Arts and Culture Community

For Whom the Bells Toll

Reminiscing on simpler times, Suzanne Ohana remembers the cold snap that sifted into her boutique with every swing of the door as waves of fiancées and bridesmaids filed in, eagerly awaiting their dream dress fitting. Today, those same doors appear welded shut, of use only to the shop’s owner, the rare journalist and the even rarer client. 

Until a few years ago, spring brought the prosperity and hopes of wedding season to Plaza St-Hubert, the city’s hub for bridal services. Such hope has turned to despair and uncertainty, as Montreal business owners who once felt blessed to be part of a thriving commercial district now feel trapped within it. They are struggling to justify the ends to their means as the wedding industry is seeing a structural transition. 

For over 30 years, Ohana has owned La Mère Des Mariées Suzanne Couture, a bridal boutique at Plaza St-Hubert. As a Moroccan immigrant, she moved to Montreal 50 years ago, owning several stores throughout her time in Canada, using her business ventures to make a name for herself in a foreign land. Now in her seventies, Ohana sold all her businesses except for La Mère Des Mariées, which she is desperately trying to rid herself of despite her attachment to the place. 

“I’m going to be honest. If my merchandise was not already paid off, I would have left a long time ago. Never would I stay here,” Ohana said. With over $2 million worth of products to sell and little to no customers, the boutique owner feels stuck, saying: “Even if I cut everything down to half-price, no one would come, and I would rather burn every dress I have than sell them cheap”. 

Ohana is one of many Plaza St-Hubert tenants who are feeling the pressures related to the shift in the wedding industry. For over 50 years, Montreal’s home for bridal services has been a staple of the city’s commercial and cultural heritage. Though it now offers a wide array of entertainment and culinary attractions, bridal boutiques, shoe stores, tailors and haberdasheries litter the kilometer-long strip that is home to over 400 businesses. 

Though the street’s prosperity strongly relies on the wedding industry, across the last 20 years, St-Hubert’s Société de Développement Commercial brought the plaza’s vacancy rate down to 3 per cent from a previous 15 per cent high according to the association’s executive director Mike Parente, establishing it as one of Montreal’s premier commercial areas. 

Regardless, medium- to high-end suppliers of wedding goods and services around the city are confused, as they have seen a dramatic drop in customer interaction and sales. 

According to Statistics Quebec, the number of couples getting married in the province is similar to, if not higher than, pre-pandemic numbers. 

Thomas Fresco, a Concordia University alumni, has been planning his wedding since February and came across many unplanned setbacks. According to him and his fiancée, most services, such as bouquets, pastries, and even make-up and hair, increase in price solely due to the nature of their celebration. 

“It’s ridiculous. Everyone’s trying to make extra money because of inflation. Like for [my fiancée’s] hair, she finally found a place that was cheap for the bride; it was $300,” Fresco said. “If I tell them it’s for my birthday, it’s $70, but as soon as they hear “wedding,” they jack up the price.”

Due to such increases in service prices, couples are looking for cheaper alternatives wherever they can, turning towards Amazon and other online outlets for discounts. Within the last decade, businesses of all industries have faced the threat of e-commerce, as customers can now purchase medium-high quality goods for less, which is especially threatening to small business owners within the St-Hubert plaza as the average Canadian wedding costs $30 thousand, and consumers are chasing convenient online discounts over local markets. 

“They [customers] only come to us to get their measurements taken. Or they only come to take pictures because they want the same dress but cheaper online. Others [owners] take them because they’re dumb, but not me,” Ohana shared. 

Customers are starting to feel the owners’ frustration seep through their service. A group of teenagers from the West Island were taken aback by how rude certain owners were to potential customers upon their visit for prom dresses. They shared that some owners immediately brushed them off or rushed them out of their shops since no parent with the means to pay for the dresses accompanied them. 

George Nader, owner of the Noces Royales bridal boutique, tries not to transfer his frustrations onto his clients as he understands their predicament. He states that in this day and age, consumers will do what they must to stay afloat and carry on. He instead criticizes the city for its lack of support, as he believes it taxes small businesses disproportionately compared to conglomerates. 

“We get tax increases; that’s how the government shows their support,” he said. “$2000 in city taxes is too much for a small business.”

Mayor Valérie Plante announced this January that, through its Petite et Moyenne Entreprise Montréal initiative, the city would invest $36.7 million in small businesses and their support networks.  

To promote business within the plaza, Mayor Plante and Mike Parente hosted a press conference on April 9 announcing that between July 4 and Aug. 25, a stretch of the plaza will be pedestrian-only to make the street more accessible. 

Though the initiative is promising for the local community, business owners such as Ohana and Nader have lost faith in the city. Business owners across the strip are adapting to the shifting market on their own by selling lower-quality products, pandering to different styles of merchandise and cutting staff. 

Back when the wind blew customers through her doors in droves, Suzanne Ohana recognized the value of Plaza St-Hubert as a cultural and economic anchor and saw a future within the community. These days, she sees no advantage to settling into the plaza, as inflated taxes cut new business owners at the knee, and the wedding industry drawbacks outweigh the benefits of a communal market, regardless of the plaza’s resilience and commercial success. 

“The city does nothing at all for us; they do absolutely nothing. They just want to touch our taxes,” Ohana said. “I do not have any employees. We used to be five saleswomen and two seamstresses working all day, but now I am all alone, and business is going very badly.”

Arts and Culture Community

A farewell to Momesso’s: Contemplating the void left in its wake

After 46 years serving , Paolo Momesso is retiring on top and closing shop on his own terms, a privilege that few restaurant owners are privy to in today’s financial climate.

“We would like to thank you all for your support all these years. Sadly, as of today, we will officially close our doors. Thank you!” Those were the words posted to Facebook on Jan. 22 by the official Momesso’s restaurant account. Just like that, a single post tore a hole in the fabric of the city’s culinary tapestry as one of Montreal’s iconic inns heralded its closure a week ahead of schedule. 

The owner of NDG’s renowned Italian eatery, Paolo Momesso, had publicly announced the restaurant’s impending closure two weeks prior, planning to serve their last subs on the weekend of Jan. 26-27. At that announcement, hundreds of hungry and nostalgic Montrealers came in droves to take one final bite of the diner’s legacy, emptying their final stock prematurely and shutting it down a week earlier than expected. 

It was at 5562 Upper Lachine Rd back in 1978 that Momesso’s Café served the first of their now culturally renowned subs under founding father, Alessandro Momesso. Forty-six years later, Paolo Momesso, the restaurant’s owner and older brother to Montrealer and Canadiens legend Sergio Momesso, attributed his age to the closure of their iconic café. The 68-year-old Momesso took over the family business after the passing of his father in 2006, upholding the family values that characterized the restaurant as a staple of NDG and its immigrant culture. 

Speaking on Momesso’s cultural presence within the area, NDG city councilor Peter McQueen said, “It’s really too bad that the family decided they did not want to continue operating it [the restaurant]. It’s just a huge loss. The Momessos are a huge part of the St-Raymond community.” 

As a prominent cultural beacon, Momesso stated that to preserve the restaurant’s legacy and memory within the city, he shut the place down rather than sell the business and brand to an outsider. 

Though Paolo Momesso closed shop on his own accord, the closure of such a symbolic institution of city culture is always cause for concern, even more so amidst the current state of the city’s economy, which has drastically affected Montreal’s culinary diaspora for over a decade, accentuated by the effects of the pandemic. 

According to the Association Restauration du Québec’s (ARQ) latest polls, the province has seen a decrease of over 3,000 restaurant permit holders since 2019, strongly affecting the city’s cultural and economic identity.

Restaurants are community anchors. For one, they are social hubs. After all, the point of wining and dining revolves around the communal element. Restaurants also allow for cultural blending as the culinary industry fractures barriers to immigrants who value cuisine and lack social connections in the city.

Despite the province heralding 22.4 per cent of the country’s culinary real estate, 66 per cent of total restaurant bankruptcies in the country occurred in Quebec in 2022. 

Additionally, the province is tied with British Columbia for having the highest chain-to-independent restaurant rates, with independent restaurants only-narrowly maintaining half of the market. 

The director of public and government affairs at the ARQ, Dominique Tremblay, believes that owning a restaurant is more difficult than it used to be due to inflation and that business owners are now facing twice the hurdles. She spoke to the current state of the culinary industry saying: “They’re feeling the effects of the increase in service and food prices, and on the other hand, they’re feeling the consumer’s reaction to inflation, as people have less money in their pockets to spend.” 

Amidst the challenges, city mayor Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal is investing in the culinary industry to ease the stress plaguing the city’s restaurant and small business owners. Despite the city’s efforts, however, owners are still feeling the pressures of the fractured state of the industry. 

“We’re trying to keep businesses alive and well right here in Montreal so people can shop in their local neighborhood, walk to the businesses, and walk to eat out,” McQueen explained. Through the PME initiative (Petite et Moyenne Entreprise) the city has forwarded $37 M to help support local businesses on local arteries in Montreal. 

Victor Santopietro, part-owner of St-Leonard Italian eatery and culinary hub Milano’s Café, appreciates the city’s efforts yet remains skeptical of the efficacy of such initiatives. “Listen, if you don’t help yourself, the city doesn’t do much,” Santopietro said, stifling a laugh. “Do they help us? You know, you have to help yourself, that’s the best advice I can give.” 

According to him, the major hurdles that restaurants currently face are staff turnover and increased food prices, especially when trying to buy locally. 

Santopietro emphasizes the importance of not only buying local, but also the impact that restaurants have on their subsequent communities. “It’s not an easy business,” he said. “We have to understand that no one is invincible, there’s a beginning and an end to everything”. Milano’s Café is a staple of the St-Leonard community as it s a meeting ground for not only the older generations of Italians in the city who make their daily track for an espresso and a sub, but for the younger generations of Montrealers as well, who immerse themselves in the cultural wealth of the community through food. 

Eateries like Milano’s around the city have been adapting by cutting their schedule and simplifying their menu to save on labor and food costs. However, the responsibility of financial responsibility to preserve culturally significant restaurants lies on the shoulders of the consumer as much as it does the owners. 

“Is it their obligation [to help]? No. But it is nice if you support your local businesses,” Santopietro said. “We try to buy a lot of local products so we can make the economy roll instead of buying overseas, but at a certain point you try to do what’s best for yourself.”

There are countless long-standing culinary gems offering delicious goods and spreads at every street corner. Though times might be bleak, Montrealers play a key role in preserving the city’s culinary identity. As Santopietro said, “Just pass by for a coffee sometimes. Once a month, instead of going to a big chain restaurant, help out the regular Joe.”

Arts and Culture Community Culture Student Life

Resisting the threat of cultural dissolution: Associazione Casacalendese di Montréal.

Many of Montreal’s Italian associations are disbanding due to a decline in communal participation, yet one in particular thrives amidst adversity.

On Nov. 11, 2023, sounds of laughter, clinking glasses, and gleeful reminiscing danced across the walls at Roma Receptions as a room of nostalgic  countrymen honoured their cultural heritage and celebrated l’Associazione Casacalendese di Montréal’s 99th anniversary. 

During a speech, Jon Carlo Santangelo, the group’s president, highlighted the strength of membership and attendance within the association, praising the community and wholly attributing their successes to the people’s efforts. “We are 100 percent self-financed… we’re not open to the public, and we are restrictive in membership, and there is a stigma that these associations are your grandparent’s associations. But in the last two years, we have been building ourselves up, and people are joining and coming back around after Covid. Last year was our first banquet post-Covid, and we had 120 people. We had 175 this year,” he said.   

While members of this Montreal-based Italian association celebrate their collective prosperity with food, wine, music, and good company, members of many other associations within the city have been adapting to a life devoid of such celebrations. 

Most associations in Montreal representing a specific Italian town/area were founded between the 1940s and the 1980s to financially support Italian immigrants with no ties to this city, allowing them to bond with people from their hometown. Not only do the members of Italian associations share regional ties, but many are genetically linked and discover deeper genealogical roots through the exchange of cultural insight and anecdote. 

Today, Montreal’s Italian community is in a transitional period as the older generations that have defined the community and held such an essential role in its survival are passing away. With their passing comes the passing of traditions and practices that the younger generations are not actively preserving. As a result, membership rates across Montreal have drastically decreased in the last 10 years, with eight associations from the Southern Italian region of Molise alone shutting down in a period of five years. 

While Santangelo’s association celebrated in November, Angela D’Orazio, a former member of the Grupo Recreativo Montenerodomo from the province of Chieti, Abruzzo, is still processing the demise, after 51 years, of her association that once hosted its own gathering in the basement of the Mount-Carmel Church. “We threw a last party [a few months ago] and the turnout was amazing; it was one of our biggest turnouts. You know, we used to go to halls, get dressed up, buy new outfits, gun blazing, and here we were, in the basement of a church. Everyone knew it was the last meeting, but all the old members came—they came in wheelchairs—and I was in tears,” D’Orazio said.. 

Mimma Scarola, a former member of l’Associazione Maria Santissima di Merllitto from the region of Grumo, Appula in Bari, echoed D’Orazio’s sentiments. Her association shut down 10 years ago, after participation had been in steep decline during the last five years of its existence. “My family was so involved, so our younger generations loved to go—we enjoyed it. My kids still ask me about it now, but it wasn’t like that for everyone. There were a lot of people from the association who didn’t participate as much, and you couldn’t even get them to come to the parties. When they [older members] started dying out, their kids didn’t come,” Scarola said.  

Francesca Sacerdoti, assistant director at the Congrès National des Italo-Canadiens (région Québec), has seen a substantial increase in interest regarding the Italian culture in Montreal, but not necessarily from Italians themselves. Being an organizer of the annual Italfest, a two-week celebration of Montreal’s Italian heritage in the heart of the city, Sacerdoti noted that the festival is growing in attendance every year. However, she acknowledged that members of the Italian community are generally less active than they used to be. 

Sacerdoti’s  colleague, Terry Lorito, believes the cause for declining participation is that the younger Italian generations are “too integrated into our society.”  “They’re Canadians, they’re Quebecers, and their Italian comes third,” Lorito said.

Despite the dwelling concerns, President  Santangelo has high hopes for the future of l’Associazione Casacalendese di Montréal. “As long as the Italian identity is alive, people will want to flock to it, but we need a rebirth, and I think that’s what we’re successful in with the association.” The association brings  in youthful participation through their scholarship program. They also encourage families to attend events by blending the music at parties for the young and old, marketing their celebrations across social media, and tailoring their  efforts towards the future. “I think if we can keep it real but pivot just a little bit, then I think we should be okay,” he concluded. 

Interview Music

“Experimental music”: an honourable or a degrading term?

A look into experimental pop through one of Quebec’s most unorthodox collectives.

Experimental artists willingly alienate themselves from the embrace of mainstream media in exchange for artistic integrity and independent creativity. Though experimental art is as revered as it is rebuked by critics and music enthusiasts alike, the labelling of artists as “experimental” often influences social perception, affecting their credibility. Not only do these artists face harsher criticism, but they also tackle the very fundamentals of the medium and push technical and artistic boundaries.

Laval’s own Les Amis au Pakistan have based their style around “the weird and the vulgar”— not as a way to fight the system but to create psychedelic and unorthodox imagery and sound. 

Writer Joël Chevalier, producer Simon Tremblay, and their singers Solange Lavergne, Jacinthe Fradette, Caroline Fournier, Evelyne Mireault, and Katia Cioce believe that the labelling of their music and style as “experimental” is fair, but somewhat diminishing in regards to their unique musical prowess. 

Conceived as Joël Chevalier’s passion project, Amis au Pakistan was a fun way for the writer to express himself with his friends. It was only when Tremblay joined the group that proper expectations formed, as his sound enhanced the project. “There is a pop side to what we do; there is often a chorus in most of our songs. When Joël would send me his lyrics, it was always structured like pop music,” Tremblay said.

The term “experimental” only appeared when producers and labels caught wind of their music and decided to label the band as such. “I really had no idea about experimental music. I just wanted to hear my friends sing stupidities and laugh at them. Simon brought a musical side to it,” Chevalier said. 

With song titles such as “Beautiful Hamburger,” “Mystery of Monkeys,” and “Appelle-moi ta cochone” in their discography, it is understandable why their style could potentially put off the general public. That said, there is much thematic depth sewn into the weirdness. 

As of 2007, the band has released three studio albums, tackling themes of sexuality, love, death, and suicide throughout, all hidden behind a heavy veil of silly and goofy sounds and grotesque lyrics. Their latest E.P. titled Schnoutte, released in 2021, is alien-themed. 

One of the songs on Schnoutte is “Mutilée,” which revolves around the themes of suicide and the horrors of self-harm—something that’s not necessarily evident when listening to the song at a surface level. However, when immersing oneself into the amalgamation of low and dark sounds and the repetition of noises of pain and suffering, coupled with an eerie instrumental, a feeling of unease washes over the listener. 

Though the band receives criticism for their content, they agree that labelling their sound as experimental can shift the listener’s perception of the music, affecting commitment and attachment. After all, if someone deems art as “unserious,” their willingness to commit to the experience will diminish. 

Luckily, the band cares only for one another. As Tremblay said “People always ask us about our concept, why we make music like this, and it is never to make experimental music, it is to make music. I think what is experimental takes more effort, and humans tend to take the easy way out.” 

The question, therefore, turns towards experimentation as a product of the human condition. Experimentation is subjective. To some, it is synonymous with creativity and to others, with the perils of the unknown and unorthodox. 

Love or hate them, Les Amis au Pakistan exists without confinement in a way that’s true to them. Like all art, experimental music is a looking glass into the creator’s soul ready to be peered into and explored. It’s as valuable as any other form or genre of music, regardless of how strange and unsettling it might appear.


Cinematic nostalgia: Immersing ourselves in yesterday’s embrace

Modern media is focusing its resources on historical fiction and rebooting old franchises, which raises a question about society’s current state. 

It seems like everything is either a period piece or a remake nowadays, doesn’t it? With the constant development of biopics such as Oppenheimer, Air, or the soon-to-be-released Napoleon, and works of historical fiction such as Bridgerton, Stranger Things, and Peaky Blinders, rare are the projects that highlight the joys and quirks of our current era. 

I recently watched A Haunting in Venice with my parents, the new Hercule Poirot murder mystery flick. I thoroughly enjoyed the picture’s intrigue and was left satisfied yet hungry for more. 

However, a question rests in the back of my mind: why is yet another movie set in the past? The Hercule Poirot series has always revolved around the 1940s, so I was not surprised to see the film set in 1947 Venice. Still, it made me reflect on the content I consume and why it’s set in my grandparent’s epoch.

Our modern lives aren’t interesting: that’s the answer I’ve come up with. Why are cell phones rarely referenced or brought up in films set in the present? Why don’t today’s romantic comedies hold a candle to those of the past? Why has our infatuation with the ‘80s spread to music and fashion? 

As technology develops, we are growing less social, less creative, and less in touch with reality. Fewer kids are out playing street hockey, malls and movie theaters are not the beacons of youthful discovery like they used to be, and parents are scrolling mindlessly on Facebook for hours on end. It is apparent that people are not living life to the fullest. 

We hear it all the time: “I was born in the wrong generation.” The phrase has become a joke at this point, but everyone seems to feel a particular affection for an era they never lived in yet experienced vicariously through a movie or television show. 

History is fascinating, as it defines our present as much as it does our past, yet it feels as though the more society develops technologically, the more we yearn for the simplicity of old times. It’s always easier to bask in old memories rather than create new ones. The core of the issue here is escapism. 

We spend so much of our modern lives avoiding any inklings of boredom and loneliness through social media, podcasts, and any other medium that will allow us to escape reality, that we fill every second of our free time with as much technological stimuli as possible. We yearn for the past because the past seems simple. Boring at times, but simple and purposeful, so of course we watch old movies and shows because they feel important. 

This is not to say that watching an old movie is a sign of emotional distress or an identity crisis. The past is comforting, but when it is weaponized as a countermeasure to the pressures of the present, introspection is needed. 

Perhaps we should address the issues of now instead of immersing ourselves in yesterday’s embrace by recognizing simplicity. Going for a walk without the phone, living an eventful moment without recording, speaking to a stranger, going to a restaurant by yourself, journaling about the little things—these all tie the soul to the present moment.

The little moments are what define us, and if they’re not nurtured and preserved, the same past that we so desperately cling to for comfort will engulf us all as our future passes us by. 

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