Underground arts or quartier des bureaux?

If you had “a vision of development based on the enhancement of cultural activities” as the Quartier des Spectacles project does, would you want to evict artists by replacing their popular performance space with an office tower that nobody asked for?   That is exactly what the Angus Development Corporation wants to do on the lower Main in the name of the QDS.

They want to replace all of the buildings on the west side of St-Laurent boulevard from the Monument Nationale (run by the National Theatre School) right up to St-Catherine Street with a 12-storey office tower called the Quadrilatère.   This plan would preserve only the façade of some of the buildings, gut their insides and fill them with new tenants such as boutiques and high-end restos on the lower levels and offices for Hydro-Quebec workers above them.

The moderators

“This idea that only the facades count is a problem,” Jacques Lachapelle told the Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal (OCPM) in French at a meeting Tuesday in the Chinatown Holiday Inn, “it reduces the architecture synonymous with small businesses and the counterculture to a purely symbolic value.”

Lachapelle, a citizen and historian, called this “facadisme” and argued that it is merely imitation and does nothing to preserve the culture that exists.   In the case of the lower Main, the city’s historic Red Light district, he argued that this culture is part of Quebec and in particular Montreal’s patrimony, having appeared in several novels and films.

Underground culture and underground arts in particular, it turns out, are still alive and well in this part of town.   Since 2004, burlesque, fetish and drag shows have been taking place in Cabaret Cleo, the showbar upstairs from the Café Cleopatra strip club.   This is one of the buildings that will be gutted if Angus gets its way.

Cleopatra at night, as it is, with Hydro in the distance

Members of that community spoke at the meeting and helped to put a human face on a situation otherwise dealt with in terms of historical, esthetic and cultural significance, with the proposed evictees mentioned only as a concept.

“We had hoped to be part of the Quartier des Spectacles,” Velma Candyass, leader of the Dead Doll Dancers, told those in attendance, “but instead with this plan, a long standing tradition will be silenced.”

Candyass was not only speaking of the artists like those in her troupe who call the Cleo stage home, but also of burlesque in general.   This art form, which has shown an international resurgence as of late, needs a venue like the Cleo to stay alive in Montreal.   As Candyass pointed out, Café Cleo is the only venue in town that has a traditional showbar setup and a thrust stage.

Velma and Felicity

Fellow Dead Doll Felicity Fuckhard added that other cities have shown greater urban development thanks to newly renovated burlesque venues.   In particular she pointed to Vancouver’s new Vaudeville house that is thriving despite being located right near the infamous corner of Main and Hastings. Felicity also noted that both Cabaret Cleo and the strip club downstairs support the body politic of burlesque by employing women of all shapes and sizes as performers.

Eric Paradis of Club Sin, whose Fetish Weekends have drawn thousands of people to Cabaret Cleo and to Montreal as tourists, brought up the support that the community at large has for the artists of Cabaret Cleo and ways that the venue in turn helps the community.   He delivered a petition with 1300 signatures and counting and mentioned that one of his events last year brought over 200 guests to the very hotel that the conference was being held in.

He also proposed an alternative plan for revitalization of the area, one that sees a newly renovated building with an entrance to the upstairs Cabaret Cleo on St-Laurent as well as on adjacent Clark Street, next to the entrance to the strip club and a jazz bar.

Such a plan might have happened years earlier, if Cleopatra owner John Zouaboulakis had his way.   He told the room that he had applied for permits to renovate his building several times and was denied because it was a historic building.   Now the city wants to raze his building and others completely, despite St-Laurent being a nationally-designated historic site.

John Zouboulakis

Zouaboulakis wanted to be part of the Quartier des Spectacles originally, but favors a more grassroots approach to the project.   “We should revitalize what we have,” he argued, “and open up the boarded-up places to individual owners.”

When pressed on why small businesses would work, given the current state of affairs on the block, he informed the audience that one owner had bought up a bunch of the properties and let them lay vacant and fall apart, creating the state of affairs we have now.

Independent ownership seemed to be a running theme among the speakers.   Louis Rastelli, the creator of the Distroboto arts vending machines sees development in this area following the pattern of the Plateau in the early 90s, a perfect fit considering he feels that the Montreal Pool Room has the same historic value as Schwartz’s.

He argued that the Quadrilatère would effectively kill the nightlife in the area and even if Hydro-Quebec (the proposed major corporate tenant of the new building) agreed to a bar or nightclub to be included.   Rastelli argues that it probably wouldn’t work because buildings like this are not conducive to such businesses.   “A building like this,” he said, “is valid for the business quarter, but not the Quartier des Spectacles.”

The eastward expansion of the business quarter was another concern of several of the evening’s speakers as well as the success of alternate models like the SAT and Monument Nationale and the fear that the size of the proposed new building would negatively affect the neighbourhood in many ways, such as by blocking the sun from the solar panels on the roof of the SAT.

One speaker, Lorraine Pintal of the Theatre du Nouveau Monde (and the girlfriend of the head of the development company), had a decidedly different opinion.   She feels that the Quadrilatère would revitalize a neighborhood that sorely needs it and one where “there hasn’t been a red light district in 30 years.”   She feels that replacing the current small business owners would make the area feel safer for her theatre’s older (and possibly wealthier) patrons.

The developer and a representative from the City of Montreal were present but declined to comment when given the chance by the moderator.

If one thing can be taken away from the meeting, it’s that this won’t be as easy a ride as the developer, whom according to Rastelli believes in private consultation before public consultation, may have hoped for.

* PHOTOS BY CHRIS ZACCHIA

4 comments

  • Fight the good fight. How do we keep Cleo open?

  • nice synopsis of the consultations. now we will see what comes of it all; with HQ calling the shots, it seems doubtful they’ll budge on the cleo nudie-bar. in any case, as people from club soda said, the neighbourhood’s increased property value may have a permanent effect on the neighbourhood’s ability to fund the smaller spaces and diversity of artistic expression that were supposed to live in the quartier des spectacles.

  • fight for it!.. keep it open!

  • I spin there every week, and I love the place. And it breaks my heart to see that they are doing all this in the name of “Quartier des Spectacles” for a building that has nothing to do with it. Like Velma Candyass said, it’s a place where many artists and performers feel at home while working there, and that includes DJs like me and staff as well. The clientele also feel at home at Cleo, where everyone can come watch a show and not feel judged by their life styles or appearances, whether they’re drags, trans, gay, bi and even str8. All HUMANS are accepted in that club and should be kept open.

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