March 31st, 2007
It would be nice if everyone got around by public transport, but the reality in North America is that a majority of people in most cities get around primarily by car. This is true even in Montreal, which has the continent’s highest per-capita rate of public transit ridership. Accommodating the car, then, has always been a tricky balancing act. This is especially true for parking, much of which falls under the direct control of the government. How much should be provided—and for how much?
A couple of days ago, an article appeared in the New York Times by Donald Shoup, author of a book called The High Cost of Free Parking. In order to cut down on the traffic caused by drivers’ circling around waiting for street parking to free up, rather than paying for more expensive private garages, he argues that congested cities should raise parking rates. “A national study of downtown parking found that the average price of curb parking is only 20 percent that of parking in a garage, giving drivers a strong incentive to cruise,” he writes. In other words, cities are subsidizing street parking, which discourages motorists from seeking out market-rate garage spots.
Recently, Montreal decided to increase the price of downtown parking, presumably guided by this logic as well as a desire to increase its revenues. New York may be a case in point but, in Montreal, shoppers have not only a choice between driving or taking public tranport downtown, but also a choice to avoid downtown entirely in favour of suburban shopping malls with ample amounts of free parking. Can tinkering with the prices address the fear of a downtown decline?
March 31st, 2007
March 30th, 2007
Today, the corner of University and La Gauchetière is as cold and forboding an intersection as you are likely to find in Montreal, bordered on all sides by charmless office towers. In 1945, however, as this photo shows, the corner provided a spectacular cutaway view of three remarkable buildings. Each represents a different facet of Montreal’s history.
On the far left, the St. James Cathedral (now dedicated to Mary, Queen of the World) was commissioned by Monseigneur Ignace Bourget, the Bishop of Montreal, shortly after the city’s previous cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1852. Bourget was an ambitious man, an ultramontanist who believed firmly in the supremacy of the Catholic Church over life in Quebec. It made sense, then, that he decreed that the new cathedral would be built in the Golden Square Mile, Montreal’s bastion of Anglo-Protestant privilege, where more than three-quarters of Canada’s wealth was concentrated. Bourget was making a political statement, using geography to assert the power of the church.
By the time it was completed, in 1894, its copper dome could seen from throughout Montreal. It remained unchallenged until 1931, when an even more impressive temple to another religion—commerce—was erected across the street.
March 29th, 2007
Various neighbourhoods, all residential buildings. A sequel to this earlier Mile End collection.
March 28th, 2007
Malaga, a city of nearly a million on Andalucia’s Costa del Sol, has the unfortunate reputation of being run-down. As a result, it’s somewhat off the tourist path, but this might actually be a good thing: beyond the grimy port and the imposing apartment blocks of its suburbs, Malaga has a charming and very convivial core.
March 27th, 2007
Like many teenagers in suburbia, I spent too much time in shopping malls. Unlike others, there was a purpose to my wandering. My goal was to find the quintessential department store restaurant. This dream restaurant would have a somewhat dated charm: brown and orange wallpaper, faux-traditional 1970s furnishings, waitresses with Marge Simpson hair, Jell-O cube parfaits, and pumped-out muzak with French horns galore. I scoured the Quebec City region’s K-Mart Kafeterias, Woolco Grilles, and the sketchy department stores in St. Roch.
Then, sometime in 1994, I came across the Sears Café at Place Fleur-de-Lys. It exceeded all my expectations. The walls were dark brown, the lighting was muted and I dined enveloped in the sounds of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. The furniture was the finest from Sears’ colonial revival series circa 1975. The menu was unreal: you could eat a “veal steakette” and top it all off with Jell-O parfaits in a variety of colours. The daily special even came with its own retractable plastic lid. My dream had come true. I had reached restaurant nirvana.
March 27th, 2007
The St. Lawrence River in Montreal. Photo by Matt Hobbs
If we don’t get a handle on runaway greenhouse warming, sea levels are predicted to rise by approximately 20 feet, or seven meters. If you think this won’t affect Quebec, think again. Using the Google Maps API and NASA climate projection data, a clever person has put together a site to show exactly what will be flooded when sea levels rise.
In Quebec City, most of Lower Town will be underwater and significant portions of the islands and riverbanks will be lost. The region around Sorel-Tracy, mostly farms, will be completely flooded. Montreal and the South Shore will lose a lot of riverfront, and in general, many of the low-elevation islands such as the Iles de Boucherville will lose huge amounts of their surface area. Even municipalities along the Richelieu will also suffer a good deal of flooding, for instance, near Chambly.
And that, in part, is why I voted Green yesterday.
March 26th, 2007
Quebeckers head to the polls today in a provincial election that might produce the first minority government in more than a century. Most of the snow has melted, but for most of February and March, the election provided for more than just news-hour entertainment: it made for great impromptu tobogganing for people who don’t have enough room in their apartments for real sleds. Just like politicians, you see, election signs are very slippery.
My first experience with election sign tobogganing came just over a year ago, on a clear, cold January night. Canadians have gotten used to constant election fever since the Liberals lost their majority in 2004, but last winter was exceptional: in Montreal’s Outremont riding, there were three elections in as many months. First was a municipal election in November, then a provincial by-election in December. By the time we trudged to the polls to vote in January’s federal election, leftover election signs from all three races were in abundance. It only seemed natural to put some of them to good use on the bunny hill at the corner of Park and Mount Royal.
So, armed with scissors, we snipped down a few green Omar Aktoufs, found some NDP-orange Léo-Paul Lauzons, recovered a diamond-shaped Farouk Karim and scored what we considered to be the prize of the night, a giant rectangular Raya Mileva. Bracing against the wind, our skin frosty despite layers of wool sweaters, scarves and mittens, we walked to the edge of Mount Royal and clamoured up the small tobogganing hill.
March 25th, 2007
Sometime around the St. Patrick’s Day snowstorm that undid all of the progress spring had made so far, somebody decided to give people in Mile End a bit of an escape from the weather. Photos of green parks, summery shadows and outdoor cafés have been stapled onto hydro poles near St. Viateur Street. Only one of the pictures has a caption: “This is where we make good on life,” it reads in faded blue ink.
March 24th, 2007
Before we left for our trip to Hong Kong, my girlfriend told me about the world’s oldest graffiti artist. “He’s eighty-five years old and he calls himself the King of Kowloon,” she explained. I had trouble reconciling the image of a frail old man with that of a typical paint-wielding street artist, especially after seeing a photo of some of the King’s work, which consisted of densely-packed, obssesive Chinese script arranged in neat lines and scrawled over the side of a pedestrian overpass.
About two weeks after I arrived in Hong Kong, I was walking from our apartment in leafy Yau Yat Chuen to go explore the more downscale Sham Shui Po. It had been raining that morning; the humid midday heat was so intense that I felt I was walking through water. As sweat poured down my back, I wished I hadn’t worn a thin pink shirt. Eventually, I emerged onto the inhospitable Boundary Road, walking towards the intersection with Tai Hang Tung Road. As I began crossing the street, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a grey utility boxed covered with Chinese script.
I knew it at once: I had finally crossed paths with the King of Kowloon.
March 23rd, 2007
Most years, in late March, it is strawberry season in California. You might think this would have no bearing on life in Montreal, a nearly 5,000-kilometre drive from the Central Valley, but it does. These California strawberries, as cartoonishly big and underwhelming in flavour as they might be, are the first taste of cheap spring fruit we get. 99 cents for a big box—just ignore how much fuel was used to ship them here and you can almost pretend it’s summer.
March 23rd, 2007
When he wrote earlier this year about the “two faces” of Tokyo, our contributor Siqi Zhu noted that, in Japan’s capital, “weak eminent domain laws have resulted in years of piecemeal development and an incredibly fine-grained urban fabric.” This is unlike many other cities in the developed world where government agencies eagerly expropriate land for vast new building projects. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, vast swaths of urban landscape were razed in Canada and the United States to make way for utopian housing complexes, stadiums and office blocks. The same thing is happening throughout China today.
In Japan, though, urban neighbourhoods remain eclectic patchworks of individually-developed houses and apartment buildings. Even in the middle of Tokyo, the world’s largest city, the backstreets of many retail and residential districts retain a cluttered, hodgepodge quality. Naturally, this jumbled pattern of development has left some odd-shaped spaces between buildings—spaces that are attracting attention from people who want an affordable home in the heart of the city. Enter the kyo-sho-jutaku, or microhome: houses built on parcels of land that, in some cases, are as small as 250 square feet, about the size of a single room in many North American dwellings.
March 22nd, 2007
Rue Jeanne Mance after a heavy snowfall.
Corner Villeneuve and Jeanne Mance.
Seven hours post-lunar eclipse, two hours pre-sunrise.
March 22nd, 2007
The streets are filled with the detritus of everyday human activity. Occasionally, however, those remnants are left behind in such a fashion that they seem extraordinary—almost artistic. In Vancouver, on Keefer Street, I came across several feathers stuck into the cracks of a wooden hydro pole. Nearby, orange peels had been delicately placed on a utility box. Downtown, on Granville Street, a stray newspaper had been imprinted onto the surface of the sidewalk by thousands of footsteps, giving it the appearance of having been painted on the concrete.
None of this can be described as street art, since it is all, as far as I can tell, entirely accidental. But perhaps it can be considered a sort of natural art? Art created unintentionally? In the same vein are the posters, stickers and random notes that litter our cities’ streetscapes. Here in Montreal, I remember a series of posters that mysteriously appeared one night, declaring, “Girl from Saskatoon! I owe you bagels! Email me.” Another afternoon, walking along Sherbrooke Street in NDG, I noticed a poster pleading for the return of a lost “Pakistani passport, green color.” It was taped haphazardly on a traffic control box, next to an unrelated sticker with a drawing of a woman.
The only link between these things is that, somehow, they transcend their randomness or utilitarian purpose and take on another dimension. They become a kind of comment on the way we use our streets and public spaces. But most of all, they become strange, beautiful, perplexing.