It’s an eerie time to walk around the streets of Montreal: with social distancing rules preventing any social gatherings, and much of the city simply shut down while a global pandemic rolls on.
Then, there are the restaurants and bars — while some remain open as skeleton operations serving take-out and delivery meals, many more are simply deserted, with tables and chairs, bars and wine bottles gathering dust while waiting for permission to re-open (an all-clear that’s likely weeks or even months away).
This drew Montreal photographer Fannie Laurence, who decided to start taking her camera on a daily walk around the Plateau and Mile End (while observing proper social distancing rules, of course).
“I’ve never photographed Montreal,” says Laurence.
“I’ve always photographed outside the city and the country and I never pay attention [to my surroundings in Montreal]. So it’s a great discovery — I think for me it’s a great exercise, because my biggest fear is having to stay indoors.”
Laurence says she didn’t go out with a list of specific places to photograph. Rather, she gravitated towards an array of establishments — some drew her because they are longtime local icons, some others were newer venues that Laurence had particular memories of.
“They’re places I love, and maybe have some kind of attachment to...and some that I’ve never been to because they have an attractive quality.”
“I worked in the restaurant business for many years, so when I first saw L’Express all dark, almost like it was abandoned, I thought about all the people I know who work in restaurants and how hard that can be because I know they do this paycheck to paycheck”
“[The gravity of the situation] kind of hit me — L’Express is such a landmark in Montreal, it’s such an important restaurant, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like that place.”
“I often to go dinner at Chez Doval with my brother — there’s always the waiter that doesn’t smile but gives good service, the singer...it was strange to see it empty and knowing the ovens are off.”
Laurence says that one feeling she had from certain restaurants was that they looked like they had been hurriedly deserted, as if owners and staff had downed tools and fled suddenly.
“I had this feeling of ‘oh, we’ve gotta go now and we don’t know when we’ll come back’.”
“I wanted to go see [Mile End bar] Snack ’n’ Blues. It’s a place I’ve been to many times, and it’s such a legendary night every time. I wanted to see what it feels like being empty on a Friday night. Along with the fact that there were barely any cars [on St-Laurent], it was kind of scary to see it.
“It’s such a unique establishment with the snacks, the DJ, the pool table, the vibe of the bartenders, the sadness and emptiness really resonates.”
For many Montreal institutions, it’s the first time in years or even decades that they have closed for more than a few days at a time, perhaps at Christmas or during the summer construction holiday. Among the oldest in that category is Wilensky’s on Fairmount, which opened in 1932, and has been in its current location since the ‘50s.
Even inside open businesses, like Chez Dany on St-Denis, it’s a quiet scene.