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Spirit, Culture and History

Deep in tradition, Ste-Catherine remains the central artery of Montreal

By : Adair MacGregor

Ste-Catherine is not only Montreal’s major street, but also a local pseudonym for ‘downtown.’ If you are “going down to Ste-Catherine’s,” Montrealers will immediately know you are going to shop, do business or head to work in the denser areas of the city.

The street itself is a huge one-way, stretching from the downtown core and sliding for most of the commercial sector of the island. The greater part of it is flanked by the comprehensive Metro system, which makes it quick to travel and easy to navigate.

When Montreal was built, Rue Ste-Catherine was definitely not a part of what anybody would call downtown. The busiest section of town was down on the old cobblestone streets of Rue St-Joseph, which you can still visit in Old Montreal.

During its heyday in the 18th century, Montreal was a hub of political and commercial goings-on because of its convenient spot on the St. Lawrence River. St-Joseph ran the grand central for ladies and gentlemen who would stroll for leisure, sitting in cafes, shopping for dresses or visiting gentleman’s clubs. Giant banks built their offices around the area, and economy thrived. It stayed this way for quite some time.

In 1861, when the first streetcars were built in the city, not a lot of Ste-Catherine actually ran the cars, since it was too far from the city core to be bothered with. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the great city of Montreal finally recognized Ste-Catherine as its central vein of traffic. Skyscrapers of all types began to shoot up around it, ancestors of the strolling ladies and gentlemen were now flocking to major sections of this new area, artists that would soon become famous like Leonard Cohen and Rufus Wainwright were drinking on Ste-Catherine terraces and Montreal’s modern success was being thickly underlined.

Even during the referendum, when most areas of the city were devastated by a mass departure of English businesses and land-owners, Rue Ste-Catherine remained resilient. Due to the three major universities, Concordia University, McGill University and UQAM (Université de Québec à Montréal), as well as its huge shopping centres, Eaton’s, Ogilvy’s and the Bay, business was allowed to continue as usual.

These days, while Montreal is no longer the economic leader of Canada, it is still a huge producer of fashion, cultural artifacts, artists, writers and filmmakers. Rue Ste-Catherine reflects these qualities, putting forth a face that the rest of the world has long-since recognized as unique.+

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