Archive for December, 2007

December 31st, 2007

Signs of Chaos

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Anyone with a finicky sense of design would best avoid this restaurant on Jean Talon Street in Montreal’s St. Michel district. I particularly like the thrifty way that “Beer Wine” was changed to “Bière Vin” in compliance with Quebec’s language laws.

December 30th, 2007

Don’t Bulldoze the Slums

Posted in Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture, South Asia by Christopher DeWolf

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Street scene in Dharavi. Photo from the Economist

“Around 6am, the squealing of copulating rats—signalling a night-long verminous orgy on the rooftops of Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai—gives way to the more cheerful sound of chirruping sparrows. Through a small window in Shashikant (“Shashi”) Kawale’s rickety shack, daylight seeps. It reveals a curly black head outside. Further inspection shows that this is attached to a man’s sleeping body, on a slim metal ledge, 12 feet above the ground.”

It’s not the most flattering description, but the Economist’s December 19th story on Dharavi is actually a remarkably sensitive portrait of Asia’s largest slum, revealing a particularly complex social and economic space that is now threatened by redevelopment.

One million people live in Dharavi, which is somewhat incredible when you realize that it covers just one square mile. Although conditions are rough, life in the slum has improved remarkably over the past several decades. Part of the reason for that is that it has become an important economic centre, containing an estimated 15,000 single-room factories and functioning as the centre of Mumbai’s jewellery, textile and recycling industries. All of the trash thrown away in Mumbai passes through the workshops of Dhavari, where it is sorted and sold. For the slum’s residents, the line between home and work is blurred, since many living spaces also double as workshops; every inch of Dharavi is put to great use.

Government planners don’t approve of slums like this; they never have. For at least a decade, Mumbai’s officials have been trying to get rid of Dharavi. What they overlook, however, is the innovation and entrepreneurialism it produces. Dharavi is packed with an almost unimaginable number of people, but it’s also full of small businesses that were built by the most marginalized members of Indian society. Most are poor migrants from the countryside. For them, living in a slum, where living conditions are squalid but opportunities are immense, is the best way to improve their lot.

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Potters at work. Photo by Akshay Mahajan

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December 29th, 2007

West End Dusk

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Over the bridge and into Vancouver’s West End.

December 28th, 2007

Morning Coffee: Sitting at Casa Acoreana

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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There are a few café terraces I really love, like Caffè Beano at 9th Street and 17th Avenue in Calgary, or Social Club at St. Viateur and Esplanade in Montreal. They’re perfect places to watch the city, but they’re also interesting social spaces in and of themselves, with regular customers and even little cliques that seem to claim sections of the terraces for themselves.

My favourite outdoor café, though, has got to be the Casa Acoreana at the corner of Augusta and Baldwin in Toronto’s Kensington Market. The coffee here is pretty good, and it’s certainly cheap, but what I really like about the place is the way it opens onto the street, becoming a sidewalk café in the truest of senses. With barely more than a dozen seats inside, all of them running along a narrow bar facing open windows that give out onto Augusta, most of Casa Acoreana’s seating space is on benches or at the bar outside. It feels open and accessible in the same way as Kensington as a whole.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so entertained by simply sitting at a café as I did when I was at Casa Acoreana. This part of Toronto has some of the most engaging streetlife I’ve ever encountered, diverse in every possible way. Across the street, I liked to watch people shopping at the Sun Wah Grocery while late morning cyclists rode past.

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December 26th, 2007

Thinking About Summer

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Queen Street West in June

December 25th, 2007

Chengdu’s Odd Christmas Tradition

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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I was at dinner last night when one of my friends told me about a strange Christmas Eve tradition in her hometown of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. “Every year, people go to the main pedestrian street and start hitting each other with inflatable toys,” she explained.

I was perplexed, though far from surprised. Christmas is an increasingly popular holiday in China, mostly because it offers a fun excuse to shop and socialize. Since China has no homegrown Christmas traditions of its own, though, many Chinese are inventing new ones. I asked my friend to send me some more information when she got the chance. So late last night, after she returned home from dinner, she emailed me a link to this Chinese discussion board post, which described the event and provided a lot of nice photos.

Imagine a flash mob, like one of those public pillow fights, that involves not just a few dozen people but tens of thousands of them. Armed with inflatable bats (many inexplicably decorated with the stars and stripes), they descend on Chendu’s main shopping district and start whacking each other over the head. There are families with young children, groups of teenagers, young couples and middle-aged people; all of them seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.

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December 25th, 2007

Christmas Time for the Jews

Posted in Video by Christopher DeWolf
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It’s December 25th, that bizarre day when much of the population seems to have vanished into their living rooms in a sugar-and-turkey-fuelled daze. But what about everyone else? If you don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s no better day to catch a movie or grab Chinese food, as this classic animation by Saturday Night Live’s Robert Smigel so aptly demonstrates.

December 24th, 2007

Chinatown by Night

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

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In comparison to the increasingly polished neighbourhoods around it, Boston’s Chinatown is an oasis of grit, a place that actually feels comfortable and well-worn, like an old pair of jeans.

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December 24th, 2007

Turning the Place Over

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Europe by Christopher DeWolf
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What do you do with an abandoned building? Turn it into art. Such is the case in Liverpool where the British sculptor Richard Wilson has created Turning the Place Over, an ambitious intervention that removes an eight metre chunk of façade from a building in central Liverpool, rotates it and puts it back into place. An introduction to the piece by the Cass Sculpture Foundation describes it in more detail:

Turning the Place Over consists of an 8 metres diameter ovoid cut from the façade of a building and made to oscillate in three dimensions. The revolving façade rests on a specially designed giant rotator, usually used in the shipping and nuclear industries, and acts as a huge opening and closing ‘window’, offering recurrent glimpses of the interior during its constant cycle during daylight hours.

The ovoid section of facade is then mounted on a central spindle, aligned on a specific angle to the building. When at rest, the ovoid section of facade would fit flush into the rest of the building. The angled spindle is, however, placed on a set of powerful motorised industrial rollers and will rotate. As it rotates, the facade not only becomes completely inverted, but will also oscillate into the building and out into the street, revealing the interior of the building and only being flush with the building at one point during its rotation.

This astonishing feat of engineering will stun audiences on many levels. Disturbing and disorientating from a distance, from close-up passers-by have a thrilling experience as the building rotates above them.

Some observers have noted that Wilson’s intervention draws heavily from the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, an American architect and artist who carved up houses with a chainsaw in the 1970s. His work dwelled on the disintegration of the United States’ public life, including the decay of its cities; one of his more well-known efforts, very similar to Turning the Place Over, involved cutting out a large piece of wall from a New York warehouse and suspending it from a crane.

It’s not entirely clear what Wilson’s installation, which was commissioned by Liverpool in celebration of its designation as 2008′s European Capital of Culture, is trying to say. But it’s still remarkable, if only because it merges the public and private spheres of life into one, revealing the inner workings of a building that is normally shielded from passersby.

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December 24th, 2007

“Une bonne vieille tempête”

Posted in Canada, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

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Until the rain washed much of it away today, it seemed like the snow wouldn’t stop accumulating in the streets of Montreal. A big storm in early December left more than 30 centimetres of the stuff on the ground; no sooner had that been cleared away did another 40 or 50 centimetres fall over the course of a few days last week. The city’s blue collar workers couldn’t keep up and streets were gridlocked for a good three or four days.

One random guy on the news (I think he was on the Magdalen Islands) described the storm as “une bonne vieille tempête.” I like that expression. It reminds me of fourteenth-century French poet François Villon‘s famous line, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” It gives the impression that, even as we run towards something new and unknown, the icy hands of the past continue to grasp at our ankles.

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December 24th, 2007

Apartment Buildings on Decarie

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf

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Decarie Towers, built 1955

Lately, I've found myself fascinated by something I had never noticed before: apartment building names. My interest was piqued in September when J.D. Gravenor posted a 1910 list of apartment buildings in Montreal on Coolopolis. Some were more fanciful than others — there’s the San Remo on Durocher, the Smithsonian on Selkirk, the Lochinvar on Crescent, the Imperial on Hope.

I came across a treasure trove of cool apartment building names last week when I walked down Decarie from Van Horne to Queen Mary. It’s not an obvious street down which to stroll, mainly because there’s a noisy expressway running down the middle of it, but there’s all sorts of interesting discoveries to be made on this once-fashionable boulevard, including many apartment buildings built at the peak of its popularity as a cruising strip in the 1940s and 50s. Here’s a sample of what I saw.

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King Apartments, built 1944

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York Apartments, built 1940

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Michel Apartments, built 1941

December 21st, 2007

Numbering the City

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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I think it’s safe to say that most cities have some kind of house numbering system, but the nature of that system differs from place to place. It took me awhile to figure out that there are two sets of civic numbers in Paris, one for residential buildings and another for retail spaces. Here in North America, many cities are divided into sections, with house numbers increasing with distance from a main street or particular geographic feature.

That’s the case for Montreal, where numbers on north-south streets increase depending on their distance from the St. Lawrence River. It’s a neat arrangement that allows you to determine the location of an address by its “hauteur” relative to the river. On a north-south street, for instance, I know that 3000 corresponds roughly to Ste. Catherine, 4500 to Mount Royal, 7000 to Jean Talon and so forth. 10,000 or more is inconceivably far north, near the edge of the island or perhaps the edge of the world.

Beyond the numbering system, though, I’ve always been curious about the way the numbers are represented. Throughout the central part of Montreal, most buildings and apartments have the same white-on-blue signs, which all appear to have been issued at the same time. There are also some black-on-white versions of the same signs. I don’t know much about them — when were they made? Who distributed them? As they gradually disappear, is anything being done to preserve them?

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Photos taken on Demers Street in the Plateau Mont-Royal.

December 21st, 2007

A Hidden Street

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf

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I’ve always been intrigued by Demers Street. It’s a tiny street in the north end of the Plateau, running parallel to Villeneuve between Coloniale and Hôtel de Ville, lined mostly by cute duplexes built around 1900 to house workers from the nearby quarries.

Demers was just another back lane in a working-class neighbourhood full of them. That is, until 1969, when a group of five architecture students decided to embark on the renovation of the street, an early example of grassroots restoration at a time when the normal impulse would have been to tear the entire thing down and build anew. Jacques Giraldeau, a director with the National Film Board of Canada, made a documentary of the renovation, Les fleurs c’est pour Rosemont. “Ce film montre le travail accompli par les jeunes professionnels et les habitants de la rue; les déceptions qui, de part et d’autre, n’ont pas manqué de surgir et le malaise sur lequel s’est close l’expérience,” reads the NFB’s description. “Un documentaire propre à inspirer de salutaires leçons à ceux qui désirent oeuvrer auprès des classes sociales défavorisées des grandes villes.”

It’s hard to envision today’s Demers Street as the setting for the “classes sociales défavorisées.” Pedestrianized for one block, its asphalt paving has been removed and replaced with a stone pathway and narrow garden. In the summer, it’s remarkably verdant, but I like it even more in the winter, when the snow piles up and it feels like somewhere you’d expect to find a colony of elves. I’m not entirely sure who lives in the houses that flank Demers, and whether there’s a strong sense of community in this tiny street, but it certainly seems like the kind of place that would bind people together by virtue of its oddness.

Check out the NFB’s website to see a clip of Demers in 1969 along with some cool archival photos.

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December 20th, 2007

Safe to Say…

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Montreal has eight American Apparel locations, more than any other city but New York and LA, but our streets are devoid of the company’s notorious advertisements, except for those on the stores’ façades themselves. (The back pages of our weekly newspapers, however, are another story.)

In New York, though, American Apparel has made a mark with frequently-changing billboards that feature the kinds of ads that have made it so infamous: young-looking hipsters, clad to various degrees in the company’s clothes, shot in unflattering light and in a variety of pseudo-pornographic poses. (If you still haven’t seen any of the ads, American Apparel has some of the tamer ones on its website, along with photo galleries of its models.)

Lately, there has been a sort of backlash against American Apparel. Earlier this year, a series of ads at the corner of Allen and Houston, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, raised the ire of some nearby residents. The first, described by one blog as a “leotard-and-knee high socks beaver shot,” came in the early spring. Then, over the summer, it was replaced by a new billboard advertising tights, its topless model visible only from behind, bum thrust outwards. By the end of October, it had been defaced with neon green paint and the inscription: “Gee, I wonder why women get raped?” Shortly thereafter, in early November, a paste-up appeared on a SoHo street lampooning a 2005 American Apparel tube sock ad.

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I can’t help but find myself amused by the consternation over American Apparel’s advertising. For the most part, it is no more revealing or exploitative than most other fashion ads; the difference is that American Apparel’s provocation is cheeky and only half-serious. It takes typical fashion advertising and strips it of all pretence and glamour, reducing it to its bare sex-driven essence. American Apparel’s ads are vulgar, and they’re certainly brash, but at least they’re honest in their intentions. They don’t dance around the fact that they are using tits and ass (and other things, too) to sell fabric. At least its models are human-looking, unlike the hairless androids often featured by other companies.

American Apparel’s other, non-sexploitative marketing efforts suggests that the company has a pretty good sense of humour, too. In May, at the corner of Houston and Allen, it took a break from crotch shot billboards to run an ad featuring Woody Allen, from a scene in his 1977 film Annie Hall, dressed as a Hasid. It was accompanied by the Yiddish phrase der heyliker rebe, “the holy rabbi.” When asked about the ad, which only lasted for a few days, American Apparel’s representatives would only say that they view Woody Allen as their “spiritual leader.”

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On American Apparel’s website, the company declares its devotion to “people, places and things that surround us” with photos of everyday streetlife in Hong Kong, signs in Montreal and mid-century architecture like Habitat ’67. (Sound familiar?) This is a company with a heightened awareness of kitsch, and a passion for kitsch is what is driving a large part of our current urban culture. That might explain why, even though many people seem repulsed by American Apparel, even more are attracted to it.