Archive for January, 2008

January 16th, 2008

The Bike Path of Champions

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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“I am now betting this bike path will change radically the lifestyle and quality of life of many Montrealers.”
– André Lavallée, member of Montreal’s executive committee, quoted in the Montreal Gazette, November 7, 2007

“It could turn downtown into a ghost town.”
– Sal Parasuco, retailer, quoted in the Montreal Gazette, September 10, 2007

« Assez vite aussi, j’ai eu l’impression que ce que ces flèches au sol disaient au fond aux cyclistes, c’est ” Par ici, la mort “. »
– Rima Elkouri, columnist in La Presse, September 20, 2007, on the St. Urbain bike lane

According to the United Nations, it was this year that the world became a place more populated by city dwellers than country folk. Today’s world is an increasingly urban place.

Of course, cities are inherently complicated, layered entities. More than their inhabitants, more than their buildings, people have over time built themselves a vast transportation infrastructure to connect themselves to each other – these may be streets, of course, but also include underground metro systems, freeways, maglev trains. Indeed, cities around the world are defined by elements of their transportation systems: what is Paris without the Champs-Elysées, or London without its Tube, or San Francisco without its trolley lines?

It is clear to me, as it must be to the vast majority of Urbanphoto readers, that the Montreal of only ten years hence will bear the imprint of, and perhaps be wholly defined by, what is perhaps the most important transportation development in the Western world of the twenty-first century: the de Maisonneuve Bike Path.

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January 15th, 2008

Riding the Rails Up Mount Royal

Posted in Uncategorised by Christopher DeWolf

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Just 90 years ago (it seems like yesterday!), you would have been able to transport yourself from the corner of Park and Duluth to the top of the mountain in a matter of minutes, thanks entirely to the Mount Royal Funicular Railway.

Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Mount Royal Park, didn’t want Montrealers to have a quick way to reach the top of the mountain; he intended for them to leisurely stroll along the winding path that begins near the Sir George Étienne Cartier Monument. But even in the nineteenth century, people had things to do and people to see, and they certainly didn’t have any time to waste wandering up a hill, so the funicular was built in 1884, tens years after Olmstead was hired.

A ride up the mountain on a steam-powered tram cost five cents for adults and three cents for children. So things went until 1918, when the funicular was deemed structurally unsound. It was dismantled in 1920.

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The funicular wasn’t the only way to ride the rails up Mount Royal. Until 1959, the number 11 streetcar made its way up the mountain along what is now the Voie Camillien Houde. Today, that streetcar has been replaced by a bus. If you ask me, it just isn’t the same.

Crossposted from Spacing Montreal

January 14th, 2008

A New Way to Eat the City

Posted in Canada, Food by Christopher DeWolf

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Over the holidays, the Tyee, a Vancouver-based webzine, published a series of twelve “New Ideas for the New Year.” Here’s one that really caught my attention: planting fruit trees on city streets.

While the benefits of greening the city are well-known — street trees provide shade, suck up storm water, remove carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the urban heat island effect — the notion of actually eating the things we plant in our streets is still quite novel. By doing so, however, we would gain an important local food supply and a way to bring people together.

That has been the experience of the Edible Campus, a container garden on McGill University’s downtown Montreal campus that I wrote about last November. Over the course of last year’s growing season, it produced one third of the food needed by Santropol Roulant, a meals on wheels service, and drew together a diverse group of volunteers who helped maintain the garden.

What really struck me, though, was the way that ordinary passersby used the garden. People make a point to pass through what had previously been an barren concrete space between a Brutalist highrise and the entrace to underground lecture halls. They stopped to examine the plants, sat on the benches near the garden, and walked through a wood archway that had been erected in the midst of the containers. Little kids were especially delighted when they ran around the garden, which must seem more like a forest when you’re three feet tall.

Fruit-bearing street trees could have a similar effect. Cultivation would be a communal activity; imagine a neighbourhood apple-picking festival. The Tyee goes even further by suggesting that fruit trees could reinforce neighbourhood identities and immigrant cultures, much in the same way that community gardens allow people to plant varieties of fruits and vegetables that are hard to find in Canada.

In Vancouver, the parks commission has already started planting 600 fruit trees in city parks; community groups will harvest the fruit when it’s ready in three to five years. Meanwhile, the Fruit Tree Project arranges with homeowners to collect fruit from under-picked trees on their property. The harvested fruit is donated to community kitchens and people in need.

Here in Montreal, there is a far more limited variety of fruits that could be grown. Still, climate would not be as much an obstacle to fruit trees as the risk of neglect and mistreatment. For years, street trees weren’t given enough space to grow, and many sidewalk planters were left unprotected by grates, as anyone who has tripped into one can attest.

Since it passed a “Politique de l’arbre” in 2005, the city has cleaned up its act, but Montrealers haven’t: hundreds of trees are killed each year because of vandalism.

January 13th, 2008

4pm at Sherbrooke and Alymer

Posted in Uncategorised by Christopher DeWolf

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Late afternoon at the corner of Sherbrooke and Aylmer in Montreal

January 12th, 2008

“Give Them Bread and Circuses, and TV Ads on the Subway”

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Siqi Zhu

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The usual assortment of passengers on the train:
cellphone fiddlers, ad-gazers and the lone reader

With typical New China audacity, even hubris, Shanghai authorities opened up more than 100km of subway tracks on a single day this past December, nearly doubling the metro system in a single stroke. This puts it well on its way of becoming the world’s largest–at least by the length of trackage–in two or three years of time.

Yet there doesn’t appear to be anything about the Shanghai Metro that marks its soon-to-be special status; nothing like the claustrophobic confusion of the Tokyo Metro, the steam-punk appeal of the NYC subway, or the hi-tech sheen of London’s Canary Wharf underground station. Superficially, what the Shanghai Metro does offer are the familiar standards: free daily newspapers, automatic vending machines, contactless smart cards, platform screen doors, annoying LCD screens, inoffensive-looking station interiors, neutral voices announcing the next stop, and respectable-looking riders mostly engaged with their cellphones.

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I think I caught him red-handed

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January 11th, 2008

Chinatown, Greektown

Posted in Art and Design, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Toronto, like many cities across North America, uses its street signs to identify neighbourhoods. Chinatown and Greektown are no exception.

In Greektown, which extends along the Danforth for several blocks, Greek signs are posted above the standard English signs. It’s more a token recognition of the neighbourhood’s historical ethnic character than anything else.

In the downtown Chinatown, however, all street signs are bilingual, and these Chinese/English signs can even be found on streets well outside the neighbourhood, like on the Queen Street West shopping district, across from MuchMusic and a block away from the Paramount entertainment complex.

January 10th, 2008

Urban, Multicultural Environmentalism

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

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Volunteers at the 2007 Chinatown Clean Up, an event designed, in part, to raise environmental awareness

A few years ago, Sandra Lee was a McGill marketing student with a budding interest in environmental issues. Involved with a mainstream environmental advocacy group, she found herself increasingly alienated by what she terms the “camping culture” of the people around her, not to mention the fact that she was the only visible minority in the organization.

It dawned on Lee that concern for the environment, as universal as it might seem, manifests itself in different ways for different people. “A lot of environmentalists grew up with a focus on nature, going hiking and canoeing and stuff like that. I just don’t relate to that culture at all. What I’m interested in is environmentalism as it relates to an urban setting,” she says.

Around the same time, Lidia Guennaoui, another young environmentalist, was coming to a similar realization. Shortly after she graduated with a degree in environmental studies from the Université de Montréal, Guennaoui started work in a Côte-des-Neiges Écoquartier that served immigrants from dozens of countries. She found that she lacked the resources to engage them in environmental issues.

“There’s a lot of environmental education we need to do, but I realized that we don’t have the tools to do that. The tools that we have are very unilateral,” she says. “We’re at the stage now where we need to open up more and communicate. We all have our own set of cultural and social references, especially when it comes to the environment.”

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January 9th, 2008

Nathalie and Denbigh

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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My hunt for apartment building names has only just begun, but these two photos show exactly why I’m interested in them in the first place. Appartement Nathalie is located on St. Denis near Rachel, right in the middle of the Plateau Mont-Royal. The Denbigh, meanwhile, can be found about five kilometres to the west, at the corner of de Maisonneuve and Elm in Westmount.

Both were built around the same time in the late nineteenth century. Without being too obvious, their names speak a lot to Montreal’s cultural and linguistic divide, between francophones and anglophones, French-Canadians and Anglo-Scots. But they also hint at trends that bridged that divide, like the increasing popularity of apartment buildings among Montreal’s upper middle-class, French and English alike, in the late 1800s.

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January 7th, 2008

Public Fire Alarms

Posted in Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Over the weekend, as he ate a slice of pecan pie, my friend Sam teased me for dwelling so much on the minutiae of urban life. “Next you’re going to be writing about doorknobs,” he said, “and you’ll have photos of all the doorknobs in Mile End.”

Not yet. Today, I’m looking at the public fire alarm boxes on the streets of Boston, which you can find throughout the city and its suburbs. “For Fire, Open Then Pull Down Hook,” they read. Pulling the lever activates a machine that sends a signal, by telegraph, to Boston’s fire department. While these boxes were once common across North America, they have almost all been removed or abandoned. Boston, however, has maintained a fully functional system.

Maybe that’s because they were invented there. Boston’s government commissioned the system in 1851, just five years after the invention of the telegraph, and the first box was placed into service in the spring of 1852. Since then, the number of boxes on Boston’s streets has risen from 40 to 1,259 (still down from a peak of nearly 3,000).

Even if the boxes are antiquated, Boston has no plans of getting rid of them. “Fire officials say the wireless world hasn’t negated the system’s value. They point to the Sept. 11 attacks, when cellphone networks became overloaded. And in a blackout, they say, people can’t recharge their cellphones,” reported the Boston Globe in a feature published yesterday. Scrapping the boxes would save about $2 million per year. In fact, Boston nearly did get rid of them in 1983, but ultimately decided that they were worth keeping after all.

I’m glad they did. After all, if the fire alarm boxes were gone, what would I write about?

January 6th, 2008

A Car’s-Eye View of Newark

Posted in United States by Sam Imberman

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Suppose you wrote the names of the largest hundred or so municipalities in the United States on a series of index cards. What’s the logical way to arrange them? By population, land area, age, or density? By the proportions of various ethnic groups?

Now, suppose you arranged the cards by something more qualitative: levels of prestige. At the top, you’ll find the obvious subjects: New York, say, and Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco. You’ll maybe even find St Louis, with its arch, and New Orleans, with its history, and the lot of other American cities which have created some level of mythos around them. And moving toward the end, you’ll find Newark, New Jersey.

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January 4th, 2008

On the Green Line

Posted in Transportation, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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The Green Line is Boston’s streetcar-subway combo, running above ground on Commonwealth Ave., Beacon St. and Huntington Ave. west of Massachusetts Ave. and below ground in the city centre.

January 3rd, 2008

Past Lives on Milton Street

Posted in Uncategorised by Christopher DeWolf

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I’ve always loved this house on Milton Street, between Ste. Famille and Jeanne Mance, in Montreal’s McGill Ghetto. For awhile, I used to eat breakfast across the street at Milton Place, a greasy spoon, and wonder what it would be like to live there.

I’ll probably never know, but at least I can find out who did. According to the city’s property records and Lovell’s Directory, the house was built in 1900 by John Greig and his wife Janet. John was a “commercial traveller” (a euphemism for door-to-door salesman?), which must have been a pretty good job because he and Janet stayed put in their house until 1942.

After that, a procession of different people occupied the house. The last Lovell’s directory, issued in 1976, reported that it was home to R. Minard and David Brant Reid.

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One block west on Milton is another interesting house. It looks like it was converted, at some point in its history, into an apartment building. Its main entrance was bricked over and a new one was built on the west side of the building.

The city, strangely enough, has no record of this building’s address, but it was probably built sometime around 1900. Its early residents, like most of those on Milton Street and in the surrounding neighbourhood, were probably middle-class WASPs. In 1904, for instance, nearly all of Milton’s residents had Anglo-Saxon names, except for a few French-Canadians and a handful of Chinese families.

January 2nd, 2008

Montreal’s Lost Expo Opportunity

Posted in Uncategorised by Christopher DeWolf

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Expo 67’s 40th anniversary has passed, but there’s one aspect of the world fair that I find strangely overlooked: its transportation system. While the Minirail and pedicabs moved people around the Expo site, more serious transit links were needed to get them to and from Notre Dame and St. Helen’s islands.

That’s where the metro, Expo Express and hovercrafts came into play. Hovercrafts were used to speed people between the South Shore, La Ronde and the Cité du Havre. The metro’s yellow line was built between Montreal and Longueuil because it offered a stop on St. Helen’s Island, right in the middle of the Expo action.

The Expo Express, meanwhile, was an above-ground metro line that ran for 5.7 kilometres between La Ronde and La Cité du Havre, with stops at four stations along the way. In terms of technology, it was essentially the same as the Toronto subway, except for one important difference: it was completely automated. Trains ran every five minutes and carried 1,000 passengers each.

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After Expo ended, Expo Express was completely dismantled and the hovercrafts were discarded. It might not seem like such a big deal: they were needed for a fair and, when that fair ended, they were discarded. So what?

Well, it strikes me as awfully short-sighted to have permanently scrapped such an efficient public transportation system. Whereas Expo sites in other cities were intensively reused — after Expo 86, Vancouver redeveloped its fair site as a new residential district with room for 20,000 people — Montreal didn’t do much with its own. Today, we have a casino, a racetrack, a beach and a nice park, but that’s about it.

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January 1st, 2008

The Isles of Montreal

Posted in Uncategorised by Christopher DeWolf

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This map of “The Isles of Montreal as they have been Survey’d By the French Engineers” was drawn in 1761, one year after the British conquest of New France. It depicts most of the Hochelaga Archipelago, including the walled town of Ville-Marie, or Montreal, which at the time was home to about 5,500 people living in 900 dwellings. Montreal was still quite rural in character, consisting mainly of two-storey houses with large gardens, and it was already spreading beyond its walls into the surrounding lands.

Even though this map takes a somewhat liberal interpretation of Montreal’s geography — the mountain does not extend nearly as far west as it would seem to indicate — what strikes me is how many of the island’s natural features have been suppressed over the course of its development. Entire streams, rivers and lakes have been completely done away with, including Otter Lake and the Rivière Saint-Pierre, which ran through the area now known as the Turcot Yards.

Such geographic alterations occurred in every major city. In Boston, they were quite dramatic. Whereas the city was practically an island for the first two centuries of its existence, landfill projects in the early nineteenth century transformed it into a much chunkier peninsula. Beacon Hill was carved up in order to provide the soil that was used to fill Back Bay and the South End.