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A flickering last stand for a red-light landmark

Cafe Cleopatre is the last vestige of St. Laurent Boulevard's storied past.

Its address has been synonymous with sin, swing and a little bada bing for nearly a century. And now, the Café Cléopâtre is fighting to keep the bad old ways alive.

The Montreal establishment, which offers Danseuses à Go Go on its signage and Céline Dion in drag on the second floor, is the last holdout in a redevelopment project to clean up Montreal's mythical but badly bruised red light district.

The Café Cléopâtre is taking an Alamo-like stand on a stretch of St. Laurent Boulevard known as the Lower Main. One by one, its motley collection of neighbours - the hot-dog joints, nightclubs and old-fashioned groceries that formed the backbone of the street's gritty and offbeat character - have sold out to a city-backed developer.

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But the Café Cléopâtre is gyrating on, challenging a city expropriation order in court. The establishment, with its strippers, burlesque shows and Montreal Fetish Weekends, says it's an urban "icon" that deserves to stay.

"I'm trying to preserve history," says owner Johnny Zoumboulakis, who began at the Café Cléopâtre as a barman in the 1970s. "The red light district shouldn't carry a stigma that we run away from. It's part of our heritage."

The motion filed in Quebec Superior Court argues the Café Cléopâtre is one of the oldest show bars in Montreal, home to cafés and cabarets almost since the building went up in 1895. The names of the building's occupants read like an exotic travelogue: Club Alhambra, Sailor's Dining Room, Café Parthenon, Riviera Grill, Café Canasta and, finally, Café Cléopâtre.

At one time, the district had a reputation continent-wide for its anything-goes offerings of booze, bookies and brothels.

But these days, the flickering white-and-yellow light bulbs on Café Cléopâtre's signs are almost the only glow on a block that is going dark.

In September, city council approved plans that include a 12-storey office tower for Hydro-Québec employees and commercial space on the street, part of a larger urban overhaul to create an entertainment district.

Christian Yaccarini, president of Angus Development Corp., a non-profit company leading the redevelopment, says some people are clinging to a romantic and outdated view of the street.

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"People are creating folklore. This part of St. Laurent is in a catastrophic state," said Mr. Yaccarini, who says he has visited some roomers on the street. "Behind the myth of St. Laurent Boulevard are real people, and misery. The area has completely deteriorated. We've let it go."

As for the Café Cléopâtre, he said: "This isn't heritage. It's just a nude dance club."

Mr. Yaccarini says he has reached deals with nine of the 10 businesses on the stretch of street targeted for redevelopment. (It extends along the west side of St. Laurent between the famed Monument National theatre and Ste-Catherine Street.) One of the better-known mainstays, a hot dog and fries emporium known as the Montreal Pool Room, has agreed to relocate across the street.

"Café Cléopâtre is the last one," Mr. Yaccarini said. He's hopeful of still reaching a deal with its owner, he said, and plans to start construction of the new real-estate project next August.

For his part, Mr. Zoumboulakis says he wants to continue offering space for alternative entertainers, including the transvestites who impersonate "everyone from Dolly Parton to Cher, Tina Turner to Céline Dion." Some of the artists have also organized protests, and members of a burlesque troupe tried to catch Prince Charles's attention during his recent visit to Montreal by carrying signs reading "Save our queen, Cleopatra."

Observers say renewal is inevitable on the Lower Main, which has fallen on tough times. Gérard Beaudet, director of the Urban Studies Institute at the Université de Montréal, said the cleanup on the street mirrors similar campaigns in cities worldwide. Still, he worries the new development "has nothing to do with the personality of St. Laurent Boulevard."

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For now, Café Cléopâtre remains the last vestige of the street's storied past - at least until its lights go out and the last drag queen goes home.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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