Archive for November, 2011

November 27th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Eugene

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Eugene again: East Tremont Bronx

Taken in the Bronx, New York, by Chris Arnade. From the photographer:

I came back to give Eugene a copy of his picture. He was inside the deli, where he sweeps, mops, and breaks down boxes. He smiled and showed me his new shirt that said “I love Greece Athens.”

I have spent the last year, like others in finance, dealing with Greece. The irony of being reminded of this in a Bronx Bodega made me chuckle. Eugene said, “You don’t like Athens? I loved it.” I explained, and then he told me of his world travels as a Marine, enlisted for sixteen years, from ’67 to ’83. And so the salute from Eugene: Lover of Greece, Marine, Vietnam Vet.


November 21st, 2011

Portraits of Beijing Cyclists

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf


Beijing’s rate of cycling has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, as the economy has developed and more people buy cars. As a result, the city is mired in horrendous gridlock and some of the worst air pollution on earth.

But cycling is still an important mode of transport in China’s capital; according to most estimates, it’s how 25 percent of the population gets around. Now that the government is placing restrictions on car use and ownership, cycling seems to have reversed its decline, even if it still isn’t an attractive option for the newly-monied classes who see car ownership as an essential status symbol.

One thing you continue to see in Beijing that you don’t notice in emerging cycling cities like Montreal is a real diversity of cyclists. People of all ages get around by bike, including people from a wide range of backgrounds: schoolkids, restaurant workers, well-dressed old women, and of course that most global of cycling creatures, the fixie-riding hipster.


November 21st, 2011

Terminal Curiosity

Posted in Europe, Transportation, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla

It’s one way to see a city: pick a subway line, any line, and ride to the end. In theory, whatever narrow perceptions you’ve acquired by sauntering through any metropolis’ most busy downtown streets will be balanced out by impressions of its flavor of ragged urban edge.

That’s precisely what my friend Tanveer and I did when we were trying to think, a few years ago, of a creative way to explore Lisbon. Miles out from the tightly gridded 18th century streets of Baixa, the Portuguese capital’s heart, a sprawling housing estate greets anyone arriving at the end of the line with splashes of bold color — and creepily empty streets. It was exactly the contrast with the Lisbon depicted on postcards and tour guides I that would have imagined.

Most termini, though, aren’t very representative of the city’s outer rim. The end of the line is also a starting point — a place where many begin their journeys on cities’ rapid transit systems after disembarking from buses and cars. That means they’re often hubs of activity that mirror the bustle of urban cores — with the crucial distinction that they’re rarely as well-known or experienced by anyone who doesn’t live nearby, as foreign to most residents of those cities as to travelers.

In Berlin, I lived in a bizarre neighborhood of vast, snaking concrete buildings a long walk from the final stop on the U6 line. At Alt-Mariendorf, the line’s last station (or, depending on how you looked at it, its first one), there was a bustling pedestrian plaza that was a hive of activity. Yet, for all the relative action that seemed to transpire there, and not the languid courtyards closer to home, few Berliners were really passing through. The end of a ride they never took to its conclusion, Alt-Mariendorf is, for most regular passengers of the U6, more aspiration than destination.

“Almost everyone in Berlin knows their names,” filmmaker Janosch Delcker introduces his recent short film, which takes viewers to the stations at each end of every Berlin U-Bahn line, “but scarcely anyone has ever been there”. He could be speaking about the last stop of any subway line in the world.


November 19th, 2011

On the Waterfront: Central Ferry Piers, Cheung Chau Praya

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

Ferry piers

This is the last in a series of three posts about Hong Kong’s waterfront public spaces. Read the first one here and the second here.

The promenade that runs for 850 metres along the Central ferry piers is one of the best public spaces in Hong Kong. I suspect this partly by accident. In the late 1990s, land reclamation for the airport railway and Tung Chung MTR line pushed the Central waterfront more than 300 metres outwards, so the six ferry piers that serve Hong Kong’s outlying islands were relocated. In 2006, they were joined by two new Star Ferry piers and two public piers used by pleasure craft and other small boats. A promenade was created to link each of the piers, which are in turn linked to the rest of Central by a footbridge network.

At first glance, the promenade is pretty ordinary; it makes extensive use of the same chintzy pink tiles that are found everywhere in Hong Kong. (I really, really wish the government would invest in some high-quality paving stones. With nearly HK$600 billion in reserves, it could surely afford some nice granite, no?) But there are several small touches that make the space more functional and more comfortable than other government-designed parks and plazas.

First is the provision of two parallel pathways. One runs along the water and is lined by benches, ledges and steps where people sit while they are waiting for their ferry. The second is covered and well-lit — a kind of expressway for people rushing to catch their ferries. The two are separated by steps and planters with curvy edges that create some interesting nooks in which to sit. The planters are filled with shrubs and fast-growing banyan trees that provide plenty of shade. The multiple levels and passages give the promenade a nuanced feel that isn’t found in many other public spaces in Hong Kong.

Those are the bones of the space; they’re ugly but they work well. The flesh and blood comes from the constant flow of ferry passengers, who are joined by joggers, fishermen, cyclists and truant schoolchildren. Most of the piers contain independently-owned shops selling snacks and drinks. (There’s even a bar stall selling craft beer, spirits and wine, which brings in people like myself who don’t need to use the ferries.) In the evening, there are always plenty of people sitting around, drinking beer, snacking and fishing. There are lots of couples, too — this is the only place in otherwise reserved Hong Kong where I always see public displays of affection.


November 18th, 2011

On the Waterfront: Kwun Tong, Ma On Shan


Second in a series of three posts about Hong Kong’s waterfront. Read the first post here.

The Kwun Tong promenade opened last year on an industrial stretch of waterfront facing the runway of the old Kai Tak Airport. It’s very short — just 200 metres — but the plan is to continue expanding it until it joins whatever will be built along the waterfront of Kai Tak, which is on the verge of being redeveloped into a large residential and commercial area.

So far, what exists is promising. The design language takes its cues from the surrounding industrial blocks, with plenty of exposed steel that goes nicely with the wood boardwalk. Water vapour is released from vents inside the boardwalk, which is a nice cinematic touch, especially on a hazy winter day. On one end of the promenade is a sculpture inspired by the large bricks of paper that once occupied this stretch of waterfront, waiting to be loaded onto barges and shipped to China for recycling.

There isn’t much to do here but sit and admire the view. If the rest of the promenade turns out to be like this, it would be a problem. A whole kilometre of it would feel one-dimensional. But for the moment, it’s fine, because this is one of just a couple of places in East Kowloon where you can actually get close to the water.


November 17th, 2011

Photos of the Week: From the Hip

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf


This week, three photos from New York photographer Keith B. Goldstein.


November 17th, 2011

On the Waterfront: Tsim Sha Tsui

Star Ferry

For a city defined by its harbour, Hong Kong has done a remarkable job of blocking people off from it. Highways, private development, cargo yards and storage depots take up more than 60 percent of Victoria Harbour’s shorelines. The rest of the harbourfront is a higgledy-piggledy network of disjointed promenades, some better than others.

Luckily, a new Harbourfront Commission has been tasked with restoring the harbourfront as a public place. In addition to drawing plans for public promenades beneath the East Island Corridor, an elevated highway built on pylons off the eastern shore of Hong Kong Island, and across the harbour at the former Kai Tak Airport, the commission vets ideas on what to do with all the new public space that will be created. Some proposals (a 16-kilometre cycleway) are better than others (a giant Ferris wheel built by the same company as the London Eye). There is now talk about the creation of a Harbourfront Authority that would help implement these ambitious plans by pushing aside the government departments whose narrow interests and love for bureaucracy would stand in the way of any coherent development.

Even with a para-governmental authority in charge of the harbourfront, though, any new development would need to respond to the existing standards and practices of waterfront urban design. Hong Kong has a number of different stretches of publicly-accessible waterfronts, each built at different times and in different circumstances. I think it’s worth looking at some of these to see where they fail and where they succeed: Tsim Sha Tsui, Kwun Tong, Ma On Shan, the Central ferry piers and the Cheung Chau Praya.


November 16th, 2011

Occupy Toronto: One Month Later

Posted in Canada, Politics, Public Space by Karl Leung

On the morning of November 15th, governments in many cities around the world launched a coordinated crackdown on local Occupy movements, serving up eviction notices with plans to forcibly remove protesters from public spaces. If you haven’t already seen the herculean 17 hour livestream of the eviction of New York’s Occupy Wall Street by citizen journalist Tim Pool, click here.

Thankfully, rather than relive the horrors of the G20 protests last year, a Toronto judge has ruled in favour of Occupy, allowing them till Wednesday to vacate the park peacefully.

Today, at Occupy Toronto’s encampment in St. James Park, a woman held space with a book, and her thoughts. Meanwhile, further along King Street, financiers gather to rub shoulders and continue discussing what their event page called “careers with unlimited revenue potential”.

November 14th, 2011

Saturday Morning Flying Machines

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

Sunny skies made for perfect flying weather this Saturday in downtown Toronto. As pictured in the background, a large HVAC unit as long as the 18-wheeler it’s seated on was being ferried up to the rooftops via helicopter. With many roads along University Avenue closed for the afternoon, passersby gathered happily to watch the work and wander the deserted streets.


November 13th, 2011

Montreal in the 1950s

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

Alfred Bohn arrived in Montreal from a small town in Germany fifty-three years ago. He lived with his wife Hannelore in an apartment on Clark Street just above Prince Arthur, next to two other European couples. The six of them used to spent their free time wandering around the city, taking photos of their new home.

Bohns is now 78. Over the past four months, he has dredged up more than a hundred photos taken between 1958 and 60 and posted them on Flickr. Many were scanned from colour 35mm Kodachrome slides. Developing the slides back in the late 50s cost Bohns no small portion of the two dollars he earned every day working at a hatmaking shop on Mayor Street.

“We’d spend our days walking and walking because we didn’t have cars and we all lived in the same area and we all had empty jobs,” Bohns tells Kristian Gravenor, who has a brief but detailed account of Bohns’ adventures in photography at OpenFile.


November 8th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Bicycle Graveyards

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

Bicycle dump. Photo by Dickson Lee for the SCMP

Sai Kung’s bicycle graveyard is back and bigger than ever. Last Wednesday, dozens of bikes were seen piled atop one another on a stretch of government land in the suburban Hong Kong district.

It’s a symptom of a wider problem – an acute shortage of bicycle parking spaces and a government that seems unwilling to address the problem.

According to the last Travel Characteristics Survey, which was conducted in 2002, 15.2 percent of people in Hong Kong had a bicycle available for use. The Cycling Alliance estimates there are more than a million bikes throughout the city.

But the government provides only 41,440 public bicycle parking spots. As a result, many cyclists leave their bicycles attached to roadside fences where they risk being seized by the government. After the bikes are confiscated, there is no way for their owners to reclaim them.

The Sai Kung dump is one of several used by the government to store bicycles confiscated from public areas. They are eventually auctioned in bulk to scrap metal dealers. Last year, after the South China Morning Post ran a story about the practice, the Sai Kung dump was cleared. But now it has returned, with even more bikes than before. Cyclists are outraged.

“This is first and foremost a failure of the government to provide better cycling facilities,” says Hong Kong Cycling Alliance member Martin Turner. “We have a crying need for more bicycle parking but the response of the government is that bikes are a litter problem to be cleared away.”


November 7th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Shadow Life

Posted in Latin America by Christopher DeWolf

This week’s photos were taken in São Paulo by Hudson Rodrigues.


November 3rd, 2011

Transit by Design

Sheung Shui Station

Lai King Station, next to Hong Kong’s sprawling container port, has special significance for Wilfred Yeung. “This was my first assignment when I joined the MTR,” he says as we ride down the escalator from the busy platform upstairs. In the mid-1990s, as a young architect, Yeung was given the task of expanding the station to accommodate a new metro line. Rather than expand the station into an unwieldy maze of corridors, tracks were rerouted so that passengers could transfer between lines simply by walking across the platform.

It’s this kind of efficiency that passengers have come to expect from the MTR, the world’s ninth-busiest metro system, with 1.41 billion passenger rides last year. Not only efficiency, but seemingly endless expansion. Over the next five years, the MTR will open seven new metro stations and a high-speed rail line; several more lines and an overhaul of existing stations are in the works. But attitudes in Hong Kong are changing, and growth for growth’s sake is not longer held in high esteem. Nor is a purely functional metro system, no matter how fast and reliable it might be. The MTR’s new challenge is to move millions of people a day through a system that is at once convenient, comfortable and aesthetically interesting.

Aesthetics weren’t the top priority when the MTR was first planned in the 1970s, but under the guidance of British architect Roland Paoletti — who later oversaw the design of London’s renowned Jubilee Line extension in the late 1990s — it managed to create a visually distinctive system with limited resources. Paoletti made extensive use of commonly-available, brightly-coloured mosaic tiles to create a distinct identity for each station. “It’s still so significant that it’s hard to depart from when we plan new stations,” says Yeung, who is now the MTR’s chief architect. “People associate the MTR with bright colours.”