December 22nd, 2008

Laneway Shops

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


Electrical appliance store, Causeway Bay


Antique vendor, Sheung Wan

Last year, I wrote a bit about the informal shops and sales that spring up in some of Montreal’s laneways — a junk emporium, a record shop, a bicycle cooperative, just to name a few in Mile End. Here in Hong Kong, where commercial rents are among the most unaffordable in the world, these kinds of tiny, out-of-way shops are especially common. You’ll find locksmiths, barbers, cheap restaurants, mahjong tile vendors, even bookshops.

December 11th, 2008

How a Supermarket Shapes the City


There’s something particularly iconic about supermarkets, especially in North America, where they first emerged in the 1940s and have a good half-century of history behind them. While supermarkets today are an entrenched part of the urban landscape, there was something particularly fresh and innovative about them in the 1950s, which you can see in those that have survived from that era without too many alterations.

But even those that have been altered significantly have left a big imprint on the shape of our streets and neighbourhoods. I never realized just how big of an impact Steinberg’s had on the Montreal landscape until Kate McDonnell pointed me towards a Flickr photostream containing a few dozen then-and-now images of Steinberg’s supermarkets around town.

Steinberg’s was one of those businesses that was more than just a business: in postwar Quebec, it was a cultural phenomenon, a Jewish-owned grocery chain that became an entrenched part of working- and middle-class francophone culture. “Je fais mon Steinberg” became a phrase housewives used to mean they were going out to buy food for dinner. At its height, it was one of the largest and most important food businesses in Canada, with stores throughout Quebec and Ontario and at least one location in each neighbourhood of Montreal.

Steinberg’s went under in 1992, the victim of a family dispute, and its assets were divided between Metro and Provigo, its two Quebec competitors. But its legacy lives on in popular culture. Fifteen years after it disappeared, pretty much everyone in Montreal still knows about Steinberg’s; its logo has even become a trendy accessory, thanks to buttons and t-shirts made by Montréalité.


July 16th, 2008

NDG Evening

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf


Earlier this month I accompanied my friends on a nostalgic walk through NDG, the sprawling west end neighbourhood in which they used to live. Developed in the early twentieth century on some of Montreal’s most fertile land—the famed Montreal Melon once grew there—NDG was for the first part of its history a fairly humdrum suburb home to middle-class WASPs and British immigrants who had moved up from working-class Verdun.

Things changed in the 1970s when many long-time residents left for the suburbs or moved away from Montreal altogether. Some streets fell on hard times, NDG’s population became more varied and the whole area began to take on a more interesting, eclectic character. Sherbrooke Street West, a long commercial artery that runs along the south side of the neighbourhood, is where NDG is revealed in all its bizarre glory, a meeting ground for well-adjusted families, oddball layabouts and members of various different ethnic communities, especially Jamaicans, Koreans and Persians. The shops along the street are remarkably diverse: D.A.D.’s sells takeaway Indian food alongside Montreal-style bagels; Nearly New Books/Livres Presque ‘9’ unites two languages with one bad pun; a video store with no apparent name, tucked away discreetly on the first floor of an apartment building, rents nothing but VHS copies of Korean television dramas.

When my friends lived in NDG they were fascinated by one of those odd shops on Sherbrooke: an ice cream parlour at the corner of Harvard. Brightly decorated, with an old-style bar inside, it featured a large banner that advertised 24 flavours of soft serve. But it was never open. Once, when my friends spotted some people working inside, they knocked on the door and asked if they could buy some ice cream. “No,” they were told.


June 1st, 2008

Walking Mile End’s Laneways

Posted in Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf


In many ways, Montreal is a remarkably heterogeneous city, and its built form is no exception. Each individual neighbourhood is distinct enough to provide the aimless walker with enough visual cues to figure out where he or she is.

Alleys, too, vary from one part of the city to the next. In nineteenth-century neighbourhoods, they’re often aimless, terminating in dead ends and unexpected courtyards. Twentieth-century lanes are more standard in their arrangement, but even then, there is a great deal of difference between them. Many of the alleys in the old town of Delorimier, on the Plateau, are surprisingly overrun with vegetation, giving them an almost rural feel; not too far away, the lush streets of Outremont are counterbalanced by narrow, denuded lanes lined by tall brick buildings.

Mile End falls somewhere in between. Compared to many neighbourhoods, its alleys are remarkably narrow, and they tend to be lined by garages and the back ends of buildings, or at least some pretty imposing walls and fences. But there’s no shortage of greenery, either, and all of this has the effect of making the lanes feel remarkably cozy and hemmed-in. Even more interesting is the clutter you find in them: discarded furniture, oddly-painted fences, street art, run-down sheds and garages — sometimes even entire houses that are hidden from the street. It’s fun to walk down the alleys and peek into the backyards and rear balconies, comparing the gardening habits of neighbours or juxtaposing messy, debris-and-laundry-filled backyards (long-time Mile End residents) with others that are immaculately-arranged and well-stocked with expensive patio furniture (finnicky suburban transplants).



May 29th, 2008

Student Business, Campus Life

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


It was a quiet, rainy day at McGill when Devin Alfaro, just out of his last exam of the semester, walked into the Caférama on the first floor of the university’s William Shatner student centre.

Two weeks earlier, in early April, the café was at the centre of a battle over campus business. Caférama will not renew its lease this summer, so the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), which manages the space, was faced with a decision: rent it to students, who would operate a non-profit café, or rent it to another private vendor. Although leasing the space to a student-run business would fulfill SSMU’s obligation to prioritize student needs, a privately-operated tenant would provide a reliable cash flow to the student union.

“It was a marathon meeting,” recalled Alfaro, a third-year undergraduate and arts representative on SSMU council. “It started in the early evening and lasted until three in the morning, and the vote was close.”

Ultimately, SSMU voted 13-12 to lease the café space to an outside business. Alfaro was one of the council members who voted against the student proposals, not because he was opposed to the idea of student business on campus, but because the three student proposals that had been submitted were simply unfeasible.

The strongest bid came from Midnight Kitchen, a volunteer-run collective that provides free vegan lunches to students. Along with serving lunch, it would have used the café space to sell coffee and pastries, but this proved too modest for SSMU, which was looking for a full-service café.

Food services and other businesses at Canadian universities are becoming increasingly centralized. Every year, new undergraduate students are being met with restaurants, cafeterias and bookstores run by corporate franchisees, and many complain of high prices and a lack of choice in product offering. This is especially true at McGill, Montreal’s oldest university, which has systematically closed many of its student-operated businesses over the past several years.


February 21st, 2008

Street Vendor Songs

Posted in Canada, History, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf


Montreal did away with a big chunk of its cultural heritage when it started cracking down on street vendors in the 1960s. Food vendors were the first to go and, although City Hall has been easing its restrictions on street vending for a number of years, allowing people to sell art and crafts on Ste. Catherine Street and at the tam tams, it still refuses to allow anyone except mobile ice cream vendors to sell food on the street. This makes us one of the only major cities in the world with a near-total ban on street food.

Not only does this deprive us of delicious snacks, it eliminates a great source of streetlife. Today, on Coolopolis, Kristian Gravenor posted a bit about the calls of early twentieth century street vendors. He points to an article in the May 19th, 1929 edition of Le Petit Journal:

La corporation des marchands des quatres saisons, ou “colporteurs” comme on les nomme ici, est composée de braves gens qui gagnent honorablement leur vie en vendant de porte en porte, les primeurs, fruits ou légumes. On pouvait autrement classer dans cette catégorie les vendeurs de crême à la glace et les petits marchands de galettes et de blé-d’inde bouilli.

Le marchand de crême à la glace se tenait au coin des rues avec une petite voiture où était installé son bidon d’ice cream qui’il débitait à un sou le cocotier. Celui-là, il va sans dire, était particulièrement l’ami des enfants.

Un autre petit vendeur très populaire était le marchand de petites galettes et de petits pains chauds: “Galettes! Galettes! Madame!” criait-il, “pas trop de beurre dedans! … Cinq pour cinq sous! … Galettes! … Galettes! …”

Puis le marchand de blé-d’inde bouilli qui parcourait les rues avec son haridelle, en criant sans cesse, et en vers, s’il vous plait:

“Bon blé-d’inde bouilli!
Trois sous pour un épi! …”

Et qui ne se rappelle le vendeur de bluets, annoçant sa marchandise avec un trémolo dans la voix, tout comme notre marchand de bananes d’aujourd’hui: “Bluets!… Ah! les beaux bluets du Saguenay!…”


February 9th, 2008

Dep City: Montreal’s Convenience Stores

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


If Montreal seems saturated with dépanneurs, that’s because it is: 1,127 crowd the island, about one for every 1,500 people. Since they emerged in their current form in the 1970s, the descendants of tobacconists and once-ubiquitous corner grocery stores, dépanneurs have become an inextricable part of life in Montreal.

They also are an important but often overlooked aspect of the city’s economy. For business owners, many of whom are immigrants, dépanneurs represent a rare field of work that poses virtually no barrier to entry, aside from a relatively small amount of capital.

“An immigrant arrives in this country with a degree, with skills, but cannot find a job because he doesn’t have Canadian experience,” said Bakr Ibrahim, a professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business who specializes in small business and ethnic entrepreneurship. “For one reason or another, he cannot gain employment in mainstream (fields), so the first thing he knows is to start a business on his own.” Increasingly, however, independent dépanneurs are under pressure from corporate convenience-store chains and from supermarkets, so the independent operators need to be ever more nimble and attuned to the market they serve, which can be as small as a few blocks.

For example, Yodh Ubhi, who owns a dépanneur on Park Ave. in Mile End, has begun selling “heat and eat” Indian food made by Aliments Nutrifresh Ltd., a prepared-food supplier based in St. Laurent. He said the move was based on requests from customers who had travelled to Toronto and noticed many convenience stores there served prepared food.

In some neighbourhoods, dépanneurs have expanded their offering by selling fruits and vegetables, meat and ethnic products. That’s the case in Park Extension, said Ubhi, who has lived there since the early 1980s. “There’s very cutthroat competition” in that area, he said, adding that South Asians who operate dépanneurs know the competition’s prices because “they go to every different store and make their own prices cheaper. They buy bulk and they sell fresh meat, too.”


February 9th, 2008

A Day in the Life of a Dépanneur

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Owning a dépanneur has a big impact on your social life, says Yodh Ubhi, standing behind the counter of Dépanneur PMS at the corner of Park Ave. and Villeneuve St.

“You have none,” Ubhi said.

He’s not kidding. Ubhi’s hours—14 hours a day, seven days a week—would make most office workers weep. Every morning, he opens the store at 7 a.m., and works without a break until early afternoon, when his wife arrives with lunch. Ubhi eats in the store’s basement, a former bank vault, before taking a three-hour siesta. At 6 p.m., he trudges back upstairs and takes over from his wife, who returns home to make dinner. The day finally ends at midnight, when Ubhi closes shop and returns home to Park Extension.

“It’s not a one-person job,” he said, adding his 18-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son, both students, often come to help.

Ubhi, who came to Montreal from India’s Punjab state in the early 1970s, bought his dépanneur in 2002, after nearly two decades in the textile business. At $65,000—a little over $100,000 with inventory—the store was a bargain. Spacious and well-stocked, it had already undergone a $150,000 renovation in the 1990s when it was part of a small dépanneur chain that ultimately folded.

“I had no experience whatsoever in the dep business,” Ubhi said. “I saw guys working and thought, ‘Hey, that’s nothing, it’s a piece of cake.’ But it’s not that easy. It’s very demanding. There are long hours. You have to know about your supply, cash flow, customers, your neighbourhood, and on top of that you have to provide good service. If you don’t have even one of these, you’re screwed up. You’re not going to last a year.” At the beginning, Ubhi made mistakes, like offering credit.

“When you’re new, you believe everyone,” he said, but he soon realized he had lost nearly $7,000 to customers who had scammed him out of cigarettes and alcohol. Now, a cartoon drawing of a gangster with the caption, “No Credit: It’s Time to Pay Up, Sucka!” is displayed prominently at the cash.


December 30th, 2007

Don’t Bulldoze the Slums

Posted in Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture, South Asia by Christopher DeWolf


Street scene in Dharavi. Photo from the Economist

“Around 6am, the squealing of copulating rats—signalling a night-long verminous orgy on the rooftops of Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai—gives way to the more cheerful sound of chirruping sparrows. Through a small window in Shashikant (“Shashi”) Kawale’s rickety shack, daylight seeps. It reveals a curly black head outside. Further inspection shows that this is attached to a man’s sleeping body, on a slim metal ledge, 12 feet above the ground.”

It’s not the most flattering description, but the Economist’s December 19th story on Dharavi is actually a remarkably sensitive portrait of Asia’s largest slum, revealing a particularly complex social and economic space that is now threatened by redevelopment.

One million people live in Dharavi, which is somewhat incredible when you realize that it covers just one square mile. Although conditions are rough, life in the slum has improved remarkably over the past several decades. Part of the reason for that is that it has become an important economic centre, containing an estimated 15,000 single-room factories and functioning as the centre of Mumbai’s jewellery, textile and recycling industries. All of the trash thrown away in Mumbai passes through the workshops of Dhavari, where it is sorted and sold. For the slum’s residents, the line between home and work is blurred, since many living spaces also double as workshops; every inch of Dharavi is put to great use.

Government planners don’t approve of slums like this; they never have. For at least a decade, Mumbai’s officials have been trying to get rid of Dharavi. What they overlook, however, is the innovation and entrepreneurialism it produces. Dharavi is packed with an almost unimaginable number of people, but it’s also full of small businesses that were built by the most marginalized members of Indian society. Most are poor migrants from the countryside. For them, living in a slum, where living conditions are squalid but opportunities are immense, is the best way to improve their lot.


Potters at work. Photo by Akshay Mahajan


December 1st, 2007

Chinatown is Changing

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


In September, the owner of Swatow, an import/export business, announced he will replace his St. Laurent Blvd. store with a $20-million shopping centre – the first major real-estate investment in Chinatown since the 1980s – that will include a supermarket, office space, a rooftop banquet hall and small boutiques similar to those found in Toronto or Vancouver’s trendy Asian malls.

Earlier this year, a number of new businesses opened elsewhere in the neighbourhood, including the third Canadian location of Xiao Fei Yang, a Chinese hot pot chain with hundreds of locations across Asia.

These changes in Chinatown’s retail landscape – toward businesses that appeal to a wider segment of the population, like young people and Mandarin-speakers from the mainland – are happening as Montreal’s growing Chinese population is becoming increasingly dispersed throughout the city.

“The demographics of Chinatown are definitely changing,” said Ting Kwan Hung, a community organizer who lived in Hong Kong, Liverpool, New York and Toronto before coming to Montreal in 2004. “There are more and more non-Cantonese speaking people and you also see more Chinese youth who speak French.”

Nodes of Chinese businesses and services have emerged outside of Chinatown, especially in Brossard, home to the largest concentration of Chinese immigrants in the Montreal metropolitan area. Other neighbourhoods, like Ville St. Laurent, Côte des Neiges, Verdun and the west end of downtown, also have large or growing Chinese populations.

Now that Chinese supermarkets, restaurants, dentists and other services are found throughout the city, can Chinatown stay relevant to Chinese Montrealers?

“There’s a lot of new immigrants, but they don’t spend much money,” said Tran Tao Cam, the vice-president of the Montreal Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “There are also lots of students from very rich families, but they don’t come to Chinatown. Look at the area near Concordia, along Ste. Catherine. There used to be only two or three Chinese businesses, now there’s 30 or 40.”

Tran worries the high cost of parking, issues with cleanliness, competition from business in other parts of the city and even the rising dollar will keep people from coming to Chinatown in the future. Still, he said, it remains “a very special area for business,” one that continues to draw a large variety of people.


November 4th, 2007

Ethnic Depanneurs

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Although most depanneurs are owned by immigrants or people from what Quebec politicians like to call “cultural communities,” they typically bear few traces of their proprietor’s ethnic origin. Sometimes there might be a heater on the counter containing churros or samosas but, for the most part, deps focus on the holy trinity of beer, tobacco and lottery tickets.

In some neighbourhoods, though, depanneurs are transformed into hybrid businesses that are half ethnic grocery, half ordinary dep. Marché Chanab, at the corner of St. Roch and Querbes in Park Extension, is one example, selling a variety of imported products along with the traditional depanneur staples. Like any dep, it draws a wide cross-section of neighbourhood residents, but the Punjabi scripts on its sign let potential South Asian customers know that it offers something extra.

Similar are the many Chinese depanneurs that have emerged in Verdun over the past several years, which sell Chinese veggies and packaged food alongside the usual soft drinks and potato chips. It’s a good business strategy: cater to the borough’s growing Chinese population while still serving as the corner dep on which nearby residents rely.


May 24th, 2007

Bazaar Living in Montreal’s Laneways

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


By midweek, the first signs appear, advertising garage sales, yard sales, sidewalk sales, moving sales. They chart the vast outdoor flea market that is Montreal on so many sunny weekends.

Most of these sales are infrequent, but, in some cases, they have evolved into regular, quasi-permanent bazaars, run by people who have taken it upon themselves to provide the city with a source of affordable recycled goods. In this era of green politics and community involvement, they are examples of the most local, sustainable forms of commerce.

On a recent Sunday in Mile End, posters on St. Viateur St. advertised half a dozen of them. Nearby, on Waverly St., a Portuguese couple sat on their porch, overlooking a front garden filled with clothes, books, furniture and knick-knacks.

“It’s all of the things we’ve collected over the years. Look at how full the table is,” said one of the pair. “There’s lots of places around here that do this,” so people stroll around the neighbourhood and browse, he said.

A couple of blocks away, at the corner of St. Viateur and Esplanade, a grey-haired woman was selling things on the sidewalk next to the Social Club cafe terrasse.

“We’re having a garage sale to share with others what we have. I’m keeping nothing but my toothbrush and my underwear!”

Most of the people who organize these kinds of sales do so just once or twice a year, when they move or get fed up with all the junk that has been accumulating in closets. A handful, however, have devoted a large part of their lives to maintaining regular sidewalk or alley sales.


May 23rd, 2007

The Industrial City Time-Warp: Shenzhen

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Society and Culture by Desmond Bliek


The Hua Qiang Bei skyline at dusk from the 20th floor of the Sichuan hotel, looking west. The tall building to the left is the 2nd highest in Shenzhen (for now) and was the site of the first electronics factory to be converted into a market, and subsequently an office tower. Its main tenant, SEG, is one of the biggest players in the neighbourhood.

When North Americans think of deindustrialization and China, we’re usually pretty quick to conclude that, since our cities have so little industry left, and so much of what we buy comes with a “made in China” sticker on it, then the new industrial zones, like Shenzhen, in the Pearl River Delta, must be chock full of factories working around the clock. But deindustrialization’s running strong in China, too, in cities that were first industrialized just a few decades ago. Like a time warp, Shenzhen and other places have sped through an industrial cycle that took more than a century to complete in Europe and North America.

The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was China’s first experiment of the type, decreed by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. The former collection of sleepy fishing and farming villages, just north of Hong Kong’s New Territories hit a population of 1 million in 1991, and now counts 14 million. The role played by the city of Shenzhen, which was in the mid 1980s the focus of enormous investments in manufacturing (most of which were made by Hong Kong entrepreneurs, as that city shed its secondary industry), has shifted towards services and distribution. Shenzhen’s now a sprawling complex of offices, shopping, and apartments, punctuated by a series of “high-high-high-end” (to quote some planners) shopping malls and increasingly gigantic central business districts, with nary a factory in sight. So what happened to the industrial areas?


May 6th, 2007

Arriverderci Tivoli

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Almost every city has a collection of neighbourhood institutions, businesses known and used by such a wide variety of people that they become convenient meeting places as well as local reference points, secure admist the great of spasms of change in the city beyond. Some of these places seem to be fuelled on nostalgia alone, their outmoded menu and decor sought by people eager to recall earlier days. The best of them, however, have lasted so long because they have never failed to provide the great food and memorable ambiance that made them popular in the first place.

The New Tivoli Restaurant seemed to fall into the latter category. For three decades, the Gardanis family supplied the corner of St. Clair and Dufferin in Toronto with coffee and comfort food; in return, they were rewarded with a loyal and diverse clientele from the surrounding neighbourhood. “It ruled the eastern boundary of Corso Italia, whatever the mood, fashion or World Cup Champion. It was like the old sweater that you couldn’t part with—a bit frayed and rough-around-the-edges, but a constant source of comfort and security,” writes the designer and photographer Mondo Lulu, who lived above the restaurant.

Thanks to his uniquely intimate relationship to the restaurant—he calls its staff and owners his “second family”—Lulu was able to create a particularly engaging collection of photos that document life at the Tivoli. Last fall, when rising rents forced the restaurant to close, Lulu’s photos became a record of its existence as a focus of life on St. Clair. Many of Lulu’s photos can be seen on Flickr. Those of you in Toronto, however, might want to check out his photos in person, at the “Arrivederci Tivoli: Photos from the Centre of the Universe” exhibit. It opened this weekend and runs until June 7 at the Side Space Gallery, 1080 St. Clair West.

“After the SOS/ROW row, it looks like the hood is in healing mode,” Lulu told me last month. “I’m hoping that my show will be key in that, since the Tiv was the place where all factions laid down their arms in the name of bacon.”