Archive for February, 2008

February 29th, 2008

Little England in India

bombay-005-urbanphoto.jpg

If only the bus were a little more red and a little less boxy, I could have sworn I was in South Kensington or Knightsbridge in London rather than in Mumbai. The double decker bus, the Victorian Gothic architecture — a common inheritance of the British empire that is at once familiar and strange. I did not spend long enough in Mumbai to explore further the lingering British influence and how it had been adapted to local circumstances.

bombay-007-urbanphoto.jpg

I wonder if people on their first visit from Mumbai to London have that same mix of feelings of déjà vu and novelty.

February 27th, 2008

Two Landmarks in Fading Light

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

dusk1.jpg

The backside of Toronto’s City Hall, built in 1967

dusk2.jpg

The CN Tower seen from Queen and McCaul

February 26th, 2008

Language in Toulouse

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, Society and Culture by Donal Hanley

toulouse-urbanphoto.JPG

Toulouse is a large, cosmopolitan but relaxed and laid back southern French city. It feels like it has as much in common with nearby Spain as with northern France.

The bilingual street signs here are a tantalising reminder of how the city’s history could have been different. Had Occitanie remained a distinct culture and society from that of Northern France, Toulouse would have been its capital. Perhaps the street signs would have Occitan on top, and might not even be accompanied by a French translation.

In fact, you will not see Occitan on commercial signs, or hear it spoken on the streets (or, at least, I did not) in Toulouse — after French, Arabic and English predominate. And yet, the bilingual street signs serve as a reminder that, although clearly integrated for a long time into the French Republic, there is something distinctively Toulousain. This is an example of the use of language as a common shared heritage, a cultural signifier, if you will, rather than simply as a means of communication.

February 25th, 2008

Queen and Bay

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

queenbay1.jpg

Queen and Bay is one of my favourite corners in Toronto. It offers a rare grand vista in a city that is more often tight-knit and intimate. On one side, Old City Hall staring down Bay Street; on the other, the spaceship City Hall and the vaguely Soviet Canada Life building.

queenbay2.jpg

February 24th, 2008

Ground Texture

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

groundtexture1.jpg

Hanover Street in the North End

groundtexture2.jpg

Water meter on a North End sidestreet

groundtexture3.jpg

Parking lot on Washington Street

February 23rd, 2008

The Evolving Landscape of the Ethnic Media

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

newsstand.jpg

Chinese and English newspapers at a newsstand in Vancouver

When Sept Days sent Montreal journalist Xian Hu to Afghanistan last December, the weekly Chinese newspaper was not only making a statement to its competitors in the community here, but to mainstream newspapers as well.

“We want Montreal to know that the Chinese community wants to integrate into society,” said the newspaper’s publisher, Ling Yin, and part of that involves giving Chinese immigrants an opportunity to debate national issues like the Afghanistan mission in their own language.

“Our initial goal was to see, from our own eyes, what the NATO and Canadian troops are doing there. We don’t want to hear just from La Presse or The Gazette, we don’t want to know what the so-called mainstream is saying, we want to know ourselves,” she said.

Rather than send Hu to cover Canada’s military operations in Kandahar, Yin decided that it would be more effective to send her to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, to hear from ordinary Afghans what they thought of international reconstruction efforts and life after the Taliban.

For the 54-year-old Hu, who had no experience in journalism before joining Sept Days, the trip was a revelation.

“I was shocked. I thought it would be more developed, especially after six years of reconstruction,” she said. Her experience was made all the more tangible by the fact that, rather than living in a hotel for the week she spent in the country, she stayed in the houses of “friends of friends of friends” and explored the city to speak with ordinary Afghans about their experiences.

Her journey gave Hu enough material for two feature articles, one that looked at how Afghans perceived reconstruction efforts and another that examined why Afghan women continue to wear the burqa.

More

February 22nd, 2008

An Elegy for Griffintown

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf
YouTube Preview Image

There’s something remarkably honest about the United Steel Workers of Montreal. Far from being a contrivance, their country and bluegrass music feels earnest and appropriate, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the new video for their song “Émile Bertrand.”

This elegy for the lost working-class life of Montreal’s southwest is named in honour of the Émile Bertrand restaurant, a snack bar at Notre-Dame and Mountain that was famous for its home-brewed spruce beer. It closed in 2006 when its owner, Barbara Strudensky, died of cancer, so the USWM filmed their video in Point St. Charles’ Paul Patates, which has inherited Émile Bertrand’s legacy — and spruce beer. “Dreamin’ just comes easy when work is just too hard to bear,” croon the USWM’s vocalists, Felicity Hamer and Sean Beauchamp, as the video cuts between present-day scenes of the Lachine Canal, St. Henri and Point St. Charles and historical photos of Griffintown.

There’s something about this landscape that invites nostalgia. Maybe it’s the unexpected tranquility of the canal and the brooding ghosts of industry along it. Five years ago, when I lived in St. Henri, I lay awake at night listening to the mysterious clanging of trains in the nearby railyards. Those solitary moments, more than anything, are what I remember about living in the city’s southwest.

February 21st, 2008

Street Vendor Songs

Posted in Canada, History, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

vendor3.jpg

Montreal did away with a big chunk of its cultural heritage when it started cracking down on street vendors in the 1960s. Food vendors were the first to go and, although City Hall has been easing its restrictions on street vending for a number of years, allowing people to sell art and crafts on Ste. Catherine Street and at the tam tams, it still refuses to allow anyone except mobile ice cream vendors to sell food on the street. This makes us one of the only major cities in the world with a near-total ban on street food.

Not only does this deprive us of delicious snacks, it eliminates a great source of streetlife. Today, on Coolopolis, Kristian Gravenor posted a bit about the calls of early twentieth century street vendors. He points to an article in the May 19th, 1929 edition of Le Petit Journal:

La corporation des marchands des quatres saisons, ou “colporteurs” comme on les nomme ici, est composée de braves gens qui gagnent honorablement leur vie en vendant de porte en porte, les primeurs, fruits ou légumes. On pouvait autrement classer dans cette catégorie les vendeurs de crême à la glace et les petits marchands de galettes et de blé-d’inde bouilli.

Le marchand de crême à la glace se tenait au coin des rues avec une petite voiture où était installé son bidon d’ice cream qui’il débitait à un sou le cocotier. Celui-là, il va sans dire, était particulièrement l’ami des enfants.

Un autre petit vendeur très populaire était le marchand de petites galettes et de petits pains chauds: “Galettes! Galettes! Madame!” criait-il, “pas trop de beurre dedans! … Cinq pour cinq sous! … Galettes! … Galettes! …”

Puis le marchand de blé-d’inde bouilli qui parcourait les rues avec son haridelle, en criant sans cesse, et en vers, s’il vous plait:

“Bon blé-d’inde bouilli!
Trois sous pour un épi! …”

Et qui ne se rappelle le vendeur de bluets, annoçant sa marchandise avec un trémolo dans la voix, tout comme notre marchand de bananes d’aujourd’hui: “Bluets!… Ah! les beaux bluets du Saguenay!…”

More

February 20th, 2008

Paharganj, or the Dregs of Delhi

Posted in South Asia by Patrick Donovan

delhi1.jpg

Tooti Chowk, Paharganj, Delhi

Paharganj is a mix of crowded makeshift homes, budget traveler hangouts, and the odd chunk of decaying heritage. It’s also an example of what happens when a section of town is left to its own devices with little consideration for urban planning.

A few centuries back, Paharganj was a grain bazaar populated almost exclusively by Muslims, a short walk outside the walls of Mughal Delhi. Today, most of the Muslims have gone, but here and there are the domes of an old mosque, fronted by an ugly concrete structure, squatted by several families, or converted to a budget hotel. Most hotels in the neighbourhood are unauthorized windowless dives who steal water and electricity from lesser mortals. Wires and plugs dangle all over, and the shoddy structures look as if they’re about to collapse onto themselves.

The noisy main bazaar is congested with kerosene-powered motorcycles spouting black fumes, three-wheelers, cycle rickshaws, cows, carts, and the occasional car squeezing through. I even saw an elephant rambling through at 11PM, its driver asleep for the night on his back. Wide-eyed shellshocked travelers, fresh off the plane, can’t see beyond the noise, cows, and raw sewage. Then there’s the old India veterans, dreadlocks down their back, also shellshocked, but in a different way — they took a wrong turn on their long strange trip and ended up in Delhi. Both of these groups feel like they’re in transit — Paharganj is an unfortunate stop on their journey to somewhere a little more scenic or relaxing.

delhi2.jpg

More

February 19th, 2008

Behind the Tower

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

tower1.jpg

I took the Calgary Tower for granted when I saw it every day. Now I realize what a remarkable monument to late-sixties kitsch it really was. Built in 1967 by Husky Oil to commemorate the centennial of Canada’s confederation, its has no purpose other than as a monument — a really big monument capped by an orangey-red observation deck. It can seem grand, in a space age kind of way, when you look at it from afar, or in the midst of the downtown office district. But from other angles it just seems odd.

tower1.jpg

February 17th, 2008

City Golf

Posted in Canada, Video by Christopher DeWolf
YouTube Preview Image

Before there were flashmobs… there was Wayne and Shuster. In this segment from the CBC’s Wayne and Shuster show, which aired on September 19, 1971, the two comedians—Johnny Wayne (né Louis Weingarten) and Frank Shuster—play a game of golf in the streets of downtown Toronto. What better way to bring such a quintessentially suburban sport to the urban masses?

February 17th, 2008

The Lives of Parking Lots

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

parkinglots.jpg

I’ve always thought of surface parking lots as dead spaces. They interrupt the streetscape, create a hostile environment for pedestrians and serve only to reinforce the hegemony of the automobile. That’s all true, but I’ve slowly come to realize that, like other urban spaces, parking lots have lives of their own — social and economic lives far more complex than their appearance would indicate.

While the parking lots in many cities are corporately-owned and completely automated—you take a ticket, drive in through an automatic gate, park your car and leave—this isn’t the case in downtown Montreal. Here, most lots are run as independent businesses and staffed full-time by parking attendants who make it their business to cram as many cars into their lot as possible. This adds an unpredictable human element to a space that is often decried for being inhuman; instead of feeding your money to a machine, you hand it to a guy whose job is to make use of his limited patch of asphalt in the most imaginative way possible.

Each of these lots has its own daily rhythm. In the area around Crescent Street, lots that are improbably full during working hours take a brief respite in the evening, followed on the weekends by another rush, this time of luxury cars. Near my apartment, on Park Avenue, the only parking lot on the entire street is similarly filled with BMWs, Mercedes and even the occasional Ferrari as it provides a valet service for the nearby Greek restaurants-cum-nightclubs.

Still, it’s hard to reconcile any of this with the physical impact of parking lots on the urban landscape. For pedestrians, they are inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst. They can almost always be better used for something else and, after three decades of letting them proliferate, the city of Montreal has come to realize this and it has prevented new parking lots from opening in the downtown area. Many have been closed.

More

February 16th, 2008

Nei Deun Dou

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf

nathanroad.jpg

Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui

February 16th, 2008

Shelter: Life in Habitat 67

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Interior Space by Christopher DeWolf

habitat1.jpg

Shelter is a weekly Montreal Gazette series that peeks into the lives of ordinary apartment-dwelling Montrealers.

This installment looks at an apartment in Moshe Safdie’s iconic Habitat 67, inhabited by Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. The apartment consists of four “cubes” covering 2,700 square feet, with an additional 1,800 square feet of outdoor terrace space.

Most apartments in Habitat consist of different cubes stuck together, right?

Right. Most of them are one or two blocks, and this was a three. (Gestures to a corridor leading away from the dining room.) The apartment used to stop here, but the people who owned it before me purchased the next block and turned it into a bedroom wing. It was a originally a one-block apartment, there was a kitchen, a living room, a dining room. You can see how you could have a nice little cozy apartment here.

So how much of the renovation was done by the previous owner and how much was yours?

About half and half. (We wander down the hall and into the bedroom. She gestures to a glass door leading onto a large terrace.) This is the back terrace, which is beautiful in the summer. It actually goes right over to the river. I have a lovely garden there in the summer. You can see the casino.

So you have views on both sides of the apartment, the city at the front and the river at the back.

Every single window has a gorgeous view, it’s amazing. (We head back into the dining room and down a flight of stairs. Most apartments in Habitat are split between two floors.) In the original three-block this was originally the living room, and the bedroom was over there. I took out all of the internal walls, so this is a huge entertaining space. It’s actually one block.

More