Montreal is a city of many different personalities. It is creative, emotional, bawdy at times and sophisticated, both low- and high-brow. And nowhere are those varied facets more brazenly reflected than on its most famous street, St. Catherine.
Rue St. Catherine, which runs 11 kilometres from east to west, is the main artery where the energy of this city of 1.8 million flows. When the economy is good, the street shows it off. Its sidewalks fill, and there is a palpable energy and exuberance.
However, when the economy falters, the street – which has seen it all over the course of its 280 years – seems to shrug like a tired old warhorse and say, “Here we go again … mais c’est la vie.”
Today, that pendulum is swinging back in the direction of a rebirth. Cranes dominate the skyline. Construction crews crowd the streets and new restaurants, five-star hotels, luxe shopping and multimillion-dollar condos have sprung up along the street that, until a few years ago, was known primarily for its strip clubs.
“St. Catherine is one of the primary ways we measure the city’s health, and it’s currently got a very strong and steady pulse,” says Jean-Francois Daviau, president of Groupe Sensation Mode, which has put on the annual Fashion & Design Festival at Quartiers des Spectacles, a cultural hub near St. Catherine and St. Laurent, for the past 20 years.
“It is more than just a street. It is an integral part of our identity. It’s a contradictory hub of persistent activity that changes decade to decade, or more recently, seemingly from hour to hour.”
Make no mistake, St. Catherine is in the throes of an epic transformation. The non-stop grumbling of Montrealers about construction is testament enough. But there is also a feeling of dynamism and renewed pride in the flux of change evident along every block from Place des Arts to Guy Street.
In June, the new Four Seasons Hotel opened, “arguably one of the most important hotel launches in Quebec in decades,” according to Montreal Gazette writer Rochelle Lash. She went on to write that, the hotel’s new brasseries Marcus was “named for celebrity chef Marcus Samuelson, who lionized comfort food at Red Rooster in New York and London.”It’s already one of the hottest meal tickets in Montreal. (No small feat given the city has the most restaurants, per capita, of any Canadian city.)
Next door to the Four Seasons is Holt Renfrew Ogilvy, which has slowly been reopening, floor-by-floor since March. It’s undergoing a $150-million renovation that will make it one of the country’s glitziest fashion stores, with a new Chanel boutique at street level poised to be its newest addition later this month.
Further east, Maison Birks put the finishing touches on the renovation of its flagship store at Phillips Square a year and a half ago. The site incorporates the chic new bijou Hotel Birks, as well as Restaurant Henri, named after the man who founded the eponymous jewellery store in 1879.
“The Birks store has seen everything,” says Jean-Christophe Bédos, president and chief executive of Maison Birks. “The gathering of the troops at Phillips Square [in the First and Second World Wars], Stanley Cup and Santa Claus parades, and multiple store closings during the Depression and subsequent recessions.
“But still we stay. St. Catherine is symbolic of Montreal. It is a survivor and it’s experiencing a revival because many local and international investors believe in Montreal, which is still relatively inexpensive compared with Toronto and Vancouver.”
A $200-million renovation is almost complete on The Eaton Centre, which pulled off a major coup by securing Canada’s first Time Out Market food hall as a tenant. It will open later this year with 16 local chefs serving diverse dishes.
Michael Kors is coming too, opening a new Canadian flagship this month and joining brands that already call St. Catherine home, such as Canada Goose (which has its own fridge rooms for customers trying on $1,000 parkas) and the shoe store Browns, which hosted Celine Dion’s first handbag collection in 2017, causing pandemonium in the street.
Similar to loyal Birks, Browns has rolled with the street’s up and downs. “It has this amazing energy again,” says Janis Brownstein, the retailer’s director of communications, whose grandfather Benjamin founded the chain in 1940. “And no street, anywhere in Canada, can boast the history of St. Catherine.”
The street began to grow in fits and starts in 1736 as the Old Port city began to expand. Its reputation as a shopping destination took root in 1881 with the arrival of Canada’s first department store, Henry Morgan & Co. (now the site of Hudson’s Bay), which was followed by Birks, Eaton’s, Simpson’s, Dupuis Frères and Ogilvy.
Office buildings such as Dominion Square went up, head offices for the likes of Sun Life went in, and from the 1920s through the fifties, a slew of vaudeville halls, strip clubs, theatres, after-hour bars and cabarets moved in, cementing Montreal’s reputation as the City of Fun and Sin.
But by the 1950s and 1960s, patience for the city’s shenanigans had worn thin. St. Catherine’s Red Light district at the corner of St. Laurent was shuttered and the performing arts centre Place des Arts moved in. Today it’s just one of 80 performance halls and bars that make up the Quartier des Spectacles entertainment district and home to the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the comedy fest, Just for Laughs, which draws crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands each summer.
This year, those hordes faced roadblock after roadblock, as construction crews continued work on widening sidewalks, reducing car lanes, eliminating parking, planting trees and replacing a sewage system that dates back to 1933.
“This reinvention has to take place,” says Claude Sirois, president of retail at developer Ivanhoé Cambridge, which is behind the $200-million retrofit of The Eaton Centre and supportive of the extensive roadwork that has ripped up the street in front of his mall, which attracts 30 million visits a year.
“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘How about a root canal today?’” Sirois says. “It’s not pleasant but we have to swallow it. St. Catherine can’t be rebuilt the way it was. In the 21st century, it has to be a walkable, people-friendly destination with lots to do, see and eat.”
Daviau, with the Fashion & Design Festival, agrees and he has been given a $4-million annual budget to attract Montrealers to the area despite all the dirt and dust.
“Millennials are the single biggest consumer group and many don’t drive,” Daviau says. “They want downtowns that are accessible and easy to get around by transit, feet or bike. They want to be entertained, they want to feel part of and they want to be engaged.
“Every major city in the world is facing this challenge as demographics change and they are trying to figure out how to inject the main arteries – the 5th Avenues, the Rodeos, the Bonds – with life.”
In the past few months, Daviau and his team at XP_MTL, an event-programming non-profit, have set up a Metro dance battle at McGill College Station, indie and rap music St. Jax Montreal (an Anglican church on St. Catherine) and recreated a beach scene (with lifeguards in bathing suits) to greet commuters getting off trains connecting at Place Ville Marie.
“My sole purpose is to wow Montrealers,” Daviau says.
Sitting in Marcus at the new Four Seasons, I can’t help but think the plan is working. It’s early on a Tuesday night and already there is a lineup to get in, the tables are packed and everyone sitting around me is speaking French. These are not just guests of the hotel.
“Seventy per cent of our clientele are native Montrealers,” says Lino Lozza, the restaurant’s general manager who walks through the room, topping up wine glasses and greeting customers like long lost friends.
“We already have a number of regulars who come two or three times a week,” he adds. “I know our food is good, but I think it’s more than that. Montrealers have been waiting for something like this and they love nothing more than a night out on the town.”