Archive for December, 2007

December 19th, 2007

(Sculpted) Eyes on the Street

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf

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École Ste-Julienne-Falconieri, Little Italy. Photo by Kate McDonnell

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St. Viateur and St. Laurent, Mile End

December 19th, 2007

Next door

Posted in Uncategorized by Kate McDonnell

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December 17th, 2007

Cleopatra on the Main

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf

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Café Cléopâtre, St. Laurent near Ste. Catherine

December 16th, 2007

The Widening of Dorchester

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

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One of the more overlooked stories in the history of Montreal’s urban development is the widening of Dorchester Street. For more than a century, this long street spanned the centre of Montreal, from the working-class neighbourhoods of the Faubourg Sainte Marie to the more cossu quarters of the Golden Square Mile and lower Westmount. It was essentially Victorian in character, lined by nineteenth-century rowhouses, apartment buildings and not a few important landmarks, including Montreal’s Catholic cathedral and general hospital.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Dorchester had become a typical downtown street lined by a ragtag assortment of businesses, tenements and rooming houses. When Jean Drapeau was elected mayor in 1954 he saw in this unassuming artery the potential for a grand thoroughfare. Shortly after he took office, his administration ordered the destruction of hundreds of buildings along Dorchester; in 1955, the street was widened into an eight-lane boulevard.

Drapeau was as straight-edged and zealous in his desire for renewal as Montreal’s previous mayors had been corrupt and satisfied with the city’s disorder. In a way, the new Dorchester reflected his personal character and politicial ambitions: bold, even revolutionary, but also stern, unfriendly and controlling, a prude in a libertine city. The new Dorchester was not just a departure from Montreal’s traditional urbanism, it was a direct rebuke to it. It rejected the homely, intimate streets that have always defined the Montreal landscape, a clutter of mismatched staircases, cornices and odd signs. In part, this was in keeping with the Modernist ideals of the postwar era, but it was also part of Drapeau’s plan to do away with the old Montreal for which he had so much contempt.

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December 15th, 2007

Tokyo Hypnosis

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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Tokyo is trippy enough, but Chris Jongkind’s videos of its vast rail network takes its surreality to another level entirely. The right adjective here would be “serpentine” as we watch trains slide effortlessly through the urban underbrush of the world’s largest city.

For what it’s worth, Jongkind’s photos are even better.

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December 15th, 2007

The Evolution of McGill College Avenue

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

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Yesterday, on Spacing Montreal, I wrote about several elegant synagogues that once graced the streets of downtown Montreal. One of them is the old Shaar Hashomayim synagogue*, built in 1886 and destroyed sometime in the 1920s, which stood on McGill College Avenue near Sherbrooke. At the time, the surrounding neighbourhood, near the corner of McGill College and Sherbrooke, right next to McGill University, was an affluent mix of rowhouses and apartment buildings, not unlike Boston’s Back Bay.

In the 1960s, though, most of the area’s old urban fabric was destroyed by new development. Parking lots and office towers eliminated what little residential texture was left. You can see the process underway in the photos below, which were taken on Victoria Street in 1973 and 2007. The two remaining rowhouses on this downtown sidestreet had already been converted into commercial use; a parking lot stands in between them. Office towers, which were built as part of the business district’s post-Place Ville Marie expansion, loom behind.

In the early 1990s, the building housing Café André was replaced by an expanded McCord Museum. Not long before, in the late 1980s, the site of the former Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue was redeveloped with a glass office tower, part of an ambitious renovation that turned McGill College Avenue into something resembling a cross between a boulevard and an office park. It’s pleasant enough, especially on a warm day when outdoor cafés line its sidewalks, but it’s still one of the more anonymous parts of Montreal. Aside from a few lonely rowhouses, little remains in the area around McGill College that would suggest it was ever anything but a humdrum office district.

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Photos by Guillaume St-Jean

*CORRECTION: This post originally misidentified the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue as the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. Thanks to Shawn for pointing out the error.

December 13th, 2007

Push Button Wait For Walk Signal

Posted in Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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I’ve always associated manually-activated crosswalks with suburbia, where pedestrian traffic is light. Here in Montreal, they only exist at mid-block crosswalks; pedestrians have the priority at regular intersections, especially since the city started installing scramble crossings and advance walk signals at many corners.

When I was in Boston last month, my first visit to the city in eight years, I was surprised to find that you needed to push a button to cross legally at nearly every intersection. It seems terribly impractical in a city with such high levels of pedestrian traffic, especially one that prides itself on being so pedestrian-friendly. Since many pedestrians arrive at a light that is already green, they just ignore the “don’t walk” signal and cross against the light.

December 12th, 2007

Pillars

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation by Andrew Rochfort

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Gorgeous, albeit neglected, relics dot the Shanghai landscape. This one is an entrance to an old housing complex.

December 12th, 2007

Tear Down This Wall

Posted in History, Public Space, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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I have a hard time conceiving of the Berlin Wall. The above photo, taken in 1985 by Robin McMorran, a visiting British tourist, only adds to my incomprehension. Look at the way it snakes through the city almost arbitrarily, cutting off squares, streets, streetcar tracks. It was absurd and surreal yet it defined the day-to-day reality of Berlin for more than a generation.

The first incarnation of the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, when Soviet and East German leaders agreed that the flow of refugees towards the West needed to be stemmed. Over the next two decades, the wall was rebuilt four times, until it reached its final and most infamous state in 1975. The wall became a backdrop to speeches by Western leaders; it was there, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, that Ronald Reagan uttered his most famous pronouncement: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Despite its rhetoric, though, the West did little to prevent the construction of the wall in the first place. For nearly three decades, it divided families and neighbourhoods. Even Berlin’s complex subway system was cut in two by the wall.

Berlin’s wall was far from unique. Walls have, for centuries, divided cities from their hinterland, but they are increasingly being used to restrict movement within cities themselves. In the early 1980s, the Turkish and Greek halves of the Cypriot capital of Nicosia were separated by a barrier. Jerusalem has long been divided by the border between Israel and Palestine, a border that has been reinforced in recent years by the addition of a tall separation barrier. In Baghdad, military forces have laid the groundwork for a new wall that will separate Shia neighbourhoods from Sunni ones.

In some ways, the walls that exist along many stretches of the US-Mexico border, dividing otherwise contiguous urban areas like Nogales, can be seen in the same light. (Compare this photo of the border, marked by an imposing wall, with this one from 1898 in which there is no barrier whatsoever.) This is especially true as border cities grow larger and even more intertwined, despite the ever more burdensome restrictions on movement.

Andrew Chau, on his blog urban-ism, looked last month at the “(un)intended consequences of building walls. “In our capitalist system, goods and capital are allowed to move freely, but migrants cannot,” he wrote. “For the corporate elite and their companies, this is essential to distance themselves from the growing inequities between the rich and the poor.”

In cities divided, their main effect is to entrench social inequality by restricting free movement, just as the Berlin Wall did for 28 years. That wall was torn down, but in its place have risen many others.

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December 10th, 2007

The Lower Main

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Keep a close eye on the block of the Main between René Lévesque and Ste. Catherine — it’s due for some big changes. Already, the peep shows, sketchy bars and strip clubs are finding themselves neighbours with art galleries and the SAT. You’ll notice that some of these buildings, like the one containing the Épicerie d’Importations Main, a Middle Eastern grocery store that opened in 1903, are merely façades being propped up by a steel frame. With the development of the Quartier des spectacles, it won’t be long until they make way for something more rentable.

December 10th, 2007

Indo-Fijians, Filipinos and Romanians

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

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Winnipeg: it’s a long way from the Philippines. Photo by Jezz

I’ve been pouring over the new 2006 census data on language and immigration released by Statistics Canada last week. Nationally, all of the attention is being paid to the fact that one-fifth of all Canadians are foreign-born, one of the highest rates in the world. Here in Montreal, the focus is on both a surge in immigration (especially from North Africa and China) and the changing linguistic makeup of the city.

Francophones — people whose mother tongue is French — are now a minority on Montreal Island, thanks mostly to high levels of immigration from non-francophone countries. The number of anglophones, meanwhile, has increased for the first time in 30 years. Arabic, Spanish and Chinese have become the fastest-growing non-official languages in Montreal.

But enough with the big picture news; it has already been dissected ad infinitum in the media. What interests me are some of the odd, surprising and overlooked trends in immigration that are having an impact on Canada’s cities.

Indo-Fijians in Vancouver

Looking through the census data, I wasn’t surprised to see that nearly 17 percent of Vancouver’s population now speaks a Chinese language, and I certainly wasn’t surprised to see that China and India were its top sources of immigrants. I was a bit surprised, however, to note that there are more than 17,200 immigrants from Fiji who live in Vancouver. Most of them arrived before 1991, but enough came between 2001 and 2006 (1,670) to make the tiny Pacific island Vancouver’s fifteenth-largest source of new immigrants, after Mexico and before Afghanistan.

People from Fiji have been immigrating to Canada since the 1960s and most of them have landed in Vancouver. The vast majority are Indo-Fijian and they have a distinct sense of cultural identity, not unlike other immigrants of Indian descent from countries like Guyana.

Filipinos in Winnipeg

Winnipeg is not normally a major draw for immigrants, yet it has become one of the principal centres of Filipino immigration to Canada. Winnipeg is home to Canada’s third-largest Filipino population despite being the eighth-largest city (even then, at 694,000 inhabitants, it has only a couple of thousand more people than Hamilton). 6,885 Filipino immigrants arrived in Winnipeg between 2001 and 2006, more than three times as many people as the city’s second-largest source of new immigrants, India. One-fifth of all immigrants in Winnipeg, or roughly 25,000 people, come from the Philippines.

The reason why so many Filipino immigrants settle in Winnipeg is obvious: friends and family who are already there. That’s the case for most immigrants across Canada, whatever their origin and wherever they choose to live. But what is especially notable is that Winnipeg has maintained such a large Filipino community despite continually losing people — both native- and foreign-born — to other provinces.

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December 9th, 2007

You Will Listen to Our Music

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf
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I was walking along the Main with a friend yesterday when he pointed out that music was being broadcast from loudspeakers attached to the street’s lampposts. “That’s so weird,” he said.

The fact that many of Montreal’s commercial streets broadcast music in December is one of those seasonal oddities I notice and then forget as soon as the snow melts. Usually, it’s schmaltzy holiday music that is being played, but yesterday on St. Laurent, a DJ was in charge of the programming, part of a daylong celebration of the street’s official “reopening” after more than a year of construction. My musical vocabulary is limited, so I’ll describe the sound as a variety of beeps, bloops, wails and franglais (“How I love it here / I love beaucoup”). You could listen to it without interruption from Sherbrooke St. right up to Mount Royal.

Yesterday’s music was enjoyable because it was so bizarre. It complemented the oddball performers who were making their way down the snowy street, like the man on stilts who shouted something across the street a guy riding a penny-farthing, or the bright yellow reindeer who was accompanied by people handing out flyers urging us to bank at Desjardins.

Now that I think of it, though, isn’t it strange to wander down Wellington St. in Verdun, or Mount Royal Avenue on the Plateau, or even Ste. Catherine St. downtown while listening to some tinny Bing Crosby or even, if whoever in charge of the music is lazy, a procession of Top 40 hits? I can’t think of any other major city that pipes in music to its commercial streets.

If I had to guess, the reasoning behind this music is that it helps create a unified atmosphere throughout a street’s shopping district, similar to that of an indoor mall. Urban commercial streets have been transformed in other ways to resemble malls — witness the Plaza Saint Hubert‘s awnings and “modernized” façades, installed in 1984 when Montreal’s high streets were at their nadir — but their success has generally been questionable.

Politically, this is another example of a double standard in Montreal’s official treatment of public space. It’s illegal for stores to play music outside (though this is mostly unenforced, so many do anyway) yet merchants’ associations have free reign to subject pedestrians to their music.

December 8th, 2007

New West and the Fraser River

Posted in Canada by Desmond Bliek

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Like the Saint-Laurent, Vancouver’s Fraser is a workhorse of a river. Industrial islands and seemingly endless log booms make for an interesting and active landscape, very different from the bulk of imagery one typically sees of Vancouver’s waterfront. These photos were taken from above in November, 2007.

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December 8th, 2007

Three Strange Streets

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

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Back in October, on one of the unseasonably warm and humid days Montreal had towards the end of fall, I was on the 129 bus heading west to Victoria Avenue when I noticed three odd streets on the south side of Côte Ste. Catherine. Unusually for streets in Côte des Neiges, which tend to be very wide, they appeared to consist of nothing more than a simple pathway surrounded by greenery.

Later, I returned to investigate and discovered that the streets I had seen were Beaminster Place, Bradford Place and Campden Place, a trio of block-long passages tucked behind Côte-Sainte-Catherine metro. Lined by relatively modern four-plexes, they were open only to pedestrians, with a single narrow strip of pavement running between lush front yards. Residents parked their cars in the exceptionally wide laneways that ran between the streets.

In Côte des Neiges, a patchwork of different neighbourhoods built at different times throughout the twentieth century, I’ve come to expect urban planning oddities. But these three “places” were unlike anything I’d seen in Montreal before. According to the city’s property records, the houses along Beaminster, Bradford and Campden were all built between 1936 and 1951. Architecturally, they’re pretty much indistinguishable from any of the 1930s- and 40s-era houses in the west end; it’s their setting that makes them so unique.

The City of Montreal’s toponymy database reports that Beaminster, Bradford and Campden places were built in 1936 by the Terrace Construction Company, part of a 48-duplex development called Cotswald Village. If these names sound twee, it’s because they were taken from villages and towns in England’s Dorset, Gloucestershire and Yorkshire counties.

This still doesn’t shed any light on the motives of the developer. Why only three streets? Were they part of a failed plan to transform Côte des Neiges into a vast English-style Garden City? Or did the Terrace Construction Company simply have modest ambitions?

Click here to see more photos of the three “places.” Thanks to Martin Bérubé for referring me to the place names database.