April 30th, 2007
Manhattan, April 21, 2007: “My nose is going haywire this morning. Perhaps this is because when I travel I have to put off my morning brew until I can get from my hotel to a decent coffeehouse. Am I ever glad, then, that I discovered Grounded.”
I am a coffee fiend. Each day I venture out from work for an extended lunch break at my local coffeehouse, where I ruminate over a Fair Trade, organically-grown dark roast blend, a newspaper, and a notebook. Naturally, when I travel, I do not like to give up this daily routine. However, since finding a good independent coffeehouse is often left to word-of-mouth recommendation, I am sometimes forced to suffice with below-grade medium roast coffee or to chance it on espressos made by inexperienced baristas.
While my previous coffeehouse experiences in New York have been hit-and-miss, I seem to have stumbled over a great, unpretentious spot to enjoy a brew and gather my thoughts between bouts of aggressive phototouring. Lodged into a fifteen foot-wide crack between Victorian buildings on Jane Street in the West Village, Grounded is difficult to find amidst the brownstone rowhouses that fold over one another in this maze of a neighbourhood. To this travelling Canadian, though, it appeared as an oasis — an independent coffeehouse in the Village that serves fair trade coffee, isn’t overpriced, and hasn’t been overrun by scenesters or stroller moms.
April 29th, 2007
The Spitalfields Market, just east of the City of London on Commercial Street, has existed in one form or another since 1638. The existing market hall was built in 1887 but a new extension, airily contemporary in contrast to the brick-and-iron heaviness of the old hall, recently opened. Apparently, the annex replaces part of an outdoor trading area, the rest of which has been given over to a complex of Norman Foster-designed office buildings. It also reduced the market’s overall number of trading stalls in favour of new permanent retail spaces that appear to have been leased largely to chain eateries.
Already, the Spitalfields Market serves a diminished role—its wholesale fruit and vegetable business moved to a new East London market in 1991—and the twin forces of gentrification and development pressure could conceivably turn it into something akin to Boston’s Quincy Market, which is to say a pale imitation of an actual public market. Still, the Spitalfields Market remains just that. For the time being, at least, it is a hive of daily activity as nearby residents shop for groceries, office workers line up for cheap lunches and tourists and gawkers like me stand back, watching it all.
April 28th, 2007
One of my favourite passages about Montreal comes from Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers. “In Montreal spring is like an autopsy,” he writes. “Everyone wants to see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark. From the streets a sexual manifesto rises like an inflating tire, ‘The winter has not killed us again!’”
Well, spring finally broke last week. The sleeves are off, the flesh is exposed and the city has adopted the air of a carnival. It’s like a revelation: after months of chill, people are finally in the streets again and not just passing through them.
Last Friday, I awoke and wandered into the kitchen as the sounds of children playing drifted in from the back alley. It was not just a sunny day, it was brilliant, with the kind of azure sky and warm light that pulls you outdoors, obligations be damned. Whereas just a week earlier a spring storm had dumped twenty centimetres of snow on the ground, it was now warm enough to wear a t-shirt outside—and so I did, wandering down a Park Avenue that bustled with grocery shoppers, Hasidic children on scooters and flâneurs like myself, people too distracted by the sun to work.
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April 27th, 2007
This triptych, arranged by Guillaume St-Jean, pays three visits to St. Urbain Street as it descends the slope between Sherbrooke and Ontario streets. The first photo, taken in 1931, reveals a row of classic Victorian greystone houses. By the following year, however, the houses had given way to a new school. Sometime after WWII, the entire block was demolished for a large parking lot. Then, in 2004, the Université du Québec à Montréal expanded its science campus onto the lot.
April 26th, 2007
First the artists move in; with them come improvements to the buildings and trendier night spots. Then, lured by a newfound sense of respectability, comes the bourgeoisie, and finally the neighbourhood is protected with a historic preservation statute. This is what’s called “stage gentrification,” and you can learn about it in any 100-level urban geography class.
In fact, the idea of gentrification is no longer the exclusive preserve of urban geographers and economists, like it was in the mid 1980s when David Ley published some of the first portraits of gentrifiers and Neil Smith described its economic principles. Today, gentrification is in the greater public eye; it’s in newspapers that describe today’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods, and in magazines that wonder about the segregation and inequalities it causes. So gentrification is old news. It’s boring. Played out.
Or it would be, anywhere west of here. I’m now in Krakow, one of Poland’s largest and most famous cities, and one of its most important economic engines. Today, Krakow is also a tourist hub with a storied Old City like many European cities. It’s a massive centre of learning as well, with practically too many universities to count. Just outside Krakow’s southen city walls, between the thirteenth-century royal palace known as the Wawel and the Vistula River that flows north to Warsaw and the Baltic Sea, is a neighbourhood called Kazimierz. Until 1939, Kazimierz (pronounced “KA-zee-meersh”) was Krakow’s Jewish neighbourhood. Today, it’s become one of the city’s trendy neighbourhoods and tourist landmarks.
April 25th, 2007
I’ve been interested in cities for as long as I can remember. My childhood is marked by Lego metropolises on the living room floor, streetscapes doodled in schoolbooks and early Saturday mornings playing SimCity for hours on end. So it only made sense that, when I was fourteen, on a beautiful summer day spent wandering Vancouver’s streets, my uncle turned to me and insisted that I read Jane Jacobs.
“Sure,” I mumbled in a teenagerly way and we continued walking. He proceeded to tell me about a Marxist-Leninist bookstore on Hastings Street that had a great urban-issues section. “You should go there sometime,” he added.
Later that year, sitting under my family’s Christmas tree, I ripped opened a present from my uncle, revealing a bold mustard-coloured paperback. The title was stamped in bold capital letters: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Below it was a blurb from the New York Times Book Review: “Perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning… a work of literature.”
It wasn’t until the following spring that I actually got around to reading Jane Jacobs’ 1961 classic, a book so widely read that it has never gone out of print. It opened my eyes. It confirmed what I had already begun to suspect about cities, about the way they worked, looked and felt, about their cultures and economies.
Looking around the Calgary of my youth, I saw how suburban planning had deprived the city of a public sphere. When I moved to Montreal, I was ecstatic to find exactly the opposite: a city whose human spirit was alive and visible in its streets, businesses and buildings. The seed of my interest in cities was planted a long time ago; Death and Life made it grow into something robust.
April 23rd, 2007
Most of the time, cars get in the way of good streetlife photos. Not so with the Hindustan Ambassador, a replica of the 1956 Morris Oxford that is still made in India today. Long considered India’s national car, it was once one of the few models to be seen on the road. The recent liberalization of trade and industrial growth in India has led to the introduction of newer, less charming, models.
April 23rd, 2007
Objects affixed to posts on St. Viateur and Milton streets in Montreal
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April 22nd, 2007
Watching these old advertisements—one from the 1980s for the Paris metro and another from the 1970s for the Montreal metro—leave me with mixed feelings. My initial reaction is to ridicule them for their kitschiness (or kétainerie, as one might say here in Quebec) but, at the same time, I feel a slight pang of regret that public transit agencies can no longer afford to buy television air time, especially not for an entire minute. Wouldn’t the Montreal Transit Corporation benefit from more of a brand identity? Public transit doesn’t need to be anonymous, the public made aware of its services solely by necessity.
Anyway, the strangest thing about the first Paris ad is its ridiculous soundtrack, which consists of a man singing things like “tic tac toc, tata clica clic” and background vocalists replying with “tata clica clac, tata clica clac, tika tika toc.” I have no idea what this is meant to represent, but this kind of gibberish actually seems to go well with the ad, complimenting a fairly striking—but goofy—set of images, linked together by the image of a yellow ticket bisected by a brown magnetic stripe. (Update: a reader with clearer ears than mine reports that “tata clica clic” is actually “t’as le ticket clic,” which makes more sense.) My favourite image is that of a striped Eiffel Tower passing behind the silhouette of a man wearing a beret, which not only evokes two of the biggest Paris stereotypes you can imagine, but also suggests either sex (swallowing a giant yellow penis) or violence (being impaled by a giant yellow dagger).
On the whole, the Paris ad is a bit more sophisticated than its early-1970s counterpart in Montreal, entitled “Il fait beau dans l’métro.” I enjoy it because it is a perfect embodiment of the seventies aesthetic: long hair, big moustaches, and bold primary colours. I also love that the music is based around the three-tone chime emitted by the metro’s brake system when it leaves a station.
April 21st, 2007
Reading on the Place des Vosges and on the bank of the Seine
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April 20th, 2007
When it was built in 1929, Reding Apartments was a building both beautiful and modest. Clad in greystone, its façade was embellished with playful etchings that depicted seashells, flowers and lots of swirly things. It was perfectly proportioned, a brilliant example of the solid Main Street architecture that was common on Montreal’s commercial streets in the first half of the twentieth century. Judging by the top photo, found by the brothers J.D. and Kristian Gravenor and posted on Coolopolis, Park Avenue was lined by such quietly elegant buildings.
Something went wrong after the war. The Reding Apartments’ façade was stripped and replaced with plain, ugly orange brick. All of the decoration was lost. Perhaps worst of all, new horizontal windows were installed that make the building appear squat, its ambitions crushed. The symmetry of the building’s original storefront was scrapped in favour of mismatched retail spaces topped by awful aluminum siding. The new restaurant on the right deserves credit for replacing the siding with a new stainless steel sign, but the wood terrace recently constructed out front looks like it belongs in a suburban backyard.
The buildings on either side of the Reding Apartments weren’t spared the devastation: both saw their ornamentation ripped off, presumably to give them a more “modern” appearance. The irony, of course, is that the buildings now look terribly cheap and dated. Nothing symbolizes the neglect of traditional main streets in the postwar era more than these misguided renovations.
April 19th, 2007
“When I first moved to Montreal I had an apartment at Jeanne Mance and Milton. I used to look up at the mountain and I could see the cross and what I thought was the devil’s pitchfork—I guess it’s a radio tower but it’s all red lights and the cross is all white lights. I would go out at night, look up at the cross, look up at the pitchfork and wonder to myself, Which one is going to win tonight?”
Collecting stories like this one is part of Matt Soar’s job. Soar, a professor of communications at Concordia University, is the creator of Logo Cities, a multi-media project that began three years ago as an effort to catalogue the commercial logos that dot Montreal’s downtown skyline. However, he soon discovered that Montrealers have an interesting relationship with the signs and symbols that lurk above the city’s streets, which led Soar to ponder the links between signage, graphic design and public space.
Early next month, the Logo Cities project will culminate with a symposium that will bring together academics, artists and designers from around the world. Along with presentations and discussions from more than 30 panelists, the conference will include an exhibition of iconic Montreal signs, an interactive art project called Cityspeak and the Quebec premiere of the acclaimed documentary Helvetica.
April 19th, 2007
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April 18th, 2007
St. Lawrence above Duluth during an election campaign in 1950. Election signs in Yiddish, English, French and Russian can be seen
For more than fifty years, from the turn of the twentieth century until the early 1950s, St. Lawrence Boulevard was the robustly beating heart of Montreal’s Eastern European Jewish community. Here, set amidst the daily bustle of commerce and industry, was one of the world’s hubs of Yiddish culture. Poets and writers published their work in the daily Keneder Odler; the Yiddish theatre scene was reputed to be the third-largest in the world after Warsaw and New York.
Mordecai Richler, one of Montreal’s most well-known English writers, grew up near the Main. “All day long, St. Lawrence Boulevard, or Main Street, is a frenzy of poor Jews, who gather there to buy groceries, furniture, clothing and meat,” he wrote in Son of a Smaller Hero. “Most walls are plastered with fraying election bills, in Yiddish, French and English. The street reeks of garlic and quarrels and bill collectors: orange crates, stuffed full with garbage and decaying fruit, are piled slipshod in most alleys. Swift children gobble pilfered plums; slower cats prowl the fish market.”
In many ways, the Main was defined by its years as the centre of working-class Jewish life in Montreal. At a time when French and English Montreal really were “two solitudes,” the Main was the literal and symbolic home of the ethnic other. That, combined with its raucous streetlife and bazaar atmosphere, left it with a legacy as Montreal’s most diverse and accepting street.