Le Village refers to Montréal’s Gay enclave centered on rue Ste-Catherine Est between rue Berri and avenue De Lorimier, and on rue Amherst between rue Sherbrooke and boulevard René-Lévesque. Le Village is especially important in Québécois LGBTQ folklife as a geographic center with profound historical and cultural significance for Montréal, Quebec, Canada, and the worldwide Gay community.
As in many cities, the history and development of Gay neighborhoods in Montréal is multi-layered. The district encompassing the current Gay Village includes a neighborhood once known as Le Faubourg à m’lasse (“Molasses-ville”), a somewhat affectionate reference to its previous incarnation as a working class area in which large molasses storage facilities as well as a number of cookie and baked-goods factories were located. As home to the working poor, the neighborhood had a reputation for being a place where people helped each other out.
The Village area was also part of an extensive entertainment zone not far from the city’s red light district that initially flourished in the 1920s. During Prohibition, Montréal was known as “Sin City” to many Americans because drinking, gambling, and prostitution were tolerated and easily available. At that time, Gay folks began frequenting a clustering of downtown bars around Peel and St. Catherine streets. The area became a Gay meeting ground during and after the Second World War. Nearby was a mainly English-speaking residential neighborhood focused around Tupper Street where many Gay people lived.
By the 1970s, a Gay commercial district had become well established in the downtown area with numerous bars and dance clubs. A variety of establishments catered to mixed clienteles of Anglophone and Francophone (English- and French-speaking) Gays. The critically acclaimed, bestselling 1978 novel by Québec’s iconic Lesbian writer Marie-Claire Blais, Les Nuits de l’underground ( “Nights in the Underground”), was set in a fictional Lesbian bar that took its inspiration from a bar located in this neighborhood.
Legend has it that the mayor of Montréal at that time, known to be homophobic, used the police to chase Gays and Lesbians away from Peel Street as part of a clean-up campaign prior to the 1976 Olympics. The belief persists that the mayor consciously acted to relocate Montréal’s Gay neighborhood from the downtown to the east end by force. Without denying that police raids had an impact, community historians see this as a popular misconception and suggest that the relocation of the city’s Gay district from downtown to its current location was a long-term process resulting from many factors, in particular more affordable rents. In the early 1980s, advertising in Gay community newspapers began specifically to mention the east-end (“de l’Est”) location of new bars that were opening up, but the Gay population in the area was already significant and growing. In community publications, the area was not yet referred to as the Village.
Le Village de l’Est
In Montréal, the term “village” is absent from Gay community newspapers until the end of 1983, when ads announcing the opening of a bar called K.O.X. note that it is located “Dans le nouveau village de l’Est” (“in the new village of the East”). The following year, newspaper coverage and advertising refer on a regular basis to le village de l’Est. By 1985, the name was being shortened in media coverage and advertising to le Village. Local residents who were interviewed in Gay newspapers also start referring to the neighborhood as le Village. Community media and local business owners played a key role in introducing “the Village” as a new name for the east-end Gay enclave. However, the fact that the term was quickly taken up in local parlance suggests that it resonated among people living in the neighborhood and may already have been in popular use.
The adoption of “gay village” as a term used to describe large-city Gay neighborhoods may result from a shared nostalgia for, or tongue-in-cheek view of, community life on a village-like scale. Living in a Gay village implies that one simultaneously inhabits a large city and a relatively small social universe. In Montréal, expressions of community closeness are conveyed by sayings such as “Le Village est quand même petit – tout le monde se connait …” (“the Village is really quite small – everybody knows everybody…”).
City officials made significant investments to promote Montréal as a Gay destination and attract tourist dollars in the mid-1990s. Promotional campaigns highlighted the claim that Montréal boasted the largest Gay village in the world. Development and promotion of the Gay village has been an explicit focus for city planners and local business owners for a number of years, and has served as an important way to strategically position Montréal on the world stage as city that is especially open, fun-loving, sexy, and daring. The local business development association is called La Société de Développement Commercial du Village (The Village Commercial Development Corporation).
Aires Libres (“Open Air”)
Rue Ste-Catherine, the area’s main east-west artery, is partially closed to traffic each summer and operates as a pedestrian mall as part of a season-long festival called Aires Libres. The festival has served to recycle symbols such as laundry hanging on a clothes line, centerpieces of the 2009 theme, Beau temps pour étendre (“Good weather for hanging out”). Street corners decorated with giant clothespins recalled an earlier history of densely populated urban neighborhoods in Montréal where social life in the summer converged on balconies and ruelles (alleyways), with laundry lines flapping in the wind.
Neighborhood life of this kind has most famously been portrayed in plays such as Les Belles-soeurs (“The Sisters-in-Law”) by acclaimed playwright Michel Tremblay, one of Québec’s first openly Gay writers and among the first to include Gay characters in his work. The quirky outdoor sociability of Montréal’s traditional working-class neighborhoods, evoked by Tremblay, remains a feature of the city’s culture. The Village’s summer-long pedestrian mall features a multitude of open-air restaurants, bars, and exhibits rather than the more humble entertainments of extended families gossiping the long, hot humid evening away, but it keeps tradition alive in emphasizing outdoor street life and social interaction. As a Gay entertainment district, the Village in its current incarnation attracts suburban families and tourists as well as a large LGBTQ crowd.
The Village is home to many iconic figures including Mado, drag queen entrepreneur whose exploits include running Bar Mado (a popular drag club), a stint promoting potato chips as a celebrity spokesperson, and concert performances. Major events are located or got their start in the Village: the Bad Boy Club of Montréal (BBCM) has organized major parties at various locations in the neighborhood since 1991 although its keynote event, The Black & Blue Party, generally takes place at the Olympic Stadium. Divers/Cité, for many years the name used for Montréal’s Gay Pride march, is a Gay-oriented entertainment festival held in the Village early in August.
LGBTQ Monuments in le Village
In 1999, a makeover of the Beaudry métro station located in the heart of the Village included the addition of a curved entrance pavilion featuring rainbow-colored pillars. Slightly eastward is Montréal’s AIDS memorial park, Le Parc de l’Espoir (“Park of Hope”) located on the corner of Ste-Catherine and Panet. Massive rectangular stone blocks, oxidized metal commemorative plaques, and ribbons tied on tree branches make for a park that is beautiful, though criticized by some for its coffin-like stones and dark, heavy design.
Bernard C. Le Village de l’Est: vers le soleil levant. Sortie, no. 16, p. 20, 1984.
Higgins R. Du poulailler au poste de police: pour une histoire gaie de Montréal. Sortie, no. 6, p. 7, 1983.
Remiggi F. Le Village gai de Montréal: entre le ghetto et l’espace identitaire. I. Demczuk and F. Remiggi (eds.), Sortir de l’ombre : histoires des communautés lesbienne et gaie de Montréal. Montréal : VLB Éditeur, pp. 267-289, 1998.