newsmakers | Montreal’s gay Village

A village, not a Ghetto

Richard Burnett

In a widely published 2007 Associated Press story headlined “Gay Villages disappearing,” New York author Don Reuter, researching a book on the rise and fall of a dozen U.S. gay neighbourhoods, rhetorically asks, “What makes these neighbourhoods gay? Not much.”

Reuter predicts that outside large gay meccas like New York and San Francisco, neighbourhoods with a significant gay presence will not survive – including, Reuter contends, gay communities in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Seattle.

“Over the years when it came to gay villages, I mostly heard about the Castro in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York, but I understand why tourist guides extol the virtues of Montreal’s gay village and why tourists come here,” says McGill professor Donald W. Hinrichs, author of the just-published book Montreal’s Gay Village: The Story of a Unique Neighbourhood through the Sociological Lens (

“I think Montreal’s gay village is much more interesting, lively and important. It is compact and offers a great many services to the community. Neither the Castro or Greenwich Village have the same vibe or spirit that Montreal has. [Quebecois playwright] Michel Tremblay commented that he thought as Montreal’s village continues to gentrify, his concern is more that working-class gay people will be pushed out of the Village as wealthier people move in. But that would still leave it gay, whereas in the Castro it is non-gay people who are moving in.”

Interestingly, local lore has it that Montreal’s original Gay Village moved east from the downtown core following a police crackdown on the eve of the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Myth has it Montreal’s then-mayor Jean Drapeau wanted to “clean up” downtown.

“But there seems to be critical disagreement about that,” Hinrichs says. “One thing occurred to me from a sociological perspective: There have been lots of theories about land development, the layout and ecology of cities, and the most recent is called the “Political Economy Theory” which states the urban landscape is a product of government action and the real estate industry. There is no doubt that Montreal’s [original] gay village was highly valued by developers who wanted to get a handle on it. As land values started to climb it became difficult for businesses to stay.”

In his book Hinrichs also explores how Montreal’s gay village got its name (after the city’s first gay porno theatre, Le Cinema du Village, which opened in 1984, closed in 1992 and today stands of the popular Theatre National live rock concert venue) and whether the village remains a safe space for visitors and its residents.

However, since Hinrichs completed writing his book, residents and merchants in Montreal’s Gay Village have been on high alert since Montreal police shot and killed two people – a homeless man allegedly wielding a knife and a passerby on his way to work at a nearby hospital – near Ste. Catherine and St. Denis Sts. last June.

Most of Montreal’s 75 groups serving the indigent, drug addicts and sex workers are located in or near the village. So to counter the recent crime wave, gay activists launched the J’Aime mon Village campaign in March 2012 to mark the Village’s 30th anniversary, as well as encourage locals to report violent acts to police.

This citizen-led campaign is emblematic of how Montreal’s Gay Village functions and ultimately thrives – and distinguishes it from a ghetto.

“Traditionally a ghetto is a homogenous and segregated area of a certain population group,” Hinrichs explains. “Over time the word ‘ghetto’ has taken on a more negative meaning because it’s a small step from ‘slum.’ I don’t call the Village a ghetto. I don’t think it’s appropriate – it’s a neighbourhood like any other.”


After teaching sociology and anthropology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania for 37 years, Hinrichs moved to Montreal in 2004 after visiting the city in 2000. “I bought a house within a week of being here because I thought I could enjoy living in this city. Montreal is a wonderful city but key was the celebratory nature of the gay village. Summertime in the village is a great example, when Ste-Catherine Street is converted into a pedestrian mall and you can see – marvel at – the diversity of people that walk through it.”