Archive for January, 2011

January 31st, 2011

Struggling Against the Snow

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

Victoria Square, Montreal, February 1970.
Photos courtesy Le présent du passé.

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January 31st, 2011

Defrosting Public Space

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

Sphères polaires at the Place des Festival

By the time February rolls around, Montreal has already been buried in snow for a couple of months and your mental map of the city has changed considerably. Places you’d normally linger — the steps at Place des Arts, the plaza in front of Mont-Royal metro, the giant chess board in Berri Square — have vanished from the landscape, inaccessible under the snow, unpleasant in the sub-zero wind.

Montreal’s seasonal extremes are a challenge to urban planning: how do you create a vibrant place that can function just as well on a frigid January day as on a balmy August night? Some spaces are more adaptable than others. Neighbourhood retail streets will always be lively, since people still need to hit up the supermarket, coffee shop and drug store even when it’s cold. Park lawns make good toboggan slopes and hockey rinks in the winter. But hard-surfaced plazas and squares — those quintessentially urban spaces — have a hard time finding much use between December and April.

For most of the years I lived in Montreal, the only time of the winter when a downtown square came back to life was during February’s Nuit Blanche festival, when performances and light installations take over the snowbound tarmac at Place des Arts. Lately, however, some of the ideas behind that one night of wintertime festivities has been extended throughout the winter. Last year, the recently-built Place des Festivals played host to Champ de pixels, which transformed the square into a giant Lite Brite studded with illuminated “pixels” made from overturned plastic buckets. Each bucket was equipped with motion sensors; when you walked by, the colour of the light shifted from white to red.

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January 26th, 2011

La rue Charlotte, à l’ombre de la Main

Posted in Canada, History, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Rongeurs attendant la fin: rue Charlotte, Montréal

Alors que j’arpente les rues étroites et organiques de la cité coloniale, au sud du quartier latin, je me surprend à escalader lentement la douce pente de la basse-ville jusqu’au tragique Boulevard René-Lévesque – horrible et bruyant – que je trouve en pleine transformation. Tout près, des dizaines de tours d’habitation, modernes. Au loin, ces hautes barres vitrées où s’empilent les bureaux, s’effaçant par ce mélange étrange de lumière jaunâtre et de fumée mécanique : le centre des affaires, que je devine, avec son mouvement et sa confusion.

Je décide d’accélérer le pas et de me retrouver dans un dédale de petites rues rectilignes, agglutinées comme elles le sont, entre les principales artères qui dessinent la carte de Montréal : Saint-Catherine, Sherbrooke, Maisonneuve et René-Lévesque. Puis coincées étrangement entre la cohue estudiantine du Quartier Latin et l’ex Red-Light District que forme la Main – le boulevard Saint-Laurent – et ses théâtres et autres cabarets plus ou moins douteux.

Je sais que bientôt nous ferons table rase de cette zone – comme déjà nous l’avons fait dans les années ’60 en construisant à peine à deux pas l’immense complexe des habitations Jeanne-Mance – pour en faire un lien moderne, propret et sécuritaire et reliant enfin ce nouveau grand ensemble urbain que doit devenir le Quartier des Spectacles.

J’emprunte l’étroite et unique rue Charlotte, microcosme de cette mutation.

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January 26th, 2011

The Pearl River Megalopolis

Shenzhen from above

“China to create largest mega city in the world with 42 million people,” announced a breathless headline in Sunday’s Telegraph, detailing plans to combine the cities of Guangdong province’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) into a massive urban conurbation. “Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan,” the British newspaper reported, noting that the new megalopolis would be “26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.”

The news generated quite a bit of chatter as it circled around the Internet, much of it predicated on the mistaken assumption that China would be building an entirely new city of 42 million. “What about all the cities already constructed but still empty?” wrote one commenter on CNNGo in reference to the master-planned, never-lived-in city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia. “Time to beef up security on the Hong Kong border,” tweeted a former Hong Kong resident.

The reality is less exciting. The PRD is already home to more than 42 million people and it already functions as a megalopolis with an economy worth a little under US$300 billion (about the same as the metropolitan areas of Shanghai, Boston, San Francisco and Milan). The billions of dollars in new infrastructure will complement an already well-developed network of highways, railways and waterways. In fact, the concept of a huge megalopolis tied together by roads and rail is nothing new: the Taiheyo Belt in Japan is an interconnected urban area of 80 million people linked by shikumen trains running every few minutes. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington form a mostly interconnected urban region of more than 50 million people.

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January 26th, 2011

A Short Detour in Mongkok

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Mongkok might be one of the world’s most crowded places, but sometimes all you need to do to escape is to make a right turn down a quiet alleyway. That’s what I discovered when I was walking from home to the Flower Market the other day. Instead of taking the usual route along Sai Yee Street, I ducked into the laneway that runs behind it and discovered a kind of parallel university of greenery, graffiti and informal living space.

One of the first things I encountered was a lean-to with a mattress, some newspaper and various other objects inside. It seems to have been built by a homeless person but I’m not sure if it’s still occupied. Taggers have been using its wood walls as a canvas.

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January 24th, 2011

Everyone’s Talking About the Weather

Posted in Politics, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla

“Everyone’s talking about the weather,” runs a loose translation of an old German political poster, “except us.” The slogan was used to parody a period railroad ad that trumpeted the Deutsche Bahn’s storm-resistant resilience, but it also attempted a deeper point: that meaningful politics is serious business, above the fray of such trivial, provincial preoccupations as the latest shower, hail, or frost.

In a recent essay at 3 Quarks Daily, Alyssa Pelish takes the other side of the argument. At first, she wonders whether talking about the three-day forecast might really be a sort of code obscuring some underlying purpose — functioning as a form of empathy, for example. Ultimately, she sees an even greater significance in sharing news about the weather: it provides one of the few “universally shared narratives” available to everyone.

It’s true that everyone experiences weather, full stop. But the way we do seems like it might be more effective at fostering individual communities rather than any single, universal one. Think, for example, of a snowstorm, when the collective, Herculean task of removing tons and tons of heavy, disruptive white stuff requires a city’s residents to work together — and, together, to interact with their government — at the most intimate, personal level.

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January 20th, 2011

Notre-Dame and Griffintown: 1930-2010

Posted in Architecture, Canada, History by Daniel Corbeil

Notre Dame St West, circa 1930-2010

What happened here ? This used to be the north end of Griffintown, right next to the business center of Montreal.

À Montréal, au cours des années 1950 et 1960, notamment suite au rapport Dozois, on identifie des dizaines de quartiers qualifiés d’insalubres, vus comme irrécupérables, et où les taudis menacent la santé publique. Puis ont les rase, un par un, pour faire place à des projets d’ensemble, comme les Habitations Jeanne-Mance ou encore la tour de Radio-Canada, dans l’Est.

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January 18th, 2011

A Walk Around Luen Wo Market

Hong Kong’s gloomy winter chill has set in, and with no indoor heating, the best thing to do on a cold day is to set off for a brisk walk. That’s what I did two weeks ago when I took the train up to Fanling, the last major suburb before the border with Shenzhen, where I wandered over to the market town of Luen Wo Hui.

Though it seems old in comparison to what surrounds it, Luen Wo was actually a modern development master-minded by a group of wealthy Fanling property owners in the 1940s. A market was built in 1951 to serve the surrounding farms and villages. Over the course of the 1950s, the surrounding area was developed with shophouses into a regional commercial centre meant to compete with the nearby market town of Shek Wu Hui, about 20 minutes away by foot.

(The story behind Luen Wo’s development is actually quite fascinating, with inter-family rivalries, accusations of price-gouging, rural politics and the influx of Chinese refugees after 1949, many of whom were farmers from around Guangzhou and who resumed their agricultural practices in Hong Kong. It’s all covered in sociologist Chan Kwok-shing’s essay on Luen Wo Hui.)

Luen Wo quickly became economic and political centre for the surrounding area. There were rice shops, dry goods stores, travel agents, barbershops and a cinema, as well as bars that served British troops stationed in nearby military bases. In the 1980s, Fanling was designated as a New Town — a focal point for new population growth — and intense development followed.

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January 18th, 2011

Gunting Rambut

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Hair salon, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
January 16th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong: Uncertain Future

This is the second part of a two-part series on the future of Hong Kong’s dai pai dong street eateries. Read the first part here.


Steaming hot chicken in Yiu Tung Street, Sham Shui Po

While the dai pai dong in Central have been given a new lease on life, it’s another story in Sham Shui Po, where the survival of 14 dai pai dong remains uncertain.

In 2009, the Central and Western District Council accepted the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s proposal to loosen dai pai dong licence restrictions, but the Sham Shui Po District Council rejected the offer.

“The current mode of operation of dai pai dong in the district had given rise to environmental nuisances such as street obstruction, noise, littering, waste water and greasy fumes, resulting in a number of complaints from nearby residents,” said a spokesman for the FEHD.

As a result, the spokesman said, the district council refused to support any change to the status quo until these hygiene problems were dealt with.

But the district council’s vice-chairman, Tam Kwok-kiu, said that the council’s position on dai pai dong was actually more nuanced. “Some types of dai pai dong just provide breakfast, night meals, coffee or toast, and they’re quite welcomed by the residents of the district,” he said. “On the other hand, there are some that operate like restaurants with fried food and Chinese dishes, and they really cause much nuisance.”

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January 16th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong: A Bitter Taste

Toy dai pai dong model in the G.O.D. Street Culture Gallery

When six dai pai dong vanished from Hong Kong’s Central district last year, fans of wok hei street food were worried that the street food stalls had disappeared for good.

Now they’re back, shiner than ever after five months of renovations. New gas lines, sewers and electric cables have been installed, and the old green dai pai dong stalls have given way to custom-built stainless steel booths.

Dai pai dong are an emblem of Hong Kong street food; their names literally mean “big plate stall,” referring to the special licence plates issued for the stalls in the 1950s. New change of rules by the government allows dai pai dong licences to be passed down to the owner’s offspring, meaning that, for the first time since the 1970s, dai pai dong can outlive their licence holders.

But dai pai dong owners are far from happy. They say the renovation process was hampered by red tape and bureaucratic indifference, leaving them penniless and seething with anger.

“I’m very frustrated,” said the owner of Yue Hing, a Stanley Street tea stall, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Ah Fei. “The government dropped the ball and now we’re suffering because of it. It shouldn’t have had to be like this.”

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January 15th, 2011

Bringing a River Back to Life

The Kai Tak River near Nga Tsin Wai Village

Wallace Chang still remembers how disgusting the Kai Tak River was when he was a child living near its banks in the 1970s. “The water was in between grey and black and it flowed very slowly, almost stagnant,” he recalls.

That didn’t stop him and his friends from going near. “We didn’t have a playground nearby so we played on the pipes that ran across the river and tried not to fall in. It was a challenge.”

It wasn’t always that way. Originally, the Kai Tak River, which runs from the Kowloon Hills to Victoria Harbour, by way of the old Kai Tak Airport, was a country stream known as the Long Jin River. During World War II, however, the Japanese Army converted it into a 2.4-kilometre drainage canal. As fields gave way to factories and squatter villages in the 1960s and 70s, the river became an open-air sewer as waste was illegally dumped into its water.

By the 1980s, the river was so polluted that passengers arriving at the airport often remarked on the foul smell. According to an old story, the comedian Bob Hope once arrived, stepped off the plane and asked what the horrible stench was. A friend informed him it was sewage. “Yes I know, but what have they done to it?” Hope replied.

Chang never did fall in the river’s foul water. He grew up to become an associate professor of architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The river changed, too. After the factories along its banks closed in the 1990s and the government cracked down on illegal dumping, the water became significantly cleaner. Fish returned and so did the birds that eat them.

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January 11th, 2011

Portraits of a Changing Paris

Posted in Architecture, Europe, History by Christopher Szabla

Boulevard Exelmans at Rue Chanez, XVIe Arrondisement, 1905-2008
Contemporary photos by Laurent David Ruamps

Chat up a critic of historic preservation and the conversation may turn, sooner or later, toward Paris. What the French capital’s historic center has retained in fin-de-siècle flourish, s/he might claim, it lacks in the dynamism that fuels the growth of other great cities. London, New York, and Tokyo boast continually adaptable, evolving cores. But in attempting to cling to its glory days as “capital of the 19th century”, Paris consigns its modern needs to forgettable, peripheral suburbs. Its heart risks becoming little more than a quaint period museum.

You don’t have to be a Paris detractor to buy into such a narrative. Luc Sante, the author of a recent look at two new Paris histories in the New York Review of Books, has noticed the city’s chroniclers shifting their gaze, increasingly focusing on the large-scale changes now taking place outside Paris’ core. Today they find it impossible to even conceive of the city as a living, breathing organism without casting their glance toward its roiling, occasionally riotous, undeniably more au courant satellite settlements. As Eric Hazan writes in his new book, The Invention of Paris:

[A]nother “new Paris” is taking shape…it is leaving the west of the city to advertising executives and oil tycoons…crossing the terrible barrier of the Boulevard Périphérique…and stretching towards what is already de facto the twenty-first arrondissement, towards Pantin, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, Bagnolet, Montreuil…

There’s no question that much of Paris’s cultural and economic dynamism alike is now weighted toward its outskirts. But to what extent is its center’s supposedly stultifying over-preservation to blame? Images taken by Laurent David Ruamps, an architecture enthusiast who has rephotographed a number of old postcard views of early 20th century Paris, suggest that the idea itself that Paris has been frozen in architectural time might not be so fully borne out.

Ruamps’ then-and-after views of Le Corbusier’s modernist Villa Bresnus, swallowed by denser, more street-sensitive construction, demonstrated the resilience of traditional urban development in a Paris suburb. That makes it less surprising to consider that, much more than many casual observers would suppose, the central Paris we know today was a relatively recent invention.

Rue Raynouard, XVIe Arrondisement, 1900-2008

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January 10th, 2011

Fragments of Memory

Posted in Canada, Video by Christopher DeWolf

How do you document the passage of time, the experience of place? Millefiores Clarkes, a filmmaker from Prince Edward Island, found her answer in the fragments of memory that linger long after something has passed.

Last month, when she visited friends and family in Toronto, Clarkes documented her trip with an entry-level Canon DSLR. She pieced together her material in a way that is dreamlike, nightmarish even, with jump cuts, reverse action and a creepily disjointed soundtrack. It’s vaguely unsettling, like when you try to remember something that happened a year or two ago, catching only half the words, textures and smells you know were there.

It’s these puzzle pieces that I enjoy most about this video: the bits of conversation recalled from a walk down the street with a friend, the sound of a taxi dispatcher’s voice crackling on the radio, a fuzzy glimpse of fellow passengers on the subway. It reminds me of the way memories of past travels come back to me at unexpected moments, like when I catch a whiff of the Boston T’s distinctive musk, or the smell of Beijing heating coal, or the crunch of snow beneath feet.