BY Rowan Kennedy & Vincenzo Mercuri
Butt plugs, strap-ons, and skin-tight leather outfits line the rows of Armada. Manager Olivier de Maisonneuve stands in front of the sex accessory and clothing store on Saint-Catherine Street East. He waits for clientele to come in and browse on a Friday during lunch hour, but the bell on the door remains unrung.
In the past, tourists made up a large portion of the clientele at Armada, according to de Maisonneuve. He remembers those days fondly. He has lived in the area for more than 20 years. “A lot has changed in the Village,” de Maisonneuve says.
The Village attracted the gay and lesbian communities after city authorities shut down gay bars downtown in the 1960s and 70s. Despite Canada decriminalizing homosexuality in 1969, dozens of LGBT businesses fled persecution and founded Montreal’s Gay Village.
In 2023, the Village is undergoing a transformation.
More than a dozen major construction projects are in the works according to the merchants association, Société de développement commercial du Village (SDC).
“These big projects are going to change the whole face of the Centre-Sud. It’s like 20,000 people coming here in the next 10 years,” says SDC director Gabrielle Rondy.
Rondy says three major housing projects on Saint-Catherine Street East will be built in the next 10 years, attracting close to 20,000 people. In the meantime, she says the district’s commercial vacancy rate was close to 20 per cent last year.
“It’s very hard because there’s nothing when you come in from the west entry [on Saint-Catherine Street],” says Rondy.
The merchants’ association says 24 businesses opened last year while 14 shut their doors in the Village.
Rondy says road work on Saint Catherine Street East, Atateken Street and Berri-UQAM metro have been a major blow to merchants.
Lee-Ann Millaire Lafleur says her Caribbean restaurant Palme sees frequent water closures because of road work outside the front door. Millaire Lafleur says it makes her restaurant unappealing and clients cannot find parking.
“In the past 8 months, this has been the max amount of construction we’ve had,” she says.
In 2020, a temporary overnight shelter opened at Place Dupuis in the Village. The converted hotel served a sharp increase in demand over the COVID-19 pandemic. With 300 spots, it was the city’s largest resource of its kind. The shelter closed after a year and the people who used it remain.
Local merchant Syed Moin Uddin says unhoused people have been using his back alley for shelter. Seeing how the neighbourhood has changed, Moin Uddin is looking to close his Indian Restaurant Tabla after 20 years.
“I lost everything, what can I do? I’m just wasting my time.” he says. He’s trying to sell his business but he says no offers have been made. “After the pandemic, we were hoping next year we would do better but the better year is not coming.”
The City of Montreal says it has formed a Crisis Unit for the area. The team is composed of Montreal Police, the Fire Department, the regional health authority in Centre-Sud, the transport corporation (STM), and officials from the borough of Ville-Marie. It has been meeting weekly for two months.
“Currently, it is working to increase the number of people on the ground to ensure interventions in cohabitation and social intervention, increase the presence of public safety personnel and strengthen efforts with respect to vacant buildings,” according to spokesperson Ibsen Pepperall Gutiérrez.
Rondy says she is also a part of the team. She says the initiative came when Archambault announced it would close its flagship downtown store in The Village by June 2023.
“They have to find global solutions right now but they also need to find solutions for the long term. These issues have been worse for three years but they have been there for 10, 20, 30 years,” says Rondy.
She and the area’s merchants hope the crisis team can make a difference.