October 31st, 2007
You can almost always tell when an apartment in Montreal is home to a Portuguese family: there’s usually a small tile mosaic depicting a saint next to the door. On some blocks in Montreal’s old Portuguese neighbourhood, which includes much of the western Plateau and eastern Mile End, especially the areas around Duluth, Rachel and St. Urbain streets, nearly every apartment has these tiles.
Portuguese culture has a strong tradition of azulejos, or ceramic tiles. In Lisbon, there are entire houses and churches covered in tiles. Here in Montreal, that might have been prohibitively expensive, so I guess the smaller tilework we see is a small way for Portuguese immigrants to assert their heritage. I’m curious to know what happens when a Portuguese family moves out of their apartment: do they take their tiles with them, or do they leave them for the next occupant?
October 30th, 2007
Next to the Redpath Lofts, on the Lachine Canal, is an abandoned sugar silo. Somehow, we ended up at the top.
October 30th, 2007
Last year, a huge fuss was raised over the future of Hong Kong’s Star Ferry pier. Built in 1957, the stout, white building, topped by a boxy clock tower, was one of Hong Kong’s last civic structures remaining from the postwar era. Thousands of people passed through it every day as they travelled across the harbour from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui. As plans were hatched for a new waterfront reclamation project that would shift the shoreline by 300 metres, however, it became clear that the pier’s days were numbered.
What was the big deal? Hong Kong is, after all, a relentlessly-paced city that has always placed a higher value on economic growth than anything else, especially local heritage. But, to the surprise of the reclamation project’s government backers, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers decided that the Star Ferry pier was one building they weren’t willing to see demolished. More than its architectural value, it was its place in the territory’s “collective memory” that caused so many people to lash out against its destruction.
Hong Kongers voiced their discontent in different ways. One group occupied the pier and unveiled protest banners; others made art, like Karden, who created a series of linocut prints depicting the Star Ferry clock tower. Together, the combined tide of support for the pier was so great that it made headlines around the world, interpreted not simply as a movement to save an old building but the birth of a new, critical discussion on Hong Kong’s heritage, culture and identity. Ultimately, though, despite their success at generating a widespread public discussion, their efforts did not prevent the Star Ferry pier from being razed last summer.
Since its handover from Britain to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been forced to consider its own place in the world. The emergence of a new generation, born in Hong Kong, well-educated and lacking the refugee’s drive to succeed at all costs, has only added to this identity crisis. For the first time, notions such as collective memory have entered the Hong Kong vocabulary, to such an extent that it seems that even a dour media organ like the South China Morning Post has taken a liking to the concept, arguing that Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage must be protected, such as when the “King of Kowloon” died last summer.
October 30th, 2007
Kate McDonnell, who is the editor of the Montreal City Weblog and an occasional contributor here at Urbanphoto, has a keen eye for the city’s details. Some of the most recent images in her Flickr photostream depict a rusted heating vent in an apartment building lobby, patent medicine boxes at a Chinese herbalist on the Main, an outdoor café chair turned up against a table, shivering in the fall chill, and four mismatched doorbells outside a Mile End apartment building.
Given my latent obsession with signs, though, I thought I would highlight two particularly interesting ones from the fringes of Little Italy. The one you see above, on Jean Talon Street near St. Denis, is a neon bánh mì accompanied by a cup of coffee. How cool would it be if this became the standard sign for Vietnamese sandwich shops all across town? It would be like the animated shish taouk and creepy tooth I wrote about last week.
Next is a sign for a storefront autobody shop located on St. Laurent just above Van Horne and the CPR tracks. I pass by it all the time and wonder what it would be like to live in one of the apartments on top of it. For several years, it was called the Garage Viêt Nam, but it now appears to have changed name. If the recent addition of these vinyl signs are any indication, its new owners are ethnic Chinese.
October 26th, 2007
Climbing up one of Montreal’s many outdoor staircases to a second-floor balcony is a great way to get a new perspective on the street. It’s high enough to feel removed from the action but still low enough to observe it. This is especially true at intersections, like that of Park Avenue and Bernard Street in Mile End, where a constant flow of pedestrians, cyclists, cars and buses keeps things interesting.
October 25th, 2007
Last week, La Presse reported quite breathlessly that the federal government, which owns the Port of Montreal and much of the land along its waterfront, has been lobbying the United Nations to move its headquarters from New York to Montreal. The rationale, apparently, is that the UN’s current headquarters, housed in an iconic complex built in 1949 along the East River, needs nearly $2 billion worth of renovations over the next couple of decades. It would cost a lot less to simply pack up and move to Montreal, where a state-of-the-art new headquarters would be waiting on the site of the Silo No. 5 and on adjacent piers.
You have to admit, as outlandish an idea as this may be, it would be pretty cool to have the United Nations in Montreal. So far, La Presse is the only paper reporting any of this in depth — Montreal’s other media outlets seem to be rolling their eyes in disbelief — but the Gazette’s Henry Aubin came up with a list of reasons why moving the UN to Montreal would be a swell idea. Among the most convincing? The UN would be an enormous boon to the city’s economy, bringing in 20,000 highly-paid workers and creating as many as 60,000 spinoff jobs. The UN’s two working languages are French and English, which would reinforce Montreal’s bilingualism while infusing the city with plenty of new people who speak good French.
Real estate promoters certainly like the idea of moving the world organization: here in Montreal, they’d get a share of multi-billion dollar contracts to design and develop the new headquarters. In New York, they’d get to redevelop the UN’s old headquarters, also worth billions of dollars.
October 25th, 2007
Montreal’s office district, running between Dorchester Square in the northwest and Victoria Square in the southeast, is not terribly exciting. Compared to Midtown Manhattan, or even Bay Street, it lacks a certain high-stakes punch, the relentless energy of money being made in vast amounts, of high-stress streetlife scurrying from one meeting to the next. It feels provincial. But at least it’s pretty: over the past four years, this section of downtown Montreal has seen some huge improvements to its urban environment.
The change started with the overhaul of the so-called Quartier international, which included the construction of Place Jean-Paul Riopelle and the transformation of Victoria Square into a public space as refined and elegant as it had been, just a few years earlier, ratty and forgotten. A couple of blocks away, a series of luminescent pillars were installed in the median of University Street. Throughout the area, sidewalks were widened and furnished with attractive new light standards, traffic lights, benches, trash cans and bike racks.
One of the overlooked changes in the area, though, was the renovation of Place Monseigneur-Charbonneau, a small square at the corner of University and René Lévesque, right in front of 1 Place Ville-Marie, Montreal’s most iconic skyscraper. In 2005, it was reconfigured and nearly doubled in size. Granite and concrete were used to create an eye-catching pavement design and vegetation was arranged simply and effectively, creating a canopy above the square while keeping the views of the surrounding streets open. The same sleek, comfortable benches that are used in the Quartier international were installed here.
Like the redone Victoria Square, or the new Place Jean-Paul Riopelle, Place Monseigneur-Charbonneau manages to be both stylish and functional. I wasn’t even aware of the square until recently; before the renovations, it appeared to be nothing more than an overgrown mass of greenery marooned in a sea of traffic. Now, though, it has been well-used every time I have visited. Office workers eat lunch and chat on its benches, cabbies hang out near the taxi stand at the north side of the square, and its central location ensures a constant flow of pedestrians, at least during the day.
October 24th, 2007
October 24th, 2007
Not too long ago I wrote about the standard bat-shaped neon sign used by Hong Kong pawnshops. Well, Montreal has its own ubiquitous neon symbols, what I like to call Shish Taouk and the Happy Tooth.
The first sign is found on just about every Lebanese fast-food joint in town. Their menus are always identical — the usual array of shawarma, falafel, garlic potatoes and what Montrealers call shish taouk, but isn’t really shish taouk — so I guess their owners feel that having a standardized neon animation of a man slicing shawarma is appropriate for the same reason that every pharmacy in France is marked by the same green neon cross.
Montreal’s dentists must think the same thing: a neon tooth hangs outside nearly every dental clinic in the city. Unlike the shish taouk or pharmacy signs, though, these teeth aren’t always the same. Some are a simple green outline while others are more elaborate. Often enough, they anthropomorphize the tooth, fixing it with a creepy grin. In the example below, the tooth is posing quite happily with its friend the toothbrush, but a bit further down Park Avenue is another sign that features a tooth apparently walking away with a toothbrush in hand. “See you, sucker,” it seems to be saying.
You know, I sometimes have dreams about my teeth falling out. Signs like that are not something I need to see.
October 23rd, 2007
[Partly translated by Arthur.]
It hits me like a shot of heroin, and I don’t know why.
Light through rain through the bus window, slamming and diving at my reflection, a blur dissolving into the painted world outside. Like in Fallen Angels. I straighten my tank top. Rain droplets wash through and over, sanding away at the winding city, new towers and old blocks, slick line in a window’s light. Open doors hang in black space, naked limbs just visible between pulled blinds. Towers stretch upwards, bodies and minds separated only by concrete, steel, wood, plaster. I stretch in the seat and wipe, cat-like, at the rain droplets. The bus slides, purring, beneath me. I stood huddled beneath the bamboo when it pulled to a halt, the doors slid open and I ran, rain pelting me, swiped my Octopus, and the doors catch.
Caught inside, and I am trying not to think, only to watch, watch and feel. Running along the second story, the people, ants dwarfed by an ever growing hive—the unfinished husks in south Kowloon glower half lit, tower cranes spiked in red so many meters into the storm—give way entirely. I place my hand over my breast and feel myself breathing. The bus comes to a halt, the brakes catch like a whale’s respiration, someone climbs the stairs behind me in combat boots. When I turn around, I can barely catch sight of two, skirts, jeans, spiked hair and rain soaked jackets. Bizarre Wants Awesome Knows. I turn back to the rain. I can feel it even if the air conditioning is washing over me, even if the window glass melts me into the neon gloom. An HSBC sign passes, a solitary white point sliding further and further away. The window lights fade, and I am only staring at my reflection, my own face melting into the rain. The strap of my tank top has slipped from my left shoulder.
October 22nd, 2007
It was a dull, overcast day when I decided to take the SkyTrain a few extra stops east to Joyce Station, in the East Vancouver neighbourhood of Collingwood.
I’m not sure what I expected, but I wasn’t entirely disappointed. I emerged from the station onto Joyce Street’s commercial strip, dominated almost entirely by Chinese and Filipino businesses. This part of Joyce, and indeed the whole area next to the SkyTrain tracks, is an odd mixture of low-slung postwar buildings and much newer condominium towers, built in the 1980s and 90s as part of a strategy to create high-density nodes around transit hubs. It still feels oddly suburban, despite the highrises, but there’s enough of a streetlife near the station to compensate for that.
The station, in fact, is pretty striking. It is beautiful in its functionality, a utilitarian structure that resembles nothing so much as an electrical substation. There’s something eminently appealing about this kind of simple, unassuming architecture, unafraid to serve as a backdrop to the posters, newspaper boxes and other bits of urban life that manifest themselves around train stations.
October 20th, 2007
Place Sun Yat Sen, a small square in the heart of Montreal’s Chinatown, is almost perenially occupied by members of Falun Gong, a psuedo-religious spiritual movement that originated in 1992 in China. Banned seven years later by the Chinese government, which insisted that it was a cult and devoted itself rather heavy-handedly to crushing it, Falun Gong has earned supporters and followers worldwide.
Here in Montreal, its members are a common sight on downtown streets, where they hand out pamplets explaining the movement’s philosophy and outlining the tactics used against it by the Chinese government, which allegedly include arrest, torture and systematic organ harvesting. In Sun Yat Sen Square, a diverse collection of Falun Gong followers can usually be found practicing meditation exercises next to posters that outline their group’s persecution in China.
It’s common for advocacy groups to lay claim to specific bits of public space. I’m reminded of the bizarre protester who picketed McGill University’s Roddick Gates every day for more than a year, hosting signs with messages that many considered to be anti-Semitic. (His goal, he said, was to protest his “wrongful dismissal” from the Jewish General Hospital and to “enlighten the global Jewish community of the virtues of Christianity.”) In Vancouver, the wall of the Chinese consulate is home to a perennial protest against China’s control of Tibet.
These kinds of permanent protests might seem a nuisance to some, but I think they are perfectly legitimate, no matter how strange or unsavoury their message. After all, the beauty of public space is that it’s public.
The Falun Gong people in Chinatown seem especially mindful of that. They never interfere with the many special events that take place there, they pack up their stuff at sundown every evening and they even lent a hand during last month’s Chinatown Clean Up.
October 20th, 2007
Today’s New York Times includes an article on the efforts of Aya Tsukioka, an “experimental fashion designer,” to allay Japan’s growing fears about street crime by creating a new line of clothes and accessories that double as urban camouflage. In a moment of panic, you can transform your dress into a vending machine, your backpack into a fire hydrant, and your purse into a manhole cover. The idea is for the people who wear these clothes to hide in plain sight when they feel threatened, evading their would-be attacker.
Of course, that wouldn’t be likely to happen — I’m sure most muggers would be able to spot the difference between a real vending machine and a fabric one with two feet sticking out underneath. “Ms. Tsukioka said she realized that her ideas might be a bit fanciful. But she said Japan’s willingness to indulge the imagination was one of its cultural strengths,” reports Martin Fackler in the Times. “The fact that such ideas were greeted with straight faces, or even appeared at all, underscores Japanese society’s fondness for oddball ideas and inventions. In fact, Japan produces so many unusual inventions that it even has a word for them: chindogu, or ‘queer tools.’”
What strikes me about Tsukioka’s designs is her eye for the city’s details. At first glance, her vending machine skirt really does look like a vending machine; her manhole purse might not fool anyone paying attention, but it could certainly pass for the real thing in the eyes of a hurried passerby. The Times article goes on about Japan’s willingness to accept oddball inventions, which might explain why it is such a technologically innovative society. But it doesn’t really touch on the relationship between urban dwellers and their surroundings. After all, in a city like Tokyo, what is there to blend in with but the pieces of street furniture that are ubiqutious?
Photos by Torin Boyd for the New York Times