From the outside, CafÃ© Cleopatra may look like nothing more than a sleazy strip club. But owner John Zoumboulakis has managed to keep the neon lights flashing on this fixture of lower St. Laurent Blvd. for more than a quarter of a century. Soon, however, Zoumboulakis might have to turn off the lights.
For years, the city of Montreal has claimed it wants to revitalize the area known as the Lower Main, Montreal’s historic red-light district. In late 2007, the administration of Mayor Gerald Tremblay began negotiations to tear down the strip and make it part of the Quatier des spectacles. The job was given to the Angus Development Corporation, a non-profit created in the mid-90s to develop an abandoned rail yard in Rosemont.
The company began buying-up the buisnesses on the street, closing down Frites DorÃ©es, Club Opera, the Main Importing Grocery store and the historic Montreal Pool Room. CafÃ© Cleopatra is the only one that has stood up to fight.
In January, the City announced that they would be expropriating Zoumboulakis’ property.
“I stand for revitalizing, developing and restoring the Main,” Zoumboulakis said. “I don’t want to stop progress, but the expropriation and the bulldozing of this street goes against history and our heritage. They aren’t cleaning up the Main, they are taking possession of the land.”
So, he is fighting the expropriation in court.
The development plan originally called for CafÃ© Cleopatra, along with several neighbouring buildings to be demolished, with a 12-storey tower being built in their place. The building would have been home to Hydro-QuÃ©bec offices and cultural groups. Two weeks ago, the project was scaled back to a five-storey building. Angus’ president, Christian Yaccarini, told le Devoir that with the current economic climate, cultural groups could no longer afford space in the new building. The project has also been delayed.
This isn’t the first time Zoumboulakis has resisted development. In 2002, along with the owner of the Montreal Pool Room, he refused to sell his property to a developer with a similar plan. At the time, the law didn’t allow the city to expropriate land for private developers and the project died. The law has since been changed.
“We have been in business for a long time. I will not let them bulldoze history,” Zoumboulakis said, adding that “Heritage Montreal and many other people” were supporting him.
Policy director of HÃ©ritage Montreal, Dinu Bombaru, agrees that the area needs to be revitalized, but believes that revitalization doesn’t mean demolition. “Revitalization has to bring life and active retail to the area,” he said. “Why take on this huge project which would destroy all these small venues that are trying to survive?” According to Bombaru, small venues like CafÃ© Cleopatra and Club Soda bring that area a “little amount of light at the end of the tunnel.”
President of Save the Main and Coalition of Artists of the Cabaret Cleopatre, Eric Paradis said he thinks that even Club Soda will eventually be expropriated in order to make room for another huge building. He said he feels that if the government really cared about revitalization, then they should ask what the people and the community would like to see renovated.
“The government should make a contest for students and professors in urban planning, architecture and engineering fields to propose a plan about how they would reconstruct the area,” Paradis said. “The winners of the contest could participate in the reconstruction.”
The next generation of Montrealers will be deprived of many fond memories if the Main is demolished, Paradis said.