Boulevard Saint Laurent, aka “The Main”
Cutting straight across the Island of Montreal, Boulevard Saint Laurent is considered to be the dividing line between the city’s French-speaking half on the east, and the English half to the west. Known colloquially as “The Main,” the neighborhoods which line themselves along the boulevard, from north to south, are home to various populations of immigrants.
The Main’s total length is over ten kilometers, and walking the entire distance would take most of a day, so we decided to check out about half of it, starting at Rosemont Avenue and heading south.
The neighborhoods on the western side of Saint Laurent have historically been English, while those to the east have been French-speaking. Given the strife between the city’s two factions, Saint Laurent has taken on significant symbolic meaning as the “line” which divides them. And in the middle of all this drama have been the immigrants, waves of whom have settled along the Main… Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese, Greek, and more.
Not only does Saint Laurent serve as a handy metaphor for Montreal’s bipolar nature, it’s also the literal dividing line between east and west. From here, the building numbers start at zero, and street names are appended with “East” or “West.” This means that, in Montreal, it’s not sufficient to say “2100 Rue Ste-Catherine,” because 2100 Rue Ste-Catherine Oest is on the opposite side of the city from 2100 Rue Ste-Catherine Est.
During our walk down Saint Laurent Boulevard, we came to appreciate the extent of Montreal’s street art scene. We almost couldn’t find a wall that hadn’t been beautified with some grand-scale painting. At the Gallery Espace Go, an entire passageway has been converted into a single black-and-white work. Most of the paintings were of high quality, and look like they were commissioned. In fact, there’s a summer festival during which artists from around the world are invited to paint on St. Laurent’s walls.
From graffiti to more traditional forms of art, Montreal’s commitment to culture is evident on the boulevard. We passed a ton of galleries, and even the regular shops seemed somehow more artsy than normal. Whether you’re selling furniture, clothes or books, I guess you need some artistic sensibility to fit in here. Even the butcher shop, the Boucherie Lawrence, was the hippest butcher shop we’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t feel remotely cool enough to buy meat there. They’d be able to sense that I was planning on making something pedestrian, like hamburgers. “Out, you clean-shaven yuppie! Our beef is not for the likes of you!”
But even more than the shopping, we appreciated the variety of food available on Saint Laurent, which truly reflects the boulevard’s diversity. Bagel shops and delis, fine Portuguese and Spanish restaurants, Irish pubs, Caribbean grills, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Greek and more. And I’m pretty sure all of them were serving some sort of twist on poutine.
By the time we had passed through Chinatown and reached the old port, we had been walking for hours, and felt like we’d seen the perfect cross-section of Montreal. And we had restricted ourselves to a single street! But of course, Boulevard Saint Laurent isn’t just a street like any other… few in the world have as much character and history.