Heather O'Neill on Montreal's bygone Red Light District
In our Hyperlocal series, we asked some of our favourite Canadian writers to tell us about new changes in a place close to their hearts. Here, Heather O'Neill, the author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, remembers the intersection of St. Laurent and Ste. Catherine in Montreal, before its glitzy makeover.
The other day I went down to the corner of St. Laurent and Ste. Catherine, the intersection of the two most famous streets in Montreal. But I was disoriented, because the Montreal Pool Room had moved to the other side of the street. It was a tiny restaurant that had been in the same location since 1912. My dad had grown up nearby and we’d always gone there for hot dogs on Saturday afternoons.
When I was a kid it used to be the Red Light District. Neon silhouettes of naked dancing girls flashed off on and down the street. A pornographic movie theatre advertised 25-cent films. Feral cats walked in and out of the arcades and restaurants. The skinny buildings, with their beautiful turrets and old windows, were still so lovely from the outside.
There were prostitutes everywhere. They were in the doorways of the tiny little one-star hotels pulling up their nylon stockings. They were dressed in fur coats with jean shorts underneath. They had on little sailor hats and lipstick a few shades too bright.
Homeless children flocked to that corner. You would see a boy in combat boots and a top hat singing for change. The men from the homeless shelter wore old suits that had belonged to salesmen in the 1950s and were covered in cigarette burns. There were people who were stoned and moving in slow motion as if they were on the moon.
And everyone sat at the long counter at the Pool Room for coffee and hotdogs. I’d be wearing my Adidas shorts and my T-shirt with an iron-on decal of a Gremlin, holding my dad’s hand. I remember looking at photographs on that wall, photos of St. Laurent Boulevard in the forties, all trolleys and cobblestones. These photos had been taken right outside the Pool Room’s glass door, yet nothing of that world existed anymore.
My dad would look out the window, sadly. He carried this tiny little film of the past in his head. The film stock was deteriorating. He knew that when he was gone, the world of his childhood would be gone too.
Now, the whole area had changed again. Standing on the corner, I realized that the street that I’d known as a child had been utterly transformed. It no longer matched the film in my head.
The city had decided to get rid of the red light district. The area was now part of the ever-expanding Quartier des Spectacles. A French architect had designed the shiny cultural center on the corner of Saint-Catherine Street and Saint-Laurent Boulevard. An art installation was projected on the wall of one of the new condo buildings. The crumbling facades of six beautiful old buildings had been dismantled.
The places that I’d gone to as a kid were seen as eyesores, and condemned for attracting the wrong kind of crowd. The people who’d once lived there were forced off the streets. The city wanted to attract business people and tourists.
The Cleopatra Strip Club is still there with its arched stone windows. The club fought the development company, refusing to be relocated. It has the same black sign with luminous strippers on it that it’s always had. It looks like a strange relic, an old, eccentric tenant who won’t leave the building.
In my first novel, Baby lives above one of the old restaurants that used to be on this strip. She describes how she could lean out the window and unscrew one of the light bulbs on the sign.
In my imagination, the street’s neon lights turn on one by one. A pretty homeless girl writes the most beautiful poem in the Pool Hall. It’s as lovely and as important as all the spectacles in all the fancy dance halls, as the visiting Ukrainian ballet dancers, the orchestras, the gymnasts and clowns, and the jazz musicians. It’s a poem that proves there is a sprig of fragile human dignity in every corner of the world."
Heather O'Neill is the author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Lullabies for Little Criminals. She lives in Montreal.