As an Ontario-transplant, I've only been privy to the magic of Montreal for the last seven years. During that time, at no point did I really pay much attention to or think of Prince Arthur as anything more than a simple street in the Plateau.
Yes, I was quite aware Prince Arthur was a pedestrian-only zone, one that held a few restaurants and a couple bars, but never did I think the street was special in any way. If anything, I thought (and still believe) Prince Arthur was quite barren, unattractive, and irrelevant in comparison to other commercial strips.
I assumed the rest of Montreal felt the same. For despite the influx of restaurant-goers/tourists that appear on Prince Arthur in the warmer months, the many "à louer" signs strewn on the street and its rather unkempt aesthetic pointed towards a general indifference towards Prince Arthur.
Upon learning far more about Montreal's history, a pleasure this job has afforded me, I was more than a little surprised to find out about the one-time glory of Prince Arthur street. Flashback twenty years and the Plateau street connecting Saint Laurent to Square Saint Louis was more than popular, it was beloved.
This realization then led to another query: what the hell happened to Prince Arthur? How did a pedestrian mall once frequented by scores of restaurant-goers and tourists fall out of grace?
To put it plainly, Montreal eventually began to hate Prince Arthur street. The change in attitude didn't happen overnight, of course, but as is evidenced by the sheer unpopularity of Prince Arthur by residents of the area, restaurant owners, and tourists demonstrates that a disdain for the street does exist.
Lets try and break down why.
The History Of Prince Arthur Street
Long before Prince Arthur street (named after the 10th Governor General of Canada, Prince Arthur William Patrick Albert) was a pedestrian mall, it served as the home for a wide array of different demographics throughout the years.
Jewish families dominated the Prince Arthur area in the early 1900s, most of which worked in the textile industry. This was before Jewish communities moved northwards in the city, and many Jewish families lived all around the Plateau. In fact, Chinatown was mostly made up of Jewish residents by the 1930s.
Portuguese immigrants (along with other cultural identities) would then move into the Prince Arthur area, creating what some described as a miniaturized "United nations." And as Prince Arthur street grew more culturally diverse it would also become a street known for alternative-types, hippies, and the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Square Saint Louis can be attributed for this transformation, as the park was often frequented by Montreal's flower-children. Tiny boutiques selling eclectic wares and small ethnic restaurants lined Prince Arthur at this time, catering to the hippie crowd.
By the 1980s, however, the hippie-centric vibe of Prince Arthur would be entirely lost. Greek restaurants offering BYOW service (not exactly legal at the time) sprung up, and were quite popular. Bars came onto the street too, adding to the effects of gentrification.
With the arrival of these new establishments, Prince Arthur became a popular commercial strip to eat and drink, resulting in yet another transformation for the street.
Prince Arthur Street: The Pedestrian Mall
Realizing the money-making potential for Prince Arthur, then-mayor Jean Drapeau proposed making the street a full-on pedestrian mall. Given how popular Prince Arthur was during special events when the street was closed off to traffic (check out this photo series for visuals), the idea sounded solid, and was brought to life.
Completed in 1981, the transformation of Prince Arthur street as a pedestrian mall saw the renovation of 400 homes, the demolition of 242 sheds, and the installation of 19-century-style lamps along with a fountain. Cars were effectively blocked from the street, and Prince Arthur stood as a shining example of urban renovation.
Prince Arthur enjoyed a fair bit of success for close to twenty years in this form, with tourists and residents of Montreal (mostly those who lived outside of the city's urban core) flocking to the Greek restaurants that dominated the strip.
There was even a prostitute problem on Prince Arthur street by 1984. Of course, some may see this as a negative, but the fact that prostitutes (and drug dealers) were found on Prince Arthur speaks to its popularity; they would only head to the street if they knew people would be there.
More importantly, people's love for Prince Arthur and its popularity meant success for the street's restaurants and businesses, ensuring a thriving strip. But not everyone was a fan of Prince Arthur's commerce-focused recreation, and with the insight of hindsight, these dissenters were kind of right.
Initial Criticism Against Prince Arthur Street
Before Prince Arthur was inaugurated as a pedestrian mall in the 80s, a group of residents from the Saint Louis neighbourhood protested the change. Their opposition stemmed mainly from the fact that the gentrification of the area meant long-time residents were being priced out and forced to leave.
It's likely these protesters were a vestige of the counterculture population that once populated the street, but the group of citizens had some very fair and interesting points.
Then-Duluth street resident Chris Belanger stated, "This type of development doesn’t do anything for the people who live here," further explaining how, "it just raises evaluations and rents.”
Given that rent prices almost doubled for residents around Prince Arthur, Belanger's comments were quite justified. What he didn't know, however, was how his two points, namely that Prince Arthur doesn't cater to residents and the danger of inflated rents, would be the two driving factors in Prince Arthur's decline.
Prince Arthur's Fall From Grace
Entering the new millennium didn't bring good tidings to Prince Arthur. While in the 80s, businesses were growing and thriving, by the early 2000s, establishments on Prince Arthur noticed a drastic decline in popularity.
A change in food trends put the many Greek restaurants on Prince Arthur out of the minds of Montrealers, who were seeking to experience new flavours. And thanks to the rise of online reviews and travel tips, tourists caught wind of this fact, with many deciding to skip over Prince Arthur for other areas in the city more frequented by locals.
Almost simultaneously, Prince Arthur lost its two driving forces, foodies and tourists, striking a major blow to restaurants on the strip. Add in an increase in property taxes and Prince Arthur establishments started closing down, leading to the bleak atmosphere the street emanates today.
But that's almost to be expected when you have an entire commercial strip, "exclusively focused on restaurants," as City Councillor Alex Norris pointed out to CTV in 2012. "When you have so many restaurants in so small a space, it leaves a commercial street vulnerable to changes in tastes and economic downturns."
Norris isn't wrong, as food trends are pretty fickle, and it was only a matter of time until the Greek restaurants of Prince Arthur street would become unpopular. But there are a few other key reasons why Prince Arthur street fell from grace, many of which could have been avoided.
Why Montreal Hates Prince Arthur Street
When researching the decline of Prince Arthur street, reading a variety of comments made by Montrealers on online threads and articles, three main arguments stood out as the reason why Montreal "hates" Prince Arthur street: a lack of appeal to residents, its aesthetic, and the issue of winter.
Lets dive into all three.
If you were a restaurant on Prince Arthur street during its heyday, you probably wouldn't think twice about charging a bit more for a dish; tourists were most of your clientele and they aren't knowledgeable on price structures in Montreal.
Residents, however, didn't take kindly to the "tourist" pricing on Prince Arthur, and so looked elsewhere. Aside from that, Prince Arthur was almost exclusively Greek restaurants, which doesn't appeal to Montrealers who enjoy a wide array of cuisines and know where to get cheaper Greek cuisine elsewhere.
Others have also noted how the growth of the suburbs attributed to Prince Arthur's decline. When the pedestrian mall first opened, cuisine was scarce in Montreal's suburbs, but that has changed in recent years. So by the 2000s, both Montreal suburbanites and city-locals had no reason to head to Prince Arthur.
Adding to the general lack of interest in Prince Arthur is the simple fact that, for a pedestrian mall, it's not exactly pedestrian-friendly. Prince Arthur street has a strange lack of benches, trees, art and is actually somewhat difficult to walk on given its current state of disrepair.
Aside from the fact that it leads to Square Saint Louis (which has also undergone construction in recent years) there's almost no reason to enjoy a stroll on Prince Arthur. Barren and cold, the aesthetic and physical makeup of the street is altogether uninviting to pedestrians despite its prime location.
All of the above is only compounded in the winter, when Prince Arthur becomes a thoroughfare for frigid winds. For why would Montrealers head to an aesthetically displeasing street that lacks an enticing restaurant when its negative 30 outside? Simply put, they wouldn't.
Special winter events on Prince Arthur could have ameliorated this issue, as was originally planned in the 80s, but nothing has ever come about. Yes, we did have the Prince Arthur Street Christmas Market this passed winter, though the installation was a failure at best, and barely even deserves mentioning.
Hope For Prince Arthur Street
Despite a widespread disinterest in Prince Arthur and the volatile environment it provides for business (how many times have you seen a restaurant open on the street only to close a few months later?), the pedestrian mall isn't doomed forever.
The location of Prince Arthur alone makes it a viable commercial artery. Right off of Saint Laurent, connected to a popular park, and in the heart of the Plateau, Prince Arthur street could very well see a revival. There's even the possibility that the street is simply going through a "rough patch," one that will end when new food and culture trends come about that bring people back to the strip.
More concretely, however, we're hoping the planned $2 million makeover scheduled for Prince Arthur will aid the street's resurgence. An effort to make the street a "more inviting space," the redesign was announced last May and is supposed to be completed by the end of this year.
Unfortunately, other than two proposals released last October (one of which is pictured above), we haven't heard any more recent news on Prince Arthur's makeover, nor seen any work done.
Given that the redesign was originally supposed to be completed for the city's 375th anniversary and we're already well into 2016, this may be yet another project that falls by the wayside.
That doesn't mean Prince Arthur won't be given a much-needed overhaul, we just may need to wait a bit longer. Hopefully not too long, though, because Prince Arthur has already waited more than fifteen years for a revival, and its time Montreal used the street to its full potential.