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Why Montreal's "Quartier Latin" Isn't Actually Latin At All

Something you probably never thought about before.

Ever since I came to Montreal, the Latin Quarter (or Quartier Latin, if you prefer) has always mystified me.

Not that there's anything incredibly peculiar about the section of Ville-Marie around St. Denis and de Maisonneuve (here's a map for a better visual of the Latin Quarter's borders), but rather it's the area's name in relation to neighbourhood itself that's a bit confusing.

Basically, when I heard "Latin Quarter," I assumed the area would have a prominent Latin community. No doubt others made the same connection (I hope).

But the Latin Quarter isn't a hub for individuals of Latin descent, and never has been. Latin as a cultural identity actually has nothing to with the name "Latin Quarter."

So really, the Latin Quarter really isn't the "Latin Quarter," at least not in the way most people would think. The moniker was actually given to the area for a rather counter-intuitive reason, with the name also functioning as an homage to another major French-speaking city.

Before we kill all the suspense and tell you exactly why the Latin Quarter bears its name, lets take a trip back in time to the origins of the area for a better understanding of the district itself.

The Most Desirable Neighbourhood In Montreal

In the 1800s, the area now known as the Latin Quarter was the place to live in Montreal. Whether you were French or English, the neighbourhood was a haven for affluent families, being known as "the most fashionable place to live in Montreal," according to professor of architecture Guy Trudelle.

The architecture still seen in the Latin Quarter is evidence of this fact, what with the (now largely repurposed) mansions and ornate structures found in the neighbourhood.

Viger Square no-doubt added to the appeal of the area. Originally a swamp, the City of Montreal filled in the area in 1860, with gardens and markets flanking St. Denis and St Hubert's connections to the newly christened Viger Square.

At the time, Viger Square was regarded as the most beautiful park in Montreal, acted as a meeting ground for Montreal's most affluent residents, and was a major draw for the original residents of the Latin Quarter despite not being in the neighbourhood as we know it today.

The area would eventually gain its own academic institution in 1895 when Laval University opened its doors, thus bringing students to the area. This added a new sense of flair to the Latin Quarter, with the district being home to rich, culturally esteemed, and academically-minded citizens.

Up until 1890, the Latin Quarter maintained this prestige, but things changed when both wealthy French and English residents began to move out of the area. Anglophones packed up and moved west, the French moved north, and as soon as 1900, the neighbourhood entered a serious decline.

How The Latin Quarter Got It's Name

Fortunately, the deterioration of the area wouldn't last too long. As rich citizens packed up and moved out, more students and artistic-types moved in, largely thanks to Laval University, which would become the Université de Montréal in 1919.

1907 to the early 40s marked a new era for the Latin Quarter, and it was during this time the neighbourhood began to be called as such.

A newfound academic presence could be felt in the area, with Université de Montréal, École Polytechnique, six libraries, dozens of bookshops, and several smaller schools housed within the locality, and so the neighbourhood began to be called the "Latin Quarter."

For those still confused, Latin (the language) used to be considered "the language of learning" and thus associated with academia. Latin was often heard in university areas, which is why the district around Sorbonne in Paris is called the "Quartier Latin."

Taking a note from Parisians, Montrealers thus ascribed the same title to their city's academic epicentre, and so the Latin Quarter (at least the name) was born.

The (Re)Birth Of The Latin Quarter

History would repeat itself  in the Latin Quarter after the 40s, however, with yet another period of deterioration caused by an exodus of residents. This time, however, the students so intrinsic to the area's identity would be the ones to leave.

Why did Montreal students leave the Latin Quarter? Well, the reason is pretty simple: their university moved.

In June of 1943, after years of waiting, the Université de Montréal's mountain campus was finally complete. As a direct consequence of this, students who used to live and hang out in the Latin Quarter, and give the area its vibrancy, moved northwards, just like affluent French Montrealers did 50 years prior.

The vacuum left by UdeM would put the Latin Quarter into another state of decline. Lost were the energetic youths that occupied the area's many cafes and bookstores, and even worse, the name didn't make much sense any more. Without a university in the neighbourhood, the connection to Latin was lost.

Fortunately, in the late 1960s, several smaller schools (including École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal and Collège Sainte-Marie) would merge together to create the Université du Québec à Montréal. Taking root in the original UdeM facilities, UQAM brought life back into the Latin Quarter.

More than that, UQAM reestablished the thematic connection between the neighbourhood's name and academia. So even though the Latin Quarter isn't a "Latin Quarter" like most would think, just be thankful that UQAM is around to ensure the name makes sense. Well, some sense, at least.

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