After years in the doldrums, Quebec City’s coolest ‘hood is back as a shopping hot spot, without losing its boho charm.
Quebec City can seem frozen in time, nowhere more so than in the hsitoric Haute- and Basse-Villes, whose shops peddle the same colonial-kitsch moccasins, Nordiques jerseys, dream catchers, crépes and tubs of maple syrup that they were hawking on your first high-school field trip.
“It’s very bizarre,” says Richard Germain, owner of the boutique hotel Dominion 1912 in the city’s Old Port district. “The heart of Quebec City for sometime was in Sainte-Foy, a suburb. It didn’t make any sense, but I think that’s changing.”
Germain is referring to the urban renewal underway the neighborhood of Saint-Roch, particularly along rue Saint Joseph. “It had really different vocations throughout the years,” he observes, “But now Saint-Roch has a pulse and a great mixture, and I think that’s what brought people back. You feel like people live there and today’s travelers seek this authenticity.”
Almost overnight Saint-Roch has acquired enough glitz to rival Toronto’s Yorkville, yet it has maintained its eclectic bohemian atmosphere, akin to Montréal’s Plateau neighborhood in the mid 90s. It’s a tech-and-media hub with a growing quartier latin, thanks to the Université de Québec and several other institutes of higher learning that have opened up new branch campuses nearby. It even boasts on emerging condo market. Robert Lepage, l’enfant terrible of the Canadian avant-garde, and his multidisciplinary company Ex Machina, stage plays by local writers Théâtre de la Bordée. And the architectural menu at Restaurant L’Utopie is by far one of the most exciting ideas happening in contemporary cuisine, anywhere.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Saint-Roch’s turn around is Le Soleil, Québec City’s oldest, French-language daily which vacated its longtime newsroom in this once down-and-out neighborhood in 1994, only to return two years ago.
Shopping? Yes. Hugo Boss, Peak Performance, Mountain Equipment Co-op are some of the immediately recognizable names along rue Saint-Joseph, helping to transform the district into a desirable destination. Benjo is a sprawling independent toy store, reminiscent of FAO Schwarz and a dazzling array of boutiques offer lingerie (Flirt), jewelry (Mademoiselle B), decor items (Balthazar) and after a hard day’s shopping, gourmet delights (De Blanchet). Teahouses, ethnic eateries and art galeries fill the spaces in between. Indeed, in a couple of years, Saint Roch could rival the chicest is shopping districts in North America.
There’s nightlife, too. At Galérie Rouge the late-night action is frenetic, packed with edgy hipsters and arty types. Le Boudoir Lounge Resto Club located on rue du Parvis, is the latest in-the-know dance floor. On Thursdays, it’s also the preferred haunt of Sain-Roch’s growing army of young mobile professionals, who mingle and flirt during cinq-a-sept, Québec’s version of happy hour. In the warmer months, the mingling crowds on the terrace spill out on to the cobble-stoned street shutting it down to car traffic. Largo, a Mediterranean restaurant, hosts live jazz and draws a slightly older crowd, first for the food, then for drinks later on.
In a sense, it’s the second coming of Saint-Roch. Through the 1950s and ’60s, Saint-Joseph was Quebec City’s main drag, more eminent than Montréal’s Ste. Catherine Street. But it lost out in a big way in the 1970s when, in an effort to compete with suburban mega malls, municipal officials covered several blocks of Saint-Joseph with a roof. The result, however, was a grim corridor where the homeless and destitute took shelter. City residents fled in even greater numbers to the suburbs.
It wasn’t until 2000 when the city literally tore the roof off (or most of it) that Saint-Roch began its reversal of fortune. The department store La Liberté, still a great place to buy furs, is one of the few vestiges of those earlier days.
“When we redid Saint-Joseph, our goal this time was not to compete with the shopping malls,” developer Geneviève Marcon says. She and her partner, Jean Campeau, would would appear to hold the master plan for the future of the street, as landlords of some 60% of the storefronts, properties the pair snapped up while they sat derelict and abandoned.
“We brought back a clientele to the street by creating a unique destination boutiques. We wanted the establishments to complement each other and to create an exciting mix.” The pair works with, and mentors, young local entrepreneurs, masterminding and backing retail concepts, which they research on their travels to Paris and London among other world capitals. “We got ideas to inspire our concepts from elsewhere,” Marcon says, “But we’ve done them with local flair and people from here. Perhaps that contributes to the authenticity of Saint-Roch. You don’t get the feeling that the stores were just parachuted on to the street.”
Québec city will celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2008, and preparations are well underway to transform it from a quaint, Disneyfied tourist trap into somewhat something decidedly more stylish.
“We have to keep our soul, the feeling of Québec City, but it can be in a more contemporary manner,” Germain says, “It’s a resurgence of real things, real people in a real downtown neighbourhood. Québec City may have lost its pedestrian culture for a few years. Working and walking back home through these stores is what makes life interesting. You’re not going to find that feeling in a shopping mall and it’s much better than buying stuff on the Internet.”
Weekend Post, Travel, September 16, 2006