Manhattan skyline via the FDR
Archive for April, 2009
I’ve long been fascinated by dépanneurs, the ubiquitous Montreal convenience store that are usually owner-operated and ramshackle in appearance. They’re an integral part of life in Montreal—most people visit them at least once or twice a day for beer, milk, lotto tickets, cigarettes or a snack—and they occupy a vital place in the social and economic spheres of a neighbourhood. More than that, however, they are a microcosm of much broader trends, including immigration policies and the Quebec government’s attempt to protect homegrown retail.
Dépanneurs are subject to a heavier regulatory load than convenience stores in other parts of North America. Cigarette taxes are high, beer is subject to a minimum price of $2.73 per litre and alcohol cannot be sold after 11pm, for example. There is justification behind these regulations: cigarette taxes line government pockets and ostensibly dissuade people from smoking; minimum beer prices prevent supermarkets from undercutting dépanneurs and laws on store opening hours are meant to protect small retailers from chains. Although the continued abundance of survival of dépanneurs in Montreal is a direct result of government intervention in the retail sector—the law on beer prices is one of many designed to protect neighbourhood deps from supermarkets—some laws and regulations have unintended consequences.
Here’s one example: international cigarette smuggling. As cigarette taxes have risen, Mohawk entrepreneurs have taken advantage of their special right to unrestricted cross-border trade and movement to import large amounts of Mohawk-made cigarettes from the United States to Canada, which are then sold illegally to non-natives through shops on reserves and in Montreal dépanneurs, some of which sell black-market cigarettes despite the risk of harsh penalties. Some brands of American-made Mohawk cigarettes have become so popular that counterfeit versions are now being made on reserves in Quebec.
Similarly, immigration policies have had an unintended impact on Montreal’s dépanneurs. Many professionals who immigrate to Canada from overseas face high barriers to entry into the workforce. Dépanneurs are a popular alternative to menial labour, since they are relatively inexpensive to buy and offer a decent living in exchange for long hours of monotonous, solitary work. The vast majority of Montreal dépanneurs are now run by immigrants, most of them recent arrivals from Asia, which has led to increased competition among deps, but more innovation, too. In immigrant-rich neighbourhoods, many deps now double as ethnic supermarkets, selling Indian spices and Chinese vegetables alongside Quebec beer.
Hong Kong is an entrepreneurial place. Even when a shop goes out of business, it isn’t out of the game: as soon as the shutter comes down, the broker signs go up. In most cities, a landlord might try to rent the space out himself, or hire to a single broker to do the job. Here, brokers compete for the space. Shuttered shops become symbolic battlefields on which brokers fight for a commission equivalent to a month’s rent — no small sum of money in a city where ground-floor shops go for thousands of dollars per square foot.
With retail on just about every street, many neighbourhoods have their fair share of vacant shops, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the next street over from my apartment, where this photo was taken, a restaurant found the sidewalk in front of an empty store the perfect place to set up a couple of tables and some stools.
2:30pm in a restaurant on the outskirts of Saigon’s District 1
For most people in Quebec City, Notre Dame des Anges refers to the ironically-named street where you could pick up prostitutes in the days before Saint Roch was cleaned up and gentrified. Few locals realize there’s another place of the same name in their midst.
Notre Dame des Anges is the smallest municipality in the province (0.06 km2), with a mere 456 residents. It’s right in the heart of Quebec’s urban core but has managed to escape the recent municipal mergers that swallowed up most suburbs within a 10km radius. It was created in 1855 to protect its main occupant from taxes, the 300+ year old General Hospital. It survives today as a tax haven run by the mother superior of the Augustines.
Turcot in 1967, by Gabor Szilasi
There were quite a few differences between the protest against police brutality, which took place some weeks ago, and the mobilization against the Turcot interchange. For one thing, the march against police brutality was dominated by police in full-on riot gear struggling to handle violent protesters. The mobilization against the Turcot, on the other hand, only had two unlucky souls from Transports Québec in their fluorescent vests, surely wondering what they were doing out on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s really too bad for our transport ministry. The problem they face is clear: a decrepit interchange. The solution ought to be equally simple: a new interchange, conceived to solve the problem at hand but better-built, longer-lasting, more conscientious of the surroundings. And a little more capacity for future needs.
And yet! The moment you try to get something done, it all breaks loose. Costs balloon and constituencies seep from the woodwork. Neighbourhood groups! Urban planning students! Blogs! And the next thing you know, your agency is vilified left and right. You’re destroying the city.
So, let me get this out of the way first-thing: there is currently an interchange here, and for the time being, there isn’t a way around that fact. And furthermore: if the Turcot were annihilated tomorrow, we would not necessarily be better off.
See, it’s not in question that in some ways, interchanges are Bad Things. They’re noisy, polluting, and ugly. They interrupt the Urban Fabric, which as we all know is sacrosanct. And this interchange, in particular, is a Really Bad Thing: it’s crumbling, it’s on land which could be put to much better use, it’s unsafe, it’s hard to maintain, it “enabled the entire West Island,” et cetera. I agree with all of this.
While harbour reclamation has made Yau Ma Tei a landlocked neighbourhood, it began life as a waterfront village, with a large Tin Hau temple serving as a hub for trade and activity. When the British gained control of Kowloon in 1860, it laid a grid of mostly numbered streets through Yau Ma Tei. Most of these streets had counterparts on Hong Kong Island, but it wasn’t an issue until the early twentieth century, when Kowloon began to develop in earnest. In 1909, the colonial government formed a committee to rename the streets, which resulted in the interesting assortment of names that still exist today.
Most newer Chinese cities have streets named after other parts of China: massage touts and neon signs compete for attention on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, some of Taipei’s best coffee can be found on Chengdu Road and Chongqing Road is where all the action is in rustbelt Changchun. With the renaming of Yau Ma Tei’s streets, Hong Kong proved no exception — but what makes it unique is that those streets were named by the British after important treaty ports and British-influenced parts of China. What’s more, their romanized versions are based on Cantonese rather than Mandarin. Canton Road was named for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong; Woosung Street for Wusong, a trading hub near Shanghai; and Pak Hoi Street for Beihai, a Cantonese-speaking port in Guangxi.
Pending the completion of Johannesburg’s Gautrain, the Cairo Metro is the only rapid transit system in Africa. And for all the rot and deterioration that characterizes much of Cairo’s city center, it’s surprisingly clean and efficient, with stations that possess a maintenance level and design savvy that would be the envy some far wealthier cities, like New York.
There are two types of architectural birdcages in Macau: casinos and balconies. One of this southern Chinese city’s most famous casinos, the gloriously kitschy Lisboa, could coop up a giant parrot, and across town, a massive aviary greets visitors at the city’s newest gambling complex, in the Four Seasons Hotel. This is the only place in China where gambling is legal—in 2006, revenues surpassed those of Las Vegas—but unlike in nearby Hong Kong, traditional aesthetics are not yet lost. It doesn’t take long to wander away from the casinos into crowded streets that double as living rooms; amid the Portuguese street signs and droopy banyan trees, you’ll see dozens of balconies and windowsills, each enclosed by iron grates. The bars are a precaution against burglary, but the effect is a jumble of human-sized birdcages above the street, with potted plants and laundry instead of seed trays and perches.
Those balconies are a large reason why, despite the flashing casino lights on the horizon, Macau continues to feel lived-in and down-to-earth. They’re a bridge between the private and the public, inviting domestic activity into the street and social life into the home. If the city is a stage, the balcony is just that—the balcony, a spot for observing drama and, as with the two old men in The Muppets, occasionally participating in it.
And balconies are unique in every city. In Vancouver’s West End, where apartment buildings nestle into lush greenery, they are for quiet post-dinner conversation and solitary reading. Neighbours are glimpsed, voyeuristically, but interaction is rare. In the coastal Indian city of Chennai, by contrast, teenagers flirt “across floors and across blocks,” reports The Hindu, prompting mothers to warn their daughters against spending too much time on the balcony. Of course, there are few cities so passionate about its balconies as Montreal, where, as memories of the long winter melt with the snow, summer brings the whole city outside. Almost every evening from May until October, the murmur of conversation and clinking of beer bottles drifts down from overhead.
Things are different in Hong Kong, where I now live. Here, across the Pearl River Delta from Macau, summers are muggy, and for decades balconies had the all-important task of providing ventilation to sweltering apartments. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both British colonial tenements and tong lau—literally “Chinese building”—were graced with spacious balconies and large, recessed verandas.
It’s always nice when someone likes your work enough to expand upon it. Two and a half years ago, the French artist Franck Chambrun made a series of paintings based on my photos of Montreal and Hong Kong. Now, another artist, Suwaru, has used a couple of my photos as backdrops for his bright and bubbly cartoon characters: a squid floating around the boats at Tsim Sha Tsui and some peppers dancing while their glutinous fried is cooked alive in a dai pai dong. (Maybe that’s too morbid — perhaps he’s just enjoying a hot bath.)
Back in 2002, I was hired to write the cover story for Maisonneuve’s breakout third issue. It was my first real writing assignment and a big part of the reason why I ended up on the career path down which I’m now stumbling. Looking back, I cringe at the cloying introduction, but aside from that, I think it’s a pretty decent treatment of one of the defining aspects of Montreal and the first thing that struck me when I moved there: balconies.
My first two apartments were balcony-less; for two years, I was haunted by the feeling of missing out on some essential part of the Montreal experience. Finally, after finding an apartment on Park Avenue that was properly-balconied (one in the front, one in the back), I began to immerse myself in summer’s balcony life. Sitting in the afternoon sun, I chatted with my next-door neighbour, who was on her balcony whenever she wasn’t working at a café down the street. I watched the old Greek man next door tend the tomatoes he grew on the roof of the shed in his backyard. I spied on people cycling or strolling down the back lane.
Walking through any Montreal neighbourhood is an experience defined by the balconies you pass by. Near the corner of Park and Fairmount, an old man spends most of the summer sitting on his first-floor balcony listening to Greek radio at full volume. In north-end Villeray, tenants along busy St. Denis advertise their nationalism with plastic Quebec flags affixed to their balcony’s railings. The darkness of warm summer nights is always softened by the murmur of conversation and clinking of beer bottles coming from the balconies above.