Boulevard Saint-Laurent: the Very Essence of Montreal

par Anctil, Pierre

Boulevard Saint-Laurent

Boulevard Saint-Laurent is one Montreal's few thoroughfares that date back to the New France era.  What began as a country road grew into a route for transporting merchandise, as it became a commercial hub on the outskirts of the walled city, before finally coming to play a central role in a burgeoning urbanisation and industrialisation movement that eventually spread throughout all of Quebec society. Over the years, an exceptional level of cultural, artistic and linguistic diversity has also been drawn to the Boulevard, mostly the result of immigration. As a result of this growing diversity, for many decades the boulevard has come to symbolise the city's growing modernity. For all these reasons, the Boulevard Saint-Laurent was designated National Historic Site by the Government of Canada in 1996.

Article disponible en français : Boulevard Saint-Laurent: au coeur de la montréalité

A Main of Legendary Proportions

Today, Boulevard Saint-Laurent is one of Canada's most famous thoroughfares and no doubt has been the most widely represented in literature and in the arts in general. Having almost always evolved with Montreal, both on an economic and social level, and having embodied the hope of a better life for thousands of immigrants of various origins The Main, more than any other urban road, has been elevated to legendary status. Creators, writers, and activists have lived along side of each other along its ever-changing avenues. Moreover, as a part of the urban landscape, it has been an unparalleled meeting point between two realities. Built on contrasts, ruptures and discontinuities, Boulevard Saint-Laurent has been a source of inspiration for various authors, such as Michel Tremblay, Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Yves Thériault, Hugh MacLennan, Irving Layton and Andrée Maillet. Surrounded by densely populated districts and a multitude of residents of various professions and trades, Boulevard Saint-Laurent has always been the wellspring of an emerging modernity, as well as the source of the latest trends. Ever-undergoing sudden transformation, visited by unexpected trends and sometimes even disfigured by change, the Main is always reinventing itself and never fails to indicate the next adventure that Quebec society is about to embark on.

Boulevard Saint-Laurent

In recognition of the importance the boulevard played in the evolution of Canada's urban landscape and for its contribution to the integration of immigrants during the 20th century, Boulevard Saint-Laurent was designated a National Historic Site by the Government of Canada in 1996. Although this official status does not impose any restrictions on the management of the thoroughfare's present architecture, it nevertheless commemorates the exceptional quality of boulevard as an entity, as well as its importance in the evolution of Montreal's urban landscape. The heritage designation applies to 6 kilometres [3.7 miles] of road, from the St-Lawrence River to rue Jean-Talon, which was by and large the section of the Main that was populated prior to the Second World War.


Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Three Parts

Today, the Boulevard is subdivided into three distinct parts, each one a world unto itself. The first part of the street, which stretches from De La Commune to Sherbrooke, is home to a wide variety of buildings from a number of different eras and is a testament to Canada's unique eclecticism. The second section, which goes from Sherbrooke Street to Mont-Royal Avenue, is famous for its practical grid-layout and for its urban vernacular architecture dating as far back as the 19th century. The third part extends all the way to rue Jean-Talon, in what used to be one of Montreal's suburbs, formerly called Saint-Louis-du-Mile-End, where the large majority of buildings are commercial.

Souk @ SAT (Société des arts technologiques)

Victim of an excessive wave demolition projects under Mayor Jean Drapeau's administration and cut in half by the construction of the Ville-Marie Expressway, the lower Main still harbours many extraordinary buildings, each one a architectural treasure. Among them is the Monument National, built in the late 19th century by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste and designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1985. A little further north, the passersby will see buildings such as the L.O. Gothé Building and the Ekers Brewery, both important vestiges of the sector's industrial history. They will also discover an almost intact Chinatown and a neighbourhood at the corner of Sainte-Catherine that is undergoing metamorphosis. Important development projects have been announced for this area, notorious for its nightlife and its usually seedy nightclubs and bars. One of the projects is to create a cultural centre that would mirror the future Place des Festivals, which is to be built a little farther west. Hydro-Québec has offered to renovate the area north of the Monument National, the project would preserve the old building facades and erect a tall, long structure, which would house offices and specialty shops.

Fascinating that there is a line so long so consistantly  Fascinating that there is a line so long, so consistently

North of Sherbrooke Street, Boulevard Saint-Laurent still exhibits visible signs of the presence of the Jewish community, as well as communities built up by the successive waves of Eastern European, Greek and Portuguese immigration. The evidence of this cultural melting pot of are the great number of shops and restaurants that have kept their distinct ethno-cultural flavour and are still very popular. Witnesses of bygone years, the former Balfour, Vineberg and Cooper factories still stand tall. There, heated union struggles took place early in the 20th century. There are also a row of shops housed in the Baxter Block, a neo-roman building. The area is also famous for its numerous festivals and cultural events, its exotic nightclubs and its ultramodern interior design. Further, north of Mont-Royal Avenue, Main takes on more of an industrial suburban look adorned with magnificent public and religious buildings, such as the city hall of the former Saint-Louis-du-Mile-End municipality, built in a neo-gothic style, as well as the churches of Saint-Enfant-Jésus-du-Mile-End and Saint-Jean-de-la-Croix. North of the railway that bridges over the Main at Bernard Street is the easily recognisable Little Italy with its restaurants and shops. Near the thoroughfare, on Dante Street, is the Madonna de la Difesa church, recently listed as a historic monument.


The Boulevard's Origins: the French Colony

The Saint-Laurent road is the oldest thoroughfare leading north from the former fortifications of Montreal. It owes its position to the Saint-Laurent Gate located on the north face of the city walls, which opened for the first time in 1732. Already, in 1672, authorities had opened Saint-Lambert Street, which ran perpendicular to Notre-Dame, thereby establishing the path Saint-Laurent Street would run nearly fifty years later, as it wended its way through a largely uninhabited part of the Island of Montreal. During the time of the French rule, the route would still be more than a rural track that would run in a virtually strait line north-south, linking the city with the Saint-Laurent Parish to the north-east. In 1740, the route was extended all the way up to the parish of La Visitation de Sault-au-Récollet on the banks of the Rivière des Prairies. From the very beginning, the Saint-Laurent to be a promising thoroughfare for exceptional development, because, up until the dawn of the 20th century, it would remain the most important route crossing the Island of Montreal from north to south.


The Main under the British Rule

St-Laurent & de Maisonneuve

In 1792, after about thirty years of British rule, Saint-Laurent Street became the official geographical dividing line between the eastern and western part of the city, making it an even stronger symbol. It is then that people start calling it the "Main". All through the 19th century and at least until the second half of the 20th century, the road separated the French-speaking working-class districts, to the east, from the residential areas on the south side of Mont Royal, where the wealthier English-speaking population had established itself. The town council decided Saint-Laurent Street would become a Boulevard in 1905. It quickly became the dividing line between a French-Canadian working-class environment gathered around its Catholic parishes, and a more British downtown embellished with institutions such as McGill University, the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral and great department stores servicing the Pan Canadian economic elite.


Industrialisation and Cultural Diversity

The linguistic and cultural dichotomy in Montreal would soon be replaced by a phenomenon never before observed; a phenomenon that would forever transform the city: the waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. In 1896, under Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, Canada opened its borders to massive numbers arrivals of newcomers who disembark in Montreal's harbour and, from there, disperse themselves throughout the whole country. Within a few years the city became a major immigration hub, welcoming some hundreds of thousands of immigrants on the piers, as the poured out of the transatlantic liners to start their journey in their new country. From the banks of the river, little by little, they wove themselves into the urban fabric of Montreal following the route of Boulevard Saint-Laurent. Many of them choose to settle on the Boulevard itself. Quickly outnumbering the locals, they transformed the thoroughfare so thoroughly that in the area surrounding the Boulevard, it was possible to hear every European language. But until the 1950s, a particular group dominated the Boulevard: the Yiddish speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. There, they build their shops, their places of worship and their community centres, giving this immigration hub a distinct flavour for nearly half a century.

Moishe's / Minhota

Ethnocultural diversity goes hand in hand with another important phenomenon that took place as Boulevard Saint-Laurent evolved: industrialisation and urbanisation. In 1870, real estate developers transform the Plateau Mont-Royal, north of Sherbrooke Street, divided the remaining farmlands and built rows of low-income housing. In the late 19th century, as the Canal Lachine and the Port of Montreal drew large-scale industrial businesses (sawmills, metalworking industries, manufacturers, textile mills, and flourmills), the Main started to draw clothing manufacturers, tobacco factories and breweries. Rapidly, from 1900 on, this immigration hub began to house one of the greatest concentrations of factories in Canada, a trend that grew with the introduction of electricity into the production process and the arrival of foreign labour. In 1892, the first tramway track is laid on the Boulevard and more and more labourers settle along Saint-Laurent in the heart of the city, thereby creating a densely populated area.


Entertainment and Art Scene

Standardisation of consumer goods and a rising demand for manufactured everyday goods has an impact on the labourers' behaviour and their social expectations. At the head of industrialisation in Canada, Boulevard Saint-Laurent is also the scene of a large number of cultural innovations that transformed the life of the citizens of Montreal. For example, it was there that the first movie was shown on the silver screen in 1896. In addition, a large theatre was built there in 1893 in the Monument National and it was there that that some of Canada's earliest sound recording studios were established later in the 20th century. Seeking to make the most of this unique environment, many pre-war French Canadian stars, such as La Bolduc, Olivier Guimond Père [Senior], Alys Roby and Gratien Gélinas, would launch their artistic careers on the Main. Jazz clubs, cabarets, and light comedy theatre, as well as the Yiddish theatre, all which underwent exceptional development in 1897, began to flourish on the Boulevard. The crowds moved freely up and down the Boulevard and it became a place where one could easily frequent seedy joints where illegal gambling, prostitution and organised crime thrived.

Casa del Popolo

While exotic dancers plied their trade, other women joined unions and participated in feminist movements, notably the suffragettes who gathered around Marie Gérin-Lajoie. The Boulevard was the kind of place where people always felt free to add their voice to protest movements and demands of all kinds changes; where many a strike interrupted the regular rhythm of life-such as that of the memorable "Midinettes" strike in 1937. During the period between the World Wars, the thoroughfare fermented with new ideas, such as cultural diversity, the fight for human dignity and the rights to freedom of speech, ideologies that would eventually spread throughout the province. Then, during the 50s and 60s, the tide turned for the Boulevard, when urban deterioration and demolition projects got the better of the lower Main and when most of the factories south of Bernard Street moved to the suburbs. For at least a generation, the Boulevard gradually sunk into despair under the crushing weight of marginalisation. Such was the recurrent theme in many of Michel Tremblay's major plays, particularly in Saint-Carmen de la Main.


A New Beginning

Fortunately, starting in the 80s, plans to revitalise downtown and many new cultural projects breathed a breath of fresh air into the three hundred year-old thoroughfare.  And so, the Main rediscovered its vocation as a marketplace for cultural avant-gardism, as a number of cutting-edge entertainment venues, such as the Théâtre Go, the Just for Laughs Museum and the Cinéma Ex-centris, moved onto the Boulevard. In addition, a great number of events have become firmly established in the neighbourhood, such as the Montreal Fringe Festival, the Festival International Nuits d'Afrique and the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, to name a few. Former factories now deserted have been transformed into dance studios or workshops for sculptors and painters. They also house multimedia companies such as Softimage in the Reitman Building and Ubisoft in the Peck Building. As a result of the Quartier des Spectacles project, which promises to once again thrust the area into the limelight of the Montreal arts scene, the Lower Main District is now the focus of renewed attention after years of neglect and disregard.


Pierre Anctil

History department

Ottawa University




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