Stripping Against The Man

Lower Main Development Project On Hold, Thanks to Cleo’s!

Café Cléopâtre gets creative with their protests and haults development plans. photo courtesy of the mcgill daily

Expropriation denied!

That was the victory for Café Cléopâtre this month, as the city’s executive council voted on March 9 to drop a procedure that would have made the gritty ol’ strip joint pack up its g-strings and roll over for the development of an office tower on the historic strip of the Lower Main.

But as the last venue standing in the storied city block just south of St. Catherine St. and St. Laurent Blvd., Café Cléopâtre—known lovingly as Cleo’s to its patrons and partners in the community—has earned and fought, for its keep.

Long-time owner Johnny Zoumboulakis refused to budge when the city gave the Société de développement Angus full rights to build a 12-storey office tower on his property in 2006.

Now, it seems that the little guy who held out against Goliath has won—and the artists in the community couldn’t be happier.

“We’ve been saying all along that you’ve got to listen to the local artists and businesses already in the area, especially if you’re talking about creating a Quartier des spectacles,” said Velma Candyass, a dance instructor and burlesque artist with The Dead Doll Dancer troupe, who routinely performs at Cleo’s.

“This is so positive for us […] especially in a time where other venues within the designated Quartier des spectacles area—places like the Just Pour Rire venue—are closing. We’re losing more space in the very area that’s supposed to be a show and entertainment area, but at least we’ve managed to save one.”

Seen largely as the last Red-Light district landmark, Cleo’s was systematically squeezed out of the $2 billion nightlife project by the city. Cleo’s was also pushed through the development project after the closed-bid contract was awarded to the SDA.

Beyond leaving Cleo’s out of the development scheme, there has been a noticeable public backlash about the project from the community in the form of consultations, petitions, (largely ignored) recommendations for re-evaluation from the Office de consultation publique, as well as creative critiques.

The artists in the area had a definite hand in staging events and creating awareness around the cause.

Releasing parody videos—YouTube “Demolition in a Box”—showing up to city hall meetings in costume and even going so far as to attempt to contact Prince Charles—an apparent heritage and burlesque buff—to help with their efforts.

“Obviously, us artists are very creative in our protests and something has to be working because it has thrown a loop into [the development] plans,” said Candyass. “Ground was supposed to be broken in January, 2010. But now it’s not about delay, it’s about the bigger situation: to help revitalize and recreate this area.”

The fight is not over, explained Candyass, as the SDA has stated they will begin staging a veritable “plan B”—two buildings built on either side of the storied strip club—though the details about the scale and function of the new proposal are scant.

“Oh yah, they’re still going to be seeing us for awhile,” Candyass laughed.

But to celebrate their small victory—and dream up future alternatives for the historic site—the Save the Main Coalition and friends will be throwing a little party. An evening to showcase the burgeoning local burlesque, fetish and queer art scene, the second floor of Café Cléopâtre will host a party this Saturday, March 26.

Your five bucks at the door will go to Stella Montreal—a Cleo’s ally and local sex-worker rights coalition—and you can expect to see local acts Nat King Pole, Tommy Toxic and, of course, the Dead Doll Dancers.

“It’s really about celebrating that our voice is getting heard, and standing in solidarity with a business owner who is an immigrant, an extremely hard-working individual and who is really representative of the Main,” said Candyass.

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