Montreal cabaret under threat as offices move in

MONTREAL, Ugo Amez- In the heart of downtown Montreal once known as an area of ill-repute, many erotic and burlesque clubs are fighting for survival as developers of staid office blocks move in.
For 35 years, sex workers, dancers and drag queens have flocked to Cafe Cleopatra, a veritable underground cultural attraction and one of the last remnants of Montreal's legendary red light district on Saint Laurent Boulevard.

Montreal cabaret under threat as offices move in
But now the cabaret faces expropriation and demolition by a real estate promotor aiming to build modern offices for Hydro-Quebec, the province's powerful utility company.
The promotor, Angus Development Corp, wants to clean up an area quickly becoming a hub for more politically correct cultural expression, such as the Francofolies music festival and the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
But the cabaret's owner, Johnny Zoumboulakis, has dug in his heels, and is refusing to sell the club despite offers of more than a million dollars and new premises.
The case is now before the court, and the city of Montreal is refusing to comment on the dispute until there is a legal ruling.
Zoumboulakis, however, is supported in his battle by Club Sin, a burlesque company that regularly performs at the cabaret. Club Sin's producer Eric Paradis told AFP the offer to sell fell far short of what was considered fair.
"We're not going to move a few doors down to premises that are so small that we would have no chance of surviving," Paradis said.
"Unlike the big summer festivals, our cabaret survives without government subsidies. It's an underground place that promotes creativity."
The mainstream arts community wants to create "a cultural monopoly with slick performances such as Lionel Ritchie who will open the Jazz festival," Paradis charged.
While most Montrealers might not care about the plight of drag queens and sex workers, the cabaret is gaining support among some intellectuals.
"You cannot deny that the spirit of the neighborhood, the dancers, the prostitutes, the tranvestites and the transsexuals are part of Montreal's heritage," said Viviane Namaste, research chair in HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health at Concordia University and an expert on transsexual and transgendered people.
Jean-Francois Mary, who works for Cactus, an association that helps marginalized individuals in Montreal, deplored the moves to transform the historic red light district.
"The Angus Development Corp bought Hotel Bolero at a high price. Since the hotel closed, sex workers have had to move to another neighborhood because the police don't want to see them in the area any more," said Mary.
"So now the girls are on other sidewalks in the Hochelaga district, where nobody intervenes if the girls happen to get dangerous clients."
Jean Leccia, a psychiatrist and associate professor at McGill University who lives in an elegant apartment in the area, also supports the cabaret.
Leccia said downtown Montreal should be a centre for cultural and social diversity, instead of a cultural ghetto for mainstream performing arts.
But the press service of the promotors, questioned by AFP, said: "We have done our project. It is up to the city to decide."
In June, the Theatre du Nouveau Monde, a well-known and high brow theatre in the neighborhood, is presenting the play, "The Blue Dragon," by renowned Quebec playwright Robert Lepage.
The play is about the destruction of historic areas of Shanghai in favour of high rise architecture.
It is an odd coincidence of history, since the Theatre du Nouveau Monde is known to support the Angus Development Corp's plans for the neighborhood's gentrification.

Thursday, May 27th 2010
Ugo Amez

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