Archive for June, 2010

June 29th, 2010

The Other Side of Macau

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Away from the casinos and the tourist hordes of the Largo do Senado, Macau is a city of narrow streets lined by walkup apartment buildings and shops that haven’t been renovated in decades. These photos were taken on the quiet streets just outside the buzzing Three Lamps shopping district.


June 27th, 2010

Cyclists Fight for a Place in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Martin Turner has a way of getting to work that is faster than the MTR and much cheaper than a taxi: he rides a bike. For most of his ten years working at a marketing firm in Wan Chai, Turner has commuted from his North Point home by bicycle. “It takes about 15 minutes door to door,” he said. “That’s about half the time it would take by public transport.”

Across the harbour, Charlie Wong Liang-yih works as a graphic designer from his home in Mongkok. When he leaves his flat to visit friends in other parts of Kowloon, he often takes his bike. “Before, people thought it was ridiculous to ride a bicycle around Hong Kong, but more and more people use them to get around,” he said.

People in dozens of neighbourhoods across Hong Kong use bicycles to commute to train stations, work and to run daily errands, but the government officially recognizes cycling only as a form of recreation, not as transport — something cycling activists are fighting to change.

Every day, according to a 2004 Transport Department study on cycling, more than 65,000 bicycle trips are made, mainly by people biking from their homes to train stations, schools, workplaces and shops.

Other studies suggest the number of daily bike trips is actually much higher. Last year, the Shatin District Council commissioned a study on cycling in the district, which is home to more than 600,000 people, and found that 33.5 percent of the population cycles more than once a week. The study also reported that 65 percent of residents perceive cycling as “an important mode of transport” and that each Shatin family owns, on average, about two bicycles.


June 25th, 2010

Blue Buildings

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

The Blue House, Wan Chai

Tin Hau Temple, Sham Shui Po

June 24th, 2010

Two Stories Over Tokyo

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space by Christopher Szabla



Tokyo defines concrete jungle: over 2,000 square kilometers of closely-packed, largely monochrome buildings set amid a tangle of clogged, winding roads, elevated highways, rail lines, and telephone wires. For many who are lost amid the ceaseless forward march of its sidewalks and churning perambulations in the corridors of its vast train stations, cafes perched several stories above the street — often, to further their escapist appeal, sporting French or Italian themes — offer rare opportunities to step back from the city’s omnipresent crowds and inexorable movement.

As much as they are respites from urban intensity, these perches also provide the best means to gain some perspective on the unwieldy metropolis. Their patrons may appear trapped in tiny windows when viewed from the street below, but they offer a scattered audience cheap, upper-balcony tickets to the spectacle of the city — itself snarled, not just in traffic, but anxiety and routine.


June 21st, 2010

Cape Tin

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher Szabla

A row of numbered tin shacks in Blikkiesdorp. Photo from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Nestled in a sun-kissed valley amid coastal mountains, pastel-hued, historic Cape Town is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. So it’s long been a rude awakening for first time visitors expecting to arrive amid its sweeping vistas and colonial architecture that the N2, the highway stretching between the Cape Town’s airport and the city center, is lined by the handmade shacks that constitute the Joe Slovo informal settlement.

Nestled between the highway and the formal black townships established by the apartheid government on the Cape Flats, Joe Slovo was the result of the rapid population influx into South Africa’s cities since the end of racial discrimination in 1994 — and of the government’s inability to keep up with demand for housing, guaranteed as a right in South Africa’s progressive constitution.

In 2005, a fire that rapidly ate through Joe Slovo’s makeshift shacks left hundreds homeless. At the same time, the government began planning a permanent solution to the housing crisis that had produced the settlement, which was ironically named for Nelson Mandela’s first housing minister. Joe Slovo’s shacks were to be replaced by the N2 Gateway, a proper housing development. But first, Cape Town needed a place to put the refugees of the fire — and those whom it would eventually relocate to the N2 Gateway.

Enter Blikkiesdorp, officially the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, and unofficially what translates from Afrikaans as, literally, “block village” — more often known as “Tin Can City” in English. Established in 2007, it was initially built to house another set of shack dwellers who had set up camp nearby — and it’s increasingly housing refugees from shack settlement and apartment evictions all across Cape Town. Enclosed by a thick concrete fence, constantly patrolled by vigilant police, its rows of numbered tin shacks have elicited comparisons to a concentration camp.


June 20th, 2010

Hong Kong Rooftops: A Village, Ten Stories Up

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Wandering down narrow lanes, past rows of makeshift houses, I could be standing in a squatter’s village in the New Territories. Potted plants sigh in the heavy heat of summer. Door gods peel from wooden entranceways. It is quiet. But I’m not in a village — I’m ten stories above a narrow street in Tai Kok Tsui, on the roof of a large block of flats built in the 1970s.

About thirty families live on the roof. Most are immigrants from the mainland or South Asia; others are longtime roof-dwellers who’ve decided they’d rather live here than in a faraway public housing estate. People have been living on Hong Kong’s roofs for decades; rooftop villages like this are a remnant of the massive tide of mainland refugees that swept over Hong Kong in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Rooftop shacks have been bought, rented and sold ever since, in an illegal black market that is tacitly accepted by the government. There are no statistics on how many people live on rooftops, but one community worker told me the number could be in the tens of thousands.

One of the Tai Kok Tsui roof’s residents is a 23-year-old university student named Sam Fong. I was first introduced to him by a social worker who is helping relocate families off of the roof, which will be demolished for a new housing development in the near future. He moved here with his family from Guangzhou a few years ago. Unlike many roof-dwellers, he’s quite philosophical about his surroundings. The rooftop is a village in more ways than its appearance: everyone knows each other and people keep their doors open. Every fall, Fong’s family hosts a Mid-Autumn feast in a small open space in front of their house.


June 19th, 2010

Gentrification: Y2K to Today



Change is a constant in most cities, and it’s no surprise that a decade can yield dramatic alterations to a specific street or even storefront. Take this slice of San Francisco’s Mission Street, photographed by Eric Fischer, creator of the locals v. tourists photography maps, which he captured in 2000 and again just last year.

In 2000, the block was showing evidence of prosperity. The millennium bug hadn’t shut down “Y2K Furnishings”, despite its ominous name. And the space next door is decorated in retro-50s futurism, reflecting a latent desire to resurrect that decade’s optimistic streak. But what Y2K didn’t do to San Francisco, the dot-com bubble’s burst ultimately did. In 2000, Y2K Furnishings was already having a going out of business sale. Today, save for one floor of the building it formerly occupied, the entire block looks mothballed.

The story of Y2K’s block is fairly rare, but it’s not wholly unique. It demonstrates one way in which cities have defied the narrative arc of unremitting, sometimes totalizing gentrification that U.S. cities have been said to confront throughout much of the 2000s. At worst, the last ten years of gentrification have been more mild, and less sweeping, than many critics have assumed.


June 15th, 2010

Street View in South Africa

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

View Larger Map

Hillbrow, Johannesburg

With the world’s attention trained to the World Cup in South Africa, it’s a logical time for Google to debut its Street View coverage of the country. People unfamiliar with South Africa now have a chance to peer beyond the stereotypes and get a look at the country as it actually is. While there’s only so much you can tell by looking at something on a computer, even a virtual walk gives you a better sense of what a place is like than reading a sensational account of it in the media.

One of the first neighbourhoods I checked out was Hillbrow, the central Johannesburg neighbourhood that was a popular with white yuppies and students during the final decades of Apartheid but suffered terribly from crime and poverty after 1994. As I dragged Google’s little yellow man onto a random corner, I expected to see derelict buildings and empty streets — evidence of the abandonment and lawlessness I’ve seen described so often. Instead I found a neighbourhood with few vacant shops and plenty of new investment. There must still be problems, but a new narrative has obviously emerged — one that hasn’t yet been told in much detail.


June 15th, 2010

The Art of Personal Space

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Art and Design, United States by Christopher Szabla

Nathan Destro and his “personal space protector” on the streets of Johannesburg. Photos by Christo Doherty

In New York, bulging sidewalks have led to the partial pedestrianization of Times Square and plans for something similar along teeming 34th St. In Cairo, fed up pedestrians often take matters into their own hands, competing with cars to form express lanes off the sidewalks of window-shopping meccas like Talaat Harb. And anyone navigating a busy scramble crossing like the one just outside Tokyo’s Shibuya station might feel like an extra in Braveheart, surging into battle against the horde on the opposing corner.

Ever since the concept of “personal space” was first coined in the late 1960s, the increasing density of the world’s rapidly urbanizing population has meant that it’s gone largely forgotten or ignored. Now, two artists on two different continents are fighting back — in a manner of speaking. As a Digital Arts postgraduate at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, Nathan Destro created a “personal space protector” to keep strangers at a distance.


June 14th, 2010

Evening Paper

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

In April, I wrote about the Cheungs, who live in a condemned building in Kwun Tong. Years ago, they built shacks on their roofs and cage homes in their flat to rent to poor tenants. This photo was taken in the flat, which is still home to a few elderly people who live in the cages, which are really just metal bunk beds with mesh gates to protect against theft. The apartment is filthy and filled with decades of accumulated junk. At least the wraparound windows are nice.

June 13th, 2010

Plus ça change…

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

Kate McDonnell pointed the way to some Flickr photos recently uploaded by Michel Gravel, a photojournalist for La Presse whose career has spanned more than 40 years. Many of the photos are street scenes from Montreal in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. What amazes me is how Montreal’s essential character has remained intact despite the fact that it has changed in so many ways — physically, demographically, linguistically, politically — in the past few decades.

The above photo of people lining up to board a bus in a winter snowstorm is a perfect example. When I noticed that the bus was the 80 — the same bus I took up and down Park Avenue every day for years — I started looking for clues as to where on Park Avenue the photo was taken. None of the signs were familiar, nor were the two buildings on the left. After a few seconds, though, I recognized the building in the middle distance as the block at the corner of Park and Bernard, home to Cheskie’s and the dépanneur where I bought newspapers, beer and monthly transit passes. The buildings on the left have been radically made over, but the three businesses visible in the photo — a hardware store, a restaurant and the corner dep — remain, just with different names and owners.

Gravel captured other scenes that are instantly recognizable today: orthodox Jews walking around Mile End, laundry hanging heavily over a laneway, L. Berson and Son’s tombstone workshop, riots, fires, people sweating it out during a heatwave, the dépanneur tricycle.


June 13th, 2010

It’s All Coming Down

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

On the left, a 1950s building that was demolished earlier this year

From afar, Hong Kong’s postwar buildings look plain and utilitarian, but look closer and you’ll notice their clean lines and vaguely Art Moderne details. I especially like their graceful interaction with the street: curved corners, large balconies (though most have been enclosed), shops on the ground floor and apartments above. Thousands of these buildings were built in the 1950s and 60s, as Hong Kong recovered from the depopulation and destruction of the Second World War. In their own homely way, they are to Hong Kong what Haussmanian apartment blocks are to Paris.

Now they are disappearing even more quickly than they were built. Hong Kong’s economy and system of governance is based largely on property development. In order to maintain its prosperity, land values need to remain extraordinarily high and the city needs to be constantly redeveloped, even though the population is only modestly growing. In other words, under the current regime, Hong Kong must cannibalize itself in order to survive.

Until this year, a property company that wanted to redevelop an old building needed to buy out 90 percent of the units in that building before it could force the others to sell. Now the government has lowered that quota to 80 percent, making it significantly easier for old buildings to be bought out and town down. Property developers have pounced. Since the policy was changed, they have started buying flats in nearly every old walkup building left in my neighbourhood.


June 13th, 2010

Renovated, Yet Slated for Demolition

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

View Larger Map

Matauwei Apartments under renovation last year

Standing at the corner of Ma Tau Wai Road and Bailey Street, less than a block from the spot where a tenement building suddenly collapsed in January, Matauwei Apartments looks much younger than its age would suggest.

That’s because last autumn, with money from the government’s Operation Building Bright programme, the 52-year-old building was repainted and renovated. Its bright blue facade and clean windows stand in contrast to the many decrepit blocks in the surrounding streets.

But Matauwei Apartments could soon be torn down. For the past 18 months property developer Henderson Land has been buying flats in the building, which it intends to redevelop. This has left some residents perplexed: why was a building renovated with public money when it was slated for demolition?

“It’s certainly strange,” said one resident who has lived there for 40 years. “The government is still sending letters to us telling us to renovate this or that.”


June 12th, 2010

Mexican Bohemia: Chicago’s Pilsen

Posted in Architecture, Demographics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

From the Loop, the Pink Line El bursts west, floating among the rooftops of a low-rise industrial district. As the city’s wall of downtown skyscrapers drifts away and the train enters an expanse of limitless sky, it’s as if the Pink Line is darting toward far more distant destinations than its terminus in neighboring Cicero. The slightly undulating horizontals of the warehouse roofs take on the characteristics of the rolling, arid Plains and desert beyond, stretching almost ceaselessly to the south and the west.

Stopping at 18th St., though, it’s more apparent the journey transports mentally further than it has physically; the Sears Tower still looms totemically, as it does over most of pancake-flat Chicago’s south and west sides. But something else has happened: the station is covered in a riot of color; art infuses every step and crevice. Alighting here, the rider descends this urban canvas into Pilsen: first settled by crafty vrais Bohemians, resettled by Mexicans and increasingly claimed again by bohemians of a different sort, Pilsen is a neighborhood where artistic traditions run deep.