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The Main: the heartbeart of Montreal
St-Laurent Blvd has always split and connected Montreal with style
By : Lauren Chang MacLean
St-Laurent is, and always has been, the heartbeat of Montreal. Long before the name was synonymous with supperclubs, festivals and indie boutiques, St-Laurent – or “The Main”, as Montrealers call it – was the backbone of the island. Both a division and meeting place of the French population to the East, the English to the West, St-Laurent is home to a hodgepodge of immigrants and entrepreneurs of every ethnicity under the sun.
A stroll down The Main in the pre-1990s meant a visit to the boulangerie for croissants and bread, charcuterie for deli meat, fleuriste for flowers and marché for fresh vegetables. Shops were family-run enterprises with Pop by the door and Mom behind the counter, frequented by locals who ordered their “usual” and knew everyone else’s business.
Over the years, plenty has changed, with grocers being replaced by haute-cuisine dining, and Mom’n’Pop moving over to make space for powerhouse club owners. Despite the transformations, the boulevard’s definitive status as “the” boulevard in Montreal has remained the same.
St-Laurent is named for the Saint Lawrence River (Fleuve St-Laurent) and is officially called Boul St-Laurent en francais, and Saint Lawrence Boulevard in English. Although both English-speaking locals and tourists usually use an anglicized version of the French name, which in turn will sound something like “Saint La-Ront”.
Historically, “The Main” has been the first stop for immigrants looking to jumpstart their new lives in Canada. Explaining the diverse ethnic populations that inhabited the area, and the resulting plethora of multicultural establishments, from the beloved and now defunct Jewish Warshaw Grocery, to the Portuguese, Italian, Chinese and Middle-Eastern groceries, bakeries and delis that used to – and in some places still do – dot the sidewalks.
The changeover from old-to-new is also one of the most successful illustrations of Montreal’s economic recovery after the political turbulence of the 1980s and ’90s. The unique character and importance of the street was even awarded the highest distinction in 2002 when designated a National Historic District of Canada by former Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, ranking the area among those rich in history and culture all across the nation.
St-Laurent is the old stomping grounds of many anti-mainstream groups, from the Montreal Mafia (which ran undercover bookie joints and brothels well into the 1950s), to eminent poets like Irving Layton, Hugh McLennan and Leonard Cohen (who still haunts the cafés and sidewalks of upper St-Laurent some early mornings).
Simply put: past, present, and predictably in the future as well, St-Laurent exudes an unmistakable and unshakable chilled-out vibe that continues to evolve while remaining true to a unique Montrealais culture it both abides by and shapes.+