Artists are crying “Victory” in the Quartier des Spectacles after winning a David vs. Goliath battle that pitted powerful corporate interests against local artists at the Café Cleopatra, a popular burlesque venue and centre for alternative arts.
Café Cleopatra hails from another era and symbolizes the city’s once thriving Red Light District. Situated within “The Main” historic site, everything about the Café Cleopatra, from its Victorian architecture, historic performance spaces, and ongoing burlesque shows, hails back to earlier times when Montreal’s Red Light District was booming, such as during the days of Prohibition. Located in the heart of Montreal’s new Entertainment district, the Quartier des Spectacles, and employing over 100 talented artists, the historic Café Cleopatra seemed like a major asset within Montreal’s culture, heritage, performing arts and tourism milieus.
However, beginning in 2008, developer Christian Yaccarini and the Société de Développement Angus (SDA) began purchasing nearby buildings, with the goal of buying up the entire block for a project called QuadrilatÃ¨re Saint-Laurent. Ill-conceived from the beginning, the SDA’s plan called for the demolition of a block of Victorian heritage buildings located in “The Main” national historic site – in order to build an office tower.
The irony that SDA was planning on destroying several historic performance venues within the new Quartier des Spectacles was not lost on local working artists, who kept a close eye on the situation as they began mobilizing. Heritage activists joined in, observing the fact that “The Main” national historic site is guided by the policy that “initrusive elements must be minimal”.
The SDA systematically bought-out or relocated long-time resident businesses, devastating the living culture and heritage of the area and leaving a cultural vacuum in “The Main” national historic site. Irreplacable historic businesses were ejected, such as the famous Montreal Pool Room (in operation since 1912) and Ã‰picerie Importations Main, Montreal’s first Middle-Eastern grocery store (established in 1924). Popular performance venues such as Katacombes, Opera, and Saints, crucial to the living culture of the area, were also shuttered and given the boot.
After gutting almost the entire block of its living culture, heritage, and business, the SDA ran into one final obstacle â€“ the Café Cleopatra refused to sell. Owner Johnny Zoumboulakis said at the time: “This is a historic part of our city. It should be restored, revitalized, not just bulldozed. History, once you break it down, you don’t bring it back with an office tower. What we have now is the real thing. It’s our heritage, it’s part of our history.”
Not to be deterred, in January 2010, the powerful SDA teamed up with Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay and his administration to appropriate the last remaining holdout, Café Cleopatra. By now the artists had assembled a “Save the Main“coalition of community stakeholders, artists, and intellectuals, and they began fighting back on various fronts. On the legal front, Zoumboulakis refused to negotiate with the SDA, and hired a lawyer. Save the Main created a petition to save the café that garnered over 1000 signatures, and made their case through lobbying, the media and public consultation process.
On the cultural side, artists tried just about every trick in the book to save the Café. They created awareness-raising performances, lobbied politicians, and attended public meetings in burlesque costumes. They also created a viral video campaign that included critical parodies of the Tremblay/SDA alliance, and, when artists realized that politicians were not listening, they made pleas to heritage buff Prince Charles for his intervention, generating substantial media attention. Finally, the artists created a new urban plan for the area that repositioned Café Cleopatra as a major asset within the Quartier des Spectacles. The artists’ urban plan was presented by cultural worker Donovan King and burlesque performer Velma Candyass to City officials in May, 2010, as part of a PechaKucha series.
As the battle for hearts and minds dragged on over the summer, with legal costs mounting and Montreal’s brand image taking a beating in the press, it appears as though City officials began to reconsider their unpopular position.
In a December, the City of Montreal sent out a press release and and invited special guests to a cocktail party in the gallery of the new Maison du Festival, where plans for the future of the neigbourhhood were to be unveilled. Behind the scenes there had been a process whereby artists and community stakeholders were able to express their opinions, and the event signalled the culmination of these consultations, and recommendations for future action.
At the event City officials conceded that the artists’ vision of the Lower Main had lots of merit, and even issued a booklet about the envisioned future of the area that incorporates many of the artists’ ideas. Interestingly, 7 of the 11 recomendations are directly related to Save the Main’s new urban plan. The document calls to “re-establish commercial activities (Principle 2)…maintain the area’s diversity (Principle 5)…rennovate the buildings (Principle 6)….commemorate history (Principle 7)…highlight existing cultural institutions (Principle 8)…promote a multi-functionnal area with nighlife (Principle 9)…and to encourage quality, audacious architecture (Principle 11).” It appeared as though the artists were finally being listened to.
Finally, on Thursday March 10, in a flip-flop of enormous proportions, the City of Montreal announced that it would no longer seek to expropriate the Café Cleopatra, effectively ending the lengthy (and expensive) legal battle. Likewise, the SDA must now work around the Café Cleopatra, with spokeswoman Genevieve Marsan saying: “We don’t have a choice.”
Artists are ecstatic now that the Café Cleopatra is safe, and reaffirmed their support for the historic Red Light District and its preservation on CTV News.
The lesson learned is that artists need to be proactive and create superior visions for our society, because, as this case so clearly illustrates, nothing is safe when corporate powers get into bed with government officials. Given that this is a systemic problem across the globe, artists need to be bolder and more persuasive than ever before, and must challenge oppressive behaviours and demand their right to be heard in the decision-making process. The fact that corporations, with the government’s support, can run amok in a national historic site, destoying culture and heritage, shows just how sick the society is. Meanwhile, developers like the SDA need to realise that artists should be treated as valuable consultants to be included in the decision-making process, because not only can they provide better visions that will ulimately lead towards higher profits, but also because it is a really bad idea to get on the wrong side of artists, as this case so clearly illustrates. Finally, politicians need to wake up to the fact that the artists are currently doing their job, alebit unpaid, and they need to start taking their duties more seriously. To date, municipal, provincial, and federal governments have shrugged off protecting The Main national historic site, each of them passing the buck and denying responsibility.
In one final irony, Café Cleopatra, the symbol of the real Red Light District, was snubbed when glowing red lights were installed on the outside walls of all performance venues within the Quartier des Spectacles. The idea behind the design is specifically to recall the era of the Red Light District by illuminating venue sidewalks with pools of red light.
After being snubbed initially, perhaps now the Café Cleopatra will finally get its own red lights to indicate it is, most definitely, a part of Montreal’s new Quartier des Specatcles - and a unique window into the city’s Red Light heritage at that!
To celebrate, a Victory Party and burlesque show (hosted by the fabulous Reena) is planned at Café Cleopatra on Saturday, March 26. A $5 donation is suggested, and the burlesque show starts at 9 pm (doors open open at 8). Everyone who supports local culture, heritage, and burlesque entertainment is invited to raise a glass, celebrate, and hear about the artists’ next step in saving “The Main” national historic site from further devastation – and demanding their say in the development of the Quartier des Spectacles!