First published in the Westmount Examiner in June 2008
The recent demolition of the old Fogarty Shoe and Boot Store Building, which stood until a few months ago on the southeast corner of St. Catherine and St. Laurent, creates yet another void in the popular folklore of Montreal’s old St. Lawrence Main. Fogarty’s, which opened in 1861, can be noted in many of the vintage Notman photos of the prestigious intersection that divides this city in two.
Below, Fogarty Shoe and Boot Store circa. 1905 (Notman Collection)
As chance would have it, I was passing by at the moment of the clearance of some of the structure in question. Struck, I watched the leveling for a time and observed the huge crane contending with the perfectly intact field stone foundation walls which were put in place nearly a century and a half ago. More than once I observed the derrick operator shake his head in disbelief at the resilience of the underpinnings of the doomed edifice. Eventually, however, they too surrendered to the demands of time and the abiding call for renewal. Nevertheless, it was yet another part of a long familiar world to vanish before my eyes. In deep reflection, my mind was suddenly alight with memories from seemingly simpler days.
I first became familiar with Boulevard St. Laurent (as the Quebec Toponymy Commission and others would like us to call it) in my early teens. My friends and I were well aware that the Lower Main was an unsavoury corner of the city where juveniles might find some imagined excitement and adventure. Of course, we were too young to enter most of the thoroughfare’s establishments (for want of a better word) and, therefore, the greater part of our delights were visual in nature, centring on the variety of colourful characters tarrying the street. They peered at us; we peered pluckily back at them.
One time, I recall, our inquisitiveness got the better of us. As a result, we braved to enter the historic Midway Tavern (ostensibly to use the toilet) only to be intercepted by a most homely and irate waiter who scared us from the premises with what was, for me at least, a volley of rather incomprehensible local invective. Suddenly on the public sidewalk anew, we quickly tried to regain our precocious adolescent dignity, much to the amusement of those same gaudy mortals with whom we had earlier exchanged glances.
Minutes later, having proudly and triumphantly put that fleeting moment of juvenile awkwardness behind us, we set foot in the Montreal Pool Room, a Lower Main Landmark since 1912, and situated more or less across the street from where we had previously been so unceremoniously ousted. After having devoured several quintessential Montreal ‘steamies’ with their requisite French fries, my cohorts and I shyly slithered our way into the back of the greasy spoon where several pool tables were to be found. However, once there, we observed many more of the madcaps who make up the diaspora that is the Main. Even for relatively unstudied teens, it was not encouraging and so we quickly decamped as circumspectly as when we had entered the building. It was, in any event, almost suppertime and a long trek home in those pre-subway days. Besides, the Habs were being broadcast later that evening on television.
Below, a photo taken by me in December of 1974 on St. Laurent Boulevard looking north towards St. Catherine Street
Later in life, I returned to St. Lawrence Main somewhat more mature, and for other incitements. In fact, on that same stretch of tawdry urban roadway was ironically found the Monument National, one of the homes in this city to the National Theatre School. Virtually every month, I would venture off to this truly historic site – so important in the history of both the French Canadian and Jewish communities of this province – to take in the latest production of the renowned drama school. The quality of the plays staged by the senior students was superb and I would almost always leave the then-tattered edifice more than satisfied.
Once on the street, I would again amazingly find myself in that same garish world that so intrigued me as an adolescent. Little had changed from those early childish occasions except that now I could put my feet in the Midway Tavern without suffering the humiliation of my misguided adventure of all those years ago. Interesting, though, the better part of that youthful desire was no longer with me.
As for the Lower Main today, many of the places I knew are gone, not the least of which was the St. Lawrence Market that is now a public square in which many of those same unconventional types while away their time on a hot summer’s night.
Suddenly, I am roused from my fleeting deliberation of the Main’s past by the abrupt movement of a demolition container carrying off yet another consignment of debris from the old Fogarty Building. The receptacle is pulled away forcefully and noisily from the site just as another rapidly replaces it. No time for unsolicited sentiment here.
Below, another photo taken by me of St. Lawrence Boulevard, during the summer of 1976, looking south from St. Catherine