Isolated Nights

The changing landscape of Montreal’s nightlife

Leyla Moy, Student Life Editor

In March 2020, many McGill students unwittingly set off on what would be their last night out for a very long time. Students currently sequestered at home often long for nights spent in dimly lit, sweaty spaces. Even for those who abandoned the Saint-Laurent club scene after their first year at McGill, the loss of Montreal’s 2SLGBTQIA+ and alternative nightlife spaces, along with the unique sense of community fostered within, has been deeply felt.

As lockdowns swept across the globe, most will remember where they were when restrictions first affected them directly. Drag queen Uma Gahd was midway through a drag brunch.

“During the brunch, the staff had to get up and lock the doors because [...] the lockdown was put in place in the middle of our show,” Gahd said. “So we basically looked at the audience and we were like, ‘You’re allowed to leave if you want, but we can’t let anyone in. And this is the last thing you’re going to be doing for a while.’”

The beating heart of Montreal’s nightlife was quickly quieted as fears mounted about the spread of the virus. Everything appealing about nights out—the anonymity of crowds, the promise of encounters with strangers—was antithetical to the measures now required to curb viral spread.

Will Straw, a professor in McGill’s Department of Art History and Communication Studies, is researching the urban night and the structures that govern it. He recounted the near-instant impact of the pandemic on nighttime culture across the world.

“Between [...] March 7 and March 15, 2020, you had this massive shutdown of nightlife around much of the world,” Straw said. “So we can really say the culture of the night was one of the first non-human victims of the pandemic, because it was believed [that you had to] begin by controlling what people do at night.”

Montreal has long been known for its nighttime thrills. During the prohibition era, the city’s proximity to east coast cities in the U.S. earned it a reputation as a party haven for parched Americans. This reputation persisted throughout the 20th century, as Montreal became internationally recognized for its jazz and nightclub scene even as organized crime and police corruption rendered the city’s nights uncontrolled and dangerous.

More recently, some feel that Montreal’s nights have become overly controlled through increased police presence and prohibitive licensing restrictions, stifling some of the freedom that previously defined it. Although attempts to monitor nightlife predated the pandemic, nighttime culture remains a significant—and somewhat unavoidable—casualty of the last year. This loss was well-documented across the internet, from Peter McCabe’s eerie Empty Montreal photo series to YouTube videos pronouncing the city’s nightlife dead and gone.

Nightlife entertainers like Gahd and her real-life husband, who goes by both Noah and Selma Gahd on stage, had to quickly adapt to online shows. Inspired by drag gamer Sierra Myst, the pair set up a unified House of Gahd Twitch channel where they now host a variety of virtual drag events. As a frequent hostess of her own drag theatre events and countless viewing parties, Uma Gahd initially felt a sense of disconnect with her audience, which faded as the two leveraged the streaming site’s features to improve the interactivity of performances.

“It’s great that [...] my audience from the bars followed me online [and] I know what’s going on [in the chat] to the point where when I’m looking in the camera, I feel like I’m looking at them,” Gahd said. “The feeling of disconnect and the uncertainty [...] diminished, and I’m blessed to have a quality relationship with my audience that’s [...] unique and just as rich as when I was in person at the bars.”

Online shows, while limited in their ability to mimic reality, can have an important role in keeping communities connected amid a turbulent, isolated year. In October, Gahd hosted an online edition of her in-person show Church alongside Ottawa psychotherapist and drag king Cyril Cinder, titled Mental HELL-th, in response to the despair she observed as the pandemic dragged on. Uniting drag audiences from two cities, they discussed mental health, community, and resilience. In her regular circuit of online events, Gahd is motivated by a desire to foster connection within her audience.

“I want people to feel uplifted and seen,” Gahd said. “I want people to feel included, like, literally included. I want people to feel like I’m talking to them and they’re talking to me. During the pandemic, people needed that sense of connection, they needed to feel like they weren’t alone in their apartments.”

Gahd described hosting an online watch party in February for the RuPaul’s Drag Race documentary Corona Can’t Keep a Good Queen Down, which some feared would be a grim reminder of the tumultuous past year and the still-uncertain future. As the stream concluded, Gahd congratulated her audience on coping through a difficult year and marvelled at the resilience of the drag community.

“I was on the stream and I was starting to cry, and then people in the chat were telling me that they were crying [It showed] the power of social media and drag coming together [....] I can cry on the internet because [...] I’m celebrating my community [which] is still there with me, and that’s so powerful,” Gahd said.

“One of the reasons Kiva and I [...] started our venue was to support artists who performed music that 20 years ago was seen to be very weird,” Pezzente said. “Our venues [...] were there and are there as a free space [for] artists to perform their art. So as much as we can, [...] we’re trying to support artists by giving them online video gigs [and paying them through our government subsidies].”

In June, Pezzente announced the closing of the couple’s third venue La Vitrola, which joined a growing list of small, independent music venues shuttered by the pandemic. At the time, government rent subsidy was insufficient to keep small venues afloat. Small business owners have since pushed the provincial government to instate the Emergency Assistance Program for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (PAUPME). Pezzente credits this aid, alongside the Canada Emergency Rent and Wage Subsidies, for the survival of Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa, although the support came too late to save La Vitrola.

Financial strain on small music venues had been plaguing Montreal’s independent music scene long before the pandemic. The loss of Divan Orange and relocation of Le Cagibi in the Mile End, along with the closing of Katacombes near Places des Arts, highlighted the threat of both rent hikes spurred by gentrification and conflicts over nighttime noise in neighbourhoods that were rapidly changing in character. In October, Bar Le Ritz PDB was denied a request to delay a court hearing for a noise complaint lodged in 2019 until after the pandemic. Evidently, the pandemic has exacerbated existing issues Montreal’s nightlife establishments face.

Over the summer, Casa del Popolo’s stage was removed to accommodate retail space for the in-house print shop Popolo Press, and La Sala Rossa was set up as a studio for live online music streams. As a venue owner, Pezzente feels a sense of responsibility to support artists, and to facilitate paid online shows—even if these events produce little income for the larger business.

“A lot of venues are totally shut [...] and not doing anything [online],” Pezzente said. “As much as I understand that [...], I question why everyone has to be 100 per cent closed and not do something to support artists.”

Gahd also emphasized the importance of directly supporting independent artists who share their work online. Unlike venues that receive some level of government funding, the artists who contributed to the texture of in-person nightlife have faced even more financial precarity during the pandemic. For online drag, this support entails tipping whenever possible and spreading the word about online shows.

Looking toward the transitional period and post-pandemic future of Montreal’s night culture, Will Straw is advocating for nighttime activities to be spread out in space and time. In a CBC video, Straw envisioned a post-pandemic map that disperses nightlife away from downtown Montreal and onto Beaubien St., Sainte-Catherine Street E., Monkland Ave. in NDG, and the Saint-Michel neighbourhood. Straw also believes that allowing bars and clubs to stay open later will both create safer, less crowded spaces as the pandemic fades. The idea of spreading out nightlife temporarily during the pandemic is borrowed from conversations about nighttime safety in Manchester, U.K., where authorities proposed that by leaving pubs open until later hours, venues could limit the altercations that were expected to arise when all patrons leave at the same time.

“[In the summer of 2020,] when the city of Montreal was trying to think of what to do about the night, [...] they had the idea of trying to space it out, have lots of streets in different neighbourhoods with tables in the streets and bars and restaurants [with] terrasses,” Straw said. “The problem is [...] they still made it necessary to close at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m [due to restrictions].”

As artists anticipate the end of our socially distanced nights, Uma Gahd sees the potential for blended online and in-person nightlife to continue during the transitional period.

“We did notice that there was an interest in doing shows dual [online and in-person],” Gahd said. “During that transition period [...] we might continue to do some of our shows online and in person [...] There’s going to be a period where we figure out what people [will] keep coming back for online and what was just filling the gap.”

Broadly, Gahd foresees the pandemic changing the face of drag, from the interactions performers can safely have with audience members to individual artists’ relationships with their work. Those who managed to weather the storm will emerge armed with an arsenal of technical skills and the support of a loyal community willing to follow them through uncertainty.

Straw, a longtime Montreal resident, is hopeful about the potential for the pandemic to bring about a new era of smaller scale, varied nightlife. In particular, he hopes that government support for nighttime culture in the form of grants may help reinvigorate the city’s downtown.

“I hope that [post-COVID reopening can be] a chance to reinvent nightlife to a certain extent, make it more small scale, and make it more interesting and creative,” Straw said. “There’s a big interest in what [we can] do to save downtown Montreal after COVID, [so if] we have a lot of unused empty space in Montreal’s downtown, [...] I say, let the government give grants [to] McGill students or others to create new kinds of alternative spaces.”

Gahd envisions a similarly triumphant return to the drag bar scene once restrictions are lifted.

“Honestly, I’m looking forward to that first Drag Race screening at the bar where I know it’s going to be disgusting,” Gahd said. “People are going to be crammed in there, sweaty, [...] nasty and gross, and I’m going to walk out on stage and they’re going to register the screaming and clapping on the Richter scale.”

Design: Chloe Rodriguez