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Basement of the Yellow Door during Rabbit Hole Cafe hours. (Yufei Wang / McGill Tribune)

The Yellow Door aims to prevent urban isolation

a/Student Living by

Montreal is a city coloured with many longstanding unique organizations. One such organization is the non-for-profit Yellow Door, located at 3625 Rue Aylmer, which aims to promote creative artistic expression and encourage service for the community.

“The purpose of the Yellow Door is to give young people an opportunity to initiate and participate in projects of various kinds—social and creative—that combat urban isolation, work across multiple generations, and that hopefully lead to positive social change,” said Marc Nerenberg, Yellow Door Coffeehouse Coordinator.

The Yellow Door has a history that has close ties with McGill University, dating back to the early 1900s. McGill students created the YMCA of McGill University in 1887, which the Student Christian Movement of Canada took over in Canadian universities in 1928. During the 1960s, the Yellow Door Coffeehouse grew from an initiative of the Student Christian Movement, where it served to create a spot for creative expression for local artists.

“The Yellow Door Coffeehouse became fairly well-known over time—it was named Canada’s oldest coffeehouse,” said Nerenberg. “Where other coffeehouses were more of a business venture, the [Yellow Door] was a soulful venture.”

From 1967 to 1971, the coffeehouse acted as a setting to help individuals with financial aid and connect them through lunch programs and music. 

“[The coffeehouse] has a very special history,” said Matthew Bouchard, executive director of the Yellow Door. “In the [1960s], there were a lot of draft-dodgers coming from the United States and settling in Montreal. A lot of them settled in this area because it was low-income housing for the most part; they also came along with their music culture [….] Many of them had to live off of very low wages, so we had a soup kitchen, as well as a coffeehouse. The coffeehouse allowed for like-minded individuals to come together to connect and build relationships around music.”

With the growth of the drug scene in Montreal in the early ’70s, the Yellow Door set up a drop-in psychiatric clinic where doctors provided counselling for youth with drug addictions. In 1972, the organization started the Yellow Door Elderly Project, which began when a group of McGill students used the Local Initiatives Projects grant from the federal Liberal Party to conduct door-to-door surveys of the elderly living in the community and recognized a need to provide services to isolated elderly citizens.

Currently, the Yellow Door is still running with donations from the Quebec government, various private corporations and individuals, as well as with grants from Centraide. The Yellow Door currently runs four key projects: The Yellow Door Coffeehouse, the Generations Project, the Rabbit Hole Café, and Branch Out. 

The Generations Project has evolved from the Yellow Door Elderly Project, and is now run by two coordinators with over 250 volunteers, serving around 300 elderly members within the downtown Montreal community. 

“The mission of it is to try to connect generations through service,” said Bouchard. “The idea is that we get young students to volunteer and they are matched with isolated elderly people in the Montreal area [….] It’s very much for both individuals to benefit from it as much as possible.”

The Rabbit Hole Café is a vegan lunch kitchen—funded by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (MORSL) at McGill—that operates every Friday during the school term, from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. For a donation of $2, students are provided with a vegan lunch. The Yellow Door also includes a small food bank filled with non-perishable items that students can access during the Rabbit Hole Café hours.

Branch Out is the newest initiative started at the Yellow Door. It currently has two projects—the Youth Engagement Project, which fosters creative mentorship between high school students and university students, and Spontaneous Space, which offers activities such as painting, wood carving, chess, and musical improv, to students for free.

The Yellow Door Coffeehouse, which has run for almost 50 years, still continues every Friday and Saturday night. Various famous singer-songwriters performed at the Coffeehouse, including renowned artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Rufus Wainwright, and Stan Rogers. It currently runs open mics, and hosts a featured performer every Friday. The Singer-Songwriter Second Saturday Series runs every second Saturday of each month, and includes a featured act.

Gareth Dicker, member of the Yellow Door Board of Directors, highlighted the strong sense of community cultivated by the Coffeehouse.

“The community of the coffeehouse has been going on for over 40 years as well, so it’s a good way to connect with several decades of musicianship, dating back to when folk music was actually popular,” Dicker said.           

  • chuck baker

    The Local Initiatives Project or LIP grants were a Federal Liberal invention. I did the payroll,
    Gordie Lightfoot came to the Yellow Door to see Chris Kearny, but never played there…
    Chuck Baker, Manager Yellow Door 1967 – 1982

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