July 31st, 2007
The new government building in Kunming, which strikes a great pagoda pose from a distance and serves as a great landmark. It’s even being used in real estate ads elsewhere in the city as a marker of prestige.
Capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, Kunming is a fairly unassuming, extensively modernised city. No part of it seems to be bustling or teeming with activity, yet none of it’s deserted or windswept, either. While the downtown shows the classic traces of contemporary transformation — the Carrefour, the Kentucky Fried Chicken, the brightly lit pedestrian streets lined with outlet after outlet of the same national chains — it’s in Kunming’s suburbs that these changes seem more like a work-in-progress and less of a fait accompli.
A view of southern Kunming and the Dian Chi (lake) from the Xi Shan (West Hills). The elevated highway seems to have radically changed the lakefront- riding underneath one can’t help but notice a sense of decline in the adjacent properties, which though becoming increasingly decrepit, seem to have once been fairly sought-after retreats, with large lawns, and of course that now-lost view.
July 30th, 2007
Wing’s Chinese Noodles, owned by the venerable Lee family for half a century, is housed in a sturdy-looking warehouse built in 1826. All of the fortune cookies served in Montreal restaurants — bilingual and kosher, naturally — are made here. Every time I pass by, the sweet smell of fresh egg rolls lingers in the air and my stomach starts to grumble.
July 29th, 2007
One of the King of Kowloon’s last remaining pieces.
Photo by Dustin Shum of the South China Morning Post
Tsang Tsou Choi, the King of Kowloon, died two weeks ago at the age of 86. I wrote about Tsang in March, outlining my first encounter with his graffiti and the strange and sometimes nonsensical messages it contains.
Hong Kongers will remember his denunciations of Queen Elizabeth II and his outlandish claim to be the rightful proprietor of most of Kowloon. But Tsang’s impact was less trivial than it might seem: in a society that for decades stressed material gain and social mobility above all else, the King of Kowloon was an oddball and an outsider. His unique visual style influenced a generation of creative young Hong Kongers and, in 2003, his work was featured in the Venice Biennial.
For most of his life, however, Tsang was not viewed with such high regard by the Hong Kong authorities, who doggedly erased his work as soon as he put it up. Only a few of his murals remain, the most prominent being located on a pillar at the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. Now, pressure is mounting on Hong Kong’s leaders to preserve what is left of the King’s legacy. “Friends, exhibitors, members of the Antiquities Advisory Board and a legislator said Tsang’s work, some of which remains on walls in Kowloon, was part of the city’s collective memory and must be preserved,” reports the South China Morning Post.
Ever since its handover to China in 1997 and the economic recession that followed, the question of Hong Kong’s identity has weighed heavily on its citizens. Last year, the decision to destroy the Queen’s Pier and an historic Star Ferry terminal sparked widespread outrage, as did the eviction of hundreds of residents and businesses for “Wedding Card Street” to make way for a new real estate development. Issues of heritage and “collective memory” have become standard fodder for discussion.
For many Hong Kongers, then, the King of Kowloon represented a part of the territory’s local identity, a small part of the unique culture that sets it apart from the overbearing mainland. So far, government officials appear to be listening. The SCMP reports that they promised yesterday not to remove any of the King’s remaining work. “I don’t see any reason why they should be removed,” said Bernard Chan, a member of Hong Kong’s executive council.
The King might be dead, but his spirit lives on.
July 28th, 2007
Toronto seems to like its spiffy bikes. Even ignoring the number of people who seem to tool around on low-riders (including a crazy woman in Kensington Market who never seemed to dismount, even as she wobbled down Spadina Avenue, bumping into the sides of parked cars) there are a lot of cool-looking two-wheelers of various sorts. These aren’t necessarily expensive bikes; they’re just unusual and remarkable.
Now compare that to Montreal, where most people ride around on $40 pieces of junk they bought from some guy in a back alley. Maybe this is one of the rare cases in which Montrealers are more practical-minded than Torontonians. They are resigned to the high likelihood that their bike will one day be stolen, so why bother shelling out extra for something that looks nice? Still, if the scruffy homeless guy trying to pry loose a bicycle post with a large 2×4 is any indication, bike theft is just as common in Toronto as it is here.
July 27th, 2007
A Hamilton foundry circa 1935. Courtesy Hamilton Public Library.
Sometimes the road you take can lead you places you don’t expect.
Shortly after my book on botanical gardens, Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens (Véhicule Press, 2001) came out, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton/Burlington, Ontario asked me to give a talk. I’d never been there, and I must admit I found it a little incongruous that a place like Hamilton, Canada’s Steeltown, was home to such a large and well-regarded botanical garden. After all, Hamilton has been home to heavy industry for a century which polluted both its harbour and the air above it. And, despite the beauty of the RBG, I might have continued to think that had I take the Queen Elizabeth Way into Hamilton from Toronto.
The QEW runs along a sandbar protecting the harbor and what you see from it is a classic, hellish Industrial Age landscape: steel mills, railroads, ships, smoke, flames, warehouses, and factories. Some are no longer used, but their rusting carcasses only add to the general impression of a gray, metallic wasteland.
But there is another approach to the city from the north, and by chance I took it, driving inland from the shoreline of Lake Ontario, flirting with the Niagara Escarpment. On this route you leave behind the sprawl that is creeping southwest from Toronto, and swoop past forested hillsides where the waters of one of the greatest wetlands in the region reflect the setting sun at the end of a long day. Coote’s Paradise, the RBG itself, a pair of well-maintained cemeteries, a graceful high bridge and a 19th-century manor house line this route into town. Drive along it, and you think the city you are entering is entirely different from the one glimpsed from the Queen Elizabeth Way.
How could this be? I wondered, and so I started asking questions. Very quickly I learned that the two visions of Hamilton are actually two sides of the same coin: the profits from industry actually paid for safe-guarding the green space.
July 26th, 2007
Elderly man panhandling in Wan Chai
July 25th, 2007
I took these photos from the roof of an abandoned grain silo on St. Patrick Street in Point St. Charles, right next to the Lachine Canal. I was there, in the company of two Montrealers who have snuck up to dozens of roofs over the past few years, for an article that will appear soon in the Gazette.
To access the roof, we climbed up a series of six metal ladders in a large concrete shaft filled with mysterious black sand. The effort was worth it: there is something serene about being alone on a roof with the city spread out before you. We shared a bottle of port and listened to tinny music on portable speakers.
July 25th, 2007
Every year, I head down to Just for Laughs. Not for the comedy, but for the festival site, which takes over the entire Latin Quarter and makes brilliant use of its meandering laneways and hidden corners. For two weeks in July, the Latin Quarter becomes a mysterious village, an amiable place where crowds wander through a surreal landscape of street theatre and shadows. Outdoor cafés, bars and stages emerge in the normally quiet alleys behind St. Denis Street. Space that is normally left to cars and garbage is given over to the crowds.
Just for Laughs reveals the potential of the Latin Quarter’s urban space. The network of Victorian-era laneways that crisscrosses the neighbourhood — Joly Avenue, Terrasse St. Denis, Savoie Avenue and Place Paul-Émile-Borduas — is one of Montreal’s best-kept secrets. So why haven’t these laneways been turned into bona fide public spaces? Where are the trees, the benches, the quiet plazas in which you sit reading on a hot summer afternoon?
(Over the past couple of months, two of these alleys have been redeveloped. Place Borduas and Savoie Avenue, both of which lead to the Grande Bibliothèque, have been resurfaced with granite paving stones, though I have yet to see any benches or other types of street furniture. For the most part, the potential of these hidden streets is being squandered.)
Just for Laughs might be an exercise in urban imagination but, like too many of Montreal’s other large festivals, it is also an exercise in urban intimidation. While I am happy to see the Latin Quarter reimagined every summer, I am less thrilled to witness the temporary privatization of an entire city neighbourhood. Just for Laughs opens the streets and alleys of the Latin Quarter to the public, but it does so in the same manner as an amusement park. Access and behaviour is restricted: the festival’s security staff has the right to bar anyone from the festival site, even if it exists on public space.
July 24th, 2007
I’m not just asking — I really want to know. Over the past month, somebody has painted dozens of manhole covers around Mile End, on Park Avenue, Bernard Street and St. Viateur Street. It’s quite a lovely endeavour, adding a bit of colour to the sidewalk while drawing attention to an overlooked but essential piece of civic infrastructure.
July 24th, 2007
Hidden within the clutter of Toronto’s Kensington Market is a strange and surprising collection of little streets. Lined by diminutive rowhouses, they are nestled within larger blocks of houses. They usually culminate in a dead end; some are accessed only by an unassuming laneway, making the discovery of one seem like so much more of a surprise.
Stumbling across one of these streets is like opening a Russian doll: they reveal a secret, smaller world tucked away behind the city’s more officious façade. When I wandered into Glen Baillie Place, away from the street market frenzy of Spadina Avenue, I came across two rows of squat, narrow houses. The houses on the north side of the street, clad in vinyl with mansard roofs, looked like something I might find in a weatherbeaten corner of Halifax. Across the street, the houses were mostly brick, with arched entranceways, an imperfect reflection of their neighbours.
There’s a kind of stillness in these streets. In Glen Baillie Place, a man sat in front of one talking on his cellphone in Cantonese. Across the street, two restaurant workers sat quietly, smoking. In nearby Kensington Place, an even more discreet street behind the shops of Kensington Avenue, an old man sat on his front porch, watching me as I walked by. When I snuck up a fire escape to take a photo of street above, a teenage boy delivering boxes to a Chinese restaurant looked up to see what I was doing.
These streets were apparently built to house English construction workers in the 1880s and 90s. They remind me of the mews scattered across Central London, tiny lanes lined by brick houses that were once stables. Mews houses are now some of the priciest properties to be found in London; recently, in Toronto, news broke that a group of investors has been quietly buying up property around Kensington’s laneways, perhaps with a plan to develop them with shopping and housing.
“If the city moved to make [Kensington's] warren-like laneways more accessible — a process that would involve expropriations, public-space improvements and changes to the city’s policy of rejecting laneway development — it could trigger a jump in real-estate prices as galleries, boutiques and cafés move in to these newly created mews,” wrote John Lorinc in the Globe and Mail. If that ends up being the case, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Kensington’s little streets might lose some of their secluded charm.
July 23rd, 2007
Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, Paris
Parque del Retiro, Madrid
July 23rd, 2007
On the left, a good way to start a summer day
On the right, the Mile End community garden sits next to old factories
You can get hungry for green in Montreal in the winter, but in the summer the city abounds in greenery. Walking around this city got me started thinking a few years ago about the way individuals go out of their way to create green surroundings, and ultimately led to my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places (Véhicule Press, 2006). Montreal isn’t featured — the eleven cities I talk about range from Babylon through Chicago to São Paulo and back to Babylon — but a walk this week through my neighborhood showed me that the drive for green is still there.
July 21st, 2007
July 21st, 2007
Looking at these old postcards of Ste. Catherine Street — the first one is a drawing from the 1930s and the second a photo taken in the 1960s — reveals a downtown thoroughfare that was decidedly upbeat, bright and giddy with neon. Like a northern Broadway, Ste. Catherine’s cinemas, nightclubs and restaurants advertised themselves with gaudy attention-grabbing signs and bold advertisements.
I can’t help but long for this era. Ste. Catherine is still a brash, exciting street, but it is decidedly tamer than it was in past decades. All of the old theatre marquees and neon signs have long disappeared. Billboards and other advertisements have been scaled back. But something about this seems wrong. Montreal is a big city and every big city deserves at least one place where its most crassly commercial instincts can prevail, a place where people flock to feel immersed in an ocean of noise, bright lights and rushing crowds. Every city needs a place where the village mentality that insists on calmness and quietude is overcome by the raw life of the metropolis.
Such places capture the imagination of city-dwellers around the world: Times Square, Soho, Mongkok, the Gran Via. So I was somewhat perplexed at the knee-jerk outrage last month when the Ville-Marie borough announced that it would consider allowing the installation of a large video screen at the corner of Ste. Catherine and McGill College. Le Devoir broke the news with an article entitled, “Une imitation de Times Square au centre-ville ?” The readers who responded seemed to think it a question of national identity that Montreal remain “distinct” and free of such horribly American intrusions as video screens.
But wouldn’t a video screen simply be a modern take on the blinking neon and flashing lights of 1960s Ste. Catherine? I can’t think of anything more in keeping with the character of Montreal’s downtown main street.