THE CENTER OF MONTREAL: WHORES, HOT DOGS AND OLD-MAN BARS
A partial history of the corner of St. Laurent & Ste. Catherine
by Louis Rastelli with the patrons and staff of Peter’s, and illustrations by Jean-Pierre Chansigaud
From Vol. 2 No. 3, 2002
For Montrealers, the intersection of St. Lawrence Boulevard and Ste. Catherine St. downtown has always been a special place. St. Lawrence (or St. Laurent) is of course the main street of the city, usually called simply The Main (or “La Main.” This habit goes back to when the street passed through “the main gate” of the city walls when Montreal was a walled city—roughly between 1650 and 1800. One assumes that the habit of saying “The main gate” was shortened to just “The main,” and the habit persists to this day.) For its part, Ste. Catherine St. has been a major shopping artery since the 1840s. Ever since then, for some reason, the intersection of these two streets has been the colourful heart of Montreal’s “red light” district.
The term “red light” arose around 1865, when public officials tried to restrict prostitution to specific houses where doctors could certify that the women had no VD. A red lantern in the window of a house was supposed to tell customers they could have a relatively safe good time.
The area by the end of the 1800’s was also home to many opium dens (run by the fledgling Chinese community), gambling houses, booze cans and more. There have literally been dozens of initiatives proposed to clean up the area “for good” in the past 150 years, but to this day you can still go there and buy hard drugs or cheap hookers; you can still eat the same greasy food that was served there 100 years back; you can still gaze at the same run-down buildings and run-down people who hang out there. The area is home to sex shops, live peep shows, arcades, drag cabarets, male and female strip bars, and hotels with hourly rates only. Unlike the so-called “Old Montreal” district, where old facades cover up buildings long gutted of their interiors and their character, this intersection preserves not just buildings but the people, businesses and general atmosphere of a past era.
With much new development creeping in as a result of the current building boom, and new schemes again aiming to clean up the area “once and for all,” I figured it was high time to start documenting the strip just in case they DO “clean it up” this time. I walked in to Peter’s, an “old man” bar on the strip, and got nearly a book’s worth of reminiscences of the area. What follows is derived from notes taken during several afternoons spent drinking Labatt 50 with the patrons and staff.
THE GLORY DAYS
Peter’s, also known as Panhelinon, is owned by Christo, who may be the oldest landlord on The Main. The lease (and the liquor license) has been in his name since 1949. His uncle ran a Greek restaurant in the same space from 1921 to 1947, serving beer and wine as well. Since 1947 it has had a full bar license. Some of Peter’s clients have been coming here for 40, 50 years, and some were there on the days I conducted interviews.
Christo explained that most of the buildings on this strip originally had factories on the upper floors, mostly Jewish-owned textile shops, back when St. Laurent was largely a conduit for raw materials, such as fabrics, coming from the port. (To this day, there is still quite a bit of “off the boat” wholesaling that goes on along the length of St. Laurent, from Chinatown to Little Italy to Ahuntsic seven miles north.) By the end of World War II, the bigger factories and manufacturers began moving above Ontario St. to the Plateau and Mile End districts. Many of these later factories remain in operation, while others have been converted to trendy loft spaces. By the late 40s, from Craig St. (renamed St. Antoine in the 1970s) to Ontario St., St. Laurent was filled with bars, nightclubs, booze cans and gambling dens.