As a historian whose subjects are, sadly, all long dead, I have the pleasure to practice other more lively arts on occasion. Sometimes the results are empirical observations, derived through years of dutiful carousing. If I can claim to be an anthropological observer in any sense, then it is in this one.
First of all, there are the basic facts of the matter: St. Laurent is the divide — the antidilluvian flow — between the “two solitudes.” In truth, on St. Laurent nobody is lonely, so there are no solitudes. It does, however, mark some nominally abstract Cartesian line of distinction between “nous” and “les anglais.” Whatever…my uncle used to live in Westmount and that was just fine. Still trying to live that one down in my cosmology.
The real mark of the character of St. Laurent is not an east/west, but a north/south schism. The corner of St. Laurent and St. Catherine is quite surely a ley line and gate to dark, otherworldly dimensions, and is perhaps best enjoyed at about noon on the coldest day in the middle of January. Special, that is. It almost seems peaceful.
The northward climb (with old school shout outs to Fouf and the Metropolis as one goes…) brings us to Sherbrooke. Lovely architectural details here, but the sense of movement can be disorienting. Good spot, however, to hail a cab in any circumstance…To the true breed of hipster, the run between Sherbrooke and Prince-Arthur can really be forgotten. There is a sad, ever revolving flow of trend in these parts, and it’s really all about the transients. That and the mob.
Prince Arthur has its charms, and there is a magic about that corner. The spirit of the street grows here, and the next block is what makes St. Laurent the place it is — an eclectic mix of bars, restaurants, and stores (anybody with a bit of the fashionista in them can get lost on this block for hours — I’ve heard of it happening). The mix of up-market and not is jarring yet effective. The two St. Laurents co-exist at this point.
Above Pine, the whole thing takes a turn for the bizarre. Here one enters a time-warp. The anchor of this deeply rooted mystique is the unchanging landscape. But for Warsaw’s, which has gone the way of the Dodo, there are still some real historical markers, whether measured in terms of bars (Copa) or restaurants (Schwartz’s). The heavy Portuguese flair also doesn’t hurt. This is a wonderful run.
Rachel marks the turn towards a quirky eclecticism…Social clubs and ungodly pretentious furniture stores are the order of the day beyond here. But this is also surely quintessential St. Laurent. The view up Rachel towards the mountain and the cross is striking; beautiful in so many lights and seasons. Used clothing, cool toys, a hardware store, a lamp shop, a porn theatre, and a bunch of great little eaterys — a special mix that is, again, unique in the city.
The dimension of space alters beyond this point, shifting perceptibly at Mont-Royal. St. Laurent hereafter gets progressively less dense. More residential elements prevail and the run up to St. Joseph is quieter. Some funky fashion spots along this stretch, but there is also a simple local flavour.
Further north one encounters a few gems — venues with their devoted clientele. Cafe Esperanza, on the corner of St. Laurent and St. Viateur, is a nexus of young artsy folks, aging hipsters and even older counter-culture types, crossing generations and reminding of what the Beats could have been. It’s also has pretty good coffee and sandwiches…
Lurching under the train yards, St. Laurent becomes, once again, newly transformed. The density increases here, and there are amazing spots sprinkled in among the auto parts shops and restaurant supply stores. There’s a basketball court, too, with all the energy of a diverse neighborhood concentrated on the concrete in the summer months.
One then passes through one of the most distinctive parts of the street — the St. Laurent of little Italy, a collection of sumptuous restaurants and local commercial flavour. That part of the St. Laurent journey ends up on Jean Talon and the nearby market.
Few of the denizens of the lower regions venture this far up, and certainly even more rarely beyond, but there are still a few noteworthy stops before hitting the Met, including Jarry Park and the best outdoorman’s store in the city. Baron Sport is a Montreal institution in a strange way, and was always such a treat to a boy from the city who loved hiking, camping and fishing. Their catalog is a sight to behold.
And thus ends our trip along St. Laurent. It is an admittedly brief and subjective portrayal, an ethnography of the street. But the street’s true charm is that everyone has their own version of this rambling panorama. Everyone has their own St. Laurent…