Archive for July, 2009

July 31st, 2009


Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf



Fotan is one of the industrial areas that helped Hong Kong become a global manufacturing centre in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, before all of the factories moved across the border to China. Now it’s home to a hodgepodge of odd businesses and about 100 artists, many of whom live and work in the Wah Luen Building, where the rents are cheap and the floors greasy from sausage factories.


July 31st, 2009

Only the Trams Remain

Des Voeux Road Central, then and now

Lee Chi-man, Hong Kong’s answer to Guillaume St-Jean, finds old photos of Hong Kong streetscapes and heads to the spot where they were taken to replicate them. So far, he has compiled around 400 scenes, showing just how drastically Hong Kong has changed over the course of the twentieth century.

The photos above illustrate how many of those changes have been for the worse. In the top photo, you see Central in the 1950s, looking down Des Voeux Road towards the bank headquarters. Today, the banks are still there, but their headquarters have morphed into postmodern skyscrapers. The old shophouses that once lined Des Voeux are gone; their graceful arcades and simple signboards have given way to a mess of overbearing corporate storefronts, bland façades and gaudy plastic advertisements.

The worst thing about this is the loss of human scale: whereas Des Voeux was once well-proportioned, with nicely-textured buildings and an understated elegance, it is now an unpleasant concrete canyon. As the street has become more unbearable over the years, footbridges have been built so that people may avoid it altogether, which only adds to the hostile atmosphere. If the effects of that aren’t evident in the photos above, they certain are in Lee’s other Des Voeux scenes.

July 29th, 2009

The Lying Down Game

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Lying Down Game

Lying Down Game

Photos by Neath at Walking Turcot Yards

It’s easy to read a lot into the Lying Down Game (otherwise known as planking), in which people lie face down in odd places. You could see it as relational art that challenges our preconceptions of how to behave in public space. You could see it as a comment on internet-based cultural globalization. Or you could see it as a silly web trend. Whatever the case, it’s strangely fun to look at.

July 26th, 2009

Afraid of the Sun

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Central footbridge

Central footbridge

Footbridge between IFC and the Central ferry piers

July 23rd, 2009

More Pedestrian Streets, Less Pollution

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Politics, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Pedestrian street

Hong Kong’s government has finally decided that sacrificing its air quality in favour of cars, buses and trucks isn’t such a good thing after all. Yesterday, in a somewhat surprising departure from its reluctance to make big plans, the government pledged to fight roadside air pollution by revamping the city’s vast bus network, planting more trees, expanding bicycle infrastructure, creating “low-emission zones” in the city’s most congested areas and permanently pedestrianizing nearly two dozen streets. Emission standards would also be tightened for boats and private vehicles.

While details on many aspects of the plan have yet to be confirmed — and of course it’s still just a proposal, with no guarantee that any of it will be actually put into place — it has the potential to drastically improve the quality of life in Hong Kong’s central areas. In Mongkok, the network of pedestrian streets already in place would be expanded, while vehicles that do not meet the highest European emission standards, known as Euro IV, would be banned from the entire neighbourhood. Vehicular access outside the pedestrian areas would also be limited.


July 23rd, 2009

End of the Line

At the southeastern corner of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood — the cape that put the Hoek in the area’s original Dutch name, Roode Hoek — almost nothing is used according to its original purpose. A rail barge has been repurposed as a waterfront museum, a warehouse has become a massive Fairway supermarket, some streetcar tracks have become a waterfront promenade, and a solitary rowhouse has been refitted as a shrine to nauticalia that would not look out of place in a New England fishing village. Recently, one of its old docks was even restored to working condition — as Brooklyn’s first cruise terminal.

Creative reuse is almost the rule here — with one exception. A pair of mid-20th century streetcars sits, rusting and abandoned, between the repurposed warehouses and the reclaimed promenade, seeming like a fossilizing fragment of a network that once covered the entire borough.


July 22nd, 2009

How Bike-Sharing Changes the City

Posted in Canada, Europe, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Bixi bikes

Photo by cagliostro

The launch of Bixi, Montreal’s new bike-sharing system, has been nothing short of spectacular. Despite early problems — faulty lock mechanisms have led to the theft of dozens of bikes — it has been more successful than anyone imagined. In fact, Montrealers have taken so well to Bixi that Stationnement de Montréal, the municipal agency that runs the system, has decided to bump up an expansion that wasn’t planned until next year. Next month, an additional 2,000 bikes will be added at 100 new stations in Villeray, Little Burgundy and Côte des Neiges.

Just as the public has quickly taken to Bixi, the bike-sharing service has already engrained itself in the city. “Bixi has truly changed the urban landscape here,” notes On Two Wheels, the Gazette’s cycling blog. “There is a new, yet already familiar ‘blink’ on the bike paths; downtown it seems like every third bike is a Bixi. This program is clearly doing some heavy lifting toward getting more people using bikes that might not have otherwise.”


July 18th, 2009

Pursuing the NYPD’s Panopticon

Posted in Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Barry Hoggart

During New York’s wild real estate boom, nearly every brownstone in Harlem seemed slated for renovation. So when the NYPD introduced its latest surveillance technology, Sky Watch — a mobile, collapsable prison-style surveillance tower equipped with at least half a dozen cameras — it was a foregone conclusion that its deployments to locales like 129th and Lenox Avenue were harbingers of the gentrification wave, reassurance for paranoid urban prospectors.

After all, military-style security booths had long dotted the darker residential streets of Morningside Heights, reassuring the parents of students at Columbia University and Barnard College that their children were under guard. Still, Sky Watch appeared to take the NYPD’s hired “eyes on the street” to the next level — literally.

Like Bentham’s panopticon, Sky Watch’s intended purpose is to instill discipline, deterring crime where it has spiked. That’s made its recession-era whereabouts a bit surprising.


July 17th, 2009

À chacun son toit

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf


Variety of rooftops in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, Hong Kong

July 16th, 2009

Toronto’s Poster Plants

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Poster pocket plants

When I wrote about the political and cultural importance of posters (not to mention their aesthetic contribution to the city by making it look messy and lived-in), I never considered that they could also have an environmental benefit. Luckily, two artists in Toronto, Eric Cheung and Sean Martindale, have demonstrated exactly how this can be done: they’ve turned lamppost posters into tiny planters.

How’d they do it? Spacing’s Jake Schabas has the answers. “First, they cut triangular shapes directly into the thick existing poster layers. Then they peeled back those layers, wrapping the outside edge of the cut-out posters back into the pole to form the cones.

“Only staples were needed to hold the cones in place and support the soil and flowers planted, with some cones needing extra poster paper wheat-pasted onto the underside. All of the cones have an aeration hole at the bottom and are placed in a corkscrew patter that allows water to flow from one plant to the next.”


July 16th, 2009

Handmade Community

Tai Hang craft market

Craft market in Tai Hang. Photo by Mary Cheung

On a muggy afternoon, a few dozen people have come to check out a small craft sale at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei. Milling about, they chat and nibble on snacks while browsing the wares. There are necklaces, drawings, dolls, bags and other handmade items.

The atmosphere is more party than market, and that’s exactly what Shan Luk had in mind when she decided to host an informal fair outside her sixth-floor studio in the centre. Dubbing it the Artisans Show, Luk has asked her artist friends to include their work in the sale to promote handmade design.


July 15th, 2009

Ghost Bikes

I spotted my first ghost bike — a memorial to a fallen bicyclist — on Second Avenue in the East Village, chained to a signpost sprouting from the quiet little park in front of the the old stone St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery church. Perhaps that’s why it seemed both dissonant and appropriate — despite the proximity of the street, it seemed unlikely that the tranquil square could have been the site of so many bicyclists’ deaths. At the same time, it was wholly natural to memorialize them near an 18th century churchyard. A closer look revealed that may have been precisely the thinking behind this ghost bike, dedicated to all the New York bicyclists who had lost their lives on the streets over the last year.

The ghost bike movement began as the solo effort of San Francisco artist Jo Slota in 2003. By the next year, a full memorial project was underway in St. Louis. Several artists groups’ ghost bike initiatives coalesced into The New York City Street Memorial Project in 2007, one of 87 ghost bike projects documented in 14 countries worldwide. In New York, the memorials have an impressive geographic scope, spread from the southern tip of Staten Island to reaches of eastern Queens far beyond the end of most subway lines.


July 14th, 2009

Manhattanhenge and Montrealhenge

Posted in Canada, Environment, United States by Christopher DeWolf


Photo by Arianys León

Twice a year, a few weeks before and after the summer solstice, the setting sun aligns perfectly with the east-west axis of Manhattan’s streets in a phenomenon that has been dubbed “Manhattanhenge,” a reference to the way the sun aligns with Stonehenge during the solstices. It got quite a bit of attention this year, especially around its first instance, on June 1st. Sunday marked its second occurrence and there are Flickr photos to prove it.

Even though Manhattanhenge has been rather grandiosely described as a “unique phenomenon in the world, if not the universe,” it is replicated to some extent in other cities. Last month, Spacing Montreal’s Émile Thomas speculated that Montrealhenge might happen each year on June 12th. But the same effect is achieved almost every day: one of the things I miss most about Montreal is the way the sun sets in alignment with the city’s north-south streets, such as Park Avenue or St. Laurent, which pierces them with long bands of evening light. I would often walk up Park just as the sun was setting, admiring the long shadows and pillowy softness of the light.


July 14th, 2009

Reclaiming Public Space

Vernacular street art

Top left photo by John Batten; others by Christopher DeWolf

The brown leather chesterfield sits incongruously amid the parked buses, concrete paving and grey metal railings at the Tai Hang bus terminus. In the afternoon heat, a cat stretches over the length of the sofam but after sunset, it’s where bus drivers and passers-by sit and relax.

This kind of improvised street furniture is what arts writer and heritage activist John Batten calls vernacular or “nonchalant” art, an umbrella term for the everyday objects, street life and informal interventions in public spaces that are close to the heart of this city’s character.

“Hong Kong is a place that’s open to free expression, which is reflected in the clutter of our public spaces, our footbridges and ferry forecourts,” says Batten. “All of these bits of vernacular art and architecture are part of who we are. People overlook [such] simple things. But if you take them away, what are you left with?”