A new look for Old Montreal

The neighbourhood’s 350-year-old cobblestoned streets are getting a new look – and a reputation for of-the-moment boutiques, bars and shops.

Filled with traffic and camera-toting tourists, until recently the 350-year-old streets of Old Montreal resembled a Canadian Times Square. Trendsetting locals bypassed the district, opting instead to spend time in other neighbourhoods, dancing in the nightclubs of Plateau Mont-Royal or sipping craft beers at microbreweries in St Henri and Griffintown.

But changes are afoot along Old Montreal’s cobblestoned streets. City-funded urban development projects are installing a pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and a real estate boom is enabling a young, creative class of artists and entrepreneurs to open hip boutiques and restaurants. Suddenly, the city’s oldest neighbourhood is all anyone can talk about. 

“I call it ‘Nouveau Vieux Montreal’, or ‘New Old Montreal’,” said Mario Lafrance over coffee and croque monsieurs (grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches) last October. An earnest man in a plaid sport coat and Kissinger-chic eyewear, Lafrance leads the Société de développement commercial du Vieux Montréal (SDC), Old Montreal’s nine-year-old economic development organization. Since 1993, he said, the number of people living in Old Montreal has grown from 100 to 6,000. Nearly 40,000 people work in the district, Lafrance said, manning the shops and restaurants of the SDC’s 2,000-member local business alliance.

It is not the first time Old Montreal has been a community hub. Montreal’s founding father Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, installed Montreal’s first road, Old Montreal’s central Rue Saint Paul Ouest, in 1692. The street provided easy access to the St Lawrence River, and throughout the 18th Century prominent denizens like de Chomedy lived and worked there, building mercantile outposts and grand private residences near the port. Now, after almost three centuries of expansion, real estate speculation and tourist infestation, Rue Saint Paul Ouest has re-emerged at the centre of Old Montreal’s 21st-century revival.

One of the galvanising forces of Old Montreal’s revitalisation has been the development of an adjacent professional district called Cité du Multimédia. Over the past 20 years, Cité du Multimédia has grown into a media mecca, housing technology, marketing and design companies like creative agency Sid Lee and design consultancy Nurun. The neighbourhood’s youthful work force of writers, filmmakers and designers produce a stunning 70% of the world’s animation projects.

These new media professionals need restaurants to eat in and bars in which to rest their weary ankle boots. By the mid-2000s, they started trickling onto Old Montreal’s centrally located Rue Saint Paul Ouest. Now, they chatter over brownies and lattes at popular café Olive + Gourmondo, or meet for 5-à-7 (happy hour) cocktails at the coolly industrial Philémon Bar up the road.

Fresh, youthful energy spread throughout the area. In 2012, historic square Place d’Armes, which was created as a town square in 1836 and is located two blocks from Rue Saint Paul Ouest, unveiled a C$15 million renovation. The sleekly redesigned plaza now has unadorned benches filled with lunch-breaking locals, 20-somethings on iPads and, of course, travellers – ducking into the Gothic Revival Notre Dame Basilica or taking selfies in front of the 1895 statue of Paul de Chomedey. 

Nouveau Vieux Montreal truly came into its own, though, with the June 2012 debut of arts institution Centre PHI. Located around the corner from Olive + Gourmondo, a few steps from Rue Saint Paul Ouest on Rue Saint Pierre, Centre PHI is a multimedia gallery and event space. It hosts free exhibitions by the likes of Canadian politico Gátean Nadeau and filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, as well as fashion shows, filmmaking master classes, children’s theatre workshops and neighbourhood parties with late-night DJ sets.

Now, young artists and entrepreneurs abound in Old Montreal’s sloping streets. Denis Gagnon, an award-winning Canadian fashion designer with a branded Lancôme beauty line, opened a flagship store on Old Montreal’s Rue Saint Paul in 2011. Swell Fellow, a hip boutique selling one-of-a-kind neckwear and carefully curated objects of art – including sculptures made from repurposed parking meters by painter Erik Furer – debuted a few blocks away in April 2013. Four months later Maison Christian Faure opened, bringing perfectly brewed espresso and haute French pastries like macaroons, Bordelais canelé (miniature cakes) and sugar-topped brioche – not to mention cooking classes in both French and English – to Place Royale, the former fur-trading square that dates back to 1892. Guide Vieux-Montreal, a free iPhone app created by SDC, helps locals and travellers alike keep track of the area’s activity. 

More is yet to come. Bonaventure Highway, an elevated eyesore that cuts between Old Montreal and its southwestern neighbour Griffintown, is currently being dismantled. A more bicycle- and pedestrian- friendly roadway will replace it within the next three to four years. Citywide initiatives include the C$8 million, Unesco-approved Promenade Smith project, which will transform a previously desolate area of Griffintown into a public park.

Artist Erik Furer lives in Griffintown now, but he plans to move to Old Montreal. “This is where my business is,” he said, gesturing around his shop. His atelier is one story upstairs. “I want to be here too.”