The beating heart of Saint-Jean-Baptiste
A leisurely stroll down Rue Saint-Jean outside the old walls is always delightful. Amid the warm and welcoming vibe, there’s something for everyone. This bustling shopping street is steeped in history and has no shortage of charm. It is culturally diverse, both simple and sophisticated, lively, and a favourite with foodies. The street is also the backbone around which the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood was built.
In the mid-17th century the surveyor and engineer Jean Bourdon traced a path from the town atop Cape Diamond to his residence in the fief of Saint-Jean, near Avenue Belvédère today. Naturally this route was named after him. In 1734 the thoroughfare gained in popularity because it was the starting point of Chemin du Roy, the road to Montréal that had just been completed. More and more inhabitants began to build small single-storey houses along the busy street. Most were artisans looking to escape the strict trade regulations within the city walls, while remaining close to their customers. The military could force them to leave their homes at any time, however. This is precisely what happened in 1745 when the construction of the ramparts was completed.
The Saint-Jean district
The development of the Saint-Jean district gained steam at the end of the 18th century. By 1800 an increasing number of one- and two-storey dwellings, along with wooden sidewalks, lined Rue Saint-Jean. But all was destroyed by a terrible fire that raged through the district on June 28, 1845.
The hardy residents rolled up their sleeves and quickly rebuilt. Municipal authorities took the opportunity to enlarge Rue Saint-Jean, where a new type of building emerged, housing both businesses and family homes. These two- and three-storey buildings had windows on the ground floor to brighten the shop interiors and display merchandise to passersby, while the shop-owning families lived upstairs. Rue Saint-Jean was now a bustling shopping street! By 1875, with the appearance of grocers, shoemakers, barbers, bakers, hardware dealers, bankers, and other businesses, the Saint-Jean district had achieved almost complete autonomy.
In 1881 a second fire razed much of the Saint-Jean district to the ground. The area around the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church was worst affected, and the church itself went up in flames. Once again local merchants hurried to rebuild. Many seized the opportunity to give their stores a facelift. They drew inspiration from the Second Empire style neighbourhood architect Joseph-Ferdinand Peachy had used for the façade of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church.
Beginning in 1897 an electric tram went into service along Rue Saint-Jean and brought further prosperity to the busy street, which remained a hub of activity until the mid-20th century.
The decline and revival of a popular street
The 1960s delivered a major blow to the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood, which saw its population diminish by half—something that naturally affected the profit margins of local businesses on Rue Saint-Jean. New suburban malls lured shoppers away from its boutiques and remaining department stores, but at the same time efforts were underway to reanimate the neighbourhood. The active involvement of citizens and a movement to renovate older buildings provided enough support to keep commerce alive and stave off the street’s demise.
Then in the 1990s municipal authorities implemented a set of revitalization measures to add to the charms of Rue Saint-Jean. They created places for people to relax in, restored building façades, and came up with a comprehensive strategy to link the new trend to “buy local” to the neighbourhood’s penchant for supporting local businesses.
These days the people of Saint-Jean-Baptiste can find almost anything they need just a short walk away, and work, shop, and enjoy themselves within a few blocks of home. Rue Saint-Jean is always lively, whatever the season, and now attracts tourists eager to experience a friendly welcome and a slice of real life in Québec City.