For nearly 90 years, this Montreal building has been a hub for arts and community
From left-wing Jewish roots to the alt-cultural hub of La Sala Rossa today
In one elegant move she swings herself up onto the stage. The gold curtain reflects a warm glow on her skin as she turns to face the empty concert hall.
"My favourite spot in the building? Looking out from this stage," says Eliza Kaheroton Santos on a December afternoon in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood.
Santos is the cleaner of La Sala Rossa, affectionately known by locals as simply "Sala."
By day she carries crates of drinks up and down stairs, the soles of her sneakers leaving marks on freshly mopped floors. By night she sticks around to watch alternative music acts with her friends. She's an experimental noise musician herself and knows this stage well, performing multiple times here.
For Santos, Sala is another home outside the tight-knit community of Kanesatake where she grew up.
A lot of her friends work and play here, too. In fact, after several resume drop-offs and no response, it was her friends who nudged Mauro Pezzente, the co-founder of La Sala Rossa, to offer her the gig.
Pezzente co-runs and co-founded Sala and Casa del Popoplo, the vegetarian resto-bar outfitted with a quaint stage across the street, with his business partner Kiva Stimac.
The dawn of Sala
Like Santos, Sala's founders are persistent.
In 2001, they needed a bigger venue.
Pezzente and Stimac had just booked slowcore Scottish band Arab Strap at Casa del Popolo (known as just "Casa" around town).
The show sold out in an hour.
The problem was, Casa's capacity is capped at 60 people. Fans who didn't score tickets were peeved the band wasn't playing at a larger venue. The rumblings throughout the Mile End music scene propelled them to find a new spot for the show.
Pezzente says he eyed the two-storey art-deco style brick building facing Casa, and marched across Montreal's main street.
The door clicked open and the president was in; the president of Centro Social Español, that is.
Pezzente asked if he could rent the 250-person capacity concert hall upstairs for a show. The president said yes. As fate would have it, the Spanish social club was looking to rent the space since memberships and finances were dwindling.
A new era — the reigning Sala Rossa era — of 4848 St-Laurent was born.
But filling this building to the brim with music, community and dance didn't begin with Pezzente and Stimac. Generations of Spanish immigrants have been doing that since the '70s.
Centro Social Español still owns the building — although in recent years the club's been quieter.
"There's a lot of memories here," says Isabel Rodriguez, current president of Centro Social Español, as she gently scans the concert hall, eyes ablaze.
Her father was a founding member of the club back when they operated out of the basement of a church on Rachel Street. In 1973, the group needed a larger space — so they bought 4848 St-Laurent.
"When you're newly arrived, you need some support. So they gathered here as a community and helped each other out to continue their culture and traditions," says Rodriguez.
Rodriguez spent every weekend there with her family and fellow first- and second-generation Spanish immigrants; the soft plucking of Spanish guitar and convivial communal suppers echoing down the stairway.
"All three floors of the building were completely full of people every weekend," she says. "You always knew somebody would be there."
It was on these solid wood floors she learned traditional folkloric dance. Right here where she developed her first crush.
But as she, and the other kids of the founders, moved into their teens, the bright lights of downtown pulled them away. By adulthood most moved to the suburbs. Memberships dropped by 80 per cent.
History is repeating itself today, Rodriguez says, with her children's interest in the club fizzling.
It's thanks to the popularity of Sala, she says, that Centro Social Español still exists. "They're helping us pay our bills and we're helping him have a venue."
Before Rodriguez and the Spanish community brought flamenco to 4848 St-Laurent, there was a different kind of dance gracing Sala's hardwood floors in the 1960s.
It was Russian-rooted choreographer Ludmilla Chiriaeff, known by the mononym "Madame," who moved her troupe — Les Grands Ballets de Montréal — into the building.
Having survived a Nazi labour camp and immigrating to Canada with war refugee status in 1952, Chiriaeff vowed to give the city that took her in what she knew best: dance.
With the large space and the help of her dancers, nicknamed "Chiriaeff's grasshoppers," she grew her enterprise and fulfilled her promise. Today her world-renowned troupe and ballet school, the École supérieure de ballet du Québec, continue to thrive in newer downtown and Plateau facilities.
Little-known to Sala-goers, they're dancing on the same floors christened by professional ballet dancers.
The Arbeter Ring
The originators of the building, like Chiriaeff, came to Montreal to rebuild.
In 1936, the building, after delays due to the Great Depression, was completed on the old site of the National Coal and Grain Company — at 4848 St-Laurent.
The utilitarian style building was designed by Max Kalman, one of the first Jewish graduates of the McGill University School of Architecture. Kalman was hired by the Arbeter Ring — a mutual aid organization founded in 1900 in New York.
The Arbeter Ring — Yiddish for the worker's circle — took its cue from the Bund, a secular Jewish socialist party formed at the turn of the twentieth century in the Russian Empire.
Left-leaning immigrant Jews flocked to the organization for health care, social support and to learn about their rights as workers, as many worked in the garment industry in Mile End.
"Jews could be among themselves, speak their own language and feel comfortable," explains Pierre Anctil, a professor at the University of Ottawa who wrote History of the Jews in Quebec.
"It was a beehive of activity," says Anctil.
The group supported workers during times of distress such as economic slowdowns and strikes, hosting writers' talks, workshops and political discussions. Children, too, kept busy in the basement in the after-school care program in which they learned about Jewish history and rehearsed plays on the main stage.
"It was a home away from home," recalled Rivka Augenfeld, who frequented the building as a girl. "We practically lived there."
But the same thing that was going to happen to the Spanish social club decades later, happened to the Jewish community first.
The Jewish community started to move away from Mile End as they were replaced by more recent immigrants. Memberships dropped. So the Arbeter Ring leased the space to a ballet troupe. After Chiriaeff and her dancers left, they sold the building to newcomers arriving from Spain.
'It's part of my being'
Fast forward to 2022, and Pezzente and Stimac are still renting La Sala Rossa; they even ran a restaurant on the first floor before COVID closures.
Pre-pandemic, Sala put on shows around 300 nights a year. Before hitting mainstream stardom, acts like Charli XCX, Arcade Fire and Princess Nokia took centre stage.
But most nights featured underground talent.
On the floor, teens party for the first time and future lovers lock eyes. Outside the building, smokers crouch on the sidewalk and cliques roll up ready to dance.
On quieter nights, old-timey jazz or classical music warms the room. Weekend afternoons see creators and activists trickling in for workshops and round table discussions.
Pezzente knows where every floorboard creaks, where every dust bunny hides, every small hole in the wall.
"It's part of my being," he says.
If these walls could talk
Santos is wrapping up for the day. As she heads out the door, Dominique Girard, the technical director, preps for tonight's show; coiling cords and patching the analog sound board by hand.
"You can feel the history just walking around here," he says, a serious expression on his face. "Every day I come here, I feel the energy of the building, the history."
He says the main concert room has a different sound than other venues. "It's very warm," he says. "Emotional things happen in this room."
As communities ebb and flow through the neighbourhood, 4848 St-Laurent reinvented itself over and over and over thanks to immigrants, artists and the power of community.
From its left-wing Jewish origins to the temple of the alternative Montreal music scene that persists today — this shell of brick and mortar encases the spirit of coming together; a multi-generational mainstay for Montrealers to gather.
If these walls could talk, they'd sing.
WATCH | How this iconic Montreal building reinvented itself over and over:
- An earlier version of this story did not include the fact that Kiva Stimac co-founded and co-runs La Sala Rossa with Mauro Pezzente. The story has now been updated to reflect Stimac's role.Jan 05, 2022 2:07 PM ET
With files from Our Montreal