Well here we go again. The Société de développement Angus (SDA) just announced a $160 million, 12 floor development project for the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine, the heart of Montreal’s historic Red Light District and current Quartier de Spéctacles.

They’re calling it Carré Saint-Laurent. There’s supposed to be a market similar to Marché Atwater at street level, cultural organizations on the first floor and the rest of the floors split between residential and commercial space, the latter leased by the Quebec government for 25 years as office space for employees currently working in the Centre de commerce mondial.

If this sound familiar, it’s because just a few years ago, Angus tried to expropriate and demolish almost the whole block and build the Quadrilatère St-Laurent, a giant office tower for Hydro Quebec with a few boutiques and restaurants at street level. They failed.

Café Cléopâtre, a business located in a historic building with a strip club downstairs and an independent burlesque, drag, theatre and fetish performance space upstairs, refused to leave. Artists, heritage experts and people defending the rights of sex workers fought the PR battle while Cleo’s owner Johnny Zoumboulakis challenged the expropriation in court and won.

While the similarities are obvious, there are a few key differences. First, look at the promoters.

Current state of the lower Main (photo by Donovan King/optative.net)
Current state of the lower Main (photo by Donovan King/optative.net)

Angus and its head Christian Yaccarini were front and centre last time around, joined by then-mayor Gerald Tremblay and his Union Montreal administration, who had given Angus a no-bid contract to complete the project. While Hydro Quebec had agreed to rent out the space, the Charest government largely stayed out of the debate.

This time out, Angus and Yaccarini are again prominent but Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is by his side and was part of the announcement. The city hasn’t said much, aside from new mayor Denis Coderre appearing in the photo op.

As for the opponents, last time everyone, be they history buffs, anti-gentrification activists or ordinary people who felt that the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine needed buildings that were at a more human scale, gravitated to the cause to save Cleo, making Zoumboulakis and the artists he housed their champions. This time, it’s not so simple.

Café Cléopâtre is not in the wrecking ball’s crosshairs, at least not yet. While I wouldn’t be surprised if Yaccarini’s plan is to drastically change the neighbourhood around Cleo so it will stand out like a sore thumb and want to move, that hasn’t happened yet and is not part of the official plan.

That means arguments that Quebec and the SDA want to evict a bunch of artists from an entertainment district can’t be made. Also, Zoumboulakis can’t wage any legal battles over who his neighbours will be.

If the fight to save Cleo the first time out was turned into a movie, it would be emotional and riveting. This would be the sequel where Brad Pitt (I guess Zoumboulakis) has to take a supporting role.

While many of the same artists seem to be on board for the fight (if the Save the Main Facebook page is any indication), it’s not going to be about them or the Cleo. The fight against this development has to focus on heritage and what role that will play in the future of the lower Main. Instead of focusing on what Yaccarini and Marois are proposing, it should focus on what they’re not proposing.

A market with small, independent vendors is a good idea and one that should occupy some of the space. But what about other nightlife to compliment Cleo? Maybe a live music venue or two? Another bar?

This area needs small businesses that are independently owned. Kind of like those that were there before the SDA decided to expropriate everyone.

I’m all for residential space, but not condos as they are proposing for the St-Catherine side. This isn’t an area for condos, it’s an area for nightlife and could be a great place for those who thrive in that nightlife (such as independent artists who may not be able to afford condos) to live.

Above all, this is not an area for government offices or tall buildings. There are other parts of town where such things fit, the lower Main isn’t one of them.

The lower Main was, is and should always be about Montreal. It’s not about the Quebec state or upscale establishments, just look at how the 2-22, Yaccarini’s other project across the street, is failing.

The lower Main needs to be redeveloped based on what the area is and has always been. That was happening on its own organically a few years ago, but then the SDA and the city put a stop to it.

I think the best way to proceed is for someone to expropriate all the properties that the SDA seized a few years ago from the SDA and sell them at affordable rates to a bunch of independent business people who get the street-level, independent nightlife vibe and who can actually get things moving the right way. Clearly Christian Yaccarini and Pauline Marois don’t know what this area needs.

I’d like to take a break from the revolution for a moment to say goodbye to a few old friends: several historic buildings that were part of Montreal’s fabled Red Light District. That’s what the activist artists in the Save the Main Coalition did this past Sunday as they staged a Funeral for the Main.

The mock funeral, complete with a priest (heritage activist and Infringement Festival creator Donovan King) giving the last rights, pall bearers (FTB contributor Laurence Tenenbaum and others), hysterical mourners (burlesque dancer Velma Candyass and others), a coffin and everyone dressed in black, drew 40 people in front of Cafe Cleopatre. The same group had spent the past couple of years trying to save the storied performance venue from eviction in order to build an office tower in its place.

They were successful. The Cleo will remain. Unfortunately, her neighbours, all buildings populating the west side of St-Laurent Boulevard between Rene-Levesque and St-Catherine and dating back over a century, have a date with the wrecking ball.

While there has been talk of preserving some of the facades and stones of these historic structures, the living, breathing culture that once inhabited them is already dead. It hasn’t been that long, though.

In 2009, the area was going through a resurgence. New performance venues like Katacombes complimented more established spots like the Cleo and legendary fast food restaurant Montreal Pool Room.

Then, Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay handpicked developer Christian Yaccarini and his Angus Development Corporation and gave them a no-bid contract to redevelop the area as part of the Quartier des Spectacles project. His idea: build a giant office tower for Hydro Quebec.

Despite opposition (and irony), Yaccarini spent the next few years buying out all the businesses, all but Cleo, and leaving their buildings vacant and effectively killing most of the organic culture and community on the block. Now, all we are left with is the empty shell of what once was and a perfect justification for demolition.

The Quebec government agreed and gave the go-ahead. The final act of burying real culture and replacing it with a gentrified, “safe” and most likely banal pseudo culture is scheduled for August.

Barring a miracle (hey, Cleo being saved was kind of a miracle, so it’s possible), this funeral will be the last true act of underground art the buildings next to Cleo will see. Rest in peace.

* image: SE Amesse Photography

Café Cleopatre when it still had neighbours

Ever see the slacker classic Joe’s Apartment? That’s the one with Jerry O’Connell starring alongside some well trained cockroaches as a mid west boy in his first foray into quasi-manhood in NYC, conveniently landing a rent controlled apartment, subsequently discovering his landlord is trying to kill him off so they can tear down the building and put up a maximum security penitentiary. Well, the same thing’s happening on the Main. Basically.

If you’ve been following the bouncing ball then you already know that Angus Development Corp owns most of the west side of St. Laurent between Ste. Catherine & the Monument Nationale, and was all set to build an office tower. They wanted the remaining land, and almost had it when the Montreal Pool Room moved across the street from its original location, leaving only Café Cleopatre standing her ground, at the same spot she’s stood for the last 35 years. Proud and determined, the lady couldn’t be bought.

Back in March, the city and developer Angus, under public and legal pressure, dropped plans to expropriate the Café Cleopatre. While I was fairly certain what that meant, I double checked the meaning and found “expropriate” defined as 1: to deprive of possession or proprietary rights 2: to transfer (the property of another) to one’s own possession and really, thems some expensive words to say stealing someone’s shit, so I’m kinda surprised they even entertained the question.

So, the Café won’t sell, and the city can’t let it be stolen, the office plan got shelved; what to do? Well, neglect the surrounding buildings until they get condemned and torn down. In a decision that was undoubtedly made while stroking an oddly complacent cat and laughing maniacally, that seems to be what’s happening. The nineteenth century heritage buildings owned by Angus along that strip are in wild states of disrepair, with city barricades erected to protect pedestrians from falling debris. In fact, if you’ve seen the strip lately, I bet you thought the buildings were unowned and waiting patiently for their chance to shine again, but that’s never been in the game plan.

The lower Main as it looks now

I hate it when people rewrite history. Did you know that rue du Bullion was formerly rue Cadieux, rechristened because the street name was notorious among sailors for the quality of the brothels? A reputation worthy of civic pride, in my books. That fact alone should be taught in schools, but instead it’s proof of an age old Montreal tradition to try to eradicate the collective memory of our stylishly sordid history. As a result, the red light district, — which, save for Café Cleo, is pretty well done — must go.

I asked a dear friend of mine, actor, producer and avid lover of the interestingly sexual, Jason McCullough, why he adamantly supports the Café:

“The richness of the place is a texture when you walk in. From the vaudeville lighting to huge space and friendly sassy staff, it’s a adult theme park event to be at Cleo’s. I’ve booked shows and events there, I’ve worked the 60’s era spotlight, attended fetish night events and comedy shows, as well as the amazing drag show hosted by Reena. The two bars are fully stocked and they even have a signature “Cleo Cocktail” that will lay you out if you’re not careful.  The whole joint is owned and run by Johnny, a kind and soft spoken businessman, who fought the big corporate business who tried to take his 40 year business away from him, and WON.  It’s a certainly one of the final icons of the Paris of the north, Canada’s sin city. The only thing I could compare it to would be a speakeasy in Chicago during prohibition. The light is always on at Cleo’s , and its RED!”

While leaving sequined men and open minded folk of various sexual shades out in the cold may not seem as dramatically heart wrenching as the hooligans in Joe’s Apartment throwing old ladies down the stairs to clear out the building for destruction, it’s an equally underhanded attempt to destroy the face of a neighborhood.

Cue my singing cockroaches.

I’d love to say that this is an isolated struggle; that it’s the world against Café Cleo, and that there’s one evil developer trying to cleanse our city’s sinful soul with corner offices and condos, but it’s more insidious than that. I remember when there were more lights on the Main, and then when those went out, I remember that we were promised more, better, brighter lights that never came. Recently the police’s morality squad has been making itself seen around town, in bars, cracking down on establishments with restaurant liquor licenses, (here too), breaking up illegal parties, or as their calling them, endroits clandestins.

I hate to be the one to mention it, but when did the city built on filles de roi, strip teases, after parties and endless vernisages, decide to get uptight again? We should maintain our identity with pride rather than settle for the homogenization of our metropolis. It seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong,  they’re clearing out the gritty, the artsy, the authentic and independent like it’s all a scourge on society, in favor of government sanctioned entertainment like the Quartier des spectacles, the main attraction of which seems to be the spotlights that passersby can fiddle with, and prospects of an office tower where we currently have a landmark.

Before it’s all gone like an apostrophe on a sign, write to someone. Support Café Cleo. Demand that Mayor Tremblay revitalizes instead of turning a blind eye while the developers let the area crumble into a valid excuse to change the face of our city.

Celebrate New Year’s Eve this Saturday from 10pm at Café Cleopatre, 1230 St. Laurent, where Reena hosts a special cabaret with Penelope, and the promise of many surprises. Admission is free (because they’re nice people).

Send your thoughts on the subject to:
Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay – geraldtremblay@ville.montreal.qc.ca
Montreal Culture Minister Helen Fotopulos – hfoto@videotron.ca
Christian Yaccarini (Angus Development Corporation) CYaccarini@technopoleangus.com

Tweet at me while you’re partying @McMoxy

Cleo at night photo by Chris Zacchia, lower Main photo by Donovan King, courtesy optative.net

“The people united can never be defeated!”

While that slogan heard at protests around the world holds true, it generally does so on a conceptual and defensive level. Strength in numbers is strength for sure, but does it ever go beyond that? Well, sometimes it does. Sometimes the people united can actually defeat much greater foes. That’s exactly what has happened in the case of the artists of Café Cleopatre versus the City of Montreal and the Angus development corporation (SDA).

If you haven’t been following the story from the get-go, allow me to recap:

In 2009, the lower Main was going through a rebirth of sorts. New venues like Club Opera and Katacombes were springing up to compliment more established places (and by established, I mean over half a century established) like the Montreal Pool Room hot dog joint and Café Cleopatre.

The Cleo is housed in a historic building and features entertainment on two floors. The ground floor is a strip club, but not just any strip club. Yeah, there are your traditionally sexy dancers in their 20s, but there are also women of different shapes, sizes and ages working there. It’s one of the few places in town that doesn’t discriminate.

The second floor is a whole other story, one of burlesque, drag and fetish. The space is home to many performers doing shows that are too risqué for many other establishments but in perfect keeping with the Cleo and the history of Montreal’s Red Light District where the venue is situated.

Meanwhile, the Tremblay Administration was planning to remove all this culture from the area which had been designated part of the Quartier de Spectacles. Their idea for this new entertainment district? An office tower! They handpicked developer Christian Yaccarini and his company Angus for the project and offered him a no-bid contract.

Dead Dolls Velma Candyass and Felicity Fuckhard pose at the OCPM hearings

This didn’t sit well with the artists who performed at Cleo, historians, ordinary citizens and pretty much anyone who cared about Montreal’s culture and heritage. They let their voices be heard at the Office de consultation publique (OCPM) hearings and in the media.

The OCPM took their side, ordering a re-think of the project. Yaccarini was ready to throw in the towel, but Tremblay wouldn’t hear of it, strongly voicing his support of the project, proclaiming it on track.

Over the months that followed, Angus bought out Cleo’s neighbours, leaving their former businesses empty, giving the rest of the block an increasing air of desolation. Eventually, the only other holdout, The Montreal Pool Room, moved across the street and Cleo was all alone.

Cleopatra owner Johnny Zoumboulakis speaks at the Montreal City Council

But the people who worked at, performed at and loved the Cleo were alone together. They kept on the offensive and opened up two new fronts: political (by speaking out at city council meetings) and legal (Cleo owner Johnny Zoumboulakis challenged the expropriation in court). They also made videos and even appealed to Prince Charles for support.

For a while it looked like it would be a battle to the end, but then a few weeks ago, Angus threw in the towel, promising to alter its construction plans to accommodate the Cleo’s existence by building around it and then the Tremblay administration, who until now had been hell-bent on replacing the establishment with an office tower, followed suit.

So this is what victory feels like. It’s not just a victory for Montreal’s culture and heritage, though, it’s also a victory for a group of people that worked tirelessly to keep this space they cared about alive, all the while continuing to do their art and in many cases (cause underground artists rarely survive off their passion alone) their paying gigs as well. This isn’t just David versus Goliath, it’s David holding down a day job and fighting Goliath in his spare time.

It’s victory for people like Club Sin’s Eric Paradis, the Dead Doll Dancer’ Velma Candyass and Drag Queen Reena, performers who have made the upstairs of Cleo a space worth preserving. It’s victory for Emilie Laliberte of STELLA, who fought hard to preserve a space where sex workers’rights are respected. It’s victory for historians and educators like Louis Rastelli, Viviane Namaste, Dinu Bumbaru and Donovan King who think the Red Light is as Montreal as a two-cheek kiss and shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s also victory for Johnny Zoumboulakis, a man who fought for over two years for one thing: the right to work. For over thirty years, he has run a successful business and been part of a community on the lower Main. Now, he can continue to do just that.

All these people will be celebrating their victory Saturday night at the Cleo and are inviting you to come celebrate with them. Come raise a glass to Johnny Z and the Cleo and party the night away celebrating a victory for anyone who loves Montreal’s culture and heritage.

The Café Cleopatre Victory Celebration hosted by Reena and featuring performances by Nat King Pole, Tommy Toxic, Velma Candyass and the Dead Doll Dancers and more starts tonight, March 26th, at 9pm (doors 8pm) at Cabaret Cleo, 2nd floor of Café Cleopatre, 1230 boul St-Laurent, cover is $5 with all proceeds going to STELLA

OCPM photo by Chris Zacchia

More Cleo? More Fun? Facebook us.

It looks like the independent burlesque, fetish and drag artists who call the second floor of Café Cleopatre on St-Laurent their artistic home will be able to continue doing so, at least for a while. City-backed developer Angus Development (SDA) told Radio Canada that they have scrapped their plans to expropriate the venue, and now plan to build two 13-storey buildings on either side of Cafe Cleo. This turn of events brings to a temporary end what is probably the biggest local David versus Goliath story to come about in a long while.

While this turn of events will allow many to breathe a sigh of relief, does this mean the Cleo is safe for good?

“No,” says Eric Paradis, who runs the monthly Club Sin fetish nights on the Cleo’s second floor, “the Cleo will never be safe as long as corporate interests rule above those of the artists.”

It’s those same corporate interests that led the Tremblay administration to offer the SDA a no-bid contract to “redevelop” the lower Main. It’s also those interests that gave the SDA the bright idea of building a skyscraper office tower for Hydro Quebec as the centerpiece of an entertainment district and evicting all the entertainers who stood in their way.

Fortunately, those motivations were clear to people who performed, worked and lived in the area as well as historians, academics and pretty much anyone who cared about Montreal’s real culture. Those voices came out en masse at the public consultations on the subject nearly two years ago, when FTB first picked up this story.

Now, Angus may well be taking its new two-building proposal to the public consultation process. Even though the plan allows for the Cleo to remain, it’s a far cry from the re-emerging nightlife that existed on the block before Yaccarini and company started buying up lots and boarding up buildings.

“Regardless of my status of producer of events,” Paradis commented, “I think it’s preposterous to build anything over six stories on that part of the Main.”

This also isn’t a done deal. The announcement by Angus just says that they have asked the city to remove their name from the expropriation process, so the city still needs to do just that. Some may remember that the last time Angus made a concession (after the OCPM ruling came down), Tremblay erased it and said that things would proceed as planned.

So while supporters of the Cleo, authentic grassroots culture and Montreal’s heritage take a collective sigh of relief, is there something else they should be doing to ensure that the Cleo remains, and that a better idea for the area than two office towers comes to light?

“Make yourselves heard!” Paradis argues, “your ideals to preserve and rebuild have every right to be.”

If you want to be heard, you can comment on this post, the Radio Canada article, spread the story and join the Save the Main Facebook group. You can also read our previous coverage of the story.

Photo by Chris Zacchia

Rob Ford, new mayor of Cal...er...Toronto

I must admit, I’m a bit confused. I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to write about here. It’s a year-in-review piece, so at least the time frame is solid, but the subject matter, hmm, that’s another story.

You see, I don’t really have a clear beat. I started off 2010 as a theatre writer, but now that’s done by others and occasionally me, at least when it comes to burlesque shows (heh heh, but seriously, check out my reviews of Blood Ballet and Glam Gam). I do write about news and politics, even in this space, but I’m not the only one, so this can’t be a year in the news piece.

I could write about the year it was for FTB. (and in fact I will, but that’s coming up New Year’s Eve, not here.) So I guess I’m just going to have to talk about the year in random things that caught my attention.

It seems somewhat appropriate that I’m confused, because 2010 sure was a year of confusing things. While Calgary took a few steps forward and elected (by all accounts) progressive lefty Naheed Nenshi, Canada’s first Muslim mayor, Toronto took about fifty steps back and basically elected Rush Limbaugh in the form of anti-homeless, anti-cyclist loudmouth Rob Ford. The City of Montreal, under the direction of Gerald Tremblay, still wants to destroy the Red Light District, at least there was some good news last week that developer Angus may throw in the towel and let the venerable Café Cleopatre continue to exist.

Meanwhile in Quebec, Jean Charest and his cronies (before facing a sham commission) banned the wearing of religious head coverings when trying to use government services and made those services, even those that are supposed to be free, a little more expensive. This drew considerable protest, but you wouldn’t know it by reading The Gazette.

People are not impressed: photo of the anti-Charest budget protest by Chris Zacchia

At least Stephen Harper’s consistently a douchebag. He did up the ante a bit this year, though, by going all police state on peaceful protesters and the City of Toronto during the G20, using tactics that would have made Homeland Security and the CIA under Cheney (er, Bush) blush.

Harper’s new nemisis the UN took a step backwards, too, by condoning the baseless executions of gays and lesbians. At least Haiti decided not to allow Wyclef Jean to run for president, though their elections didn’t go all that smooth, regardless.

The good stuff: Buffalo Infringement Festival photo by Jason C. McLean

Even closer to home, things have been strange. Despite being a fresh, new and alternative media source, we’re still following Justin Beiber on Twitter and last time I checked we’re now following Paris Hilton, too. At least it gives me the opportunity to use the Biebs, Paris, Jean Charest and Islam as keywords in the same post, which is fun.

I did have quite a bit of fun this year, actually and got to report on it, too. From checking out the Brooklyn music scene first hand and getting a sarcastic kick out of the lone tea partier in Times Square to experiencing the unique joy that is the Buffalo Infringement Festival, 2010 has been quite a ride.

I guess my New Year’s resolution (or at least my public one) will have to be focus on the positive, still write about the negative (cause it’s important) and embrace the confusion.

photo by Chris Zacchia

For supporters of Café Cleopatre and the heritage of Montreal’s historic Red Light District, Christmas may come early this year and I’m not talking about the Glam Gam holiday show that wrapped up last weekend, either. Angus head Christian Yaccarini confirmed to Cyberpresse that he may just throw in the towel and give up on his company’s ongoing attempt to expropriate the legendary burlesque, drag and fetish performance space and downstairs strip club.

For several years, Yaccarini’s Société de développement Angus (SDA), with the full blessing and encouragement of Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay and his administration, has been buying up spots on St-Laurent boulevard between St-Catherine and the Monument Nationale theatre and leaving them vacant, creating a virtual ghost town around the lone holdout Cleopatre. They hope to raize the area and replace what was recently a thriving community experiencing a rebirth with a giant skyscraper to house Hydro Quebec offices.

Meanwhile, a coalition of artists, historians, academics and residents have been fighting this plan tooth and nail in the media, at City Hall, at the Office de consultation public and recently in the courts. It’s this case brought by Cleo owner Johnny Zoumboulakis that may finally break Yaccarini’s stubbornness on the matter. He argued that it might just not be worth it to keep paying legal fees when, as he put it in French, “Cleo’s lawyers just don’t want to come to an agreement.”

If Angus does decide to stop fighting, it would be a decision “with heavy consequences for the lower Main” as Cyberpresse put it, but only because of the situation Angus created all around the Cleo. Even when a group of artists endorsed by the Quartier des spectacles put up graffiti art over the boarded-up buildings, Angus had it painted over a few months later, destroying an attempt to bring life back to the block.

Now (if they drop the case), Yaccarini and company will have to decide what to do with the lots they do own. Maybe they could adopt a plan put forward at last May’s Petcha Kutcha night all about the Main: one that would see a living tribute to the area’s burlesque past. This plan was heavily cited in the booklet put out by those responsible for the event (though with no mention of the Cleo). Or maybe they could just pass the project on to another developer, one with more knowledge of what the area needs (ie. not an office tower in the heart of an entertainment district).

Maybe the city could force Angus to do the right thing, but given the fact that the Tremblay administration is heavily involved in this disaster and even handpicked the developer, ignoring his criminal past, that doesn’t seem very likely. That might not matter, though, because if people working together to stand up to him can (eventually) get Yaccarini to change his mind, maybe people working together can make the city adopt their plan.

Hugo’s first series with FTB is the 35th anniversary show Cabaret Cléopatre Grand Spectacle: 35 years of travesty and was held April 24, 2010. Hugo was invited by his friend Velma Candyass, the leader of the Montreal Burlesque Dance Troop, the Dead Dolls, to explore and photograph the event. The 35th anniversary show focused on creating awareness about the forced expropriation the Café may be facing due to the building of the new Hydro Québec offices. We’ve also been covering this story on FTB since June 2009.

Spending most of his night swinging from front to back stages, Hugo captured the intimate and controversial side of the performers. The burlesque artists performances centered on dramatic impersonations of blue collars workers in the City of Montreal.

The majority of the artists featured in the   show were performing in protest against the City and its private promoters. Hugo’s images are a testament to the devotion, talent and creativity of and to all of the hard blue collar workers in Montreal.

Enjoy this wonderful series. Check back next week for the premier of Hugo’s dark post-card series.

[nggallery id=carte-blanche-i-know-what-you-did-last-night]

A stone’s throw from all the action at the Jazz fest taking place in the city’s brand-new Place des festivals, Café Cleopatre sits surrounded by art-covered boarded-up buildings waiting to know if it will still be there next year.   Across the street, though, there is life and things are being built…or at least that was the case last week.

The other side of the street: Cafe Cleopatre (photo by Jason C. McLean)

Construction has stopped on Angus Development’s 2-22 project which was supposed to house the Imago group, CIBL Radio and La Vitrine Culturelle among others.   Apparently, the federal and provincial funding needed for these groups to occupy the space hasn’t come through yet.

Angus head Christian Yaccarini told La Presse that he is confident that all the contracts will be signed and construction will resume real soon and Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay is holding a cheque is in the mail-type attitude to the delay, telling the Gazette that he has full confidence in Ottawa and Quebec City.   Despite these attempts at being positive, the simple fact that this project is in trouble is a far contrast to the mood surrounding it even a few months ago.

What's there now: construction site of the 2-22 (photo La Presse)

The 2-22 was by far the least controversial of Yaccarini’s projects for the lower Main, given that it wasn’t going to be an enormous skyscraper and would actually hosue cultural industries in a Quartier de spectacles (go figure).   This stands in sharp contrast to the proposed Quadrilaterre, which has already evicted three venues and would see a fourth, the venerable Cabaret Cleo, which showcases many independent artists, disappear as well, in order to make room for an office tower.

If Yaccarini really wanted to support culture and fit his plans in with the idea of what an entertainment district is supposed to be, maybe he could help cover the cost if the government money doesn’t show up.   Unfortunately, that may be a little hard for him to do now, seeing as he has already spent a bundle buying out and relocating historic businesses and performance venues to build an office building for Hydro Quebec that aren’t needed and no one wants.

This may end up being good news for the artists, historians and ordinary people trying to save Cleo and the historic red light district from demolition and gentrification.   With an OCPM ruling against the project, tons of alternate ideas out there that better reflect the cultural and historic nature of the area and ongoing resistance to the project, maybe this recent setback is the straw that will break the camel’s back and those in power will realize that Yaccarini’s vision won’t work on the lower Main and isn’t what’s needed for what is supposed to be the cultural hub of Montreal.

Post bills please: The Lower Main gets a makeover

The artsits of Café Cleopatre have some new neighbours. No, the businesses evicted by the Angus Development Corporation and the city haven’t returned, but at least now, the boarded-up look is gone and has been replaced by graffiti.

On Friday, over 30 artists organized by Sterling Downey, operating under the name of Bombe sur la Main and with the approval of the Quartier de spectacles transformed the facades of the boarded up buildings on St-Laurent between the Monument Nationale and St-Catherine into art.

While it might be strange seeing the infinitely recognizable front of the former Montreal Pool Room turned into a mural, it’s definitely an improvement on what was there just after the business moved across the street a few months ago. In fact, while it’s sad that the block had it’s newly forming life sucked out of it by Angus head Christian Yaccarini so he could build an office building where it doesn’t belong, it is cool to see what these artists have done with the place. There’s even a tribute to Café Cleopatre and the Red Light history of the area.

No matter what you think of this initiative, though, you’ll have to agree that it’s better than an office tower.

The former facade of the Montreal Pool Room
Over 30 artists working for 12 hours
part of Bombe sur la Main

Similar aesthetic? Former home of the Katakombes
Not just ground level
Watching over the Main
Neighbours on either side for the Cleo

Photos by Jason C. McLean

For more, including photos of the completed works, please click here. For a video report by the CBC, please click here.

Imagine if all political decisions were made in an inclusive manner where all those who had something to say could do so, provided they signed up enough in advance. Now imagine if this was done with the help of images, twenty of them, each projected on a screen for twenty seconds while the speakers had their say.

The new democracy? Petcha Kutcha logo by Studio Feed

Welcome to the world of Pecha Kucha, an event that started in Japan and is now held in over 300 cities around the world, Montreal being a place where it really has caught on.   Each time, there’s a different theme and last Friday at the SAT the event was called Saint-Laurendez-vous and the theme was the lower Main (between Sherbrooke and Rene Levesque).

Eleven different speakers offered their vision of what should be done with the stretch of St-Laurent boulevard between Sherbrooke and Rene-Levesque, some with charts and graphs, some with photoshopped images of the area’s potential future and others offering a glimpse into the Main’s past as Montreal’s historic Red Light District and even earlier.

Cultural worker and theatre artist Donovan King of the Optative Theatrical Laboratories, accompanied on stage by Dead Doll Velma Candyass, offered a jovial and crowd-rousing proposal that the area be turned into a living, breathing center for burlesque entertainment.   At the same time he argued that it become a tribute to the Red Light burlesque of the past emphasizing the protection of the area as a national heritage site (which it, in fact is) complete with a statue of Lily St-Cyr.

Proposed statue of Lily St-Cyr moments before being arrested for indecency and the cop tasked with bringing her in (image by Optative Theatrical Laboratories)

Meanwhile, Club Sin promoter Eric Paradis favored the audience numbering in the hundreds with a song and a presentation of images of some of the culture currently happening at Café Cleopatre.   Associate professor Viviane Namaste also mentioned the Cleo in her talk about the transgendered history of the area.

Not everyone addressed the Cleo specifically.   Dave Bouthillier spoke of turning Peace Park into a legally recognized area for skateboarders, which seemed very popular with the crowd.   Urbanist Bruno Collin spoke of the area’s birth, decline and potential rebirth, offering a plan which includes more residential space (and not just condos).   Others dealt specifically with architecture, while 3am Creations’ Julie Bisson spoke about the Big In Japan restarurant as a treasure trove of stuff from the Main’s past and Valentin Guirao went a bit out of the way and spoke of the Habitations Jeanne-Mance.

None of the presentations, with the exception of the one by Susan Bronson, president of Les Amis du boulevard Saint-Laurent and Mireille Frenette of La Table de concertation du faubourg Saint-Laurent accepted Christian Yaccarini‘s Quadrilaterre project as part of their plans.   Maybe it’s a belief that the project is already a fait accompli or maybe it’s an actual like of the plan.

If it’s the latter, then Bronson and Frenette are clearly in the minority.   If the crowd was asked to vote, whatever proposal was accepted would surely be progressive and respect the area’s past and wouldn’t include an out-of-place office tower, much like the OCPM ruled.

While the Mayor wasn’t in attendance, some of his borough representatives were.   Hopefully they’ll report back and the Mayor will change gears and listen to what the people want for a change.   The likelihood of that happening, however, isn’t great.

You see, instead of our city government being run in a manner as inclusive as the Pecha Kucha, we’ve got politicians giving no-bid contracts to their friends who want to wipe away history and living culture in order to construct buildings no one wants.   The Pecha Kucha was one of the most democratic evenings I’ve been to in a while and it’s now up to the City of Montreal to catch up.

* For videos of the evening’s presentations, please click here

“It’s a strip club with video poker machines!”

With that statement in an email sent to supporters last June, developer Christian Yaccarini ruled out the possibility that there was anything more to Café Cleopatre and dismissed the importance of the independent fetish, burlesque and drag artists who are performing to packed houses on the Cleo’s second floor every week. Now, it seems like Yaccarini wants to make that statement a reality.

And the independent artists go where? Photo of La calèche du sexe by kraminottawa.blogspot.com

After over a year of battles in the media, in the political arena and even in the courts, Yaccarini finally decided to make Cleopatre owner Johnny Zoumboulakis an offer that goes beyond a simple cash payout. If Zoumboulakis vacates his spot on St-Laurent, making way for Yaccarini’s Angus Development Corporation to build its skyscraper office tower, the Quadrilaterre, in its place, Angus will help relocate him to the space currently held by La Calèche du sexe.

While the new location (Ste-Catherine near St-Denis) still falls into the Quartier des Spectacles and is zoned for adult entertainment, there is something missing. It’s only one floor that’s being offered, which means there is no room for a second floor devoted to emerging artists performing shows that need to be housed in a space designated for adult entertainment.

Despite claims by Yaccarini and his associate mayor Gerald Tremblay that they want to do something for the emerging artists, it’s those artists who are still left without a place to perform. In fact, Yaccarini even said that it’s just the strip club part of the equation that doesn’t fit into his plans for the lower Main. Now it seems like the strip club is the only part of the Cleo that he is willing to help save.

Nothing wrong with the way it is now. Photo of Cafe Cleopatre by Chris Zacchia

There’s a few other things that Yaccarini and Tremblay don’t get: the fact that a giant skyscraper has no place being the centerpiece of an entertainment district, that the Main is a historic site that should be respected and preserved and that most people who live and work in the area don’t want his project to begin with.

Zoumboulakis said he wouldn’t comment on the offer until he had a chance to look it over. Maybe the Mayor should have taken that approach before giving a developer with a criminal past a no-bid contract on the redevelopment of such an important part of town.

If the mayor wants to consider other ideas, he can head down to the SAT, 1195 St-Laurent, tonight (Friday, May 7th) for a special edition of PechaKucha co-presented by his very own Ville Marie borough. The evening will consist of alternate plans for the Main between Sherbrooke and Rene Levesque presented by eleven different people including associate professor Viviane Namaste from Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, promoter Eric Paradis of Club Sin and theatre artist and heritage activist Donovan King of the Optative Theatrical Laboratories.

The presentations will be done in the PechaKucha format consisting of twenty slides, each shown for twenty seconds. Doors open at 7:20pm with presentations beginning at 8:20pm. DJ THERMOS (Marc-André Mignault) and VJ Choco-Beets (Caroline Blais) will perform before and after the presentations as well as during the intermission.

This is a free event and promotional material urges people to come and be inspired. Maybe the mayor or even Christian Yaccarini could be inspired to realize that there is another way and see that the latest offer by the developer is nothing more than another attempt to greenwash a plan that was dirty from the get-go.

You’d think that several independent artists performing on a rare Vaudeville-era thrust stage and keeping alive a tradition that dates back over a century in a historic building in the heart of an emerging entertainment district is the sort of thing that warrants promotion. Or, at the very least, a listing.

Unfortunately, until yesterday, Le partenariat du quartier des spectacles, an organization dedicated to harnessing “the neighbourhood’s lively energies to promote community development” denied both to the artists who perform on the second floor of Café Cleopatre. That has now changed.

An oversight corrected? Screenshot of Cabaret Cleo's listing on the Quariter des Spectacles website

Le Cabaret Cléo is listed on the Quartier des Spectacles website as are the shows, or at least some of them, in the site’s calendar. It wasn’t a sudden realization of the organization that they had made a huge oversight that prompted the change, but rather a letter by STELLA‘s Ä’milie Laliberté sent on February 15th.

To put things in perspective, it took the partenariat, an organization with considerable funding, a few days shy of two months to make a small addition to their venue and event listings. This is the type of web update would take Forget The Box, an organization with no funding whatsoever, no more than an hour.

This means that either their website updates are severely backlogged or it was a conscious decision to not list le Cléo. The good news is that the appearance of the listing could mean that the tides are turning.

Unfortunately, le Cléo still isn’t on the official walking tour of the area and if you have a look at this promotional video, which, ironically, mentions community and focuses for a bit on the history of the area, you won’t see Cabaret Cléo, but you will see, briefly, a drawing of developer Christian Yaccarini‘s Quadrilatèrre, which both he and Mayor Tremblay want to replace this venerable institution:

It’s possible that when the video was made, the people behind it thought, as some in the media did, that the project was a foregone conclusion. It’s also possible that now, thanks to the efforts of the Save The Main Coalition and others, it’s become apparent even to the partenariat that le Cleo has no plans to go anywhere and wants very much to be a part of the lower Main and the QDS’s future, so they changed their listings to reflect the new reality.

It’s clear that Tremblay and Yaccarini don’t plan on singing a different tune, despite public opposition to their office tower project. The partenariat, however, hasn’t officially released a statement on where they stand on Café Cleopatre’s refusal to leave.

Despite their silence on the subject, their video and website spoke volumes about their allegiance. Now, hopefully, this small change to their site signifies a change in attitude on the role le Cléo plays in their project.

Apparently, the new design of the 2-22 Ste-Catherine building is good enough for Gerald Tremblay that it won’t undergo a public consultation process and construction can start May 2nd. No word on if the city is planning a consultation process on Angus development’s proposed new design for the controversial Quadrilaterre project, but there will be one whether the mayor wants it or not.

Nothing to talk about: New Tremblay-approved 2-22 design

The Save the Main Coalition will be holding their own public consultations on Thursday, May 6th and are calling upon residents, artists, architects and even developers to propose ideas for how the lower main can best be redeveloped. They’re open to all types of propositions.

According to a press release, the boarded-up buildings that currently surround Café Cleopatra (most of which were thriving businesses until Angus bought them out in the past year) can’t stay. Solutions are needed that are built on a human scale and respect the diversity and heritage of St-Laurent Boulevard.

Last time around: Velma Candyass and Felicity Fuckhard at the OCMP consultations last year (photo Chris Zacchia)

This follows a series of public consultations last year that dealt with one plan, the Angus plan for a skyscraper office tower, which was rejected by the vast majority of consultation participants. The OCPM ruled and the city chose to ignore the decision and carry forward with the project anyways.

After nine months, a municipal election, criminal revelations and admitted financial difficulties on the part of the developer, we’re back at square one. Gerald Tremblay forcing through a project no one wants that no one but his handpicked developer had a chance to bid on.

This time, however, while the 2-22 is pretty much a done deal and there will probably still be no other bids allowed for the stretch of the Main where Cleopatra sits, there will be plenty of other options for the city to consider implementing. By providing an open consultation where all ideas are welcome, the Save The Main Coalition are doing what the mayor should have done years ago.

Interested parties are invited to submit their proposals (three pages or less, indicating whether or not a PowerPoint presentation is needed) to Viviane Namaste 514-848-2424 x 2371, viviane (at) alcor.concordia.ca no later than April 15th.

After admitting that his twelve-storey office tower planned for the Quartier de Spectacles had to be scaled back to just five floors as well as his company’s fundraising difficulties, Christian Yaccarini, the head of the Angus Development Corporation, lashed out at the city’s public consultation process and the artists trying to save Café Cleopatre from demolition. Now word comes that his company’s deal with the City of Montreal is being investigated by Montreal’s vérificateur général.

Let's make a deal: Tremblay and Yaccarini (photo La Presse)

Yaccarini’s frustration, as voiced to the Montreal Board of Trade, falls perfectly in line with what we already know about the developer’s attitude toward consultation and independent artists. Back in June 2009 he sent an email to his supporters, urging them to come to a press conference and arguing that “so-called artists” were causing a “veritable psychodrama” at the OCPM meetings in order to protect what is nothing more than “a strip club with video poker machines.”

If Yaccarini had bothered to actually listen to what was said at the meetings, he would have learned that there is much more to the Cleo, namely a vibrant arts scene whose artists don’t want to leave and in some cases have no other place to go (thanks to zoning regulations). He’d also have realized that these artists want development in the area but want to be included in it.

The Tremblay administration also didn’t listen, either to the artists or the decision by its own consultation body. Now there are two reasons for both parties to listen: he court case brought by Café Cleo fighting its expropriation and the investigation.

It makes sense that there should be an investigation. After all, if your firm wants the contract to replace the toilet paper in City Hall, for example, you can bet there’s going to be a bidding war. How could three incredibly pricey building projects on a historic street with huge symbolic significance be simply handed to a handpicked developer (and one with a criminal past at that) without anyone else being given a chance to bid?

Media coverage and a slew of shows and videos (most recently the comedic Demolition in a Box) have helped, too. Unfortunately as Velma Candyass, one of the artists behind these projects told the Montreal Mirror, a lot of the damage to the area has already been done.

Two performance venues and a dance club have moved according to Angus’ wishes, leaving the once booming, then desolate, then booming again area almost desolate once more. In what they claim is an attempt to rebuild an area that sorely needs a makeover, Yaccarini and Tremblay have created the very devastation they claim to want to eliminate.

This begs the question of why Christian Yaccarini feels he is in any position to complain.

Parody is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, yes it can be, but it can also be a powerful weapon that can be used to call bullshit on those who spew it all around. For a current example, one only has to look to the artists of the Save The Main Coalition.

In one easy step: new parody video

In hopes of saving Café Cleopatre and the Lower Main from destruction in favor of an office tower, the group tried appealing to the city and failed. They appealed to the public and succeeded (at the OCPM meetings) but the city refused its own consultation process’ decision. They’ve appealed to the courts and don’t know the result yet. They even tried appealing to Prince Charles but were prevented from seeing him by riot cops.

Now, they’ve turned to infomercial parody to help spread the word about what the Angus Development Corporation wants to do to the neighbourhood: evict everyone with no good reason in an unethical manner as soon as possible. That’s essentially the plot of this new video called Demolition in a Box.

In this clip, available in both French and English, the Societe demolition Abus gives prospective developers the chance to destroy any city, landmark or section of town in one easy step. There’s even a jab at Angus head Christian Yaccarini‘s criminal past:

It premiered at the February Club Sin at Café Cleo to a very warm reception. While that may be preaching to the converted, viral videos have the potential to reach quite a few more than those in the know. Whether or not that can cause enough public pressure and potential international embarrassment to make the Tremblay administration change its tune has yet to be seen.