May 31st, 2007
Close to three major metro areas and thirty suburbs make up the collection of cities known as Tampa Bay. Starting with Apollo Beach to the south on the mainland, the arc of towns curves counter-clockwise through Brandon, Tampa, Dunedin, Clearwater, and finally ending with St. Petersburg on a spit of land in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re affable places, full of friendly people and a succession of strip malls in varying states of repair. The quality of life is high. The amount of hurricane hits has been surprisingly low. Still, with so much suburban development sandwiched into such a small area, it’s unavoidable that Tampa Bay—once the home of pirates and the Spanish explorers—has somehow faded to vanilla.
But life is not all beach condos and lattes. At eleven o’clock on Tampa Bay’s arc, there is a place where working fishing boats still bob daringly on choppy green water and everyone speaks… Greek? It’s a metropolitan suburb, but it’s also everything you’d expect from a place where people still dive for sea sponges for a living. The dining is unforgettably good, though it’s a stretch to call it “fine,” and you can pick up CDs of the hottest Hellenic pop stars before you leave town for the day. Welcome to Tarpon Springs.
Tarpon Springs has somewhere between 6 to 8,000 Greek-Americans living in its borders, which—incredibly—still only accounts for a quarter of its population. (The entire state of Florida is home to about 150,000 Greek-Americans.) Still, the cultural ties are so strong that Tarpon Springs is the smallest city in the nation with its own consulate. The Greek Orthodox community is still alive and thriving, and the town’s annual Epiphany festival is one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the United States.
May 30th, 2007
Photos taken at McGill University and on Ste. Catherine Street
May 29th, 2007
May 28th, 2007
Montreal: The Old Port, oil on linen, 2007
I’d seen images of John Hartman’s work before. Great bird’s eye views of landscapes and cities in autumnal reds and blues. But it wasn’t until I stood before one of the canvasses from his new Cities series of paintings, that I fully experienced it. I was reminded of the hours I had spent, as a kid, pouring over every detail in aerial photos of cities from around the world. Hartman’s paintings are like those old images, only better: sensual and exhilarating, they bring the city to life in a way that is impossible to achieve by photograph.
Hartman, a native of lake country Ontario, has been painting natural scenes for decades, but in the early 1980s, he started to experiment. By combining a variety of perspectives, he created complex works that brimmed with nuance, detail, information and historical narrative—all of them presented in the form of an aerial image. “When I was a teenager, I used to have dreams I was flying over landscapes,” he tells me from his studio in Lafontaine, Ontario. “They would roll underneath me just like I was a movie camera.”
His move from painting natural scenes to cityscapes was gradual but, in a way, inevitable. “I had always been painting communities in the landscape in my earlier work. I sort of went from little outport communities to towns to cities, so it was a fairly natural kind of progression.” In 2006, Scotiabank, looking for a way to mark its 175th anniversary, commissioned Hartman to paint Halifax, the city where the bank was founded in 1832. The end result was a triptych that weaved narrative and historical threads into the city’s fabric; a dense, captivating work in which Halifax appears visceral and alive.
May 27th, 2007
May 26th, 2007
A blogger named Pluche has compiled a fascinating collection of photos that documents the remains of Montreal’s Expo 67 site exactly forty years after the World’s Fair took place. Many consider it to be one of the most successful Expos in history; it was certainly well-attended, drawing more than 50 million visitors over six months, setting a record for World’s Fair attendance that still stands today. Most importantly, however, Expo 67 was a turning point in Montreal, Quebec and Canada’s history, a sort of debutante ball for all three.
For such an important event, one whose effects still linger today, it is remarkable how much of the actual Expo grounds have been wasted. The Expo site was created with dirt excavated for Montreal’s metro system, which was used to expand St. Helen’s Island and create an entirely new adjacent island in the St. Lawrence River. (The metro itself was built in preparation for the fair.) A metro stop and an elevated train, the latter now gone, linked the islands to the city. Today, St. Helen’s and the man-made Notre Dame Island are used for recreational purposes. Some of the old Expo pavillions remain, such as that of France, which has been converted into a casino, and that of the United States, a Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome whose shell now houses a water museum. Others were destroyed and a few have been left in ruin. Many of the public spaces created for the Expo are also vacant.
The legacy of Expo 86 stands in contrast to that of its Montreal predecessor. Like Expo 67, Vancouver’s World’s Fair earned the city a rapid transit system and unprecedented international exposure, setting the stage for decades of international investment and, one could argue, a hugely influential wage of immigration from Hong Kong. Unlike Montreal, however, Vancouver’s Expo site was integrated into the city, built on a former railyard between downtown and False Creek. After the fair ended, British Columbia’s government sold the Expo land to the Hong Kong developer Li Ka Shing, who transformed it into a vast, mixed-use development that is now home to 20,000 people. This development was the catalyst for a new approach to urban design that is known in planning circles as the Vancouver Model.
Expo 86 set the stage for an urban revolution in Vancouver. Expo 67 might have revolutionized Montreal culture and politics but its impact on the city’s built form was negligible. For decades, its architectural heritage has been neglected. Will this change with Expo’s fortieth anniversary?
May 24th, 2007
By midweek, the first signs appear, advertising garage sales, yard sales, sidewalk sales, moving sales. They chart the vast outdoor flea market that is Montreal on so many sunny weekends.
Most of these sales are infrequent, but, in some cases, they have evolved into regular, quasi-permanent bazaars, run by people who have taken it upon themselves to provide the city with a source of affordable recycled goods. In this era of green politics and community involvement, they are examples of the most local, sustainable forms of commerce.
On a recent Sunday in Mile End, posters on St. Viateur St. advertised half a dozen of them. Nearby, on Waverly St., a Portuguese couple sat on their porch, overlooking a front garden filled with clothes, books, furniture and knick-knacks.
“It’s all of the things we’ve collected over the years. Look at how full the table is,” said one of the pair. “There’s lots of places around here that do this,” so people stroll around the neighbourhood and browse, he said.
A couple of blocks away, at the corner of St. Viateur and Esplanade, a grey-haired woman was selling things on the sidewalk next to the Social Club cafe terrasse.
“We’re having a garage sale to share with others what we have. I’m keeping nothing but my toothbrush and my underwear!”
Most of the people who organize these kinds of sales do so just once or twice a year, when they move or get fed up with all the junk that has been accumulating in closets. A handful, however, have devoted a large part of their lives to maintaining regular sidewalk or alley sales.
May 23rd, 2007
The Hua Qiang Bei skyline at dusk from the 20th floor of the Sichuan hotel, looking west. The tall building to the left is the 2nd highest in Shenzhen (for now) and was the site of the first electronics factory to be converted into a market, and subsequently an office tower. Its main tenant, SEG, is one of the biggest players in the neighbourhood.
When North Americans think of deindustrialization and China, we’re usually pretty quick to conclude that, since our cities have so little industry left, and so much of what we buy comes with a “made in China” sticker on it, then the new industrial zones, like Shenzhen, in the Pearl River Delta, must be chock full of factories working around the clock. But deindustrialization’s running strong in China, too, in cities that were first industrialized just a few decades ago. Like a time warp, Shenzhen and other places have sped through an industrial cycle that took more than a century to complete in Europe and North America.
The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was China’s first experiment of the type, decreed by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. The former collection of sleepy fishing and farming villages, just north of Hong Kong’s New Territories hit a population of 1 million in 1991, and now counts 14 million. The role played by the city of Shenzhen, which was in the mid 1980s the focus of enormous investments in manufacturing (most of which were made by Hong Kong entrepreneurs, as that city shed its secondary industry), has shifted towards services and distribution. Shenzhen’s now a sprawling complex of offices, shopping, and apartments, punctuated by a series of “high-high-high-end” (to quote some planners) shopping malls and increasingly gigantic central business districts, with nary a factory in sight. So what happened to the industrial areas?
May 22nd, 2007
Though Quebec City can’t boast of a building like Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque, the Bibliothèque de Charlesbourg, inaugurated last year, makes a worthy little cousin. Winner of a 2004 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence, it’s a fantastic example of a functional and sustainable new building that takes into account the history of the site. I rank it as my favourite new building in the city.
The library’s design may be contemporary, but it nevertheless references Charlesbourg’s past. Most towns in Quebec were initially laid out along a linear strip. Charlesbourg, now a suburb with an old historic core situated a few kilometers north of Quebec proper, was different from other towns. Its Jesuit founders experimented with a more community-oriented radial plan, drawn up in 1627. Settlers were given pie-shaped slices of land and built their homes around a central square that included a church and common pasture lands.
This urban layout was still visible until the 1950s. Since then, buildings and parking lots sprouted up in this central area and the original urban plan was muddled in the throes of suburban expansion. The construction of the Bibliotheque, with its publically-accessible sloping green roof, is an ingenious attempt to evoke the pasture lands that were once at the core of the community. It is one of the largest public green roofs in North America and will make a lovely public park when completed.
May 21st, 2007
May 21st, 2007
Even without knowing anything about Barcelona, I knew this was no place for the indie-minded traveller looking for the pristine virginland or the earnest college student bent on “finding himself”. Being neither, I nevertheless found myself fleeing to the English-speaking sanctuary that is the Elephant bookstore, wondering aloud if this jet-lagged, high-strung boy had bitten off more than he could chew by showing up at this tourist mob scene, a linguistically confusing mob scene, no less.
The owner, Ann, was sympathetic but not particularly attentive. “Yes, it was hard when I came here in ’69. Nobody here spoke any English and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish.” She had come from England to marry a Catalan, who she loved enough to brave General Franco for. I glanced aside at the old guy sitting in the far corner engrossed in computer games. “Oh there’s Frank. He’s Canadian, too.” I thought better of inquiring after the Catalan.
May 20th, 2007
Corner Saint-Laurent and Sherbrooke
A few years ago there was an outcry when McDonald’s proposed to open a branch on Park Avenue at Mont-Royal. Neighbourhood people were up in arms because its arrival threatened to create a huge eyesore at the edge of the mountain park. McDonald’s opened anyway, keeping its external signs relatively low-key: it’s still there and nobody thinks twice about it.
Not long after, just opposite, a huge garish gas station with an A&W and a dépanneur sprang up. I heard no protest, saw no one speak out against it, but there it sits, testament to the pre-eminence of the car in our lives.
Corner Park and Mont-Royal
Over the last decade, Montreal has seen an ugly invasion of highway-style service stations into its neighbourhoods. Few of its streets have been deemed off-limits for these excrescences and nothing seems to bar them from any neighbourhood save for Old Montreal. No doubt we can expect to see more of them.
It’s understood that the needs of the car are paramount, so there is no will at City Hall or in the boroughs to speak out against the construction of these visual horrors. Somehow these buildings are surrounded with a “this must be tolerated” field. Even at the corner of Sherbrooke and Saint-Laurent, right in your face in what’s currently regarded as the trendiest strip in town, is a massive gas station with a Tim Horton’s attached. I hope it gives international travellers a good laugh at our expense: Saint-Laurent Boulevard was declared a national treasure not so long ago, but even that was not enough to keep the highway from depositing one of its bastard children on its doorstep.