Our Lady Empress: Restauration of a Cultural Bastion.


Empress Ani Harroch.jpg

What does Restauration mean?
It is the French word for restoration, which has deep cultural roots in both politics and theater. It is also commonly employed when restoring works of art or buildings to their once and former glory. Many times during the following interview at Shäika Café on the corner of Sherbrooke and Old Orchard, just across the street from the Empress Cultural Centre, I questioned whether or not the term could be applied to one's faith in elected political leaders. I believe it can.

The following is an interview with Peter McQueen, City Councillor for NDG, who was halfway through his term at the time of this interview in October. He will be up for re-election in 2013.

Peter McQueen.jpg

Montrealites: So Peter...what are the main goals of your political party?

Peter McQueen: Project Montreal wants to reclaim the street life of Montrealers by reclaiming its transport mode.
I do drive a car, I own a car, so I don't want this to sound anti-car, but we can have a better, safer, greener, more culturally and economically vibrant city by making sure people get around safely and conveniently by bicycle, by foot, and through the public transit system. The main idea is to make it safe for people to enjoy their neighbourhoods, and to get services there so they don't have to go far or to so many places to get them. A perfect example would be daycares.
In our opinion, the Quebec government totally dropped the ball as it introduced daycares over the last 20 years in terms of waiting lists, calling one place or another so many times, and then finally, maybe you're in. And then having to shuffle the kids halfway across town back and forth... it's ridiculous. I mean, they should have associated daycares with every single primary school, or several for each primary school, right in the neighborhood. These daycares should have served in those neighborhoods.

Montrealites: As a father I have to agree. We were on waiting lists for over two years, and it took a lot of wrangling to find a daycare for my youngest son. Admittedly, I did find one within a four minute walk from home. In that way I'm one of the lucky ones.

Peter McQueen: One of the very rare and lucky ones. What we're trying to do is encourage people to take their kids to daycare on foot, or on the back of their bicycles as much as possible. I mean, occasionally I take my own kid in a car, like on a rainy day or if it's way too cold. But even when you need to do that, it's better if the daycare is just a few blocks away, but sometimes it's halfway across town.

Montrealites: There must be a massive carbon-footprint for daycare travel?

Peter McQueen: Yes! And for what? It's an issue that can be resolved with a bit of planning.

Montrealites: So other than the environmental and safety issues surrounding transportation, what are some main goals?

Peter McQueen: So yes, transportation is a main thing, but it's completely related to where our conversation is going today in terms of cultural facilities.
Why should people always have to travel to the Plateau or downtown for cultural facilities or events? We feel that there is enough of a need here. The people of NDG and the boroughs have a lot of talent. They're interested in performances and so forth. We think the Empress should reopen as a cultural facility for people in NDG, Westmount, Cote-St-Luc and the wider West-end. Hampstead and St. Henri could come to view performances here, Anglos and Francos alike.

Montrealites: This might seem a little left field, but who do you respect most from all the opposing parties, and why?

Peter McQueen: Oh....respect most? I have an easy answer to that. One of my opponents here in NDG is David Hanna who ran for the Division Party. He's a professor at UQAM. He's a very intelligent, personable individual. We agree on most everything and we're good friends. Well, I haven't known the guy for 20 years, it's not like that, but before the election I knew him some, and after the election I furthered that relationship because he's a professor of urbanism, urban planning, so I want to get his point of view. I have complete respect for Professor Hanna, and he has respect for me.

Montrealites: Speaking to people in the area, I got the impression that your popularity here is inspired by the job you're doing. How has holding office been so far?

Peter McQueen: It's been a learning experience; I've learned a heck of a lot and the learning is continuing with one goal in mind: I, We, haven't been able to put our platform into effect just yet, either citywide or in eastern NDG, and believe me, I am eager to. We have to take the power in order to implement our vision of the city.

Montrealites: What presents the main obstacle to your vision?

Peter McQueen: Umm...heh... (mayor) Michael Applebaum. You see, I'm a lone opposition Councillor, but they are a machine - a well-organized machine that's entrenched; it's been there for a long time, so I think that they still believe perhaps that my victory was a fluke, like a one-time shot that they somehow missed, like they didn't see me coming or something. We'll see in 2013 if the people of NDG think that, or if they think it's time for change.

Montrealites: Time to talk about our lady Empress. For the people who aren't familiar with her history: What is the Empress, and as of right now, where does she stand?

Peter McQueen: OK, the Empress was a cinema built in NDG facing Girourd Park, right on the corner of Sherbrooke and Old Orchard. It was built in 1927 in art-deco style specifically with an Egyptian motif. To put this in perspective, it was one of the larger cinemas with more than 1000 seats, and it also had Vaudeville theater performances.


In its heyday during the 1930's and '40's, a thousand people a night from across NDG and the West-end would take streetcars to come see performances here. Can you imagine what it was like in that time? I mean, this is before TV or computers or Facebook; people were more social, more invested in the social life of going out and coming together for different kinds of performances. It was a much more prevalent part of the community back then. (...) And the Empress was the largest of a number of cinemas, it wasn't the only one. There was also the Monkland, the Kent, the Clairemont, the Snowdon - these places were full on a regular basis.

Montrealites: What's going on with the Empress now?

Peter McQueen: What's still great is the exterior, and the location. The problem is the interior. The first tragedy of the Empress starts in 1967 or '68 when a decision was made to break it into two theaters, and corrupt the Egyptian motifs inside. A solid concrete slab was put into place that would be very hard to demolish and remove. Also most of the Egyptian stuff is covered up by gyprock, boring colors, plain international modern style. So right away, it loses a bit of its historical appeal.
The second problem is that it slowly runs down in the 1980's and '90's due to lack of investments. Cinemas changed into 5, 12, and even 30plexes because that's the way to make money in the movie business. Other theaters in repertory cinemas had difficulty too. So the Empress closes in '93.
Finally, there's a small fire that does some damage. And then the owner at the time steals some of the Egyptian motifs, rips up some of the walls and moves them to New York apparently. There's some water damage, especially on the roof where the water gets in and causes more ongoing damage. We're not telling anyone anything new in saying that the inside is in pretty bad shape.

Montrealites: There is quite a severe mold problem. I considered renting space upstairs where the offices of Head and Hands used to be, but just one whiff turned me away. The damages were too extensive. It would take hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars and ostensibly years to restore it to any usable condition. Still...
Members of the community seem to feel very strongly about saving the Empress.
How would it be possible to get people to put their money where their mouths are?
What would be a viable strategy to propose to anyone willing to help preserve the Empress?

Peter McQueen: The existing board of the Empress Cultural Centre is a competent, trustworthy organization.
A viable strategy is exactly what they are currently following. We need a public/private partnership because the ground level retail has appeal to private investors. For example restaurant, bookstore, things like that on the ground level. This would then allow the upper floors to be used, the performance spaces especially. A number of NDG groups like Head and Hands and J2K for instance would hold cultural activities here instead of having to travel to the Plateau or elsewhere. Community and professional performances, as well as repertory cinemas could do well. So a mixture of all those things makes it clear that some private money is what's needed. As for as a community's involvement, I think everybody's just waiting for someone to get the ball rolling.

Montrealites: The community has tried drawing attention to the plight of the Empress for over twelve years, but it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. So really now, for purely practical purposes, try playing Devil's Advocate: Imagine yourself to be a Real estate developer with the primary goal of making money with the property. What plan would you implement in taking over and developing the Empress?

Peter McQueen: Before addressing the Empress directly, I think we'd need to do something with the vacant lots near the Empress along Sherbrooke, and we have our eye on several of them from Decarie to Marcil. Then there are air-rights.

Montrealites: What are air-rights?

Peter McQueen: The borough should increase the density allowances, allow larger taller buildings, and in return get a Community Benefits Agreement from the developers to help finance the Empress. And it's a win win... If those higher densities and higher buildings were allowed, that would be like creating money (snaps his fingers) out of thin air. That money could then go into creating the arts and cultural center at the Empress, and that would make the street vibrant, bring more people, make it a more trendy, interesting district. This would benefit the developers when selling their condos. See, I'm not against condos. I'm just against condos on the Empress.
There's a vacant lot that is under construction now, right on the corner of Prud'homme and the expressway where the arts old gemst gallery had been.


I favoured the idea of building a tower there, a twenty-story tower. I'm not going to mince my words, I mean it's not like it would be out of place; there are already several twenty-story towers along Sherbrooke from here to Decarie Blvd. It's right against the expressway so it seems to me that the higher up people live, the better off they are being far above the traffic. I don't think this would be a bad thing, and if it could help get the Empress open it would be a great thing.

(...available in March...Click to read a more detailed account of City Councillor Peter McQueen's ideas for repairing and revitalizing the urban fabric of the CDN-NDG area.)

Montrealites: So basically, higher buildings would mean more people living in the area, which would help it thrive while creating higher demand for a large, historically relevant cultural community center in a convenient location?

Peter McQueen: Yes. Say, five towers, two hundred apartments each. That's a thousand apartments - two thousand, three thousand people minimum, right here, walking distance from Vendome metro. I mean the street life around here, which, don't get me wrong is already good, would be great. And if the Empress were open too, this would just be a rockin' neighborhood.

Montrealites: So what about the people who would use that theory as ammunition for gutting the interior of the Empress to build condominiums, or worse, tearing it down completely for the same purpose?

Peter McQueen: There are two things: the first is that we're trying to save the outside of the Empress. It has great deal of architectural value; it is a beautiful building.
And second, We want a cultural center in it. It would become the heart of NDG, as it once was. Also, there are already a number of lots where condos are being built, can be built, and I don't think there's any need to tear down the Empress to build condos at all.

Montrealites: What impact would losing the Empress, for whatever reason, have on the community?

Peter McQueen: A part of our history would be lost, and the dreams of a number of people here in NDG... let's just say they would be disappointed.

Montrealites: Are you at liberty to name some of the people who go to bat for the Empress?

Peter McQueen: Of course. People like Jason Hughes at the co-op has worked so hard on this; and Sharon Leslie, former City Councillor of Loyola has worked incredibly hard; David Hanna who I mentioned before has worked hard, and people close to him. That really is to name just a few...

Montrealites: ...and Peter McQueen, City Councillor for Notre-Dame-de-Grace...

Peter McQueen: Absolutely. Also, a good thing that's happened here is a great number of meetings where discussions of the history of NDG has taken place - even that is an excellent corollary of what is happening. It's almost like a little NDG historical society has formed.

Montrealites: It's obvious that you are knowledgeable about this topic, and have clearly given it a lot of thought both professionally and personally. On a personal note, what is your first and/or fondest memory of the Empress?

Peter McQueen: I grew up in NDG on Oxford just near NDG Avenue so the Empress was close. It was called cinema five then I went to see many movies there. Rocky Horror, Swept Away, and other films by Lina Wertmüller, it was my cinema education. It played a huge role in what I learned through the more daring movies I saw at that time. I can tell you a funny anecdote, probably my one of the first memories... A few buddies and I went to see a 3D movie there, we were really young, maybe fourteen, fifteen. Well, one of my friends, John, got sick, really sick - he had imbibed a bit too much before the movie, and he puked in the cinema while wearing the 3D glasses that were crooked on his face. Everybody at the time thought it was incredibly funny in the way he was ill and disoriented with those glasses.
A little bit later than that, I dated a young woman who was the cashier. I am probably 20 or 21 so I'm not just hanging with the buddies anymore...so I'd been there a lot and she was a cashier and that's how I met her, and asked her out. So that was a fond memory. It didn't last very long, but it was a nice experience.

Montrealites: Love in the Empress, at the Empress, and for the Empress. What could be done at a grass-roots level to support her?

Peter McQueen: As I said I have complete confidence in the current board. You can visit their website, there's a regular newsletter. And you could donate money there, you can donate your time; they are always looking for volunteers. They will put you on track as to which politicians to write. Clearly Mayor Applebaum is one of them so keep working it. You know...Mayor Applebaum has made somewhat encouraging moves...I'm not...put it this way, I really did not like Jeremy Searle's article in the Gazette about a month (before this interview), "Ohh, just sell it for condos..."

Montrealites: I remember that, but I remember your online reaction to it even more.

Peter McQueen: I prefer Mayor Applebaum's vision to Jeremy Searle's vision. It's just that Applebaum has lost confidence in the current board which I don't think is fair or productive, but he does now seem committed to opening it as a cultural facility and I respect that. So encourage Mayor Applebaum to continue on that track, but just, you know, encourage him to keep negotiating with or including the current board, even if he has other partners interested to help too, because I think the more partners the better.
Generally to make a cultural center work financially, you'd be using it 24/7, well maybe not 24/7, but as much as possible. Cultural activities every matinee and evening, all days on the weekends with children's groups, with adults, theater stuff, rep-cinema stuff. So yeah, the more people involved the better.

Montrealites: In your previous comment, you mentioned that we could make donations. What would you say to people worried about the allegations or rumours over gross mismanagement of funds? People I've interviewed seem wary to hand over cash fearing it would just to go to waste.

Peter McQueen: Oh yeah I can be clear on that - I cannot speak for right at the beginning when Sonya Biddle, who was the city councillor at the time, first started the project. I cannot speak for what happened then. Perhaps, but I don't know, maybe there was a problem then, I don't know. But I can assure you that the current group has been administering its funds wisely and parsimoniously. And the board before as well with Mr. Mccausland from the brewery, and a number of other people, also honest and hardworking people did their best I can assure you of that. I cannot assure you about what happened 10 to 15 years ago, but in the last five years it's all been good people working hard trying to get the Empress going.

Montrealites: So any donation$ would be put too good use?

Peter McQueen: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.


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