Sex workers squeezed out as once-debauched Montreal neighbourhoods go mainstream


Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay looks up while work (reflected in window) at the corner of Saint Catherine St. East and St. Laurent Boulevard in 2008.
 Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay looks up while work (reflected in window) at the corner of Saint Catherine St. East and St. Laurent Boulevard in 2008.
Photograph by: Graham Hughes, Gazette file photo

MONTREAL — Megan huddles in the doorway of a St. Laurent Boulevard bar, her bare, blackened hands turning red in the Saturday morning cold.

The petite 19-year-old emerges onto the sidewalk to greet Jack and Mitch, two regulars of Montreal’s Main district who’ve been out drinking since Friday night and are ready for another round.

But instead of heading elsewhere on St. Laurent, with its once-ample selection of brothels, bars and burlesque shows, the three turn east on Ste. Catherine Street, where the old late night eateries have been replaced with retail stores and the road has been refurbished with paving stone.

“If I want a road like this, I’d go to Quebec City,” quips Mitch, a stocky and jovial butcher from New Brunswick. “There’s nowhere left to go (on the Main), almost all the bars are gone.”

A $150 million plan by the city of Montreal to revamp parts of the old red-light district into the Quartier des spectacles has led to the conversion of litter-filled parking lots and old buildings into condos and swank developments.

For Main regulars like Jack, who used to perform in drag at a St. Laurent Blvd. bar, the changes to the old neighbourhood mean finding spots to work and drink farther east.

Gentrification, among other trends, has also led to the movement of sex workers – once a regular sight at the corner of St. Laurent and Ste. Catherine St. – into residential or industrial areas over the last few years, activists say. The shift has lead both to growing clashes with their new neighbours or increasingly isolated and dangerous working conditions, said the activists from sex workers’ rights’ group Stella, which held a protest Saturday morning at the crossroads of the old Red Light District.

For the sex workers who continue to work in the area, gentrification has caused growing tension with the residential inhabitants, activists say.

“If you want to live downtown, you need to get used to the reality of downtown: squeegee kids, drug-users, homeless people,” said Emilie Laliberte, director general of Stella.

“These are also downtown residents.”

Laliberte urged the city of Montreal to work with groups like Stella to find ways for new St Laurent Blvd. residents and the people who have frequented the Main for years to cohabitate.

“We’re not against the project (Quartier des spectacles), just consult us,” she said.

Another issue is that sex workers have been pushed to other parts of the city that have been going through a similar residential real estate boom. In 2009, for example, parents from the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve area created a Facebook page to denounce the increased presence of sex workers in their communities, media reports from the time show.

“It creates tension with the neighbours,” said Stella activist Anna Louise Crago.

And now, property values are going up in areas to where sex workers have moved.

“The question is, where will these people get pushed next?” Crago asked.

Montreal Gazette

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