Archive for December, 2006

December 31st, 2006

The Hills of Lisbon

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf

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View from the Santa Justa elevator

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Stumbling down the Calçada do Sacramento

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Dinertime in the Calçada do Duque

December 29th, 2006

The City of a Thousand Leaves

Posted in Europe, Film, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Running across the boulevard Saint-Germain, through the Carrefour de l’Odéon, we dashed into the box office and bought our tickets, ducking into the darkened cinema just as the opening credits finished. We sat down in the back row, interrupting a clearly annoyed couple’s face-sucking session, and watched as the first short began: “Montmartre.”

Paris, je t’aime, which we had just handed over our seven euros to see, is a collective film (it’s composed of eighteen segments) directed by a number of big names from around the world, including the Coen Brothers, Gurinder Chadha and Olivier Assayas. Each segment is set in a different part of Paris and deals with, in some way, love. In “Loin du 16ème,” Walter Salles depicts a young Latin American mother who must leave her own child in a suburban daycare in order to care for another in the wealthy sixteenth arrondissement. Sylvain Chomet’s “Tour Eiffel” is an irreverent and off-kilter take on the life of mimes.

Paris, je t’aime is more than just a collection of disparate shorts. Its producers like to call it a “collective film,” since it understands the futility of trying to reduce the Parisian experience into a single story—any attempt to do so will result in an enjoyable but empty Amélie fantasy. Instead, Paris, je t’aime suggests that Paris is a city of vignettes, a collection of dramas that share the same stage. Of course, every city is like this to some extent, but in Paris the effect is exaggerated by geographical compactness. Central Paris is a neat circle just ten kilometres across, ringed by the Périphérique highway; within its boundaries, the city is a treasure chest of humanity.

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December 27th, 2006

What Language Does Your City Speak?

Posted in Demographics, Politics, Society and Culture by Donal Hanley

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That a metropolis is multilingual is often taken as a given, but multilingualism takes many forms.

Usually, multilingualism comes from recent immigration, as first- and second-generation immigrants continue to speak their ancestral tongue. In that regard, such multilingualism may be seen as a challenge to the existing norm. In Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, just east of downtown Los Angeles, the population is mostly of Chinese descent and, as one might expect, most commercial signs are in Chinese. Every so often, the language of signs in the valley becomes a political issue, as the area’s longer-established non-Chinese residents wonder whether signs should be required to contain English or even be English-only.

I recently visited Dublin, which was very homogeneous when I grew up there but which has recently received many immigrants from eastern Europe. I was a little surprised, when wandering around, to see café signs advertising IHTEPHET (Russian for “internet”). Clearly, commercial signs follow bottom-up demand from the local inhabitants, since the signs are there to cater to them and to attract their attention.

Vying with this natural use of language is a more top-down form of language planning. This may be done to foster use of an official language seen as being under threat, such as French in Montreal, or Gaelic in Dublin, where, for example, all buses headed downtown bear the sign An Lár (“the centre”), even though nobody would use that in normal English speech. Although I largely support this use of language planning, this may be seen as action by a government which does not trust that the official language can survive commercial competition.

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December 26th, 2006

Laneway Poetry

Posted in Art and Design, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Yesterday, while wandering around the neighbourhood, I came across a long poem pasted onto the walls of an alley, off Waverly Street between Fairmount and Groll. It was preceded by a brief introduction: “The Public Zine: This project comes in response to the inundation of public space with corporate messages. We are reclaiming these spaces with the hope that our actions will temporarily alter a system that dictates all public visual space must be used for capitalist pursuits. We do not want to see you anything, but we do hope you enjoy the show.”

Below, some wag had written, “Too bad it’s not that good.” Oh well. “A” for effort! The folks at Spacing would approve.

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December 25th, 2006

Ho Ho Holiday Tackiness

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

This year, December in Montreal has been distinctly green, with few flakes to be seen, especially not on the twenty-fifth day of the month. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, when I came across a snowman who was absolutely devastated by the lack of snow.

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Montrealers have a particular fondness for tacky Christmas decorations: blinking lights, plastic raindeers, inflatable Santa Clauses that lord threateningly over the street from their third-floor perches. One evening I came across a reindeer doing things to a freakishly skinny Santa that are normally done behind closed doors. It’s like something you would find in a working-class suburb of Buffalo (or, at least, my own image of Buffalo, since I’ve never actually been there), except transplanted to a city where people have balconies, not front yards, which results in particularly dense and outrageous phantasmagoria.

The tacky holiday decorations even extend to Hanukkah: witness the menorah-mobile, which was parked on Park Avenue for all eight days.

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December 24th, 2006

Get on the Bus!

Posted in Canada, Music, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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“Ain’t no streetcar, ain’t no subway car, it’s the Spadina bus!”

It occurred to me the other day that when I made my first City Music post last month, I never bothered to define what I hoped to achieve with the series. So here goes: “City music” is pop music with a distinct sense of place. While the literary and cinematic landscapes of our cities have been well-charted — think of the Montreal of Mordecai Richler and Michel Tremblay, or the New York of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee — the musical landscapes remain, for the most part, terra incognita. So think of me as a navigator (half-blind, perhaps, but with a good sense of direction) who will seek out and record the places found in music.

With that in mind, I present to you two songs, one from Toronto, the other from Calgary, one from 1986, the other from 2002. Both are about bus lines: Toronto’s fabled Spadina bus and Calgary’s less-hyped but no less interesting number 2 bus.

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December 21st, 2006

Getting to Know the Plex

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

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There’s a type of urban housing that is more versatile than rowhouses, more human-scaled than apartment buildings and far denser than single-family homes. It’s called the plex—but unless you’ve lived in a select few cities, you’ve probably never heard of it.

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December 20th, 2006

La ville glacée

Posted in Canada, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

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On December 1st, I awoke as the blue fingers of dawn took hold of the eastern sky. Unable to return to sleep, I went to the kitchen and made myself a coffee. With bleary eyes, I watched the back alley as the night’s darkness faded into a mute grey. A few snowflakes began tumbling down from the sky, the season’s first.

Later that day, exhausted from my early morning adventure, I took a long nap just as the sun set. By the time I woke up, at about 6:30 in the evening, everything was dark. I could hear the groan of gridlocked traffic on Park Avenue, just outside my bedroom window, but strangely, no light was coming in from the street. A strange popping sound accompanied the grinding tires and car horns. I turned over, saw the iced-over window and realized what had happened: an ice storm.

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December 18th, 2006

I Hate Winnipeg

Posted in Art and Design, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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When John K. Samson, lead singer of the Weakerthans, croons “I hate Winnipeg” in his song “One Great City!”, he’s merely excavating the civic self-loathing that seems buried beneath the skin of every lifelong Winnipegger. Beset by a sluggish economy, high crime, mortally cold winters and muggy, mosquito-ridden summers, not to mention complete and utter isolation, residents of Manitoba’s capital can be forgiven from the occasional bout of cheerlessness. But you know, all of the things that make Winnipeg a nominally bad place also make it exceptionally interesting: here is a city with great architecture and kitschy bungalows, a sumptuous history of immigration, organized crime, would-be Bolshevik revolutions and all of the strange stuff you would expect from a city more than 1,300 kilometres from anywhere of real signifiance.

That’s where l’Atelier national du Manitoba comes in. Over the past couple of years, this two-man crew has been drawing from Winnipeg’s cultural history for its art, including experimental films and street art. “[ANM] founders Walter Forsberg and Matthew Rankin have made it their duty to dig up and preserve the most ignored, maligned and downright despised aspects of their province’s cultural history,” declared THIS Magazine in a profile of the duo. “Basically, all of the cultural production of Winnipeg is despised by the citizens who live here, vengefully disposed of and rejected by its own people,” explained Rankin. “Which is kind of beautiful, in fact.” The ANM’s films deal with such things as the birth and death of the Winnipeg Jets; its poster art includes posters bearing the likeness of Guess Who vocalist and Winnipeg folk hero Burton Cummings.

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December 17th, 2006

Winter Solstice 2006

Posted in Environment, Society and Culture by Owen Rose

Winter Solstice 2006

That time of year when the sun is lowest on the horizon and we wonder if spring will ever come again. December 21st, the winter solstice is anchored in the very connection of our planet to the heavens.

Low sun, long shadows, and short days. Bundled up, we walk on a dormant land.

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December 16th, 2006

How Should a City Grow?

Posted in Politics by Eric Bowers

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Making way for urban renewal in Boston, early 1950s

The antithesis of the Jane Jacobs-esque ideal of small, incremental, organic urban economic and development growth — the planned, micromanaged mega projects — now seem to be required in order to stimulate urban development. “Cities are once again planning with grandiosity,” declared the New York Times Magazine this week. “This year witnessed the return of what you might call big urbanism, with large-scale redevelopment projects sprouting nationwide.”

Tax incentives such as abatements and Tax Increment Financing are doled out left and right to stimulate development and economic growth, with much less emphasis now placed on the once requisite small business entrepreneur, who combined with his or her peers served to build the city. For an example, downtown Kansas City now has two large, managed construction projects approved. One covers nine city blocks, and the other, twelve blocks. These two developments serve as a wholesale replacement of the decay, neglect, and blight that has festered for decades in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. It seems that now, to get anything done and make any progress, a city has to give away its future tax revenue and budget in order to stimulate the “urbanity-in-a-can” mega developments.

I suppose the thinking among city leaders is of the old adage, “public investment begets private investment,” but I still have to wonder if the vaunted small incremental organic growth lauded by Jane Jacobs has become an archaic anachronism in this time of tax incentives and master planned, huge development projects spanning many city blocks all at the same time. Perhaps it is fateful recompense for a city that allowed itself to be nearly destroyed by the automobile.

December 15th, 2006

Oh, Just Horsing Around

Posted in Europe by Sam Imberman

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Bakery in the Marais. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

It’s practically a law of the Earth: the corner bakery will have croissants. The tides will roll in and out, the seasons will change, and the corner bakery will have croissants.

And so it was that on a particular Sunday, my corner bakery did not, actually, have croissants. Or pain au chocolat or much of anything else, except for apple turnovers. And I was not in the mood for apple turnovers. Being out of cereal and bread, if I was going to eat anything that morning, I was going to have to find it first. I would be meeting a friend at the Centre Pompidou, way downtown, at two. Mission: breakfast.

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December 15th, 2006

City of God

Posted in Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

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Holiday spectacle, Herald Square, New York

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Moshiach is Coming Now!, Midtown Manhattan

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Hell is for Fools!, Times Square subway station

December 14th, 2006

Roadsworth Vindicated — And Other Interesting Ideas From 2006

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Roadsworth’s stencil art in 2004

This week I was flipping through the New York Times Magazine‘s annual “Year in Ideas” issue when I came across a particular innovation that reminded me of something else. It seems that the tweedy good folks of Cambridge, Massachusetts have decided to tackle the problem of speeding cars, not by installing a speed bump or a mini-roundabout, but by street art. For $10,000, much less than what it would cost for traditional traffic-calming devices (raised crosswalks run about $100,000, for instance), the city paid local artist Wen-ti Tsen to paint an abstract design — a mural pretending to be a traffic circle, to paraphrase the artist — in the middle of a busy intersection, Although studies are still underway to determine its effectiveness as a traffic-calming measure, local residents already swear that it has worked: “There’s something in the road, so there’s a moment of confusion and you slow down. Then you see it’s flat, and you drive over it,” said one.

Montrealers will be reminded of local street artist Roadsworth, who had a moment of glory in 2004 when he decorated Montreal street surfaces with his tongue-in-cheek stencils: parking space dividers were turned into bird perches, crossworks were framed by barbed wire, zipper heads added to lane dividers and so forth.

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