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The Main turns 100: A century of story

A century of story

The ever changing Main is still a source of inspiration to Montrealers 100 years on

Life is just another scene
In this old world of broken dreams
Oh, the night life, it ain’t no good life
But it’s my life
- Willie Nelson

The Main, or La Main, depending on which side of Boulevard St-Laurent your family comes from, has been mythologized in word and song for decades.

But never mind Leonard Cohen, Michel Tremblay or Mordecai Richler.

Never mind the generations of immigrants who’ve made a living off of Montreal’s most famous street.

No, the one author who arguably did more to spread the Main’s grimy, no-holds-barred reputation to all four corners of the globe was none other than mysterious American spy novelist Trevanian, author of the bestseller The Eiger Sanction, which was made into a 1975 movie starring Clint Eastwood, and whose 1976 novel The Main sold millions worldwide.

"The Main – a honky-tonk world of pimps and hookers, runaways, hustlers and thieves," the paperback cover screams. "A world where violence and brutality are a way of life – and death."

The novel, about Montreal police Lieutenant Claude Lapointe’s hunt for a cold-blooded murderer, remains Trevanian’s favourite. "The inner novel was about the inability of Western males to deal with grief and loss," Trevanian, a.k.a. Rodney William Whitaker, told Publishers Weekly in 1998 in just his second, and also last, career interview.

"Trevanian’s novel is not that far from the truth," says a 30-year veteran of the Montreal police force who requested Hour not use his real name, and whom I’ll call Lt. Lapointe after the tough old-school cop in Trevanian’s novel. "I was involved in the Main for years beginning in 1970, and back then it was already the end of an era."

What cops then considered the Main, Lapointe says, ran "from Viger to Pine. The Casa Loma [on Ste-Catherine Street just off St-Laurent] was closing, there was the Cinéma Eve [now Club Soda], there were nightclubs galore. Every second door was a club. There were beatings and stabbings, but if I covered two murders in 25 years, that was a lot. The Main attracted lower-class criminals who threw $100 bills around like it was nothing."

The Main remains the city’s red-light district. "You have the hookers and the pimps, and it’s a place where you can go get your drugs. So you have your pushers. And you have the guardians – motorcycle or street gang members. But there were gangs on the Main before there were gangs [everywhere else]. It was always like that. There was the Dubois family who ran the street from about 1960 to about 1980. Claude Dubois was the biggest of the nine family members."

If Claude Dubois was the strip’s strongest criminal during that era, then the most famous cop the Main produced went by the name of "Cartouche" (French for "Bullet").

"Cartouche used to run the Main with pure muscle," Lapointe recalls. "You needed big arms. He’d walk into coffee shops and hot dog joints filled with guys wearing zoot suits and stuff, and he’d put his finger in their coffee and if it was cold he’d tell them to get out. He knew you were there too long if your coffee was cold."

But Lapointe says Cartouche, who retired in 1980, was getting a little long in the tooth by the end of the 1970s. "So the police department assigned him a few young cops. We’d walk with him. He was quite a man, a tough guy. Today ask any of the owners of any of the old hotdog joints on the Main and they still remember Cartouche. He was a legend."

One of Lapointe’s very entertaining stories – and he has many – dates back to 1973 when police got a call from the Lodeo Café at the corner of De la Gauchetière.

"And there," Lapointe recalls, "was the biggest Indian I ever saw. He was 6’6" and throwing doormen around, and back in those days the doormen were big. I called for backup and we had 10 cop cars at the front doors and the Indian was throwing us all out. We were landing on tables. A couple of old drunk guys laughed and said to us, ‘Oh, you’re a cute guy.’ And the Lodeo had strippers – and we’re talking old, not classy – and during the fight, the band never stopped playing and the girl never stopped dancing. The Indian threw us around like we were twigs and she was bumping and grinding. It took us a good 15-20 minutes to [tackle] him."

There were also more typical daily routines. "The tough thing was walking into flophouses where a 15-year-old girl or guy on drugs is giving blowjobs to old men, or a hooker has a broken nose, or the drug addicts are lying in the laneways – stuff that you don’t really see today," Lapointe says.

The Main has undergone major changes in other areas as well, some dating back generations to the opening of legendary clothing and footwear store J. Schreter in 1928 (the same year Irving Berlin’s Prohibition-era hit Hello Montreal! topped the charts worldwide).

"When I came to this country in 1948, my cousin Joseph Schreter had a store at the corner of De Montigny – which is De Maisonneuve today – and I remember street cars going both ways on St-Laurent," says 80-something Irving Schreter, whose sons Steve, 51, and Joey, 50, now run the family business. "The store burnt down in the 1950s and we moved north to where we are today [at the corner of Marie-Anne Street]."

That J. Schreter’s is more in keeping with the modern-day mythology of the Main has a lot to do with the literature of Montreal icons Mordecai Richler and Michel Tremblay.

In the summer of 1985, roughly 30 years after Schreter’s move north, Richard Holder – who with his brother Morris had opened up a neighbourhood watering hole, La Braque, on Rachel Street – decided it was time to open up a hot new nightclub.

"My brother and I were driving up St-Laurent and saw a big ‘For Rent’ sign [in the industrial space now occupied by the Med restaurant just above Milton Avenue] and I said, ‘Whoa – this is cool! Let’s call them,’" Richard Holder says today. "The Main back then was a mishmash of small businesses that felt like they’d been there forever. The street was dusty and wasn’t a hotbed of nighttime activity when we arrived. And back then it was truer to say east [of the Main] was French, and west was English. We wanted a mix. So to open our club on St-Laurent was logical."

Six months later, on January 22, 1986, the Holder brothers launched their legendary Business nightclub. Their doorman was the massive Wesley Long, who always reminded me of actor Lou Gossett Jr. Long now lives in Vegas where, Holder says, "he’s a bodyguard for Céline."

Business ignited an underground scene that lit up the strip, mixing French and English, gay and straight, white and black.

"The Main in those days was a neighbourhood that allowed us to be as weird as we wanted to be," says Montreal’s reigning drag queen Mado La Motte, who got her professional start in 1988 at the mixed drag bar Poodles (now Saphir) just up the street from Business. Mado also got her moniker "La Motte" from patrons who said she looked like a mutt.

"There were no segregated bars," Mado recalls. "We were all [in it] together. In those days I didn’t go to the Gay Village because the Main had such an open spirit. And it all started at Business. That’s where it all ended too."

Says Richard Holder, "It took me three years after we closed to realize Business really was a pretty big deal."

The Holders have since gone on to open other bars and restos, such as Swimming on the Main, Holder in Old Montreal and Cube in the Hotel St-Paul; Mado La Motte now owns Cabaret Mado in the Village. Meanwhile, the Main has again grown into a sparkling strip that now rivals Crescent Street.

And that, Holder says, is precisely the problem.

"Where 20 years ago St-Laurent used to have a squatty flavour, today it feels very mainstream," he explains. "The clientele resembles the clientele on Crescent, much more than it did 10-15 years ago. It’s less funky, less underground. All the gays have gone. It’s much more anglo and there’s a huge influx of students. Now nightlife on the Main has spread from Ste-Catherine Street to Bernard. What folks are now doing on upper St-Laurent – Sala Rossa, Main Hall, Green Room – they’re tapping into that old underground feeling. But, as we are seeing again, when the underground is successful, it is by its own success condemned to no longer be underground."

Hundreds of thousands of Montrealers will celebrate the Main’s 100th birthday June 16-19 at the annual Frénésies de la Main street festival. The City of Montreal has also announced it will spend $11.4-million to spruce up the strip with brand new, wider sidewalks. And NYC-based Crown Publishers will reissue a special trade paper edition of Trevanian’s bestseller The Main this coming August.

But will all of this revitalization affect the historic Main below Ste-Catherine Street?

"I don’t miss working the beat," Lapointe says. "I went by the Montreal Pool Room the other day and had a couple dogs and talked to the boys. One guy was 75 and he’s still there!"

Lapointe continues, "There are only three or four [of the old] clubs still there. Midway used to be the old Rialto, and I walk into Cleopatra’s – where the strippers were never the best looking – and have a drink with Johnny [the owner]. You still get hassled on the Main. But today you never feel unsafe. Just don’t walk around with a bundle of cash in your pocket."

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  15 comments

  • by Max Webster - June 9, 2005, 11:47 am

    yeah, yeah, make the main about the nightlife if you want, but the real story is precisely those little shops that make the place come alive in all its diversity. The loss of business night club pales in comparison to the loss of Chez Don Georgio Restaurant Pizza, Montreal’s value leader for hot dogs and souvlaki in the early 1990s. And why not sing the praises of Ségal, which brings together the whole diversity of Montreal in the search for cheap canned beans? If the article is bemoaning the loss of the downmarket and the underground, why spend the time hyping what became expensive and mainstream? When I think of the Main, the words that come to my mind come from the Peel Pub Lion: Ssssségalez-vous!

  • by Alexander Yu - June 9, 2005, 12:02 pm

    When I moved to my apartment close to St. Laurent and the main I was told I it was going to be loud. They were right about the noise and I wouldn’t have it other way. I love the main, from Chinatown, to the sleazy area before St. Catherine, followed by the trendy expensive area, all the way up to the Italian village.
    It is still pretty multicultural and accepting of everyone. Where else can you go to a TD bank machine and fine English, French, Portuguese, Italian and if I remember Chinese available on it. Where else can you find like $100 clothing stores and walking just a bit south you find cheap warehouse stores selling whatever you want. Where else can you find Chinese, South East Indian, European groceries all within walking distance? No where. The main is always full of people of all shapes and sizes, with a business for every ones tastes. Heck I had one of my friends suggest we go to Cleopatra’s.
    My parents came here and this was their usual hang out. They knew all the stores here. When I was a kid I was afraid to walk up the seedy area. There were still a number of gangs out there. Now I live here and it’s my hang out. I walk by with no fear, because I’m a student, I’m poor! They can steal my backpack of heavy notes if they want to.
    From the cities I’ve visited, I never saw anything like this before. No street where there is something for everyone. This is a place where all the cultures come together just to have fun. It’s probably what made my parents love about this city coming from mono-cultural Asia. It is how the world should be if we lived together without petty politics or war: St. Laurent street. Now THAT would be cool.

  • by Pedro Eggers - June 9, 2005, 6:49 pm

    I don’t know if Montrealers will celebrate the Main’s 100th birthday with the thunderous emotion that this article clearly wants generate (by plugging two pretty obscure books from an American spy novelist that only hardcore readers are even remotely acquainted with no less!) but as I see it we Montrealers don’t really have to. Why? Well, I’d say, and I’m certain that most would agree that we Montrealers celebrate the Main every day we’re there. Whether it’s to shop, to eat or just to walk around we Montrealers are very keenly aware of how important the Main is to us. You can’t live on this island and not be aware of Boulevard St-Laurent’s kitchy coolness. Celebrate it? When have we ever stopped?

  • by Steve Landry - June 9, 2005, 8:26 pm

    Quite the history lesson this week in presenting so much interesting information on Main Street and the 100th Anniversary.
    Reading the column felt like sharing a coffee with a couple of “off-duties” who had been there, or heard all about the different characters that used to occupy the historic Main.
    Very good stories, many of them enlarged like the biceps of the local doormen who like the steroids and other drugs that they came into contact to helped them deal with the tough underbelly of Montreal’s early history exagerated the details just a “little bit”, to be sure.
    There were coppers probably exchanging favors to the thugs of the time to keep the streets quieter than they really were and “tricks” changing hands more often than the change in the young hustlers’ pockets.
    Whatever happened to guys like “Cartouche” and the 6′ 6″ Indian and the cops who used to patrol these streets? Well, at least we know that Mado La Motte will still be around to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a neighbourhood that is long on storytelling, helped build Montreal’s character and represents the early beginning of the Dubois, Schreters and The Holders families to make their mark in the criminal annals or their first $5 dollar sale.
    It would be interesting if the organizing committee could print the cover page of the newspaper from 100 years ago (if it’s still in the archives) to go along with the festivities. Times have changed but there are probably some strange parallels that are still relevant to todays life in good old Montreal.
    And Hey: Thanks for the memories.

  • by Lise Auger - June 10, 2005, 1:28 pm

    So much happened during the 100 years of Main street, la Main saw lots of stuff and kept lots of secrets, I’m sure we all have a story concerning Main street!! Lets celebrate this 100th birthday with glamour and this way we could help la Main become as much an attraction during the day as it is at night!!

  • by Charles Montpetit - June 11, 2005, 4:04 am

    How can an article entitled “A century of story” fail to mention the legendary spots that have failed to survive on the Main yet remain in memory to this day? If only in a brief sidebar, I’d have loved to light a candle for L’Androgyne’s lone gay beacon away from the Village, Danger’s unconventional bookshop and Warshaw’s oddball general store / ethnic supermarket, just to name three. They may be gone but, as far as I am concerned, the Main will always be synonymous with amazing experiments like these…

  • by Stephanie Ein - June 11, 2005, 1:20 pm

    What with condos and Mini Coopers and uber-trendy restos, the multi-ethnic heritage of The Main has all but evaporated– mall-ified, if you will. So sad that the unique flavour of this district has been replaced with overpriced flash and pre-fab tinsel.
    While I concede that this long stretch has always included its fair measure of sleeze (and always will), it was first and foremost Ground Zero for Montreal’s cultural communities, dating back to the 1800′s. Where else to find the perfect baking pan or spice? Where else to converge with homesick compatriots?
    Throughout the 20th century, as upwardly mobile immigrants moved to the suburbs, new cultures gravitated to the area. The Main was the place where all things began– until economics and politics stripped the area of its traditions.
    The Main used to be a powerful source of nostalgia for Montrealers. But I guess, as the saying goes, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

  • by Maria Cecillia Silva - June 12, 2005, 10:33 am

    Well of coarse we will celebrate St. Laurence street. Have seen at least 40 years of that 100 years on the Main. It was more immigrant like in my days. With all the clothing factories and all the shops from different countries. I remember the fresh food market on the corner of Rachel and St Laurence. There was Warshaw between Roy and Duluth, There was the Sheburts community swimming pool. Cantors bakery on the corner of Rachel and St Laurence. Some of those Restuarants have changed along the years. Most of the clothing stores carried bargin prices , clothing directly from the factories. Now you have the designer clothing boutiques and alot of bars and it took away the family oriented place. I guess thats why most of us moved away from the area , now we just go there to shop.

  • by Jeremy King - June 12, 2005, 4:02 pm

    Wow, quite an impressive history down The Main.
    NOt to kick a dying horse while it’s down, but “If only the walls could talk” down st-laurent blvd.
    That place is so rich in history with all the different events and places being constructed, and put into place.
    It makes you feel so small realizing how much has gone on in 100 years.
    Most of us, by the time we turn 100, won’t have come anywhere close to ever being able to compare how many events we can name, compared to such a renouned street.
    Happy Birthday The Main, we love you.

  • by Meghna Patel - June 12, 2005, 7:22 pm

    On the Main, it seems that everyone comes out to have a good time. There’s just so much to do here. Its large variety of activities ranges from shopping, coffee houses, restaurants/lounges, terraces and niteclubs have something for everyone to enjoy. This place is just as bustling during the day as it is during the night.
    I think every out-of-towner needs to experience the Main at least once. It’s a great way to show them Montreal’s melting pot of cultures. You can experience a little bit of Italy, Portugal, France, China and India (to name a few) just by walking up and down the boulevard.
    When Main Madness comes along this weekend, I can’t wait to spend the day on a terrace just watching the day unfold. It’ll be fun to have a few drinks, eat some trendy meals, catch up with old friends and make new friends, all at the same time. Who knows, you just might even make a celebrity spotting!

  • by Jesse Stacey - June 13, 2005, 10:55 am

    It’s a shame that St. Laurent has become so mainstream that artists are still asked to vacate their grungy studios to make way for trendy maximum profit oriented lofts. This is the best way to degut the city of its pride, but one walk through “the main” will prove that unlike life in other Canadian cities that can be like living in a bubble, Montreal is still a doorway to the exotic and potentially to the rest of the world. It is a launching pad that will fascinate and inspire you to meet new people and cultures. It’s probably just enough of a displacement to comfort you with the idea of letting go of mainstream habits, so that when it comes time to see what’s beyond it won’t come as such a shock. To stretch things just a tad, you will feel as though you were a nomadic gipsy all your life! Every block is inspired by different artists; be it chefs, musicians, jugglers, and human anomalies (remember we gave birth to cirque de soleil) and that’s something special. Come to Montreal, for a little bit of everything, but leave your capitalist profit making plans behind.

  • by Dan Leznoff - June 13, 2005, 1:49 pm

    Of course a deterioration of hipness could be expected. Same goes for the now-burgeoning Mile End hangouts. Urban planners always expect rents to hike and gentrification to occur when places like Boulevard St Laurent attract business and activity. When I started going to two places I love on the main – Casa Del Popolo and la Sala Rossa – the northern corners of Villeneuve and the Main were empty unused fields. Now, condominiums are going up, rising like Phoenixes from the hardened soil of progress. Warsaw is a Pharmaprix. You can’t get foutons and croutons under the same roof anymore. But I know a secret street… Defection time!

  • by Karen Sollazzo - June 13, 2005, 2:49 pm

    I’m too young to remember the glory days talked about here, and there’s no guarantee I’d remember them the same way even if I was there. But fun as it is to look back nostalgically, when that’s all done, remember what’s still here. The main is still a dynamic place to be, with the little shops and maybe now more of the bigger ones. But change comes with time, be that a good or a bad thing, and its important lost to lose sight of what you do have by dwelling on what’s gone.

  • by Maria Jankovics - July 22, 2005, 1:58 pm

    Living twice so close to St.Lawrence and St.Catherine corner four times in my lifetime has left me wondering how could our family ever have lived there not once but four times. We lived on De Montigny the first time in the Jeanne Cooperation and we landed back there this time on St.Dominique; the 3rd time we moved to De Maisonneuve when my dad needed his own room as he was sick and the fourth time when my dad died and we weren’t allowed to have this place with the extra room; so we have a four and half apartment on the tenth floor. So many memories I have of the years we’ve spent here. Some good and some not. I grew up in this red light district near St.Lawrence and St.Catherine corner where a prostitute came running after me asking the price of my abstract painting. She was killed I learnt later on. I remember, Woolworth’s on the south corner where I would go with my friends and we’d buy things dirt cheap there. There used to be a cheap dusty-type store that sold beads and all sorts of knicknacks for making clothes. There were stores you wouldn’t want to enter as there were mice in the window display. One time when we lived on De Maisonneuve, a young prostitute was flung from a passing ominous black car. Someone had called the police and all he did was poke with his foot slightly at the poor young woman to see if she was actually dead or alive. And I remember when my dad saved me from the this same fate; as I had been walking along St.Catherine minding my own business; when out of nowhere a prostitute tried to pull me into a doorway. But my dad who was following me; exclaimed ‘What do you want from my daughter?’ So she relunctantly let me go. I grew up next to the Main but when one time I found myself in the red light district I was afraid and uncomfortable in that section of town and I wonder how my family could have ever lived there in the Jeanne Mance Cooperation when twenty five years later all their buildings were infested with roaches and mice.

  • by shimaa galal - August 8, 2010, 8:47 am

    Thanks, to learn more about Cleopatra’s double sided cartouche
    …please enter her

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