A proposed development in Montreal’s red light district has jeopardized the future of a neo-burlesque strip joint used by members of the queer community.
The proposal would see Café Cleopatra, the oldest show bar in town, demolished to make way for a 12-storey office building and a strip of retail stores on St Laurent Boulevard. Three other buildings are also slated for destruction if the city allows the development to proceed.
Café Cleopatra has always attracted people who don’t fit society’s norms, says owner Zoumboulakis. “We have room for the alternative, the different. For the people [who] want to express himself or herself differently. Especially the transvestites, the transsexuals,” he says, referring to the bar’s popular second floor shows.
The area has a long reputation as a hotspot for sex and partying in Montreal. While the red light district has been in decline in recent years, the area hit a peak in the 1950s with the opening of Ponts de Paris, a club that featured drag performers. Café Cleopatra is one of the last remaining traces of the area’s racy nightlife.
Vivian Namaste, research chair in HIV/AIDS and sexual health at Concordia University adds that, “Historically, it’s a very important milieu. It’s a place where a lot of transsexuals and transvestites go, and they have a very important place in Quebec culture.”
The city has been abuzz since the development plans were announced last year, with academics, queers, activists, artists and performers outraged over the possible closure of the historic bar. Plans to expand Quartier des Spectacles, the city’s arts district, were put through public consultation in early June. A group of concerned artists and community members have organized against the development, creating a Facebook group and an online petition.
The city has said it may expropriate the land if Café Cleopatra refuses to sell to the developer. The building was built in the late 1800s, and Zoumboulakis has owned it for 33 years. Though there is talk of preserving the outer layer and gutting the inside, Zoumboulakis says there is a rich history behind the Café’s doors. “It’s just the facade — it doesn’t tell the whole story,” he says.
Eric Paradis runs Club Sin, a monthly fetish night at Café Cleopatra. He says Montreal has a reputation for diversity and openness, and that the city must recognize St Laurent’s social history. “We’re something that’s been there for five years, it’s socially acceptable, it’s legal, and it’s colourful. It’s no different than when you do a theatre [show].”
However, Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay recently vowed to pave the way for developers, as quickly as possible. “We’ve consulted everyone [about city projects] but we’re not going to stop because a minority says it might effect certain things that are important to Montreal,” he said this week, according to the Montreal Gazette.
City councillor Karim Boulos says there is a need for revitalization of St Laurent.
“I understand they don’t want to be moved, but [renovations are] needed,” says Boulos. “I don’t see how the new structure could get rid of someone.” Boulos says the overall business under which the Café operates needs to be examined, saying that “Café Cleopatra should be concerned with the future of the sex trade.”
Emilie Laliberté of Stella, a Montreal group run by and for sex workers, says the city must take into consideration the strippers, queers and sex workers who interact with the space everyday.
“They didn’t even ask the people who have been living there for years. This issue is about gentrification,” says Laliberté, adding that sex workers need an area where they can work safely.
Though the city is enjoying a renaissance of burlesque culture, Montreal must recognize that its history is entrenched with nightlife, sex and partying, says Velma Candyass, founder of the Dead Doll Dancers cabaret act. “Forget the morals of whether or not it’s a strip club — it’s a business. Café Cleo just really reflects the neo-burlesque aesthetic.”
After public consultations are completed, city bureaucrats will provide a report to city councillors, who have the final say on the matter.
— with files from Nisa Malli