Narrating the Image
Every photo has a story - sometimes it is within you
We are on Boulevard St. Laurent in Montreal, just south of Ste. Catherine St. On tourist maps, it is still called the red-light district. This picture was taken recently. I downloaded it from Google Maps.
This part of town is now called the Quartier des Spectacles. The forthcoming Museum des Mémoires (MEM) will be up the street from here.
MEM used to be the Centre d’histoire de Montréal and had exhibitions of Montreal’s history. It was in old Montreal, near where our city was founded. Now it is moving to a refurbished and shiny part of downtown. The Museum is under the direction of the city of Montreal. MEM sees itself as less of a site for acquisitions and more of an activist museum, engaged with Montrealers.
And yet, the community that was once on this part of boulevard St. Laurent is no more. The Quartier des Spectacles is envisioned as a centre for Montreal’s theatre and entertainment industries. Place des Arts is part of this, movie theatres, the symphony hall, a building devoted to dance performance, the National Film Board has moved here from Ville St. Laurent and MEM will too.
Everything is shiny and new in this photo… except Café Cleopatre. The street has become antiseptic. Café Cleopatre’s building scars the landscape. The owner has refused to sell, and the city could not expropriate. So, it remains. Last man standing. The past enters here. Burlesque is here (or was before Covid) and wonderful transvestite performances. Each of the three floors offered something different and louche.
My father, who grew up in cold water flats a little north of here, told me that he would never come down to the Main, as it was known, alone. If you read crime novels of the period, something always happened on the Main and the Main they referred to was on Boulevard St. Laurent and Ste. Catherine.
Who took this picture? It is something as sterile as what the area has become: Google maps. Here is an automated travesty of photography where the goal is not to capture emotion but to give a view of the street. But this is not Cartier-Bresson or Weegee (both famous street photographers). This is “objective” photography. There is no story here, no people on the street, no one to walk out of the Café Cléopatre (the Globe and Mail once called it “a beacon of sin”) and tell a story. That subject must be created.
So, I imagine MEM creating a podcast in which past lives come alive, where we can hear those with stories to tell about the red-light district when it accommodated prostitutes and Lili St. Cyr, cops and Pax Plante, and the sounds and voices of people who made this part of Montreal emblematic of the good old, bad old days.
And what happens at Café Cléopatre once the doors re-open, once we can climb the stairs, peer into the dressing rooms, have a seat at a small round table, watch a show of scantily-clad men and women and men as women, order a pichet de bière, and imagine a Montreal less reputable and slightly rakish, more human and less Google. Where my father would have sat back and laughed and been happy to be with me here.
I am amazed and grateful you have read this far. I hope to see you back next week—same time, same place.