Le Petit Champlain is as old as Québec City. In fact, it’s the oldest commercial district in North America. But without some help a little over forty years ago, the quartier (neighborhood) would have been razed to make room for a parking lot.
New France began at Petit Champlain
In 1608, Samuel de Champlain established the first permanent French trading post and settlement north of Florida. Set on the shore of a natural headland of the St. Lawrence river, –the Québec word for “narrows”–would first become a place for the booming fur trade.
Champlain’s tiny village was on the waterfront; maritime craftsmen–carpenters, sailmakers, and caulkers–set up shop on the banks of the river. Captains and sailors lived there, too. To reach the upper part of the town, a steep stairway was built in 1635. Québec City’s oldest staircase was named “Escalier Casse Cou,” or Breakneck Stairs. You can still huff your way up the 59 stairs, or take the funiculaire to the Haute Ville. The funicular’s lower station is in the 1683 home of Louis Jolliet, the French explorer who accompanied Father Jacques Marquette in the journey to the Mississippi.
The decline of Petit Champlain
After the English took over New France in 1760, land between the water and nearby Cap Diamant was reclaimed. Longshoremen, many of them Irish immigrants, moved in. The Irish were trying to escape the dismal situation of their homeland, but many ended up bringing disease to Québec. The artisans moved out, to the Upper Town.
The area began a serious downward slide in the 1800s. Development stopped and poverty flooded in. Petit Champlain was a slum. During this time, the Breakneck Stairs were called “Beggar’s Stairs.” By the 1960s, the neighborhood was abandoned.
In 1976, entrepreneur Gerard Paris and architect Jacques de Blois began to renovate a few dilapidated buildings on Rue du Petit Champlain. To turn old structures into a mix of commercial and residential spaces was revolutionary at the time. It was the start of a vast project that would not only reclaim the area, but make it into a community that would contain boutiques, studios, cafes, restaurants, a theatre, and a park. Paris and de Blois planned for artisans to live in the same buildings as their ateliers. In the end, 28 of the 200- to 300-year-old buildings were restored, maintaining the original architecture and details.
Today, Petit Champlain is a charming pedestrian area with nearly 50 businesses, all featuring local and regional goods. The merchants and artists are part of a cooperative that collectively owns the buildings and safeguards the proud heritage of the small district. There’s a waiting list for those who want to set up boutiques and bistros. In 2011, it won Canada’s first “Great Places” competition in the neighborhood category. In 2014, it was named the Best Street in Canada.
Pretty good for a place that was destined to be a parking lot!
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