Archive for September, 2007

September 29th, 2007

Country Town in the City

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Lachine is an old working-class suburb of Montreal, located at the western end of the Lachine Canal. It’s like a bizarre country town lost in the industrial grime of the big city. Near the canal, twentieth-century duplexes sidle up to nineteenth-century cottages. The stop signs read “Stop” instead of “Arrêt.”

The atmosphere is that of provincial Quebec yet, somewhat unexpectedly, Lachine is diverse. Its main street is kept alive — though barely — but an eclectic mix of immigrant shopkeepers. On its west end is a French bakery run by a Cambodian man who commutes all the way from St. Michel. Nearby, a Somali couple from the West Island keep a halal butcher. Anglophone blacks sell Carribbean groceries. A Russian man deal used records. Across from the IGA supermarket, another grocery store caters to growing numbers of mainland Chinese.

Most surprising of all is a labyrinthine junk store run by an old couple from Texas. Their thick accents belie the fact that they’ve lived in Lachine for more than 30 years. For whatever reason, I have a much harder time of conceiving of Texan immigrants in Montreal I do Chinese, Somali or Cambodian immigrants. Not just in Montreal, but in Lachine, a place that exists beyond the imagination of pretty much anyone who does not live there.

September 28th, 2007

Home Sweet Flophouse

Posted in Asia Pacific, Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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A single-room occupancy hotel in Vancouver

Today’s Guardian features an article on a new generation of Japanese — most of them young men — unable to afford homes. They spend their days either unemployed or working at menial jobs; at night, they float between 24-hour internet cafés and capsule hotels.

“According to a recent government survey of the people the media has dubbed ‘net café refugees’, 5,400 people spend at least half the week living in cafés such as Manga Square, though most have little or no interest in the internet,” the Guardian reports. “Instead, they are attracted by the low cost of a night’s accommodation, an expanding array of services and the sympathetic attitude of café owners.” A night at a net café costs about $8.70 per night — double if you include dinner.

In some ways, living in an internet café is really just a novel take on an old standby: the flophouse. These cheap “cubicle hotels,” along with their slightly more upscale cousins, the single-room occupancy hotel (SRO), have traditonally offered low daily rates for a modest amount of private space. They flourished in North American cities until the 1960s, when they slowly began to disappear, with no tears shed from municipal authorities who saw them as a blight.

New York’s Bowery was especially famous for its flophouses. In the 1930s and 40s, up to 25,000 “Bowery bums” spent their lives on the street, many of them residing in its 100 flophouses. Today, just a few of those hotels remain; the rest were long ago purged by housing reform, urban renewal and gentrification. In Vancouver, an abundance of SROs has been whittled down to a mere handful as they have been converted into hostels, hotels or condos.

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September 27th, 2007

To Market, To Market

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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There’s a new market in Montreal. For the next two weeks, and then again next spring, a farmer’s market will open outside Frontenac metro every Saturday between 10am and 4pm. It’s great news for one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, Ste. Marie, one that has only recently stepped away from an economic and social precipice.

Montreal already has four permanent, year-round public markets — Jean-Talon, Atwater, Maisonneuve and Lachine — and more than a dozen smaller, seasonal markets, including a few that operate 24 hours in the summer. Between the 1960s and early 1990s, though, Montreal’s markets were deeply unfashionable. A number of markets were closed in the 1960s and even the Jean-Talon and Atwater markets, the jewels in Montreal’s market crown, stagnated.

Things began to change in the late 1990s as people became more concerned about what they ate. Two seemingly contradictory tends — the growing popularity of both local produce and “exotic” imported food — made markets the destination of choice for a diverse range of Montrealers. It was not only food that drew them, either. The social experience of shopping at a market, where you can interact with merchants and producers who know a lot about what they sell, in a lively and sensual environment, was a refreshing antitode to the sterility of big-box supermarkets.

Since 2000, a lot of money has been invested in Montreal’s markets. A new market hall built in 2004 nearly doubled the Jean-Talon Market in size and a newly-expanded market in Lachine has also been making a go of it. The number of small neighbourhood markets has been expanding considerably.

Markets can have a remarkably positive effect on their surrounding neighbourhoods for a number of reasons. They’re important public spaces, for one, giving people in the neighbourhood a place to gather and interact. They are economic incubators, giving small merchants, producers and entrepreneurs affordable space to start a business, usually with very low overhead. When those businesses expand, they usually find space in the surrounding area, a trend that can be seen around Jean-Talon.

In a marginal neighbourhood like Ste. Marie, they also give people access to healthy and affordable produce. With that considered, it might be a good thing that the new market at Frontenac metro is a seasonal farmer’s market rather than a less flexible permanent market. When the Lachine Market reopened in 2004, it ignored the everyday grocery needs the surrounding neighbourhood in favour of a more boutique-style approach. It was ultimately reconfigured with a more successful focus on basic fruits and vegetables. Allowing the Frontenac market to evolve gradually might prevent that sort of problem.

On a related note, Le Devoir featured last week two articles on Montreal’s public markets. One, reflecting on the 75th anniversary of the Atwater Market, lamented that farmer’s markets have ceased to be a central part of life in Quebec: “It’s impossible now to a take a photo like the ones made at the beginning of the last century, when you could see Place Jacques-Cartier filled with shoppers, carts and the horses of vegetable producers or cars of growns who had come to town.”

Another takes a close look at the Jean-Talon Market and the changes it has seen since it opened. There’s more variety than in decades past… but no more live chickens.

September 26th, 2007

Signs of Chinatown

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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In a city whose urban landscape sometimes seems too neat, too standardized, too inorganic, Vancouver’s Chinatown is a refreshing enclave of clutter, unabashed commerce and grime: visible signs of human occupation. One of my favourite things about it is the multitude of signs, layers upon layers of them. Above are just a few examples found on Pender, Keefer and East Georgia streets.

September 25th, 2007

Is Civility Just a Mask?

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Every so often there is a reminder that Montreal, for all its history as a capital of Jewish culture in North America, still has a problem with anti-Semitism. In the past year alone, a molotov cocktail was thrown at a Jewish school on Van Horne and a bomb exploded outside of a Jewish community centre on Victoria Avenue. It wasn’t so long ago that a Jewish school’s library was destroyed in a vicious firebombing.

Just the other day, a friend told me about this piece of graffiti on Clark Street, between St. Viateur and Fairmount. Someone has scribbled the likeness of a Hasidic Jew with the inscription “Parásit.” It might seem harmless in and of itself, but these thoughtless displays of racism are usually symptoms of a much larger and more insidious problem. If we accept the legitimacy of messages such as this, aren’t we tacitly accepting their message?

Montreal is home to one of the world’s largest communities of Hasidic Jews. Numbering about 15,000, they live mostly within one kilometre of Van Horne Street between Mile End in the east and Côte St. Luc in the west. Historically, since the Hasidic population started growing in the 1980s, there have been some tense moments in the relationship between Outremont’s Hasidim and their mostly French-Canadian neighbours. Some Outremonters have fought against every one of the Hasidic community’s attempts to make a home for themselves by building new schools, synagogues and businesses.

For the most part, though, day-to-day relations between the Hasidim and non-Hasidim are civil. (I wrote about this last winter in “My Heimishe Bakery.”) That’s what makes it so disheartening to see this kind of graffiti. It makes me wonder: is that civility just a mask?

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September 25th, 2007

Parking Lot Parties on Queen West

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Nick Wellington

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This past Saturday in Toronto, Car Free Day was held on Queen Street West. This event was coordinated by Streets are for People, who also spearheaded events such as Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market. Part of the celebration involved parking meter parties, which lined the street intermittently roughly from Bathurst to Trinity-Bellwoods park . These involve the purchase of a parking ticket and the use of the spot for more creative pursuits. As parking is technically paid for, such action is a completely legal way to reclaim the street for people.

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September 24th, 2007

Calgary’s Montreal Suburb

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Stroll up the hill just south of downtown and take a look at the street signs: Frontenac Avenue. Montreal Avenue. Wolfe Street. Cabot Street. Montcalm Crescent. Talon Avenue. Laval Avenue. Dorchester Avenue. Where are we? In Mount Royal, of course, Calgary’s most prestigious neighbourhood.

I’ve always found it odd that the street names found in this hilltop district — hell, even the name of the neighbourhood itself — are meant to so deliberately to evoke Montreal and Quebec. In terms of architecture or design, Mount Royal is typical of pretty much any Garden City-inspired suburb developed in the early twentieth century. So why the references to a city and province so far removed from what was once bald prairie?

At the dawn of the twentieth century, American entrepreneurs, many from property speculators from the Dakotas, flocked to Calgary and settled on the hill just south of town. Very quickly, it came to be known as American Hill, and towards the end of the 1900s many of its residents expressed their desire to name the district’s streets after American presidents such as Washington, Cleveland and Grant.

“This did not go down well with the predominantly British-Canadian culture of Calgary at that time,” write Elise Corbet and Lorne Simpson in their detailed history of Mount Royal. “The majority of the population came from eastern Canada or the British Isles, and they were proud of their connection with the British Empire,” write Corbert and Simpson. “This did not go down well with the predominantly British-Canadian culture of Calgary at that time. The majority of the population came from eastern Canada or the British Isles, and they were proud of their connection with the British Empire. The initial reaction came with the 1907 plan, showing such names as Sydenham, Durham, Colborne, Carleton, Dorchester and Amherst, names resonant of British rule in Canada, which should have been enough to counter the concept of American Hill.”

But it wasn’t enough. In 1910, two Tory members of Calgary’s elite, R.B. Bennett and William Toole — Bennett would later become Prime Minister — convinced the Canadian Pacific Railway, which owned most land around Calgary, to officially rename American Hill after Mount Royal, in honour of the CPR’s president, William Van Horne, who lived in Montreal.

Then, write Corbet and Simpson, “the full force of Canadian patriotism was brought to bear when the street names zeroed in on prominent French Canadians in our history: Frontenac, Montcalm, Talon, Laval, Joliet, Verchères (the only woman in the group), and early explorers such as Cabot and Champlain. Montreal, Quebec and Levis were thrown in for good measure. After this, there was no more talk of American Hill.”

Of course, most of these names, from Amherst to Talon, would be familiar to Montrealers. After all, they grace a number of our own streets. But, removed from local history as they are, the street names of Calgary’s Mount Royal never seem to have become grafted to the landscape. Nearly a century after their imposition, they seem somehow contrived.

(I should add that this isn’t true for the name of Mount Royal itself: it quickly entered Calgary’s collective imagination as a symbol of the city’s elite. In 1910, it was even reflected in the name of Calgary’s first college.)

Today, nearly a third of Mount Royal’s residents are American immigrants or expatriates. In a way, the legacy of American Hill lives on.

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September 23rd, 2007

After Dinner on Denman Street

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Denman is one of my favourite streets in Vancouver. Maybe it’s the seaside resort feel, drawing you past cafés, restaurants and gelaterias to the beach at English Bay. The palm trees next to the beach only reinforce the holiday feel.

Like the rest of Vancouver’s West End, Denman Street was laid out at the end of the nineteenth century. As the surrounding neighbourhood became popular with Vancouver’s monied classes, the English Bay end of Denman became a popular recreational area. Sand was added to the beach in 1898 and a handful of apartment buildings, along with the Sylvia Hotel, were built near Denman.

Denman’s commercial district arose in the 1920s when residential development in the West End intensified with the arrival of middle-class families and European immigrants. I’m not sure when Denman acquired its present character, though. Its particular mix of retail seems to cater equally to tourists, visitors from other parts of town and the West End’s own transient population.

Evening — just after dinnertime, around eight or nine o’clock — is the best time to stroll along Denman. It’s one of the few streets in Vancouver where people seem to promenade after dusk, strolling for the sake of strolling.

September 22nd, 2007

Destroying Beijing’s Hutongs

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf
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Last year, Danwei TV, an internet television station that produces short videos about China, produced a series of episodes on Beijing’s famous hutongs, old neighbourhoods built around narrow laneways and courtyards. Over the past couple of decades, the number of hutongs in Beijing has dropped dramatically as they have been bulldozed for new residential and commercial developments.

Scale aside, the systematic destruction of hutongs is not much different than the urban renewal programs of postwar North America. In both cases, complex and multifaceted neighbourhoods — diverse places that evolved naturally over decades and centuries — were razed for far more homogenous, centrally-managed building complexes. When a hutong is destroyed, its residents are often relocated to far-flung housing developments on the fringes of Beijing. Their community life and social networks vanish along with their homes.

Western criticism of Beijing’s hutdong demolitions is often greeted with accusions of colonial condecension. Fair enough — North American cities are hardly good models of development. It’s refreshing, then, to hear from a Beijing person who also takes a critical view of his city’s development. In this episode of the Hutong Chronicles, Danwei TV talks to author and historian Zhang Jinqi, who wrote a book about the history of the “eight big hutongs” west of Qianmen, the former front gate of Beijing’s Imperial City.

Much of what Zhang says is relevant not only to Beijing, but to North American cities where efforts to restore, renew or gentrify old neighbourhoods leads to hollow mockeries of their past lives.

“A lot of restoration is done by completely destroying the buildings and then rebuilding them,” he says. “It makes me worried about the area. To restore something to Ming or Qing dynasty condition I think is very strange. History cannot be brought back — history develops. The houses around are 200 years old, 150, 100, also 50 years old. There are buildings from each era. There are many types of buildings side by side. So if we demolish them all, how do we restore them? If you keep tearing down the hutongs, where is old Beijing?”

September 21st, 2007

Fairmount Avenue

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Two scenes from Fairmount Avenue in Mile End

September 20th, 2007

It’s Car Free Day!

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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Today is Montreal’s fifth annual edition of Car Free Day, known officially (and awkwardly) as “In town, without my car!” The east end of the downtown core, between McGill College on the west and St. Urbain on the east, de Maisonneuve on the north and René Lévesque on the south, will be closed from 9:30am to 3:30pm. (Ste. Catherine in front of Place des Arts will be closed all day.)

The car-free zone will be divided into three sections: the “Active and Public Transportation District,” featuring a sit-in “to take action in favour of streets for everybody”; a “Health and Transportation District,” with “cardio fun” and line dancing; and an “Environment District” providing information on green roofs and urban gardening. This being Montreal, there will also be a “car-free happy hour” from 5 à 7.

It’s easy to be cynical about the AMT’s official celebration of Car Free Day. Already late to the game in 2003, the car-free perimeter has actually shrunk over the past five years. The fact that it begins at the end of the morning rush hour and ends at the beginning of the afternoon rush hour is a reminder that, whatever politicians say about getting people to use alternative modes of transit, the private automobile still rules.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s year-round commitment to getting people out of their cars has been uneven. While new bike lanes and paths have been inaugurated and a handful of streets have had their sidewalks widened, the most important effort needed has been slow in coming: investment in public transportation.

Still, even if you’re inclined to view Car Free Day as token recognition of the need to reduce private vehicle use, you have to admit that it does have a big impact, even during the few hours that it takes place. In 2003, during its inaugural edition, the levels of nitric oxide and carbon monoxide within the car-free perimeter fell by 40% below normal.

So get out there and enjoy Car Free Day. Don’t forget that, along with the AMT-organized event along Ste. Catherine Street, McGill University’s downtown campus will also be closed to cars. Information booths and other special events will take place around the lower field just off Sherbrooke Street. Have fun.

September 20th, 2007

The Urban Midwest

Posted in United States by Eric Bowers

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Kansas City

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Saint Louis

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Chicago

I gallivanted somewhat in August, visiting St. Louis and Chicago, and as always, snapping prodigious amounts of photos in the interim in Kansas City. Check out the entire set from the urban midwestern United States

September 19th, 2007

The Spots on the Sidewalk

Posted in Canada, Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Next time you walk down the street, take a look down. See the spots? That’s gum, pressed into the pavement by thousands of footsteps. I normally don’t pay them much notice but, now that I think of it, they’re a good indication of how busy a particular stretch a sidewalk is. The more pedestrians that use it, the more discarded rubbish and, consequently, the more black spots.

“Hardened gum underfoot is undeniably an urban hallmark,” wrote Deborah Stead in a 2003 article that appeared in the New York Times. (What paper other than the Times would devote space to a 2,250-word article on sidewalk spots?) “The bigger and denser the city, the more the gum, which may make New York the gum splotch capital of the world.” In Montreal, the area with the most gum spots is undoubtedly Ste. Catherine St., especially around the big shopping malls between University and Peel, where people linger on the sidewalk.

But what about other areas? I can’t recall if there are a lot of spots on other busy streets like, say, Côte des Neiges Road, or Mount Royal Avenue. Does Montreal have a spot-cleaning program? The impetus for the Times article was a new service, Gumbusters, hired by the City of New York to “vaporize” gum spots off the sidewalk. With Montreal’s born-again dedication to cleanliness, though, who knows?

September 18th, 2007

More Exceptional Street Signs

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Even now, 40 years after Bill 101 mandated that Montreal conduct its official business in French only, it is not uncommon to find old English or bilingual public signs. While some ideologues might consider this a bad thing, I’m inclined to view it as a window into Montreal’s past, and a fascinating one at that.

I’ve written about Montreal’s street signs before — you can find my photos and articles listed under the Signage category — but I’m still finding plenty of nice examples of old or unusual street signs.

The Ste. Catherine St. sign pictured above is particularly interesting because it does not seem to conform to any street sign standard, linguistic or otherwise. Found in Westmount, it is written “St-Catherine St.,” using the English abbreviation of “saint,” but with a French hyphen instead of an English period. It is also unusual in that it contain an English generic (“street”) whereas most Westmount signs omit the generic altogether.

Below is the corner of “Rue Rose-de-Lima” and “Workman St.” in St. Henri. It’s a nice example of the old tradition of using a French generic for French street names and an English generic for English names.

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