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
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,
Smith project, which will transform a previously desolate area of
Griffintown into a public park.
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.”