Calgary has a lot of squat apartment buildings built in the 1950s and 60s. Unlike their counterparts in Vancouver, which tend towards a breezy, pastel-coloured Art Moderne kind of style, these are typically clad in frumpy brown brick. They look cheap and outdated, but I’ve noticed a handful of such buildings that have undergone renovations that exploit their clean lines and simple appearance while discarding some of their more tasteless elements, like dumpy vinyl siding and hideous doors and windows. Is it possible that these postwar apartment houses, usually dismissed as forgettable, will one day be stylish places to live?
Archive for July, 2008
I’m in Calgary at the moment. This is a fast-growing, fast-changing city, and there are a couple of interesting changes that I noticed while I was here. One of them is the introduction of two new scramble crossings in the Eau Claire neighbourhood of the city’s downtown area.
Often associated with Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing, scramble crossings are in fact a North American invention, originating in Kansas City and Vancouver in the 1940s. Basically, the term refers to an exclusive pedestrian crossing phase at an intersection controlled by traffic lights; all cars come to a stop and pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions. For the most part, it’s a safe and efficient way of governing traffic flow, as long as pedestrians have ample time to cross.
Scramble crossings disappeared in North America for several decades, victims of the postwar dominance of the automobile. Attitudes have changed, though, and the crossings are making a comeback. In 2003, Montreal installed them without much fanfare in the Quartier international, at such corners as McGill and St. Jacques and Viger and St. Urbain; they can also be found at several other intersections, like Monkland and Girouard in NDG. There is nothing to indicate that pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions — some figure it out but others seem hesitant to cross diagonally.
In Calgary, by contrast, the city has made a big deal of its new pedestrian scrambles, accompanying their installation with plenty of instructional signage. Painted lines in the intersection let pedestrians know that it’s okay to cross diagonally. Based on what I’ve seen, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp the concept, and with each light cycle there are people who cross in all directions. Prominent signs prohibit drivers from making right turns on red.
Every summer, Prince’s Island — a beautiful island park in the Bow River, right next to downtown Calgary — plays host to a number of large festivals, including the always-interesting folk music festival, which took place last week with some big headliners and great enthusiasm. These festivals are an asset to the cultural life of Calgary, but there’s just one problem: they’re not free. Each festival surrounds itself with fences and restricts access by charging an entry fee. Sometimes the fee is relatively small, but in the case of the folk fest, it was as much as $50 for a single-day ticket. I’m torn between wanting to support a cultural initiative like this and decrying the way it occupies and privatizes an important public space.
Somebody else was less ambivalent in their opinion. This weekend, while making my way to the festival site, I came across this message drawn into the path with chalk: “Welcome to Fantasy Island. No poor people here.” It’s an apt statement, since there really weren’t any poor people at the folk fest, simply they couldn’t possibly afford to attend. Lately, whenever I visit Calgary I detect a growing undercurrent of anger and indignation, something potentially explosive that lurks among the city’s legions of working poor and homeless, many of them victims of the economic boom that has brought great prosperity to Calgary, but also a soaring cost of living. I suspect that, in the future, we’ll see more messages like the one I saw on Prince’s Island.
For years, I ignored the brooding hulk of Mount Royal at night, pausing only occasionally to contemplate the shape of its silhouette or the glow of the cross atop it. It was only recently that I actually began to venture onto the mountain after dark, well after most park-goers head home, and when the woods become especially dark and spooky. Sometimes I would head up to its lower reaches, alone or with friends, to lie on the grass, drink some beer and look out over the city. On a couple of occasions, I biked all the way up to the top.
Cycling up the mountain at night is a sensual experience: the sound of gravel under my tires; the strange, damp coolness that descends upon my skin as we head deeper into the woods and higher up the hill; the darkness of the path in front of me, marked against the red glow of the city sky. My friends and I always start at the Cartier monument, taking Olmstead’s broad path, which twists its way up the mountain on a gentle slope and a series of switchbacks. It isn’t long before the darkness overwhelms our vision and we rely on sound and instinct to avoid plunging down some rocky escarpment. It’s a completely disorienting experience, travelling along the path at night, and I enjoy the unique sensation of being guided forward without actually knowing where I’m going. Except for a brief moment when the back of the Royal Victoria Hospital is visible, I never really know where we are, and the increase in ambient noise from the city is the only indication that we have come around the front of the mountain and are biking above downtown. Soon, and always rather unexpectedly, we arrive at Beaver Lake.
Beaver Lake is an interesting place at night. On weekends, there are usually groups of people sitting near the water, chatting and drinking. People often set off fireworks near the pavilion, and in the distance, I sometimes hear street racing along Remembrance Road. On the hill overlooking the lake, my friends and I like to relive our childhood by rolling sideways down the grass slope, trying and failing to get up when we come to a stop, drunk on dizziness. It’s even more fun now than when I was a kid.
Metal shutters are common in many cities; Hong Kong is no exception, especially since many of its shops lack doors altogether, making the shutter the only way to seal it up at night. Every so often, just after a store has closed or before it has opened, a small door is left open in the shutter for people to pass through. Peering inside, at a restaurant preparing for the evening or a lone person working late in a travel agency, feels a bit like spying.
Montreal East is a small separate city whose territory is mostly occupied by oil refineries and other industrial installations, some of which are objectively interesting as photographic subjects, whether by day or glittering with lights at night.
There’s always a tang of sulphur in the air from the hydrocarbon cracking. The streets are in poor shape and the sidewalks rudimentary: people mostly don’t walk here, they drive to and from work, and big tanker trucks chew up the roadbed. Even so, Wikipedia says 3,822 people lived here in 2006. There are still some overgrown lots, and plenty of wildflowers in nooks and crannies, and of course there are tracks for freight trains too.
Recent stats show that the refineries in east-end Montreal put out as much greenhouse gas as all its cars do, if not more. Some of it would be for heating oil, asphalt and other products, but most would be for diesel and gasoline.
Many of Quebec’s smaller cities are grim, depressing places. Like most cities in North America, they witnessed a period of downtown decline during the suburban explosion of the fifties and sixties. People moved out, shops closed, and buildings were razed and replaced by parking lots. Many places reached their nadir of ugliness in the seventies and eighties with the proliferation of cheap corrugated cladding and other experimental building materials.
Since then, cities like Quebec, Montreal, and Trois-Rivières took stock of the situation and invested in revitalization. But many smaller cities have continued to deteriorate. They’re fascinating to walk through-they feel like a time-warp-but I wouldn’t want to live there.
In some cities, like Dolbeau-Mistassini on Lac Saint-Jean, the decay is the result of the general industrial decline in the area. Other cases are harder to explain, like Sherbrooke, Saint-Georges de Beauce, Alma, and Gatineau – growing regional cities with unemployment rates that are considerably lower than the provincial average. Why are they so ugly?
My life in Montreal is full of what my friends call “everywhere people,” strangers whom I see on a regular basis, walking down the street, sitting in a café, on the metro, in line for a movie. I don’t know them and I have no reason to talk to them, but they give me a sort of grounding in my daily life. In the 1970s, the social psyschologist Stanley Milgram termed these people “familiar strangers,” and he theorized that they are a natural aspect of urban life. In big, crowded cities, which can sometimes seem so alienating, they help to humanize and familiarize the cityscape.
For the most part, familiar strangers are found in your own neighbourhood, on public transit or somewhere that you frequent, like a café. What is odd and particularly surprising is when you visit another city for the second, third or fourth time and realize that, oddly enough, you have everywhere people there, too. I find myself in Vancouver about once a year and it is not unusual for me to spot, on the street or on the bus, sometime I recognize from an encounter during previous visits. This happened to me in March, too, when I spent a month in Hong Kong, my second trip to the city after first visiting in 2005. Much to my astonishment, I ended up crossing paths with a bicycle delivery man I had photographed three years earlier — and I even managed to snap another picture of him.
I arrive in Hong Kong, this time on a more permanent basis, one week from tomorrow. Will I see my everywhere man again?
The National Film Board of Canada is about to release La mémoire des anges, a new film by Luc Bourdon about life in 1950s and 60s Montreal, created by stitching together footage from the NFB’s vast archives. If this trailer is any indication, it will be an absolutely fascinating look at a city that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. The Montreal you see here is brash and cocky, a self-assured metropolis still unaware that it would be forced to suffer a prolonged existential crisis in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Just as the images in La mémoire des anges seem to capture so well the city’s past life, another soon-to-be-released NFB documentary, Roadsworth: Crossing the Line, reflects the current state of Montréalitude. Eclipsed economically by other urban centres, racked by decades of political instability and cultural uncertainty, Montreal has regained a measure of its old self-confidence, but this time in a somewhat different way. The old hustler city of the past has transformed itself into a city of flâneurs, a creative, self-referential place that thrives on its own eclecticism.
On a warm day—or, even better, on a warm night—I like to walk through Outremont. It’s one of Montreal’s most picturesque boroughs, with streets as orderly and genteel as many of its inhabitants. Like Westmount, Outremont was conceived almost from the beginning as an enclave of the well-to-do. Building codes mandated large setbacks, abundant greenery and the use of high-quality building materials in order to keep housing costs high. Architectural features perceived as unsightly and working-class, like outdoor staircases, were banned.
One happy consequence of all this was that Outremont ended up with a collection of gorgeous city parks unrivalled by any other part of Montreal. The park system was conceived when Outremont boomed in the 1910s. In response to this massive spurt of growth, the town council embarked on a campaign to green the burgeoning suburb, investing $5,415 in tree planting and $14,456 in their maintenance, at a time when the average annual salary of a civil servant was just $1,000. Under the guidance of the engineer Émile Lacroix, landscape architect Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne and the horticulturalist Thomas Barnes, eight parks were built between 1920 and 1930.
Touring these parks is a great way to see Outremont. Since I live on Park Avenue, I usually start my walk from the east, heading down Bernard Street to St. Viateur Park, behind the Cinq Saisons supermarket and the York Apartments. Despite its small size, this is a particularly pleasant park, with some tennis courts, a wide, meandering stream and a white stucco pavilion facing a lagoon. During the day, you will often find kids from the adjacent high school hanging out; at night, when the orangey-yellow light of its interior lights are reflected on the lagoon, the pavilion is sometimes taken over by waltzing middle-aged couples.
Earlier this month I accompanied my friends on a nostalgic walk through NDG, the sprawling west end neighbourhood in which they used to live. Developed in the early twentieth century on some of Montreal’s most fertile land—the famed Montreal Melon once grew there—NDG was for the first part of its history a fairly humdrum suburb home to middle-class WASPs and British immigrants who had moved up from working-class Verdun.
Things changed in the 1970s when many long-time residents left for the suburbs or moved away from Montreal altogether. Some streets fell on hard times, NDG’s population became more varied and the whole area began to take on a more interesting, eclectic character. Sherbrooke Street West, a long commercial artery that runs along the south side of the neighbourhood, is where NDG is revealed in all its bizarre glory, a meeting ground for well-adjusted families, oddball layabouts and members of various different ethnic communities, especially Jamaicans, Koreans and Persians. The shops along the street are remarkably diverse: D.A.D.’s sells takeaway Indian food alongside Montreal-style bagels; Nearly New Books/Livres Presque ’9′ unites two languages with one bad pun; a video store with no apparent name, tucked away discreetly on the first floor of an apartment building, rents nothing but VHS copies of Korean television dramas.
When my friends lived in NDG they were fascinated by one of those odd shops on Sherbrooke: an ice cream parlour at the corner of Harvard. Brightly decorated, with an old-style bar inside, it featured a large banner that advertised 24 flavours of soft serve. But it was never open. Once, when my friends spotted some people working inside, they knocked on the door and asked if they could buy some ice cream. “No,” they were told.