At its height in 1918, Montreal’s infamous Red Light District, with its epicentre at the corner of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine Streets, stretched east all the way to Papineau. Fuelled first by the lust of undersexed soldiers returning home from war, and later by sin-seeking Americans fleeing Puritanism – ahem, sorry, “Prohibition,” that is – Montreal’s greatest claim to fame was less as the “City of a Thousand Bell Towers” and more as the “City of a Thousand Brothels.”
Walking along Ste-Catherine street and the Lower Main as early as three years ago, the countless neon stripteaseuses signs and the electric silhouette of a dancing girl provided clear echoes of the area’s storied past – even if the grimy old facades and high-heeled sex workers that lined the sidewalks in my adolescence were a far cry from the famed cabarets and bawdyhouses of yesteryear. Today, the last remaining vestiges are steadily fading away, vacated or bulldozed to make way for the glittering new Quartier des spectacles development scheme.
But Montreal’s history will not go quietly, thanks in part to this year’s Infringement Festival. Festival founder Donovan King and burlesque performer Velma Candyass dug deep into this city’s inglorious annals (2 Ns!) to take us on an in-depth and irreverent jaunt through some of Montreal’s most sin-soaked chapters. And as with any encounter with history, the stories tell us as much about the people we are today than they do about the people we once were.
The least that can be said is that King and Candyass did their homework: sources at the ready, the dynamic duo skipped from one titillating tale to the next, never failing to keep their audience giddily hanging on each new intrigue hidden just around the bend. We heard of De Bullion’s former life as the notorious Cadieux Street, famous with sailors the world over for its wall-to-wall brothels. Then, there was the famed “312 Ontario,” the motherhouse of Montreal’s brothels, and the days when the mere mention of the number “312” would set schoolboys all a-snicker. (It also happened to be located a stone’s throw from the Number 4 Police Station; corruption and collusion in Montreal, it seems, are also not modern innovations.)
And of all this lustful lore, which tidbit, you wonder, was this reviewer’s personal coup-de-coeur? Glad you asked! Montreal, we were told, was said to be giving soldiers five times the gonorrhea as other cities. The problem became so acute, Candyass intoned, that it was endangering the war effort.
Oh, Montréal, how little you’ve changed…
Okay, granted, I exaggerate… slightly. But raze every last strip club (and “24-hour massage parlour,” and gay bathhouse) tomorrow, and Montreal, at heart, would still be Montreal; sexy, open, fun-loving, freewheeling. Already in the 1950s, clergy were publicly lamenting how the city counted more nightclubs than churches! (And this was before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.)
The most exciting part of tours like this is maybe just how much they can transform your daily walks. A building you’ve sauntered past countless times without a moment’s pause now suddenly has a voice and countless tales to tell. If only these walls had learned to talk earlier.
However, if King and Candyass see their vision through, then soon these walls just might. They would like to see this tiny tour grow into a larger and more permanent attraction in Montreal, offered around the year to keep the memory of Montreal’s Red Light burning bright.
I, for one, will wish them all the luck in the world. They just might need it.
The Red Light Walking Tour has finished its (very short) run, but the Montreal Infringement Festival continues until June 26. For more information, visit the festival’s website. http://www.infringementfestival.com/montreal/fest/