Learning the tricks of the trade from the real Sin City

Lady of the Red Light: De Wallen

© Scottie Digital

« Si tu ne sais pas porter ton péché, il faut mieux le laisser aux experts. »
– Marcel Jouhandeau, sort of.

Montréal is Sin City.

At least, that is what we are told. This catch phrase has become so familiar, it is now an integral part of our local identity; our patrimoine. From booze smuggling to gang warfare to city hall corruption to the sex, Sex, SEX, Montréal swaggers as salaciously as Sodom and Gomorrah once did, back in the day (without all that messy fire and brimstone stuff).

This must be the grit to which many are referring; this must be the grit whose loss will be lamented due to the Quartier des Spectacles project.

This must be the grit that has led Montréal to be known as one of the premier destinations for vice; for all things smut.

So let’s turn this redevelopment scheme on its head. What if, instead of sanitizing another corner of Montréal with a palette of grey and glass, we accentuated its scandalous side and created a veritable Sin City? Spice things up: In the stew that is the Main, the current plans are salt. What Montréal needs is some chilli.

How can this be done? As we have learnt from the BIXI experiment, Montréal may fare well borrowing ideas from others.

But from whom?

Forget the other Canadian cities; they have no idea how to party.

The normally prudish U.S. has Las Vegas to offer. Yet, despite the girls, gin, and gambling this desert oasis promises, it still manages to come across as juvenile, immature and false; a rather lewd Disney World. And let’s not get started with its ecologically unsustainable urban footprint: I’ve never been at ease with the fact that one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas of the United States is located in the middle of scorching desert. Makes me sick.

No, we will have to once again look toward Europe: the so-called «civilised continent». There, one can find plenty of examples of how sin bleeds into the mediaeval backdrop; the most obvious being Amsterdam.

Just the mere mention of Amsterdam makes one high; it has been a bad little city and is well known for its wicked behaviour. However, what makes the Dutch capital a perfect template for Montréal is its duality. For, every person who knows about its marijuana, knows about its tulips. For, every person who knows about its booze-soaked streets, knows about its charming canals. For, every person who knows about its prostitutes and contemporary good times, knows about Anne Frank and past hardship. Amsterdam balances sex and high culture beautifully; or so it seems.

Does this mean that Montréal should capitalize on its inner freak?

Red-Light Night + Day

The vice industry has donated generously to the coffers of municipal and national governments in The Netherlands, through the ubiquitous form of tourism. Many visit Amsterdam for its famed nightlife, and then fall in love with its cultural offerings, its picturesque landscape and sustainable living. The question remains: Were it not for the prostitutes displaying their goods in windows though the city centre, how many people would bother to visit the Venice of the North? The sin adds a distinct flavour to the air; allowing Amsterdam to stand out from its less depraved neighbours, Hamburg and Brussels. Montréal stands out already as a French-speaking city; imagine if we were a French-speaking city featuring live sex shows?

Another benefit is the stoners. Living in a quite branché section of the Plateau, I have grown tired of the weekend romp of fighting, groping, and screaming fuelled by that nasty substance called alcohol. Potheads would be much more welcome; they tend to be too busy laughing at the smaller things in life or too baked to move from their seats. I respect that. Live and let live and leave me alone.

However, the allure of soft drugs can also be a downfall. What one notices in the streets of Amsterdam are the sheer amounts of tourists stomping all over the beautiful grounds that are the historic city. These idiots, predominately shameless Britons, think the city was constructed expressly to be used as their personal toilets; vomiting into canals, urinating on people’s doorsteps, throwing their refuse everywhere and screaming like maniacs at all hours of the night. These indignant wayfarers are pests in the garden of tolerance the Dutch have spent years planting. Unfortunately, tourist boards cannot weed out these gentlemen. Nevertheless, many establishments have used clever tactics in order to manage these crowds of fools. The city has installed urinoirs, both permanent and temporary, throughout De Wallen, the city’s main red-light district. Citizens affix signs to their front doors pleading: « Do not piss. We live here. » Most hostels limit the size of male group reservations. And, there is a great push by the local board of tourism to offer alternatives to the standard Red-Light Tour: Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol. The visitor centre, located right at the train station, the point of arrival for most, is interactive and extremely helpful.

One must not forget to mention the police; which, although nearly omnipresent, do not seem heavy-handed. This may be due to the relative cheerfulness of the officers, compared to some in our region.

This, along with the aforementioned strategies, would definitely need to be in place before Montréal decides to take on the title of Sin City North America.

This way to the urinoir

As for civic ambience, De Wallen is no dirtier than rue Crescent; no louder than boul. St-Laurent. And the complete reversal of clientele the neighbourhood serves is shocking: At night, people sing drunkenly in the streets; by day, old ladies meander along the cobblestone like they have been doing since the end of the war. Many young families live in and around the area; when asked why they chose to move to this location, they answer: « I want my children to be raised in a diverse and dynamic environment. »

That being said, all is not roses in De Wallen. Like Montréal, Amsterdam is trying to revitalise its «hard» core. Some accuse the new mayor, Job Cohen, of trying to take the DAM! out of Amsterdam; City Hall says it is just trying to reduce the zone’s concentration of certain activities.

Now this is the part where Montréal should be paying attention.

Amsterdam, instead of covering up its immorality, has decided to embrace it. The retail/fashion industry and cultural centres are being encouraged to take root in the area; in such a way that one can find the windows of a high-end boutique, an artist’s bookstore, and a woman spread-eagle all next to each other; with the Dutch not even thinking twice about such juxtaposition. What the Mayor’s experiment may actually precipitate is a neighbourhood with the ultimate in diversity.

What can we take home from the Amsterdam experience?

Montréal needs to assume its sinfulness: incorporation not sanitisation. There are a thousand grey, non-descript areas of concrete and glass in this city. But there is only one Main. Let’s not lose it to the process of «revitalisation».


  1. Interesting take! But I think our politics are still too “prudish” to do anything of the sort. One only has to think about the debate over legalization of prostitution which has all but died down. If anything, over the past 10-15 years, Montreal has worked hard to hide away its sinfulness. I remember Ste-Catherine street in the early 90’s quite clearly and it was a far different sight than it is today!

    But then again, I always thought that prostitution was a sad thing. Wouldn’t our money be better spent on keeping young girls (and guys! let’s not forget male prostitution in the “village”) off the streets where they are vulnerable to violence, debilitating STD’s and substance abuse?

  2. The author addresse roving bands of British football hooligans and American fratboys (and girls) screaming, slouching and mooching around the streets of Amsterdam… Can I just point out that Montréal is 50 km from the border? The situation in spring break on Ste-Catherine (and others) is already appalling, I can’t imagine what it would be like if we adopted Amsterdam-style policies.

    Even the Dutch have had enough and from what I hear the city is appropriating the brothels and limiting the pot-selling to nationals.

    I don’t really think that’s the kind of tourism or “cultural life” we need to emulate for Montréal… I think Montréal dances to its own tune, we just need to listen to it and follow it!

  3. I think we should do it, if only to piss off Drapeau, wherever he is.

  4. Indeed the Amsterdam Émile depicts is on the way out. Legalised prostitution has not succeeded in halting the trafficking of people for sex, and there are more trafficked prostitutes there than legal sex workers. Moreover, there are fewer “coffee shops” (cafés where marijuana goods are sold: pot, hash, hash biscuits etc) than before and not a few have become spaces for our 21st-centurey addiction: cybercafés!

    The problem with the brothels in De Wallen is that many had become “fronts” for all manner of trafficking, not just in human flesh, and some of these are viewed as a threat to public safety. That is extremely valuable real estate dead centre in a major European city, so the sex trade is not the only lucrative avenue for commerce.

    What Émile says about pot vs alcohol is rather odd, given the number of drunken Brits who happily indulge in both and binge-drink all long weekend long, fighting and leaving broken bottles and vomit everywhere. And while the Calvinist Dutch are not above making some €€€ out of sex or any other trade, they sure value cleanliness and order! I certainly advocate legalising marijuana, but there are problems in the Netherlands as many flock to the country for far harder drugs.

    By the way, Hamburg is as well known for the sex trade as Amsterdam is. Brussels is known for mussels, frites and EU bureaucrats…

    Of course, the aspect of Dutch culture that must be brought here as massively as possible is mass urban cycling in normal clothes, and tramlines everywhere! http://www.amsterdamize.com

    I have spent extended periods in Amsterdam several times, and while I’ve come across brothels elsewhere, have never actually visited De Wallen, though I’ve passed by the outskirts on trams and bicycles. Not interested.

  5. A little bit of romanticizing to go along with your souvenir postcards? I remember well St Catherines’s from the 80s – all decrepit and sinful. Just the way you like it. But not sexy at all. Acne-scarred boozy girls (and I mean girls) selling themselves to bald men in Buicks. Shooting up in the parking lots. Transvestites getting beaten up every second corner. Strip clubs fronting for gangs. All in all, not a pretty picture. I have no illusions about what a “sin city” really means. And even Amsterdam is sick of it.

  6. this is a horrible idea. i don’t say this out of prudish-ness but out of a sense that maybe navel-gazing montrealers should aspire to something greater for their city than to reinforce its image as an insular, infantile world of pure physical pleasure…what about making a name out of its multiculturalism, excellent food and general physical loveliness? montrealers and canadians in general take it for granted that these aspects of the city are well-appreciated, but many americans and others actually have very little idea about what montreal is like and what its attractions may be besides sex and a low drinking age. let’s all just grow up please.

  7. Montreal knows how to “party” in a Canadian context, but I think a lot of the hype is just that: hype.

    The jocks fist-fighting to top 40 on St-Laurent. The blindly drunk yanks in the faux Irish pubs of Crescent. The bland house music of the village. 3am last call and 11pm depanneur cut off!? The only decent after-hours gets arsoned TWICE!?

    Granted, good shows often pass through, the strippers are cheap, and high-level corruption is rampant. But for a wild night out, Montreal has a long way to go.

    Perhaps if you lived in a neighbourhood where junkies were shooting up on your front steps and drunks were puking all over your sidewalk, you wouldn’t romanticize this notion of “Sin City”.

  8. The thing that gets me more than anything is that the sex trade, et al, is not going to go away just because the Main gets “cleaned up”. As it is we have an area that most of us can probably accept if not actually like. It will all just move somewhere else as inevitably as sunrise. I prefer that the “sexiness” of a city be more about the attitudes of it’s people rather than how many hookers are on a given corner. There simply does not seem to be any easy solutions, but I do think it is pretty lame to imply that somehow a new development will bring “solutions” to the area. It will be about making money which is what it has been all along. The Main is reality whether we like it or not.

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