked developer Christian Yaccarini and his Angus Development Corporation and gave them a no-bid contract to redevelop the area as part of the Quartier des Spectacles project. His idea: build a giant office tower for Hydro Quebec.

Despite opposition (and irony), Yaccarini spent the next few years buying out all the businesses, all but Cleo, and leaving their buildings vacant and effectively killing most of the organic culture and community on the block. Now, all we are left with is the empty shell of what once was and a perfect justification for demolition.

The Quebec government agreed and gave the go-ahead. The final act of burying real culture and replacing it with a gentrified, “safe” and most likely banal pseudo culture is scheduled for August.

Barring a miracle (hey, Cleo being saved was kind of a miracle, so it’s possible), this funeral will be the last true act of underground art the buildings next to Cleo will see. Rest in peace.

* image: SE Amesse Photography

The lower Main as it looks now

Café Cleopatre when it still had neighbours

Ever see the slacker classic Joe’s Apartment? That’s the one with Jerry O’Connell starring alongside some well trained cockroaches as a mid west boy in his first foray into quasi-manhood in NYC, conveniently landing a rent controlled apartment, subsequently discovering his landlord is trying to kill him off so they can tear down the building and put up a maximum security penitentiary. Well, the same thing’s happening on the Main. Basically.

If you’ve been following the bouncing ball then you already know that Angus Development Corp owns most of the west side of St. Laurent between Ste. Catherine & the Monument Nationale, and was all set to build an office tower. They wanted the remaining land, and almost had it when the Montreal Pool Room moved across the street from its original location, leaving only Café Cleopatre standing her ground, at the same spot she’s stood for the last 35 years. Proud and determined, the lady couldn’t be bought.

Back in March, the city and developer Angus, under public and legal pressure, dropped plans to expropriate the Café Cleopatre. While I was fairly certain what that meant, I double checked the meaning and found “expropriate” defined as 1: to deprive of possession or proprietary rights 2: to transfer (the property of another) to one’s own possession and really, thems some expensive words to say stealing someone’s shit, so I’m kinda surprised they even entertained the question.

So, the Café won’t sell, and the city can’t let it be stolen, the office plan got shelved; what to do? Well, neglect the surrounding buildings until they get condemned and torn down. In a decision that was undoubtedly made while stroking an oddly complacent cat and laughing maniacally, that seems to be what’s happening. The nineteenth century heritage buildings owned by Angus along that strip are in wild states of disrepair, with city barricades erected to protect pedestrians from falling debris. In fact, if you’ve seen the strip lately, I bet you thought the buildings were unowned and waiting patiently for their chance to shine again, but that’s never been in the game plan.

The lower Main as it looks now

I hate it when people rewrite history. Did you know that rue du Bullion was formerly rue Cadieux, rechristened because the street name was notorious among sailors for the quality of the brothels? A reputation worthy of civic pride, in my books. That fact alone should be taught in schools, but instead it’s proof of an age old Montreal tradition to try to eradicate the collective memory of our stylishly sordid history. As a result, the red light district, — which, save for Café Cleo, is pretty well done — must go.

I asked a dear friend of mine, actor, producer and avid lover of the interestingly sexual, Jason McCullough, why he adamantly supports the Café:

“The richness of the place is a texture when you walk in. From the vaudeville lighting to huge space and friendly sassy staff, it’s a adult theme park event to be at Cleo’s. I’ve booked shows and events there, I’ve worked the 60’s era spotlight, attended fetish night events and comedy shows, as well as the amazing drag show hosted by Reena. The two bars are fully stocked and they even have a signature “Cleo Cocktail” that will lay you out if you’re not careful.  The whole joint is owned and run by Johnny, a kind and soft spoken businessman, who fought the big corporate business who tried to take his 40 year business away from him, and WON.  It’s a certainly one of the final icons of the Paris of the north, Canada’s sin city. The only thing I could compare it to would be a speakeasy in Chicago during prohibition. The light is always on at Cleo’s , and its RED!”

While leaving sequined men and open minded folk of various sexual shades out in the cold may not seem as dramatically heart wrenching as the hooligans in Joe’s Apartment throwing old ladies down the stairs to clear out the building for destruction, it’s an equally underhanded attempt to destroy the face of a neighborhood.

Cue my singing cockroaches.

I’d love to say that this is an isolated struggle; that it’s the world against Café Cleo, and that there’s one evil developer trying to cleanse our city’s sinful soul with corner offices and condos, but it’s more insidious than that. I remember when there were more lights on the Main, and then when those went out, I remember that we were promised more, better, brighter lights that never came. Recently the police’s morality squad has been making itself seen around town, in bars, cracking down on establishments with restaurant liquor licenses, (here too), breaking up illegal parties, or as their calling them, endroits clandestins.

I hate to be the one to mention it, but when did the city built on filles de roi, strip teases, after parties and endless vernisages, decide to get uptight again? We should maintain our identity with pride rather than settle for the homogenization of our metropolis. It seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong,  they’re clearing out the gritty, the artsy, the authentic and independent like it’s all a scourge on society, in favor of government sanctioned entertainment like the Quartier des spectacles, the main attraction of which seems to be the spotlights that passersby can fiddle with, and prospects of an office tower where we currently have a landmark.

Before it’s all gone like an apostrophe on a sign, write to someone. Support Café Cleo. Demand that Mayor Tremblay revitalizes instead of turning a blind eye while the developers let the area crumble into a valid excuse to change the face of our city.

Celebrate New Year’s Eve this Saturday from 10pm at Café Cleopatre, 1230 St. Laurent, where Reena hosts a special cabaret with Penelope, and the promise of many surprises. Admission is free (because they’re nice people).

Send your thoughts on the subject to:
Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay – geraldtremblay@ville.montreal.qc.ca
Montreal Culture Minister Helen Fotopulos – hfoto@videotron.ca
Christian Yaccarini (Angus Development Corporation) CYaccarini@technopoleangus.com

Tweet at me while you’re partying @McMoxy

Cleo at night photo by Chris Zacchia, lower Main photo by Donovan King, courtesy optative.net

parc-oxygene-montreal-1

Have you ever seen a really small rally or demonstration? The kind where you instinctively ask yourself whether those gathered may require the services of a new communications director? Or feel compelled to determine exactly which crackpot idea would lead to this small congregation? “What’s so ‘special’ about your special-interest group,” you may ask yourself, for shits and giggles.

In Montréal you’d be hard pressed to go a day without some kind of protest, rally, vigil etc. somewhere in the city public demonstrations are a key element of civic life, and Montrealers are generally proud and active members of their community, and thus inclined to participate. That being said, and with our many infamous riots and other major public gatherings well in mind, we must keep in mind that the day to day demo in our city is typically a small gathering, attended by only a handful of people.

You’ve doubtless seen these quaint affairs, and perhaps have even had a laugh at their expense. After all, there are no small civic demonstrations – or at least not as far as the TV cameras will show you. There are only large potential threats to internal security, marauding black-masked anarchists and an endless parade of indolent, self-righteous students in attendance at these events, right?

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of taking in a small demonstration. There were only a couple dozen people in attendance, but this was not a rally in which the force for change would be measured in mere attendance statistics. Few ever are. Change is effected by concerned citizens who work tirelessly, and too often without any recognition, to achieve altruistic goals. On Saturday I got a chance to meet some of these people, and as result of my meeting I’d like to state that I believe in their cause and would further like to see their wish realized.

That wish, incidentally, is to see a small, unusable plot of land that has been turned into a park recognized and protected for what it is.
The saga of Parc Oxygene goes all the way back to the very heady days of the 1960s. Back then Parc Oxygene didn’t even exist, largely because the adjacent La Cité apartment complex was still nothing more than an architect’s proposal.

The La Cité development was a testament to inefficient government planning, unscrupulous real-estate developers drunk with power and served, for these reasons, to galvanize public opinion into a cohesive protest force. The Milton-Parc Citizens Committee was formed to stop the development and protect the community, which in turn would lead to the creation of Save Montreal, Heritage Montreal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and our city’s generally more enlightened approach to urban redevelopment and architectural conservation.

While the MPCC wasn’t able to stop the project completely, they were able to scale it down to about an eighth of what was originally planned. Subsequently, the MPCC grew into a major community organization, and today they protect the interests of the residents of more than 600 rental units in the area, not to mention many local small businesses.

Take a trip to the corner of Milton and Parc and take a seat at any of the three cafés on that intersection (I prefer the Second Cup for its massive terrace and, no joke, the community of regulars) and watch the world go by. Clearly there is a community here, and the streets dance with the movement of people carrying on their day-to-day. It is a fascinating vantage point on the city, one I’d highly recommend to tourist and seasoned boulevardier alike.

Consider that all this activity takes places in the shadow of the massive housing, retail and office complex that is the La Cité development. Over the years the community here has demonstrated its resilience to massive urban renewal projects and has managed to get along despite the alterations that occurred over forty years ago. Perhaps time truly does heal all wounds…

Despite the scars, the neighbourhood has managed to stimulate its own renewal, and as you can imagine, land value in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood, not to mention the adjacent Quartier Ste-Famille and McGill Ghetto areas, has skyrocketed. What is curious is that the present threat is not from mega-projects, as it was back in the 60s and 70s, but by small, discreet condo projects, aiming to jam postage-stamp condos into alleyways, overhangs, courtyards and any other small tracts of land which may be available in a given area.

We’ve benefitted as a community from the laws that enforce building height and massing restrictions, inasmuch as we’ve benefitted from an as yet un-satiated condo market that has until now largely focused on recycling old factories. But there are only so many old buildings that can be converted, and it’s for that reason that the MPCC suddenly finds itself once again dealing with La Cité’s legacy. A residual plot of land from the project’s construction, declared unusable by the city (yet somehow there’s a claim to ownership, complicating issues), and since converted into a pleasant little green-space, aptly named Parc Oxygene, perhaps because people so often forget the free resource provided by flora.

The park was an initiative of the residents of this close-knit community, as it had previously been used by taxi drivers revved up on thoughts of F1 glory and quick shortcuts through a dense part of the city. Frankly, before it was taken over by the citizens, it was bare, barren and dangerous. And of course, being an open space connected to the alleyway meant that it was frequently filled with children during the day and the homeless at night. Far from ideal for all parties concerned.

When residents asked the City as to what the status of the land was, they were told that it could not be developed, and was thus unusable for this purpose. Too bad for the proprietor, but this proved to be a major boon for the community, as the locals quickly pooled their resources, planted flowers and shrubs, created a little path, and gave something directly back to the community. Feel good altruism at its finest.

Unfortunately, the reason for this rally in particular was to remind the public that this space exists, and that, as almost all green space is these days, it is under threat of redevelopment into wait for it condominiums. Eight at four hundred grand is the estimate, wedged onto a plot of land no larger than the floor-space of a typical Victorian row house. And poof goes the park in the process.

Though the City is still adamant that the land is unusable, the owner has a team of lawyers apparently working round the clock to find a solution to this project in Quebec City of all places. This seems doubtful, likely little more than intimidation. At the event on Saturday, the owner’s wife showed up and told people to “get off her lawn.”

Think twice about the next small rally you pass, as the cause may be righteous and more practical than you think. Small community involvement never catches the public’s eye, but they are still a vital and important tool and element of our civic lives. And who cares if the issue at hand isn’t good enough to be on the six o’clock news if it affects you or your community, then it is your responsibility to stay informed.

Of all the anxieties expressed at this gathering, the one that struck me was the feeling of hopelessness experienced by those who overhear a popular and preachy discourse pertinent to the merits of preserving the diversity of the urban environment. It’s a great game to talk, but too few walk it. So think too about your day-to-day access to green space in this city, and consider that Montreal is in no way a leader in this respect. Citizen access to public green space is still embarrassingly low in Montreal by international standards. Our access to condos is thoroughly unencumbered, by contrast.

* Parc Oxygène photos by Cindy Lopez, 1972 photo courtesy urbanphoto.net

“The people united can never be defeated!”

While that slogan heard at protests around the world holds true, it generally does so on a conceptual and defensive level. Strength in numbers is strength for sure, but does it ever go beyond that? Well, sometimes it does. Sometimes the people united can actually defeat much greater foes. That’s exactly what has happened in the case of the artists of Café Cleopatre versus the City of Montreal and the Angus development corporation (SDA).

If you haven’t been following the story from the get-go, allow me to recap:

In 2009, the lower Main was going through a rebirth of sorts. New venues like Club Opera and Katacombes were springing up to compliment more established places (and by established, I mean over half a century established) like the Montreal Pool Room hot dog joint and Café Cleopatre.

The Cleo is housed in a historic building and features entertainment on two floors. The ground floor is a strip club, but not just any strip club. Yeah, there are your traditionally sexy dancers in their 20s, but there are also women of different shapes, sizes and ages working there. It’s one of the few places in town that doesn’t discriminate.

The second floor is a whole other story, one of burlesque, drag and fetish. The space is home to many performers doing shows that are too risqué for many other establishments but in perfect keeping with the Cleo and the history of Montreal’s Red Light District where the venue is situated.

Meanwhile, the Tremblay Administration was planning to remove all this culture from the area which had been designated part of the Quartier de Spectacles. Their idea for this new entertainment district? An office tower! They handpicked developer Christian Yaccarini and his company Angus for the project and offered him a no-bid contract.

Dead Dolls Velma Candyass and Felicity Fuckhard pose at the OCPM hearings

This didn’t sit well with the artists who performed at Cleo, historians, ordinary citizens and pretty much anyone who cared about Montreal’s culture and heritage. They let their voices be heard at the Office de consultation publique (OCPM) hearings and in the media.

The OCPM took their side, ordering a re-think of the project. Yaccarini was ready to throw in the towel, but Tremblay wouldn’t hear of it, strongly voicing his support of the project, proclaiming it on track.

Over the months that followed, Angus bought out Cleo’s neighbours, leaving their former businesses empty, giving the rest of the block an increasing air of desolation. Eventually, the only other holdout, The Montreal Pool Room, moved across the street and Cleo was all alone.

Cleopatra owner Johnny Zoumboulakis speaks at the Montreal City Council

But the people who worked at, performed at and loved the Cleo were alone together. They kept on the offensive and opened up two new fronts: political (by speaking out at city council meetings) and legal (Cleo owner Johnny Zoumboulakis challenged the expropriation in court). They also made videos and even appealed to Prince Charles for support.

For a while it looked like it would be a battle to the end, but then a few weeks ago, Angus threw in the towel, promising to alter its construction plans to accommodate the Cleo’s existence by building around it and then the Tremblay administration, who until now had been hell-bent on replacing the establishment with an office tower, followed suit.

So this is what victory feels like. It’s not just a victory for Montreal’s culture and heritage, though, it’s also a victory for a group of people that worked tirelessly to keep this space they cared about alive, all the while continuing to do their art and in many cases (cause underground artists rarely survive off their passion alone) their paying gigs as well. This isn’t just David versus Goliath, it’s David holding down a day job and fighting Goliath in his spare time.

It’s victory for people like Club Sin’s Eric Paradis, the Dead Doll Dancer’ Velma Candyass and Drag Queen Reena, performers who have made the upstairs of Cleo a space worth preserving. It’s victory for Emilie Laliberte of STELLA, who fought hard to preserve a space where sex workers’rights are respected. It’s victory for historians and educators like Louis Rastelli, Viviane Namaste, Dinu Bumbaru and Donovan King who think the Red Light is as Montreal as a two-cheek kiss and shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s also victory for Johnny Zoumboulakis, a man who fought for over two years for one thing: the right to work. For over thirty years, he has run a successful business and been part of a community on the lower Main. Now, he can continue to do just that.

All these people will be celebrating their victory Saturday night at the Cleo and are inviting you to come celebrate with them. Come raise a glass to Johnny Z and the Cleo and party the night away celebrating a victory for anyone who loves Montreal’s culture and heritage.

The Café Cleopatre Victory Celebration hosted by Reena and featuring performances by Nat King Pole, Tommy Toxic, Velma Candyass and the Dead Doll Dancers and more starts tonight, March 26th, at 9pm (doors 8pm) at Cabaret Cleo, 2nd floor of Café Cleopatre, 1230 boul St-Laurent, cover is $5 with all proceeds going to STELLA

OCPM photo by Chris Zacchia

More Cleo? More Fun? Facebook us.

It looks like the independent burlesque, fetish and drag artists who call the second floor of Café Cleopatre on St-Laurent their artistic home will be able to continue doing so, at least for a while. City-backed developer Angus Development (SDA) told Radio Canada that they have scrapped their plans to expropriate the venue, and now plan to build two 13-storey buildings on either side of Cafe Cleo. This turn of events brings to a temporary end what is probably the biggest local David versus Goliath story to come about in a long while.

While this turn of events will allow many to breathe a sigh of relief, does this mean the Cleo is safe for good?

“No,” says Eric Paradis, who runs the monthly Club Sin fetish nights on the Cleo’s second floor, “the Cleo will never be safe as long as corporate interests rule above those of the artists.”

It’s those same corporate interests that led the Tremblay administration to offer the SDA a no-bid contract to “redevelop” the lower Main. It’s also those interests that gave the SDA the bright idea of building a skyscraper office tower for Hydro Quebec as the centerpiece of an entertainment district and evicting all the entertainers who stood in their way.

Fortunately, those motivations were clear to people who performed, worked and lived in the area as well as historians, academics and pretty much anyone who cared about Montreal’s real culture. Those voices came out en masse at the public consultations on the subject nearly two years ago, when FTB first picked up this story.

Now, Angus may well be taking its new two-building proposal to the public consultation process. Even though the plan allows for the Cleo to remain, it’s a far cry from the re-emerging nightlife that existed on the block before Yaccarini and company started buying up lots and boarding up buildings.

“Regardless of my status of producer of events,” Paradis commented, “I think it’s preposterous to build anything over six stories on that part of the Main.”

This also isn’t a done deal. The announcement by Angus just says that they have asked the city to remove their name from the expropriation process, so the city still needs to do just that. Some may remember that the last time Angus made a concession (after the OCPM ruling came down), Tremblay erased it and said that things would proceed as planned.

So while supporters of the Cleo, authentic grassroots culture and Montreal’s heritage take a collective sigh of relief, is there something else they should be doing to ensure that the Cleo remains, and that a better idea for the area than two office towers comes to light?

“Make yourselves heard!” Paradis argues, “your ideals to preserve and rebuild have every right to be.”

If you want to be heard, you can comment on this post, the Radio Canada article, spread the story and join the Save the Main Facebook group. You can also read our previous coverage of the story.

Photo by Chris Zacchia

Rob Ford, new mayor of Cal...er...Toronto

I must admit, I’m a bit confused. I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to write about here. It’s a year-in-review piece, so at least the time frame is solid, but the subject matter, hmm, that’s another story.

You see, I don’t really have a clear beat. I started off 2010 as a theatre writer, but now that’s done by others and occasionally me, at least when it comes to burlesque shows (heh heh, but seriously, check out my reviews of Blood Ballet and Glam Gam). I do write about news and politics, even in this space, but I’m not the only one, so this can’t be a year in the news piece.

I could write about the year it was for FTB. (and in fact I will, but that’s coming up New Year’s Eve, not here.) So I guess I’m just going to have to talk about the year in random things that caught my attention.

It seems somewhat appropriate that I’m confused, because 2010 sure was a year of confusing things. While Calgary took a few steps forward and elected (by all accounts) progressive lefty Naheed Nenshi, Canada’s first Muslim mayor, Toronto took about fifty steps back and basically elected Rush Limbaugh in the form of anti-homeless, anti-cyclist loudmouth Rob Ford. The City of Montreal, under the direction of Gerald Tremblay, still wants to destroy the Red Light District, at least there was some good news last week that developer Angus may throw in the towel and let the venerable Café Cleopatre continue to exist.

Meanwhile in Quebec, Jean Charest and his cronies (before facing a sham commission) banned the wearing of religious head coverings when trying to use government services and made those services, even those that are supposed to be free, a little more expensive. This drew considerable protest, but you wouldn’t know it by reading The Gazette.

People are not impressed: photo of the anti-Charest budget protest by Chris Zacchia

At least Stephen Harper’s consistently a douchebag. He did up the ante a bit this year, though, by going all police state on peaceful protesters and the City of Toronto during the G20, using tactics that would have made Homeland Security and the CIA under Cheney (er, Bush) blush.

Harper’s new nemisis the UN took a step backwards, too, by condoning the baseless executions of gays and lesbians. At least Haiti decided not to allow Wyclef Jean to run for president, though their elections didn’t go all that smooth, regardless.

The good stuff: Buffalo Infringement Festival photo by Jason C. McLean

Even closer to home, things have been strange. Despite being a fresh, new and alternative media source, we’re still following Justin Beiber on Twitter and last time I checked we’re now following Paris Hilton, too. At least it gives me the opportunity to use the Biebs, Paris, Jean Charest and Islam as keywords in the same post, which is fun.

I did have quite a bit of fun this year, actually and got to report on it, too. From checking out the Brooklyn music scene first hand and getting a sarcastic kick out of the lone tea partier in Times Square to experiencing the unique joy that is the Buffalo Infringement Festival, 2010 has been quite a ride.

I guess my New Year’s resolution (or at least my public one) will have to be focus on the positive, still write about the negative (cause it’s important) and embrace the confusion.

photo by Chris Zacchia

For supporters of Café Cleopatre and the heritage of Montreal’s historic Red Light District, Christmas may come early this year and I’m not talking about the Glam Gam holiday show that wrapped up last weekend, either. Angus head Christian Yaccarini confirmed to Cyberpresse that he may just throw in the towel and give up on his company’s ongoing attempt to expropriate the legendary burlesque, drag and fetish performance space and downstairs strip club.

For several years, Yaccarini’s Société de développement Angus (SDA), with the full blessing and encouragement of Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay and his administration, has been buying up spots on St-Laurent boulevard between St-Catherine and the Monument Nationale theatre and leaving them vacant, creating a virtual ghost town around the lone holdout Cleopatre. They hope to raize the area and replace what was recently a thriving community experiencing a rebirth with a giant skyscraper to house Hydro Quebec offices.

Meanwhile, a coalition of artists, historians, academics and residents have been fighting this plan tooth and nail in the media, at City Hall, at the Office de consultation public and recently in the courts. It’s this case brought by Cleo owner Johnny Zoumboulakis that may finally break Yaccarini’s stubbornness on the matter. He argued that it might just not be worth it to keep paying legal fees when, as he put it in French, “Cleo’s lawyers just don’t want to come to an agreement.”

If Angus does decide to stop fighting, it would be a decision “with heavy consequences for the lower Main” as Cyberpresse put it, but only because of the situation Angus created all around the Cleo. Even when a group of artists endorsed by the Quartier des spectacles put up graffiti art over the boarded-up buildings, Angus had it painted over a few months later, destroying an attempt to bring life back to the block.

Now (if they drop the case), Yaccarini and company will have to decide what to do with the lots they do own. Maybe they could adopt a plan put forward at last May’s Petcha Kutcha night all about the Main: one that would see a living tribute to the area’s burlesque past. This plan was heavily cited in the booklet put out by those responsible for the event (though with no mention of the Cleo). Or maybe they could just pass the project on to another developer, one with more knowledge of what the area needs (ie. not an office tower in the heart of an entertainment district).

Maybe the city could force Angus to do the right thing, but given the fact that the Tremblay administration is heavily involved in this disaster and even handpicked the developer, ignoring his criminal past, that doesn’t seem very likely. That might not matter, though, because if people working together to stand up to him can (eventually) get Yaccarini to change his mind, maybe people working together can make the city adopt their plan.

Hugo’s first series with FTB is the 35th anniversary show Cabaret Cléopatre Grand Spectacle: 35 years of travesty and was held April 24, 2010. Hugo was invited by his friend Velma Candyass, the leader of the Montreal Burlesque Dance Troop, the Dead Dolls, to explore and photograph the event. The 35th anniversary show focused on creating awareness about the forced expropriation the Café may be facing due to the building of the new Hydro Québec offices. We’ve also been covering this story on FTB since June 2009.

Spending most of his night swinging from front to back stages, Hugo captured the intimate and controversial side of the performers. The burlesque artists performances centered on dramatic impersonations of blue collars workers in the City of Montreal.

The majority of the artists featured in the   show were performing in protest against the City and its private promoters. Hugo’s images are a testament to the devotion, talent and creativity of and to all of the hard blue collar workers in Montreal.

Enjoy this wonderful series. Check back next week for the premier of Hugo’s dark post-card series.

[nggallery id=carte-blanche-i-know-what-you-did-last-night]

Last weekend, organizers from the Committee for the protection of Anse a l’Orme successfully executed an event that got Sainte Anne de Bellevue residents all fired up to save one of their local eco-territories (one of 10 in Montreal).

Sandwiched between Kirkland, Senneville, Sainte Anne’s and Pierrefonds, a 95 hectare tract of regenerating forest in the Anse a l’Orme eco territory was put up for sale to developers by the Societe Generale de Financement (SGF – a profit seeking branch of the Quebec Ministry of economics), much to the horror of local conservation groups and Sainte Anne’s council.

Because this region of land is  contradictorily classified as both for conservation and for  industry, resident tax payers decided that their dollars should go to protecting the land.

The call for land tender that the SGF published in local Montreal newspapers on June 14 expires August 16. The public action that took place last weekend couldn’t have come at a better time.

In the style of the ‘old West, residents signed up to stake their claim in the disputed piece of land during the weekly Sainte Anne’s farmer’s market in the name of conservation.

That same afternoon, over a dozen people gathered at the junction of highway 40’s Morgan exit and Chemin Sainte Marie to hammer their stakes in the ground. In the background hung an enormous home-made sign “Ecoterritory, NOT condos.”

This is what democracy looks like. The CBC and CTV weekend broadcast reporters came to document citizens in action.

Residents have not resigned the notion that green spaces have more inherent value than the short term profits that condominiums and industry provide. Some people even came specifically to the market to participate in the event.

Sainte Anne de Bellevue turns around enough profit from its enormous, tucked-away industrial zone. Why does it need to remove more forest land, fragmenting  valuable  wildlife habitat. Once it is paved over, the damage is irreversible.

This is  hopefully  the pressure that the SGF needs to step down from their profiteering plans. It’s technically fine to build condos, but it’s just plain wrong to build on designated conservation land. Seriously.

A bunch of millionaires bought condos in a recently gentrified area of Griffintown, near a traditionally working-class neighborhood. These high-rise condos, however, were built in a formerly industrial zone, on the sites where factories once produced many goods which are now produced overseas, but there is another rant about that and I think I already ranted about that one anyway. The area in question is not far from a former neighborhood called goose village, an area of town which housed mostly Italian and anglophone immigrants. The city destroyed that area of town in preparation for expo 67, but that is yet another rant for another time.

This should come before condos: 1180 St-Antoine West (photo by Google Street View)

An old office tower called the Windsor building across the street from the Windsor train station located at 1180 St Antoine west, next to a condemned building, has had a large community of artists, mainly musicians, using it for rehearsals, recording and other artistry for well over 30 years.

These condos, which were built less than 5 years ago, have issued many noise complaints against this building. As a result, tenants in the building are not allowed to use the facilities with the windows open. Trouble is, during a heatwave and during the summer in general, all of these condos are air conditioned, but the Windsor building at 1180 St-Antoine is not. During a heat-wave, they continue to threaten the building with noise complaints. These are wealthy, overprivilaged, extremely selfish idiots who would see culture in Montreal destroyed forever! They remind me a lot of the blue meanies from yellow submarine.

It seems to me that wherever any type of culture forms, there is always somebody who doesn’t like it and complains until they try to stop it. I think often it’s a control issue. People trying to control what they cannot. When they are successful, usually by scaring those miscreant artists and free-thinkers into submission and through intimidation and totalitarianism, the culture and art that would have been is never made and the artist is destroyed. Some of these people become shocked and deny the very tactics they are using, albeit only verbally, and continue to use such dictatorial tactics.

In a residential area, loud music can be disruptive, especially when the music is being written or rehearsed, because it takes a lot of rehearsal and practice to make for a good show, which is what these musicians crave and what they do. When 1180 was built, this wasn’t a residential area. 1180 was there first and these Johnny-come-lately condos that are invading the territory have absoloutely zero right to complain. If you don’t like the noise, then don’t sit on the speaker! They’ve even started some viscious rumors about tearing the building down, along with the condemned building next door.

I have to admit, since I have a studio in this building. I’m perhaps a little biased against the condos, but at “Just over three million dollars” as the advert on the front of the building read during the condos’ construction, it feels like Goliath is trying to conquer this pleasant community of artists in favour of a dry, artless distopic world much like the one Savonarola envisioned, only without the religious aspect of it either.

A stone’s throw from all the action at the Jazz fest taking place in the city’s brand-new Place des festivals, Café Cleopatre sits surrounded by art-covered boarded-up buildings waiting to know if it will still be there next year.   Across the street, though, there is life and things are being built…or at least that was the case last week.

The other side of the street: Cafe Cleopatre (photo by Jason C. McLean)

Construction has stopped on Angus Development’s 2-22 project which was supposed to house the Imago group, CIBL Radio and La Vitrine Culturelle among others.   Apparently, the federal and provincial funding needed for these groups to occupy the space hasn’t come through yet.

Angus head Christian Yaccarini told La Presse that he is confident that all the contracts will be signed and construction will resume real soon and Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay is holding a cheque is in the mail-type attitude to the delay, telling the Gazette that he has full confidence in Ottawa and Quebec City.   Despite these attempts at being positive, the simple fact that this project is in trouble is a far contrast to the mood surrounding it even a few months ago.

What's there now: construction site of the 2-22 (photo La Presse)

The 2-22 was by far the least controversial of Yaccarini’s projects for the lower Main, given that it wasn’t going to be an enormous skyscraper and would actually hosue cultural industries in a Quartier de spectacles (go figure).   This stands in sharp contrast to the proposed Quadrilaterre, which has already evicted three venues and would see a fourth, the venerable Cabaret Cleo, which showcases many independent artists, disappear as well, in order to make room for an office tower.

If Yaccarini really wanted to support culture and fit his plans in with the idea of what an entertainment district is supposed to be, maybe he could help cover the cost if the government money doesn’t show up.   Unfortunately, that may be a little hard for him to do now, seeing as he has already spent a bundle buying out and relocating historic businesses and performance venues to build an office building for Hydro Quebec that aren’t needed and no one wants.

This may end up being good news for the artists, historians and ordinary people trying to save Cleo and the historic red light district from demolition and gentrification.   With an OCPM ruling against the project, tons of alternate ideas out there that better reflect the cultural and historic nature of the area and ongoing resistance to the project, maybe this recent setback is the straw that will break the camel’s back and those in power will realize that Yaccarini’s vision won’t work on the lower Main and isn’t what’s needed for what is supposed to be the cultural hub of Montreal.

Post bills please: The Lower Main gets a makeover

The artsits of Café Cleopatre have some new neighbours. No, the businesses evicted by the Angus Development Corporation and the city haven’t returned, but at least now, the boarded-up look is gone and has been replaced by graffiti.

On Friday, over 30 artists organized by Sterling Downey, operating under the name of Bombe sur la Main and with the approval of the Quartier de spectacles transformed the facades of the boarded up buildings on St-Laurent between the Monument Nationale and St-Catherine into art.

While it might be strange seeing the infinitely recognizable front of the former Montreal Pool Room turned into a mural, it’s definitely an improvement on what was there just after the business moved across the street a few months ago. In fact, while it’s sad that the block had it’s newly forming life sucked out of it by Angus head Christian Yaccarini so he could build an office building where it doesn’t belong, it is cool to see what these artists have done with the place. There’s even a tribute to Café Cleopatre and the Red Light history of the area.

No matter what you think of this initiative, though, you’ll have to agree that it’s better than an office tower.

The former facade of the Montreal Pool Room
Over 30 artists working for 12 hours
part of Bombe sur la Main

Similar aesthetic? Former home of the Katakombes
Not just ground level
Watching over the Main
Neighbours on either side for the Cleo

Photos by Jason C. McLean

For more, including photos of the completed works, please click here. For a video report by the CBC, please click here.

The Angus Development Corporation stated Tuesday that it would be rethinking its plan to erect an office tower on the west side of St-Laurent Boulevard between Ste-Catherine and Rene-Levesque.   This comes over a month after the Office de Consultation Publique de Montreal (OCPM) released its report urging more reflection and a better plan for redevelopment of the area.

Back to the drawing board: proposed office tower

“The OCPM has unequivocally stated that this whole project has to go back to the drawing board,” said Velma Candyass of the Dead Doll Dancers, “it sure as hell is making Angus stop and think.   Removing historical (and newer) showbar venues and replacing them with an office building in an area that is defined as the Quartier des Spectacles makes no sense.”

Candyass and her troupe are among a group of independent and emerging artists who took part in the public consultation meetings, arguing that the performers who call the top floor of Café Cleopatre home should be included in any redevelopment plans.   The area is also Montreal’s historic Red Light District.

Stating their case: Velma Candyass and Felicity Fuckhard at the OCPM meeting in June     (photo Chris Zacchia)

“The reality is that something is going to be built,” Candyass commented, “but it cannot be done without us – the artists. The OCPM has recognized in their report that there is a thriving alternative art scene in the area.”

Angus president and general manager Christian Yaccarini told reporters that he hoped to have a revised plan ready by the end of the month.   This is in sharp contrast to statements he made at a press conference in June where he argued that the plan needed to be approved immediately or the major tenant, Hydro-Québec, wouldn’t be able to move in.

Whether Angus will actually present a comprehensive new plan for the area or merely “slap on a new façade” and call it a new design has yet to be seen.   It’s also uncertain how Monteal mayor Gerald Tremblay will react, given his previous glowing support for the project.

What is known is that this turn of events will most surely help make the mood at tomorrow’s Contre-Courant, the Fetish Film Festival, more festive.   Contre-Courant is a celebration in support of the community of alternative arts and performances on the main.

The event is part of Montreal Fetish Weekend and will feature the Dead Dolls Cabaret along with members of Club Sin and Stella, performances by Reena and the Pussycat Drags, Nat King Pole, Tommy Toxic, Dakini Dancers and others.   There will also be films by Dominic Vincent, Izabel Grondin, Gwen Media, Anthony Teoli, Matthew Saliba and more.   There will also be speeches by Vivian Namaste, Dr. Jean Dominique Leccia and Café Cleopatre owner John Zouboulakis.

“Contre Courant is about being ‘against the current’ or pulling the plug on the project,” explains Candyass, “it’s something that is different and is a unique form of energy and synergy…the mood will be celebratory and we’ll be more determined than ever to make sure our voices are heard.”

Contre Courant: Friday, September 4th (tomorrow) at 8pm at Le Medley, 1170 St-Denis, $10 at the door. Angus’ new proposal: ?