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FEBRUARY 2004 - Recent Posts
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Challenging cities - 15.02.04
Frontier town - 01.02.04


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Challenging cities
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2003 - CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF


MONTREAL, 22.01.04 : SNOWSTORM ON ST-VIATEUR


MONTREAL, 22.01.04 : MILTON STREET, 6PM


MONTREAL, 23.01.04 : FIRE ON DUROCHER STREET


MONTREAL, 31.01.04 : BUSKER, RUE ST-DENIS


MONTREAL, 22.01.04 : BOOKSTORE ON MILTON STREET


MONTREAL, 22.01.04 : FOOTBALL IN THE SNOW, DOWNTOWN


MONTREAL, 22.01.04 : REDPATH MUSEUM, MCGILL


MONTREAL, 01.02.04 : WALKING HOME ON JEANNE-MANCE


MONTREAL, 22.01.04 : STE-CATHERINE AND STANLEY


MONTREAL, 29.01.04 : CLEARING THE SNOW AT MCGILL


MONTREAL, 02.02.04 : RUE DE LA VISITATION, CENTRE-SUD

Last Thursday and Friday I was at the Challenging Cities in Canada conference, a nifty little shindig put on by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Through speeches and panel discussions (and naturally, lots of coffee, cocktails and schmoozing) it examined the issues facing Canada's cities today. Governor General Adrienne Clarkson got the ball rolling on Thursday morning with an engaging, eloquent speech about her travels as head of state to Canada's various cities. Looking for what would fulfill the Greek ideal of the Good City, she and her husband, the philosopher John Ralston Saul, visited a number of cities to observe the various problems they faced and the ways in which they were coping with them. In Calgary, they rejoiced at the conversion of an old inner-city military base into a dense, walkable and mixed-use neighbourhood. Across the country, in Saint John, they discovered a downtown kept alive by an artists' colony. Quebec City managed to transform its derelict St-Roch neighbourhood into a hub of cultural activity and business through progressive and inventive government policies. Clarkson and Saul found that Saskatoon was home to a vibrant community of writers, Booker-prize winner and expat Montrealer Yann Martel among them, thanks to its academic life and cheap housing ("It's the only place in Canada where a poet can afford to buy a house," one wordsmith quipped). Her speech emphasized the diversity of challenges facing Canada's cities and, most importantly, the diversity of solutions to those problems. Above all, she urged, we must listen to our cities.

Clarkson's talk framed the rest of the discussions quite well. Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay gave a surprisingly forceful speech on the need for higher levels of governments to treat Montreal as a partner, not a subject. Later that day, one panel offered its take on the question of how to sustain Canada's cities. Jack Layton, federal leader of the NDP and one of the panellists, attacked the Paul Martin government's efforts to forge a new deal for cities as a mere exercise in public relations. The government, which recently promised to make municipal governments sales tax-exempt, was doing far too little when it could be shifting the money about to be spent on corporate tax cuts towards affordable housing, Layton insisted. It was a solid but predictable speech, pretty much the same canned message he always dishes up. Considering he has spent the great part of his life as a Toronto city councillor and an expert on urban issues he has a PhD in this stuff, for crying out loud his contribution would have benefited from more analysis and less pre-campaign rhetoric.

Some of the other panels were interesting, too. One, "How Does a City Make Its Mark?" presented a variety of ways for cities to become vital places that attract worldwide attention. "The City and the Imagination," which sounds like it was one of the most interesting panels, was also one of the few I missed. According to an article in the Toronto Star, it focused on cities' self-identity; basically, how we shape cities and how they shape us. In the words of Vancouver architect Bing Thom, who was on the panel, the glue that holds cities together is common values, common ideas and, "in recent years, it's also the growing importance of culture. Our economic well-being is based on our ability to celebrate culture, and celebrate the true identity of our cities." (In the lunch line, I did end up standing in front of Thom, who was telling someone a story about a colleague, a new boat, the Burrard Street Bridge and significant damage, but that didn't shed much light on urban self-identity.) Thom recently designed the stunning new Aberdeen Centre, a large Asian mall, in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, which is about 40 percent Chinese and half Asian. It runs right up to the sidewalk and features a multicoloured glass facade that glows at night like a lantern. It seems like a remarkable way of creating a focal point for Richmond's strong Chinese culture, instilling a sense of place in a suburban landscape. 

It was towards the end of conference on Friday that Clarkson's point about listening to cities was really hammered home. In a discussion on civic participation, panellists as wide-ranging Phyllis Lambert éminence grise of the Montreal architecture world and the reason New York's Seagram building was built in the first place former federal cabinet minister and citizens' right activist Warren Allmand, Elyse Allen, the president of the Toronto Board of Trade, the executive director of an organization that "greens" cities, the dean of social sciences at the University of Ottawa and the associate director of Convercité, a local group that resolves conflicts in urban development issues. Each of their presentations stressed how important it is for governments to listen to citizens (and, by default, cities). Allman in particular was quite forceful about the need for transparent governments, public consultations and the ability to hold referendums. All too often, he said, citizens can only act after a decision has been made behind closed doors. Ironically, the new Montreal megacity, which was conceived in a profoundly undemocratic manner, has proven to be notably progressive in its respect of citizens' rights and public participation. Surprisingly, Elyse Allen spoke about an epiphany the Board of Trade experienced several years ago: if the business community worked together with the citizens to satisfy pressing urban issues, the Board realized, Toronto would become a healthier, more economically robust place.

It turns out there's a huge diversity of issues facing the cities of Canada and each one requires a unique solution. In general, though, it's a bit like the advice of a relationship counsellor: we need more communication. City governments need to communicate with their citizens and higher levels of government, the provinces and Ottawa, need to listen to cities. It isn't enough to toss a few extra scraps of food off the dinner plate as one would do for a dog – cities need sit at the table as equals.

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Frontier town
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2003 - CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF


MONTREAL, 17.01.04 : BOULEVARD ST-LAURENT


MONTREAL, 10.01.04 : MORNING ON ST-ANDRÉ


MONTREAL, 11.01.04 : PRINCE ARTHUR, SUNDAY AFTERNOON


MONTREAL, 07.01.04 : DÉPANNEUR IN VERDUN


MONTREAL, 10.01.04 : WALKING THE DOG ON PRINCE ARTHUR


MONTREAL, 08.01.04 : SNOW EATING MACHINE, VERDUN


MONTREAL, 07.01.04 : COLONIALE STREET


MONTREAL, 17.01.04 : BACKSTREETS OF VERDUN


MONTREAL, 10.01.04 : MILTON STREET FROM A DINER


MONTREAL, 10.01.04 : VIEW FROM MCGILL'S LEACOCK BUILDING


MONTREAL, 10.01.04 : CHESKIE BAKERY, BERNARD STREET


MONTREAL, 19.01.04 : FABRIC STORE ON PARC AVENUE

The problem with Calgary is that it has no history. Okay, that’s an overstatement, but you catch my drift. Founded in the late 19th century, Calgary was a small agricultural centre on the edge of the Canadian Prairies until an oil boom in 1947 led American oil companies to build their Canadian head offices in Calgary. Today, with a million people, it is Canada’s fifth-largest city and one of its most economically robust. Migrants from the rest of Canada are pouring in along with an ever-increasing number of immigrants from around the world, Asia in particular. Above all, the impression that Calgary gives off is one of youth: virtually all of the city has been built within living memory. To be sure, there are still a few reminders of its past. A handful of sandstone buildings survive from its earliest boom days and the wood-frame houses of its inner neighbourhoods evoke a certain small town atmosphere. But make no mistake about it: this city is tied to its past about as firmly as prairie topsoil clings to the ground.

The Stampede, what many Canadians associate with Calgary, provides us with a nice example. Held each July, the Calgary Stampede and Exhibition is a week-long celebration of cowboy boots, pancakes and line dancing. Corporate executives and soccer moms put down their cell phone and pick up a Stetson. At the exhibition grounds, you’ll find rodeo and chuckwagon competitions, animal shows and a predictable array of tacky midway rides, rock concerts and product demonstrations where fast-talking sales reps pawn off miracle knifes that can cut through five inches of concrete as if it was butter. Every so often, actors perform mock shootouts in a cartoonish Western village behind the big Coca-Cola stage. Down at the far end of the site, across the Elbow River, there’s even a rather unnerving Indian Village where members of local First Nations tribes live “traditionally” in tipis for a week, performing dances for the tourists every hour, on the hour.

It seems fitting, then, that the Stampede is as much a celebration of a Western fantasy as it is a tribute to a real Western past. In 1912, Guy Weadick, a vaudevillian specializing in rope tricks, arrived in Calgary from his tours across Europe and North America. He saw in the booming little town the opportunity to create a frontier show and cowboy competition that celebrated the “old west” and the skills of local cowboys and ranchers. With the financial help of Calgary’s “Big Four” businessmen, the Stampede made its debut during the first week of September, 1912. Over the years, it borrowed more and more heavily from the Wild West of the popular imagination. There’s just one incongruity: Canada never had a wild west. This is, don’t forget, the land of the scarlet-coated Mounted Police; old Sir John A. was careful to keep Canada’s great interior in check, lest any lawlessness give the Americans an excuse to invade and steal it away. Calgary was founded as a police fort and, later, it was built almost from scratch by the executives of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Today, it’s probably the most white collar city in North America, dominated by the head offices of big oil companies and countless other corporations.  

Still, even if the Stampede’s rowdy frontier premise sexes up Calgary’s real past, it’s easy enough to see where Weadick got his inspiration. Just because there wasn’t widespread lawlessness in Alberta’s history doesn’t mean that this isn’t still pioneer country. Calgary is easily the most individualistic place in Canada. With so little past to inform the present, the individual rules – which probably explains why so many people consider Calgary to be the most “American” city in Canada, not to mention the entrepreneurial, go-it-alone atmosphere that pervades most aspects of life in the city. Some people find this incredibly liberating; Calgary’s astounding growth as one of the continent’s business poles over the past several years attests to that. It may even be a boon the arts scene: the High-Performance Rodeo, for instance, a yearly celebration of experimental theatre – the Globe and Mail calls it “a hearty chuckwagon breakfast of theatre, dance, poetry, puppetry, music, radio drama, video art, spoken word and other cultural repasts” – has become increasingly popular and ground-breaking. But, on the other hand, there are probably just as many people who find Calgary’s sense of frontier spirit rather alienating. It has a tendency to feel placeless, something emphasized in its largely soulless downtown core and the monotonous suburbia that engulfs virtually all of the city.

I come from the latter camp, which is why I left Calgary after having grown up there. But even then, there is enough of interest in the city to make for a photoessay – which, incidentally, is February’s feature. Calgary (whose title, I should add, is breathtakingly original) is a collection of photos I took over a week and a half when I returned to the city in late December and early January. It isn’t exactly comprehensive, since I chose to focus on two themes: the small-townish inner city neighbourhoods and Calgary’s vibrant, burgeoning Chinese community. Between this feature and last month's Winnipeg photoessay, I'm sure you will have all had enough of Western Canada by the time this month is over. But don't despair! Look forward to a gorgeous collection of Havana photos by Colin Kent and an equally impressive photoessay on Chicago in the coming months.

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