We’ve all heard the familiar joke: there are two seasons in Montreal, winter and construction. As spring finally appears to be laying waste to winter, we’ve rolled out of the depths of salt and snow, we’ve scraped our way into and out of crater sized potholes and from there we must now navigate around the orange pylons that add the first bit of colour to spring in Montreal.
Construction season is something we all loath despite understanding its necessity. We all remember the disaster that was the reconstruction of St. Laurent Boulevard and the addition of the shiny new larger sidewalks. It was necessary work that needed to be done but for years vehicle traffic was slowed to one lane, businesses were practically cut off from foot traffic (in an area that desperately needed it) and the result was, and for the most part, remains a life support situation for many businesses along the Main.
In what seems like a bit of a cruel joke, its become St. Denis Street’s turn to undergo a bit of construction and the timing couldn’t be worse. The aqueducts, plumbing and electrical lines that runs under St. Denis are in desperate need of repair and replacing, so ripping up the streets was going to have to happen sooner or later. It’s the city’s civic responsibility to ensure that businesses and homes in the area are safely tapped into the water supply and electric grid and the only way to do that is to destroy the street.
The unfortunate part of this tragically comic timing is that St. Denis is in dire straits and has been in free fall for some time. Over 30% (maybe even more than that) of the street’s business are closed or closing and no matter what we do, businesses are not moving into the area as quickly as the are moving out. I can’t say that I blame them. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the lush crop of exotic bookstores, clothing shops, cafes and restaurants started to dry up but closing off what’s left by erecting a war zone of construction seems like a bit of a half baked idea. Even before the current bout of construction began, the street seemed to be left to ruin last year with a crazy idea to pain the side walk blood-stain red and build an unused red terrasse in the street. It drew attention but for the wrong reasons. Traffic on St. Denis is pretty fast moving on a slow day so hanging out on that sidewalk terrasse that impractically impedes traffic hardly seemed safe.
St. Denis is the faithful wife we’ve left for the hot new area of town. The Street’s decline is normal considering the rise in interest in up and coming neighbourhoods like Mile-End and Griffintown. The gentrification of these areas have brought curious people in to see what all the fuss is about. Soaring rents, ridiculous government imposted fees and red tape, dilapidated buildings and the monumental exodus of customers to other areas have left businesses no choice but close up shop. While the signs of the times are not great, there are a few shops and restaurants that manage to keep drawing crowds and that’s a good thing. These places are the life support that St. Denis desperately needs and they in turn need us as well.
At the moment, a section of St. Denis looks like a war zone. from Duluth to Rachel and beyond we are walking on make shift plywood and metal sidewalks that have been roped off so we don’t fall into the pits. Cars line up as they creep slowly up the one available traffic lane. The intersection of Rachel and St. Denis is completely blocked to traffic (which is a slap in the face to the Rachel Street businesses who have been suffering their own construction hell for years). If I was a business owner in the area I would be frustrated, terrified and completely disappointed that Montreal continues to lay waste to our once powerful economic centres. Again, the construction is a necessary evil but I can help but wonder what the city is doing to help these businesses survive.
I’ve walked these streets for over 15 years, sometimes spending an entire Sunday meandering from one street to the next, dropping into shops and sipping on coffee or sangria as I watched the world go by. Now when I go up and down St. Denis I see “For Rent” signs where some of my favourite stores and restaurants once charmed the city. Most of St. Denis has gone from delightful to dreary. As someone who profoundly loves the Plateau and all it has to offer I won’t let the construction stop me. I will support the businesses that I love and I will still sip sangria from the terrasse of Auprès de Ma Blonde (a hidden gem of a restaurant in the city) because they need us more than ever now. St. Denis is not dead but it needs our help and our patience if its going to survive and comeback to its former glory days.