Images of war-torn cities are perversely fascinating. Grozny, Mogadishu, Kabul—they are hollow emblems of urbanity where people try to survive within the rubble of their own lives. Cities don’t simply die when they are torn apart by bombs and artillery; they transform into something battered and ghostly, something undead.
Of course, this is all conjecture on my part. I have never known anything even remotely similar to war. My perceptions are shaped by film and news footage. But bloody cinéma vérité and gruesome documentaries cannot convey the terror and deprivation of life in an actual war zone. For people like me, the psychological—if not geographic—gulf is too great.
Rain runs down glass (looking at it). Stereo set. Under and over. Stood smoking a cigarette under an eve. A women with blue hair slips, falls, her umbrella smacking against her neighbor. A man down the street turns, wearing orange, hawker color.
D. and I met at a tea canteen about half past six—storefront beneath the MK Road pass. I ordered dumplings and noodles, plus one coke. D. ordered—nothing, though the waiter did bring him a beer.
D. was stressed, his tie poorly knotted (missing its dimple) his jacket slumped and peeled over one shoulder. He did not bother properly closing his umbrella. We sat beneath a cracked mirror, a scrawled sign promising prosperity. I ate unhurriedly. D. did not say much for a while—he talked about the rain, some horses, some gossip. How he was tired of hearing the same songs over and over again at the pub—and mind you, D. is not some LKF teenybopper, he’s a bar man, a K singing specialist with the hot stuff for the young Connie Chan, if I remember correctly. Don’t blame me if I don’t, I really couldn’t give a damn about who D. had the hots for. Like I said, he was in a bad mood. Mong Kok is very busy, yes, and Hong Kong is a safe place, but sometimes bad things do happen to good people.
But I seem to be losing the thread of my argument (oh how I wish I had graduated high school!)—D.—perhaps not such a good person. Anyhow.
Earlier this week, on a remarkably sunny afternoon, I walked down Robson Street and into the Vancouver Art Gallery. I was there to see images of a lost Vancouver.
Au cours du siècle dernier, nous avons identifié de grandes tendances telles que « l’historicisme », « le modernisme », « le brutalisme », etc. La construction « verte » n’est pas une formule écologique à suivre ni une mode parmi d’autres. Elle va au-delà d’un bâtiment et englobe aussi le quartier, la ville et le territoire où un projet se situe. Dans ce contexte, c’est donc à nous la relève, de contribuer à l’émergence d’une société saine sur les plans social, économique et écologique. C’est autant une question de bâtir une culture écologique que de construire une ville.
Old Sana’a: bricks and gingerbread
Yemen’s capital is known for its dense streets of brick buildings with white icing. There’s nothing like it anywhere else. But there’s another curious and unique thing about Sana’a: all the men in town have bulging cheeks!
Photo by Christopher DeWolf
I had trouble finding the bar. Street after street flashed into focus and flashed out again, all looking more or less like each other. The same crowds, the same intense and overexposed light. The same unreal feeling, as if the city never ended or altered but ran this way forever. To have realized what a desire is is not to realize a desire. The lengthening night baffled me, hiding landmarks, adding new ones in blazes of light, making every street run backwards, disappearing behind neon.
When I turned onto a sidestreet the only difference I could notice came in the form of a lessening, a few minor pen-tick alterations, lowered shop grates, more shadow swathed, visibly rotting concrete. I don’t doubt that the differences take time to notice: all lost in that first great big head charge of difference. I finally did find my way, after what seemed like hours of searching, dodging, doubling back, trying to remember storefronts for future reference. I finally did—the windowless walls covered over in posters advertising NASCAR, down a quiet block across from the train tracks. A hoodie-clad bar girl smiling. Lin Na chilling behind the bar. I swung my shoulders, said “excuse me,” turned, and arrived.
“Hey, where were you?”
“Lost,” I answered simply.
Every couple of days, I walk to the corner and buy a few things at Cheskie, my heimishe bakery. Of course it’s not actually my heimishe bakery—it’s owned by Cheskie Lebowitz, an affable Hasidic Jew from New York—but I’ve gone there enough over the years to feel a sense of proprietary pride.
As its name would suggest, Cheskie is first and foremont a Jewish bakery that specializes in kosher treats. Its challah bread is expensive but divine. So are the rugelach, which come in four varieties—chocolate, poppyseed, vanilla and cinammon—and are best eaten layer by layer, the better to contrast the crispy exterior with the soft, sweet layers inside. Seasonal sweets like hamantaschen are also exceptionally good. My favourite baked good from Cheskie is not particularly Jewish at all, however: the black and white cookie. A staple of every bakery between New York and Boston, these flat frosted cakes (made famous in the Seinfeld episode “The Dinner Party,” when Jerry vomits because the flavours “aren’t getting along”) are inexplicably absent from Canada. It took a New Yorker like Cheskie to rectify this unfortunate situation.
Although Cheskie is not a place to linger—it’s quite small and there are no seats—part of what makes it interesting is the clientele. About half of the customers are Hasidic, making this bakery a mainstay in Montreal’s largest Hasidic neighbourhood: Mile End and Outremont, home to 6,000 of Montreal’s 11,000 Hasidim.
When the elevator was invented in 1853 by Elias Otis the possibilities of building tall started to come together. Several technological developments converged at the end of the nineteenth century including electric light (1879) and steel frame with exterior curtain wall construction. The first skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building (1883-85) in Chicago by William Le Baron Jenney. In Montréal, the evolution of the skyscraper is documented through a number of buildings. There are three basic pre Second World War skyscraper generations. The first generation began in 1888 with the New York Life Insurance building at 511, place d’Armes. At eight storeys, it was Montréal’s first skyscraper. Given the new height potential of skyscrapers, the 1901 building code limited these buildings to ten storeys. This began the second generation.
A dull and hopelessly grey city. That’s how William Burroughs describes Malmö in a short passage in Naked Lunch. This was in the 1950s. At that time, Malmö was a prosperous industrial city and one of the world’s largest shipyards, Kockums, was the main employer. But that wasn’t quite what Burroughs was looking for. When he wasn’t served any liquor on his arrival in the morning, he took the next boat back to Copenhagen.
When I grew up in the 1980’s, in the neighbouring university town of Lund, the constant joke about Malmö was that the best thing about the city was its boat to Copenhagen. That wasn’t just some silly, intercity rivalry talk. At this time Malmö was in a deeply depressing state of unemployment and crisis. The recession in the 1970s had struck hard, and the pride of the city — the shipyard — was closed. My memories of Malmö in the 1980s resemble Burroughs’ from the 50s (except for the part about being unable to find any liquor).
But since the mid 90s, Malmö has managed to change, and is adapting to the post-industrial society. The focus is now on education and culture, and for the last ten years there’s been a university located in the old shipyard area. Malmö is now actually considered quite hip, a city with lots of immigrants and a cosmopolitan feel. I think William Burroughs might have liked it, and, even if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have to wait for the next boat. There’s a bridge to Copenhagen now, and he could just get in a cab and be there in no time. After all, one thing still hasn’t changed: the liquor is still more plentiful in Denmark.
It’s a muggy September day and Montreal is still in the sweaty grip of summer. I’m downtown on Maisonneuve in the heart of Concordia University’s campus. Crowds stream past me. Just around the corner, thumping bass and echoing wails signal an outdoor concert. I follow the noise, emerging onto Mackay Street. There, before a heaving mass of bodies, is a huge stage; local band Starvin’ Hungry leaps around the cavernous expanse like a child’s dollhouse fantasy come alive.
With its street-party atmosphere and indie-rock cred, this isn’t your typical back-to-school celebration. Then again, Concordia isn’t your typical university. With a multicultural student body of 31,000, Concordia likes to present itself as the down-to-earth, street-smart counterpart to McGill, Montreal’s more reserved English university.
Concordia was founded in 1971 when two schools, Sir George Williams University and Loyola College, merged. The old Sir George Williams campus is what many euphemistically call “urban”—a loose patchwork of buildings concentrated in a dense downtown setting. There is no quad; no Harvard Yard ringed by cute neo-traditional buildings, no tweedy professors scurrying past verdant lawns. Instead, Concordia’s campus—like Montreal as a whole—is mismatched, eclectic, and a bit odd. (The Loyola campus, located some seven kilometres west in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, is more “traditional,” at least in the trees-and-grass sense.)
It used to be that an urban setting was seen as a drawback for a university. Increasingly, though, it’s an asset.
Holiday street art on St. Viateur Street, Montreal