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Decades later, I remain a teenager discovering La Grande Ville

February 2011

When I walk along Ste. Catherine, which is most every day, I am reminded of the place Montreal’s main commercial drag occupied in my adolescent coming-of-age.

Growing up in the Snowdon area, Saturday trips downtown represented my exposure to a wider world.

The street links the west-end English-speaking community with the francophones to the east—although the farthest east I ventured in the early ’60s was to St. Laurent and its forbidden “red light” district. Such is the compactness of the city’s core that you can walk it leisurely, from Westmount to Papineau, in an afternoon.

I find it comforting, in a twist-of-fate way, that what was once known as the “crossroads of Montreal”—Peel and Ste. Catherine, where I religiously browsed through Metropolitan News, crammed with newspapers and magazines that piqued my passion for writing—is today the location of the Gazette, which I wound up working for.

So whenever I stand on the corner, waiting for the traffic lights to change, I’m still a teenager discovering the delights of the La Grande Ville.

The street’s sprawl is given a personal and historical perspective in the Ste. Catherine Street Makes Headlines! exhibit at the Point-à-Callière Museum, 360 Place Royale in Old Montreal (running until April 24). Audiovisual presentations augment 270 photographs and about 230 artifacts sure to jog memories.

Plus ça change: Ste. Catherine was hopping in 1967, too. Photo: Webhamster, Wikimedia Commons

The city’s prime street for commerce, Ste. Catherine is a rite of passage, where teenagers hang out and otherwise sow their oats amid the gaudy fluorescence of the Eaton Centre. It’s where students from three universities buzz about, and where elders consolidate their lives at establishments they’ve patronized for decades (such as Ogilvy—established in 1866—right next door to the sleek, hip Apple Store).

The Pepsi Forum is a multiplex cinema today, but in my mind’s eye it will always be the place where in the ’50s Jean Beliveau and Doug Harvey held court and, during the ’70s (when I lived on Atwater), where I’d peer through the windows to glimpse the blur these whirling dervishes on ice made at practice sessions. If I was lucky, I’d see “nos glorieux” cross the parking lot to congregate for lunch at the now-defunct Texan.

The corner of Crescent leads to a string of fashionable bars, but back then it led to the Classic Bookshop, an outpost for anglo paperback culture (and precursor of the Indigo and Chapters establishments a few blocks east).

Here I purchased pocket editions of the three books that made the greatest impression on my adolescent mind: Thomas Pynchon’s meaty, mysterious novel V, Norman Mailer’s audacious Advertisements for Myself, and Albert Camus’s existential The Outsider.

Across the street there was International Music, with its treasure trove of classical records and sheet music, and in a basement next door, The Record Cave, where crusty but loveable Dave Silver sold 45 RPMs you couldn’t get anywhere else in town. A couple of doors east, the original Le Château is still there. Owner Hersch Segal offered the hippest clothes for young people—I can still feel those hip-hugging, tweed, slightly bellbottomed trousers he sold me (I felt like Brian Jones, the best-dressed Rolling Stone).

The Saturday ritual would not be complete without a visit to Mr. Steer, a block away, where the burgers still look like giant meatballs and the curly-Q fries retain their nonpareil crispness.

Live and learn: A compelling and nostalgic history of the street, the recently published La rue Sainte-Catherine: Au coeur de la vie montréalaise, by Paul-André Linteau (Les Editions de l’Homme), gives me a sense of connection with its 18th-century beginnings. To wit: When I go to Volume, a second-hand book and record store at the corner of Sanguinet, I now know that this is where Ste. Catherine was born, when it was just a stretch linked westward to St. Alexandre.

According to Linteau, the opening of the great department stores, Ogilvy’s, Eaton’s, Morgan’s (now La Baie) and Dupuis Frères gave Ste. Catherine its magnetic cachet. Adding to the legacy in 1976 was Complexe Desjardins, the city’s least claustrophobic indoor mall.

While seemingly endless underground infrastructure work has made the Place des Arts area facing the Complexe a nightmare, the fruits of new construction are beginning to be seen: the Parc des Festivals, at the corner of Jeanne-Mance, is a modernistic oasis of tranquility that transforms itself into the city’s most electrifying locale for outdoor concerts. It’s part of the new Quartier des Spectacles where theatres old and new serve culture vultures of all varieties.

History is there, the foundations on which to build new histories: The chic Theatre de Nouveau Monde, once the Gayety where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and, most infamously, stripper Lili St-Cyr held court in the 40s, and a few blocks east Le Metropolis, the city’s oldest-running theatre (founded in 1893). The corner of Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent promises to be transformed into the vital hub it once was.



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