September 13th, 2012

Cicchetti veneziani

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There’s always a disconnect between the way a city is portrayed on screen and the day-to-day reality of its existence. New York isn’t actually surly taxi drivers and whistling construction workers; you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from every street in Paris.

But Venice is the exception. There is nowhere else like it. What’s more, it never changes, at least in the physical sense, except to gain a few more layers of patina, a few more cracks in the bricks of its foundations, the water of the canals lapping a little bit higher with every passing year. The evening I arrived in Venice, after taking shelter from a momentous thunderstorm, I walked along a canal in Cannaregio, past polished wood motorboats and old women watching from the windows, and thought: is this place for real?

Of course, even if the Venice of our imaginations coincides uncannily with the Venice of real life, there is far more to it than meets the eye. The biggest surprise was how few tourists stray from the beaten path. Here is a place with a small and dwindling population, where visitors far outnumber locals, and it never takes long to venture into a quiet street where kids are playing soccer and some old timers are taking their first spritz of the day. One evening, walking through Santa Croce, I stumbled across a neighbourhood block party sponsored by the local Communist Party. Hundreds of people — families, mostly — sat on long wood tables, munching on fried seafood and zucchini flowers while they drank beer from plastic cups. A few tourists wandered by, looking a bit mystified, before opening their maps and wandering away.

You can’t be rushed in Venice. Unless you own a motorboat, the fastest way to get around is to walk — it takes less than an hour to walk from one end of the city to the other, and about the same time if you go by water bus. Many streets are silent but for the sound of sloshing canal water and footsteps. It takes awhile to get used to the pace, but once you do, it’s hard to go back to normal life.

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September 27th, 2011

Airing Your Laundry in Public

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

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When I first came to Hong Kong, one of the most perplexing of park rules was “No hanging of laundry.” Surely that isn’t a problem, I thought. Do people really bring their wet laundry to the park to dry?

As it turns out, they do. Though most people here have a washing machine in their apartments, relatively few have dryers, and Hong Kong’s tiny apartments lack the outdoor space needed to effectively dry freshly-washed clothes. Some people take their laundry up to rooftop clotheslines; those who live in buildings without an accessible roof simply hang their clothes next to an open window, hoping they won’t get that awful damp smell that comes from taking too long to dry. Others take a different approach: they dry their laundry in public space, hanging it on sidewalk railings and chainlink fences.

This happens almost exclusively in public housing estates and working-class neighbourhoods, which is an important point to consider. Outdoor clothes-drying is seen by many of the world’s middle and upper classes to be distasteful and unsightly, from North America, where hundreds of communities ban the practice, to Hong Kong, where affluent people cling very tightly to symbols of affluence and class identity, perhaps because they are only a generation or two removed from poverty. Once, a middle-aged professional man I know was looking outside at a luxury apartment tower when he noticed that some apartments had clothes drying outside, on the building’s small balconies. “They’re rich but they still dry their clothes outside,” he said with evident distaste.

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March 7th, 2009

Laundry Day in Shek Kip Mei

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Laundry day in Shek Kip Mei

In the Shek Kip Mei Estate, Kowloon, Hong Kong

October 15th, 2008

Every Day is Laundry Day

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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In Hong Kong, every day is laundry day. I’m not sure why so many people wash their clothes every single day — do they really own that many shirts? do they sweat a lot? — but you can see evidence of it as you walk around: endless amounts of undergarments, shirts, pants and pillowcases dangling from clotheslines high above the streets, on rooftops and balconies. Even the most sober of buildings — schools, mosques, churches — have little domestic corners where laundry hangs.

It’s especially noticeable in outlying areas. In the month or so that I’ve stayed in Tai Po Tsai, a small village on the Sai Kung Peninsula, there hasn’t been a single day that the people across the lane from me have not been drying something or another. A quick peek out the kitchen window reveals some bras, boxers, towels and some white, pink and blue button-down shirts. Down the way, the old women who maintain the village’s garbage collection area also maintain a perpetual collection of freshly-laundered clothes drying just beyond the many bins of festering trash.

Earlier this week, I found myself on the tenth floor of the Hong Kong Art Centre, where the Hong Kong Art School has its student gallery. The current exhibition involves projects in which students were told to “hijack” public space — to reclaim it, examine it, critique it. One of the more successful interventions came from one student who turned a public tennis court into an outdoor laundry room: the line on which the net normally hangs was converted into a clothesline.

The irony is that this artistic statement is drawn directly from everyday life: in particularly cramped housing estates and poorer neighbourhoods, some people actually do use playing courts to dry their clothes. It’s prevalent enough that a “no laundry” logo is often included on official signs outlining the many things that are prohibited in Hong Kong’s parks.

In the popular imagination, the sight of laundry drying outdoors evokes images both pastoral (sweet-smelling bedsheets fluttering in the country breeze) and urban (rows of white undershirts hanging limply over a narrow Italian street). It is a symbol of class, an ecological statement, an object of nostalgia. But more than anything it is practical.

Many of Hong Kong’s new housing estates do as much as possible to prevent their inhabitants from hanging clothes outdoors. The motivation for doing so must be the same as that behind laws that prohibit clotheslines in many North American suburbs. Maybe it’s the invasion of the mundane and ordinary into spaces designated for other, more highly-esteemed things — sport, architecture, whatever — that give some people such disdain for the sight of laundry drying outdoors.

May 20th, 2008

Laundry Colour

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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April 26th, 2008

Dans la ruelle

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

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After awhile, even the largest city can shrink to the size of a village. On a good day, this creates a comfortable intimacy; on a bad day, it can impose a banal, oppressive familiarity. Passing through the same streets day after day, it’s easy to lose sight of the things that so charmed you about them in the first place.

I try to avoid that by wandering through Montreal’s laneways, its ruelles, as they’re known in French. To walk through them is to uncover a secret city, a stripped-down, domestic one, the lipstick and blush of its streetscapes removed. The laneway experience is defined by the detritus of everyday life: the flutter of laundry drying on clotheslines, decrepit old sheds, gardens filled with vegetables, doors and gates through which you can glimpse the lives of others.

Laneways first emerged in Montreal in the mid-nineteenth century, but they were usually found only in middle-class and wealthy neighbourhoods. Poorer areas had courtyards accessible by portes cochères, which led to small workers’ homes hidden behind larger buildings. By the dawn of the twentieth century, though, Montreal and most of its suburbs had begun to mandate the construction of laneways in new residential developments, seeing them as a solution to the city’s sanitation problems. Eventually, nearly 500 kilometres of alleyways were built.

Montrealers have made great use of them. Every week, in the warm months, dozens of garage sales and bazaars can be found in the city’s laneways, selling books, furniture and assorted junk. Three years ago, the YMCA in my neighbourhood organized an alleyway art fair that drew inspiration from those alleyway bazaars. Artists hung their paintings on backyard fences, a graffiti crew painted a cinderblock wall and somebody set up a television viewing room in an apartment building courtyard.

What makes laneways so alluring is their ephemeral nature: they change with the rhythm of daily life, never quite the same from one day to the next. There is always a new piece of discarded furniture waiting for someone to claim it; a previously unnoticed view through trees, fences, walls and wires; or a new piece of street art.

The street art, in particular, provides the laneways with ever-changing décor. Over the years, I’ve seen political statements (“25,000 Montrealers call this home” spray-painted on a brick wall, next to a drawing of a homeless man), paste-ups and graffiti and even poetry (“We walked in Lake Ontario / Up to our ankles in sour water / For the feeling of sinking, you said”). My favourite can still be seen in one of the ruelles near my apartment, where somebody has scrawled a succinct message in whimsical cursive to wanderers like myself: “I love you.”

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December 4th, 2007

Cherish Your Clothesline

Posted in Canada, Environment, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Nobody hangs their laundry out to dry in Calgary. In fact, there are hardly any clothelines. My grandmother’s house had one, but I don’t think she ever used it. She, like everyone I knew while growing up there, had a washer and dryer set tucked neatly in a musty corner of her basement, across from a half-century-old furnace.

It was an eye-opening experience to travel to Newfoundland as a teenager, where I discovered that St. John’s was precisely the opposite of Calgary: everyone had clotheslines. Clothes hung over alleyways and backyards, billowing in the salty Atlantic breeze like flags of chores vanquished. There was something inexplicably romantic, something timeless, about clothes drying on lines, whether in the city or in a stark outport on the Avalon Peninsula.

Montreal is similar to St. John’s, at least in that regard. Here, the clothesline tradition never really died. Although they’re less prevalent today than in the past, you’ll still see an abundance of them if you wander down the laneways of just about any neighbourhood. Immigrant neighbourhoods in particular have a ton of clotheslines, probably because they’re home to so many people who come from countries where drying your clothes outside is still the norm. I remember, earlier this fall, driving east through St. Michel on the elevated Metropolitan Expressway, staring at long rows of triplexes tied together by strands of billowing clothes.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that kind of scene became even more common in the future. That’s because clotheslines are no longer just quaint — they’re fashionable. The growing marketability of anything “green” has led to a resurgence of interest in drying clothes outside. It’s cheaper than clothes dryers, which can consume as much as 900 kilowatt hours of energy per year, and better for your clothes. According to La Presse, which extolled the benefits of clotheslines last summer, the sun eliminates odours and removes stains, and is easier on natural fibres than clothes dryers.

But, as much as I like to know that the sun can whiten my whites, it’s the clothesline aesthetic that really appeals to me. I’m still charmed by the sight of them, which is good because they’re ubiquitous in my back alley from March until November. More than that, though, clotheslines domesticate the street. We’ve spent so much effort over past half-century trying to sterilize our cities, to turn them into machines, that we need these kinds of reminders that they are, first and foremost, places where people live, messy as that may be.

Still, prejudices linger. Many new subdivisions include provisions in house purchase agreements that ban residents from drying their clothes outside. It’s a class thing more than anything else, since clotheslines are still associated by many with poverty. There has been a clear shift in attitude, however. Earlier this month, Ontario’s environment minister announced that he wants to override those clothesline bans.

I’m not alone in enjoying the look of clotheslines, either. There are plenty of Flickr groups dedicated to clotheslines, including one called Les cordes à linge de Montréal.

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