Québec City’s Broadway
Rue Saint-Joseph gradually emerged as Québec City’s main shopping street in the 1860s with the opening of a public market. Soon it was bustling with commercial activity like in big North American cities everywhere, with department stores, movie theatres, electric lighting, and tramways—a local sensation. But hard times would come before today’s prosperity.
Paving the way
Rue Saint-Joseph grew in importance when the Jacques-Cartier Market was built at Saint-Joseph and Dorchester in 1857. It was the only street to run east to west through the centre of Saint-Roch. Québec City’s first tramway line ran along it from 1865.
More and more businesses
More and more stores set up shop along the street between 1850 and 1920, swelling in number from 5 to 200. They sold furniture, clothing, books, drugs, groceries, hardware, and anything else you could think of. At first owners lived above their stores with their wares on display in the ground floor windows, similar to the arrangement at No. 299.
Three- and four-storey department stories made their debut around 1890. These temples of retail goods were bigger than anything shoppers had ever seen before. Growth was so intense and everything so modern that rue Saint-Joseph was quickly dubbed Québec City’s very own Broadway—a street of theatres, cinemas, cabarets, and giant stores, with electric lighting and a tramway to boot.
The appeal of modern living
At the start of the 20th century, most people in the city lived in Saint-Roch, its economic engine. Rue Saint-Joseph was the heart of the American-style downtown area, dense, busy, and prosperous. Dozens of factories employing thousands of workers opened in the area from 1870 on. By embracing the American fashion of bigger, more upmarket department stores, local businesspeople not only catered to neighbourhood residents, but also the middle classes of Upper Town and customers from surrounding areas. By the mid-20th century, 80% of retail businesses in the city and all of eastern Québec were along rue Saint-Joseph.
The price of progress
Like many other North American city centres, Québec’s declined in the 1950s as residents moved away from the crowded, hot, polluted industrial areas of a bygone era. They were attracted by the clean new suburbs with their industrial parks for businesses and bright new shopping malls ringed by huge parking lots.
Many businesses along rue Saint-Joseph, large and small, closed their doors, done in by the flight to the suburbs and competition from suburban malls.
Saint-Roch’s shopping mall
To counter the trend, rue Saint-Joseph sought to create a shopping experience comparable to that of the suburbs. First, part of the street was reserved for pedestrians. Then from 1972 to 1974, a half-kilometre roof was built over rue Saint-Joseph, making it the world’s longest covered street. This ambitious project provided a temporary shot in the arm to businesses, but the mall soon became a place for the neighbourhood’s poor to loiter rather than a thriving shopping centre.
The new rue Saint-Joseph
Various measures were put in place in the 1990s in an attempt to breathe new life into the neighbourhood. One involved removing rue Saint-Joseph’s roof: a first half was demolished in 2000, then the second half disappeared in 2007. The street was spruced up, and a number of buildings were renovated. The population began to rise, and today the neighbourhood is a byword for vibrancy and innovation. Rue Saint-Joseph has again become a place to go for culture and shopping.