January 30th, 2007
Korean snack stand in Tokyo. Photo by Yohei Morita
My wife and I lived in Tokyo from 1992 till 1998. We spent a week here in 2000 and I am now back here for a week in 2007. It is a tantalising experience—it seems familiar in so many ways and yet subtly different, like a Star Trek teleportation that did not quite fully work!
Before, as a foreigner in Tokyo, I rarely drew as much attention as I did when I travelled outside Tokyo. This time, though, I am really struck by how many people here have grown up used to seeing foreigners. We no longer seem to be an issue. People no longer express surprise at a white person speaking Japanese—it is simply seen as the common language of communication, much as French is in Montreal.
I have been particularly struck as to how I now see signs in both Chinese and Korean. Over and over, I have been told that co-hosting the soccer world cup with Korea broke the ice between the two historic rivals. Noticeable Chinese and Korean investment in and around Tokyo may also be part of it.
January 29th, 2007
Lately I have become fascinated by street signs. Not only does their ubiquity place them at the centre of the city’s visual landscape, you can read a lot into the signs themselves. Their design, for instance, speaks to the image a city tries to project of itself. The content of the signs—names and language—sheds light the city’s history, politics and demographics. (Our contributor Donal Hanley wrote a bit about this in his December post, “What Language Does Your City Speak?“) Some cities even have many different types of street signs, depending on age and area, which gives them yet another layer of complexity.
A case in point is Montreal. All of the island’s municipalities and formerly independent boroughs have their own distinct street signs, including Westmount’s restrained and elegant pressed-metal signs, the Town of Mount Royal’s basic bilingual black signs and, of course, Outremont’s somewhat pompous oval-shaped signs. Within the old city of Montreal are three different types of signs. Old Montreal streets are marked by cloying faux-historic red signs, designed to appeal to tourists, while modern white signs bearing Montreal’s distinctive flower logo are found in the downtown area. To find my favourite Montreal street signs, however, you must venture into more out-of-the-way areas.
January 28th, 2007
“No Name” by Jason Mark. Digital composite
I first met Jason Mark when he came to live in my apartment. Actually, I should be more precise—I met him when he came to sublet my apartment. I was living in a cheap studio on Park Avenue near Fairmount, pleasantly appointed but also quite small and dark. When the opportunity arose to move up the street into a bright two-bedroom place with my girlfriend, I put out a call for subletters. Jason answered and, not long thereafter, he settled in with a few boxes of stuff and some leftover furniture I have yet to reclaim from him.
Jason is an artist, born and raised in Saskatchewan, where he received a degree in fine arts from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. When he moved into my old apartment, he set up an easle in the corner of the kitchen and hung some of his paintings on the walls. It wasn’t until last week that I took a closer look at his art, though, and I was surprised to find a lot of public transit imagery and themes of cultural confusion and hybridity.
“Purgatory.” Oil on canvas
January 27th, 2007
350, place Royale
Angle de la Commune
January 27th, 2007
Running in to grab a couple of beers, I’m greeted by the clerk. He’s an odd guy, with a closely shaved crop of black hair and a self-important, Duddy Kravitzesque charm that comes across whether he’s addressing you in English or French. There’s a bit of irony in his greeting, and in the way he dresses, too: sometimes he wears a suit to work, other times he’s entirely in black. He listens to punk music and likes to read Anne Rice novels. Where New York has its bodegas and Korean markets, and Paris l’arabe du coin, Montreal has the depanneur—or dépanneur, if you prefer—though most people just say the dep.
It’s easy to spot a depanneur: look for a large blue Molson Dry placard in the window, which tends to make any other signage pretty much superfluous. Out front, a few big Quilnot delivery bikes might be splayed across the sidewalk, accompanied by delivery boys catching their breath before the next laborious livraison. Inside, the dep is a blast of narrow, cluttered rows, newspaper racks, coolers and god knows what else, all in an area about the same size as a tiny one-bedroom apartment. 7-Eleven this ain’t.
In fact, it’s hard not to notice Montreal’s depanneurs. They’re everywhere (although they occasionally relent to make room for a pharmacy or café, maybe a strip club or two). On Bernard Avenue in the Mile End district, there are five depanneurs in as many blocks, not incuding the café named (what else?) Le Dépanneur.
January 26th, 2007
The God of Fortune. Photo by Ben Johnson
Each year, Vancouver celebrates Chinese New Year like no other city on the continent. People flock to Chinatown for the traditional parade just as businesses are gearing up for one of the busiest spending periods of the year. Festivities large and small erupt across the city with a joyful exuberance otherwise seen only occasionally in this laid-back West Coast metropolis.
The biggest of these parties is thrown by the Chinese Federation of Commerce Canada (CFCC), a non-profit organization that offers business services and helps immigrants integrate into Canadian society. For fifteen years, the CFCC’s Lunar New Year bash has drawn tens of thousands of people to the Pacific National Exhibition grounds—this year they’re expecting up to 150,000 visitors—to shop for New Year goods, take in some entertainment and soak up the convivial atmosphere. The festival’s success is hinted at in its list of sponsors, which range from Rogers Wireless to Toyota to Ikea. Local and national media outlets, English and Chinese alike, have also lent their support. What makes festival organizers proudest, however, is its designation as a “Spirit of Vancouver” event by the Board of Trade in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics. “It’s a very exclusive name,” enthuses Edmund Leung, the co-chairman of the CFCC festival.
January 25th, 2007
Montreal ’87? Try Montreal ’72. Flickr habitué Colin Rose recently delved into his photographic archives and pulled out some remarkable shots from the early 1970s. Some depict a massive snowstorm that coincided with a blue collar workers’ strike, which left downtown streets impassable for days. Others focus on Montreal’s art deco architecture. Since they are all scanned from slides, the photos have a particularly crisp quality that makes them look as if they were taken yesterday, not thirty-five years ago.
What makes Rose’s photos so interesting is they they reveal so many small details of everyday Montreal life. In his snowstorm set, for instance, you can’t help but notice that English street names have English signs (“Stanley St.“) while French street names have French signs (“Rue de la Gauchetière“). The Expo ’67 logo is still affixed to lampposts on Dorchester Boulevard and Peel Street, a reminder of Montreal’s late-sixties glory. On Ste. Catherine Street, terse 1970s design (check out the classic “banque provinciale” sign) is juxtaposed against the giddy neon of an earlier era.
Then, of course, there are the cars: American behemoths on one hand, tiny Volkswagens and Peugeots on the other.
January 24th, 2007
El Fishawy is the best known café in Cairo
and a favourite of Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz
Mention Cairo, and the first things that come to mind are the pyramids. Why do I consider this unfortunate? Because the pyramids are a remnant of a dead civilization, and Cairo today is a living city of 16 million people. Let me suggest a better symbol: the cafés of Khan-el-Khalili, a living microcosm of Egypt’s metropolis.
Cairo’s cafés are many things at once. Sometimes, they have the social buzz of a nightclub or pub. You can often count on the Egyptian smoking a shisha next to you to strike up a conversation. I even saw some French tourists at a nearby table who seemed to be flirting with two Egyptian women in conservative Muslim headgear. Somewhere beyond the shisha haze was a family in party hats celebrating their kid’s birthday surrounded by golden trays crammed with large frothy milkshakes. A café isn’t a café without, well, introspective café types: reading, quietly sipping their dark mint tea, or scribbling away.
Cafés are habitually doorless and windowless. The interiors spill out onto the streets and the suq spills into the cafés. Cairo’s most famous café, the Fishawy, is a series of mirrors and ornate doorframes crammed into a through street. The street is used by shopkeepers, trinket vendors, and pedestrians, who brush against the tables. Sometimes the people-watching seems a little too intimate but this is Cairo: dense, chaotic, and wonderful.
January 24th, 2007
Lewiston, Maine. Photos by Samantha Appleton from the New Yorker.
“‘Who authorized this?’ Lewiston officials say that this is the question they heard most often when the Somalis began showing up in town. The answer was: Nobody did. The Somalis had simply decided to come.” So writes William Finnegan in the December 11th edition of the New Yorker. (The article is not available online, but a portion of it can be read here.) Since 2001, about two thousand Somali refugees have left Atlanta and other large cities for Lewiston, a small Maine mill town of 35,000 whose population is almost entirely white and French-Canadian. Their sudden arrival, and the resulting emergence of a large, multifaceted and highly visible Somali community, might seem odd in such an out-of-a-way place. Increasingly, though, many immigrants and refugees in the United States are choosing to settle in small towns, where their presence has been greeted with a mixture of bemusement, wariness and, sometimes, hostility.
January 24th, 2007
Park Avenue, Tuesday 3am. Photo by Christopher DeWolf
Sylvie was thinking about what she should wear that night when the old woman started waving the $5 bill in her face. She’d already gone on to the next customer, pushing his things through so she could start ringing them up. When she looked around, she was surprised to see the old woman was still there.
“Give me another bill. This one is torn,” the woman said. She had to be old even though her skin, the color of weak tea, was practically unlined. Her hair, which showed around the beret pulled down on her head, was black with a strong sprinkling of white. Her body was shapeless: the breasts seemed to have melted down toward her waist. Her shopping bags still sat on the counter, just where Sylvie was supposed to put the next person’s groceries.
“I want another bill,” the woman said. “This one is bad, don’t you see, girl?”
Sylvie didn’t reply. A bill was a bill, and besides she had other things to worry about. She’d left a few clothes at Anthony’s but it was Saturday afternoon and his mother would be there. To change at his place would open up all sorts of things that Sylvie didn’t want to have to deal with.
“I want another bill,” the woman said again.
Last weekend, Easter weekend they spent at the Mirabel Hilton, out by the airport. Nice place. They had a room that over-looked the indoor garden and the swimming pool and they’d swum and drunk and made love and smoked a little dope. Couldn’t expect to do something like that this weekend but Anthony usually had good ideas…
January 23rd, 2007
The volume of the crowds that descend on Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay every Sunday would generate chaos in most cities: Pedestrians would pour off overcrowded sidewalks and into the streets, snarling traffic. Police would scramble to either push people back or close the roads altogether. Nobody would quite know what to make of it.
But Hong Kong doesn’t have that problem. Thanks to a forward-thinking pedestrianization project, many of its neighbourhoods, including Causeway Bay, boast at least some pedestrianized or partially pedestrianized streets, making Hong Kong one of the most pedestrian-oriented cities in the world.
Hong Kong’s pedestrian scheme dates back to 2000, when the territory’s transport department set out to improve Hong Kong’s pedestrian experience, encourage more people to walk, and improve the city’s often dubious air quality. Three different categories of streets help achieve those goals. Full-time pedestrian streets give pedestrians absolute priority—vehicular access is restricted to certain times of the day and for specific activities, such as deliveries. Part-time pedestrian streets are closed to vehicles for specific periods of the day; and traffic-calming streets give more real estate to pedestrians with wider sidewalks, reducing the amount of space given over to cars.
January 22nd, 2007
Click here to view the whole set of snowy photos from Kansas City.
January 22nd, 2007
Shibam is certainly one of the most architecturally outstanding places in the world. This dense walled maze of five hundred mud-brick skyscrapers seems to grow right out of the Yemeni desert. Many of its buildings date back to the 1500s—the city is as impressive from a distance as it is inside the city walls.
January 21st, 2007
Photo by Lee Celano for the New York Times
Like Venice, it has often been said, New Orleans is sinking. It is sinking literally, of course, into the soft south Louisiana mud from whence it came. Yet it is its social decline that may ultimately render it more akin to the proverbial Pearl of the Adriatic—gutted of local life, of indigenous gestalt, with only the quintessence of its streetscapes left behind, ripe for exploitation by blind capital—and the superficiality of sightseers. Unlike the functioning, workaday trade city, New Orleans’ raison d’etre has never been its industriousness nor even its creativity, but its self-preservation: that of its paradoxically dolorous joie de vivre, yet one that could only be nourished by social distress. And yet the city finds itself at somewhat of an unprecedented crossroads: the point at which cultural survivance has finally been disrupted by a far more crucial need for survival; its life-giving cultural paradox unwound and exposed.