The end of the line is only the beginning — something we wrote about in 2011. That was especially true at On Nut, the eastern terminus of the Bangkok BTS SkyTrain until a recent extension. Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis, but the trains only took you to the edge of the central city. After that, a bus, or a motorcycle taxi, or a tuk tuk ride or a long walk, as the case may be.
On Nut is located near the Phra Khanong Canal, a murky body of water that meanders past Buddhist temples and clusters of timber houses, but its character is defined by the never-ending stream of traffic along Sukhumvit Road. On one site of the station is a Tesco hypermarket, where you can buy cotton pyjamas, durian and cheap Thai rice liquor, and on the other is a night market, which sells more or less the same things but with far more ambiance.
Grab a curry at the night market — then it’s time to wait for the bus, to continue your journey past the end of the line into the endless Bangkok sprawl.
About four and a half years ago, when my girlfriend Laine and I were hunting for our first apartment in Hong Kong, her parents suggested we look in Mei Foo. We refused to even consider it. “It would be like living in a parking garage,” I said. Laine agreed. Lately, though, I have started to rethink my assessment. Mei Foo still has the ambiance of a mid-century New York City housing project built on top of a highway offramp — think Stuyvesant Town without the trees — but there’s more to it than I initially thought.
Mei Foo Sun Chuen is located on the site of a former Mobil oil storage facility — its name means “Mobil New Estate” — on the far western edge of Kowloon, where the crowded factories and tenements of Lai Chi Kok gave way to scrubby green hills. Built between 1965 and 1978, it was Hong Kong’s first private housing estate. It is enormous: 99 towers containing 13,500 apartments, home to 70,000 people. And it’s hard to understate its historical importance; this wasn’t just a housing complex, it was the genesis of modern-day Hong Kong. Mei Foo is Hong Kong’s Levittown: a revolution in how the city was built, managed and perceived.
In the mid-1960s, most people in Hong Kong lived in four general types of housing: squalid wooden shanties built on hillsides, vulnerable to fire and landslides; overcrowded walkup tenements in old neighbourhoods like Wan Chai; one of the new public housing estates being built by the government; and for the privileged few, one of the standalone apartment towers mushrooming in the wealthier parts of town. For the growing middle class, Mei Foo provided an alternative: spacious, affordable and newly-built apartments in a relatively convenient location. Like many ascendant Hongkongers of the era, Laine’s parents bought their first apartment in Mei Foo; for people who grew up in decidedly modest circumstances, it was a foothold to a better life.
When property prices reach such outlandish heights as in Hong Kong, it creates some peculiar distortions in the local market. Whenever I walk around Kowloon Tong, a wealthy, low-rise neighbourhood not far from my apartment, I’m surprised by the number of derelict and seemingly abandoned houses.
Kowloon Tong was first developed as a garden suburb in the 1920s, with identical tile-roofed houses that strike me as vaguely Southeast Asian in appearance. By the 1950s, many of those houses were being demolished for larger, more modern villas and small apartment buildings, which in turn were redeveloped into luxury townhouses or even larger apartment buildings in the 1980s and later.
Despite the successive waves of redevelopment, there are always reminders of what was left behind. One such reminder can be found on Derby Road, an unassuming little street behind the Maryknoll Convent School. That’s where I came across a large abandoned house, early modern in appearance, with a staggered form that makes it look like it was sliced off the top of an Art Deco skyscraper. The house has two wings, one slightly larger than the other, and a walled, overgrown garden with two gates, one facing Derby Road and another facing Chester Road. On the Derby Road wall are old advertisements for Sprite and Kent cigarettes, with the faded name of a see doh — variety shop — written on the gate. It seems that, at some point in time, there was a small shop or hawker stall on the property.
Walking the length of Vancouver’s Seawall is a lesson in design fads and fashions. The Stanley Park stretch dates back to 1914 and is elegant in its simplicity; a rough-hewn stone wall threads its way around the park’s craggy shoreline, rainforest on one side and cool Pacific waters on the other. Near Granville Island, the path takes on a late-70s look with brick paving, timber planters and suburban landscaping, a trend that continued into the 1990s, with some variations — square-cut timber gave way to painted steel tubes as the material of choice for benches and railings, and the pine trees of the 70s were usurped by a 90s love of palms, which matched the SoCal architecture that was fashionable at the time.
By the time the late 2000s rolled around, fashions had changed yet again, and this is reflected in the newest stretch of the Seawall, which runs along the southeast side of False Creek next to the Olympic Village. The materials used are at once rustic yet contemporary: cool materials like concrete, granite and steel juxtaposed with warm timber. Natural shorelines were preserved rather than obliterated, wild grasses are abundant and there is generally a more diverse array of spatial experiences than on the more rigid parts of the Seawall: paved plazas, boardwalks, pebble beaches, piers jutting into the water. (The entire Seawall is documented on Google Street View, so feel free to take a virtual bike ride to see if you agree with my impressions.)
It’s that depth of experience that sets the newest part of the Seawall apart from its predecessors. It is not simply a space meant for enjoying the view; it’s a space that encourages active participation. There are lounge chairs, a seemingly unregulated community garden and — most interesting of all — there’s Habitat Island. This spit of scrubby offshore land is accessible only at low tide via a pebble beach. The last time I visited, on a sunny spring day, the island was filled with people: teenagers rummaging through the bush, some people smoking pot, others drinking beer, families examining the aquatic life of tidal pools. It’s a lovely, unmanicured island, its wildness made all the more striking by the wall of glassy condominium towers across the water.
One of the first lessons of walking in Hong Kong: maps are your enemy. In a city with such dramatic topography, where private and public spaces blend together almost seamlessly, the best routes are not the most obvious.
Take for example the 20-minute walk from the cafés of Star Street to the shops of Queen’s Road Central. Follow the directions offered by Google Maps and you’ll head straight along the Queensway, a flat and easy route but not a very nice one, since you will be accompanied along the way by the noise and exhaust of roaring traffic, without any trees to shelter you from the sun. Far more interesting is a route that takes you through Pacific Place, Hong Kong Park, Citibank Plaza and Government Hill. Sounds complicated, but in practice it is an easy journey that passes through a shopping arcade designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a leafy park forged from the remnants of a British military base and one of Hong Kong’s most historically important clusters of architecture. I’m willing to bet that, on a hot summer day, this route — which combines stretches of indoor air conditioning with leafy green space — is about five degrees cooler than walking alongside the cars and buses of Queensway.
When I first met with Jonathan Solomon, one of the authors of Cities Without Ground, a book that maps Hong Kong’s intricate networks of three-dimensional private-public passageways, he made a very interesting observation: on Hong Kong Island, the ground doesn’t really exist. Solid though it may seem, the ground beneath our feet has been shaped and transplanted like so much spare modelling clay — and that’s just the natural stuff, not including the artificial ground like rooftop public parks. While cities like New York “worship the ground,” as Solomon put it, the very concept of what “ground level” is in Hong Kong is a bit shifty.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel pretty extensively over the past few years. There have been sunny mornings in Munich, cold winter treks through Seoul, sweaty nights in Bangkok. Yet for all the cities I’ve encountered, all the streets I’ve walked, I still think Montreal is one of the most enjoyable places in the world to explore. There’s something about the eclectic architecture, untamed vegetation and weather-worn surfaces — brick, wood, stone, concrete — that gives it a particularly satisfying depth of experience. The fleeting light and changing foliage of fall brings out the best of these qualities, adding to them dimensions of sound (the crackling of leaves underfoot) and smell: wood smoke on chilly evenings, the musk of decaying foliage.
Seats of imperial power are often regarded with a certain reverence — they provoke admiration, astonishment, even fear. That’s certainly the case in New Delhi, where British colonialists built a series of massive, belittling monuments to their rule, or in Washington, DC, where the Mall is increasingly seen by its National Park Service administrators not as a civic gathering place but as a kind of “semi-sacred site of national, secular religion.”
Ancient Rome wasn’t like that. One of the points underlined in Mary Beard’s review of Clare Holleran’s new book Shopping in Ancient Rome is “the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it.” That includes the Forum, which was “buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics,” but also “some of the very grandest buildings in Rome,” which “were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function.”
The Temple of Castor included a series of bars and shops built right into its podium, which evidence suggests included, at some point, a shoemaker’s shop and a barber-cum-dentist’s shop (“as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain”). “The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled,” writes Beard.
There’s a similar (though much tamer) scene on the edge of the Wufenpu clothing market in the east end of Taipei, where a row of hawker stalls is integrated into a Chinese temple. A number of stalls serve food and they use the interior courtyard of the temple as a dining area. As I munched on minced-pork noodles beneath red lanterns and a list of temple donors pasted on the wall, a couple of old men set off a string of firecrackers behind me. None of the other diners paid much heed. A man walked his dog through the courtyard.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the fig tree that has taken root atop a dilapidated building on Temple Street in Hong Kong. 800 kilometres to the northeast, across the Taiwan Strait, there is something even more spectacular: an enormous tree that grows straight through an otherwise ordinary shophouse.
You can find the tree on Roosevelt Road, a wide boulevard that runs through the heart of Taipei, from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to some of the city’s largest universities. From afar, it looks as though the tree stands in a courtyard, but walk closer and you’ll find its trunk rooted in an adjacent sidewalk. It rises up through the building’s first floor, curves through the interior and explodes past the roof into a riot of foliage. What came first, the building or the tree? Either way, accommodating the tree would have required serious effort and expense on the part of the building’s owner.
It goes without saying that cities impose themselves rather heavily on nature. Manhattan was verdant and hilly when the Dutch arrived; now it is flat and stripped bare of nearly all primeval forest — even Central Park is a simulacrum, its landscape meticulously planned by Frederick Law Olmstead. Even recent efforts at urban greening — vertical gardens, rooftop farms — stop short of being truly transformative.
On the morning of my single day in Palermo — a city that left a real impression on me, despite the short amount of time I spent there — I came across a vacant lot near the harbour that was overgrown with vegetation. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize it was a vacant lot at first, because it didn’t look particularly weedy or ratty. Under the bright May sun, grass gone to seed, flowers blooming, it looked a lot like the fields I had encountered the day before on the south coast of Sicily. An unintentional incursion of the countryside into the city, I guess.
It may share a name with a certain sedated, semitropical retirement home of a state to its north, but nowhere is the raw verve of Buenos Aires more palpable than on Calle Florida. In a city of Brobdingnagian boulevards, it’s as claustrophobic as an Istanbul alley. Whereas most of Argentina’s capital is a blend of French and Spanish architectural influences, buildings in the Microcentro, the dense commercial district that the street burrows through, seem to display more than a dash of Manhattan. And then there’s the frenetic foot traffic, as close as anywhere in South America comes to Tokyo.
The pedestrian mall is thronged for most of the day by window-shoppers, street performers, and cube farmers hunting for lunch, striding past and stepping over street vendors — at least, until many were removed by the city, earlier this year — crouched on the ground, where their wares, mostly native handicrafts, are spread out, rare connections to the continent in which Buenos Aires has often been accused of acting as if it’s accidentally gone astray.
On Calle Florida, especially — in so many other ways like so many other places bundled into one — it can seem that being anywhere other than caught in the crosswinds of global commerce is just a detail to be ignored. A harried commuter, rushing home at the end of the day, might have never paused to glanced at all the unsold necklaces still laid out on the blankets that rolled, almost continuously, down the center of the street — and she might have never noticed when they were gone.
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.
Last week, the Archives de la Ville de Montréal uploaded a short series of photos taken on August 25, 1969, around Ste. Catherine and Sherbrooke streets. I’m always a fan of vintage street photography, especially from the relatively recent past, but these struck a real chord with me for one reason: it was on that day, 33 years later, that I moved to Montreal.
I remember it more vividly than I remember any day last month. It was a typically hot and sunny late-summer day, a bit of haze in the air. After taking a taxi with my family to my new apartment in St. Henri, I set out for a walk that took me along Ste. Catherine Street from Crescent to St. Denis, then up past St. Louis Square and onto St. Laurent, before heading back downtown.
A friend once remarked that Montreal might be a city of 3.5 million people, but in the summer, “it feels like it has 10 million.” Coming from sleepy, suburban Calgary, Montreal’s summertime charge was electrifying. The city had yet to shrink with familiarity; it felt enormous. People, music, traffic — I passed through four separate street fairs on my walk.
I took plenty of photos that day. What strikes me, when I look back at them and compare them to the 1969 set, is how little has changed. The fashion is different and the neon has mostly disappeared, but Montreal’s essential character — a special kind of insouciance — remains intact.
Every time I take the bus through the Aberdeen Tunnel, emerging in Happy Valley outside Hong Kong’s oldest burial grounds, I marvel at the tombstones of the Catholic cemetery, jostling for space and attention beneath the gaze of a copper-domed mausoleum. The scene makes me think of the multitude of greystone Catholic religious structures in Montreal, but I’m also fascinated because it represents something so rare in Hong Kong: a real cemetery with distinct gravestones and tombs. It’s rare because, in death as in life, most people in Hong Kong live in anonymous high-rises.
If you think about it, cemeteries are an extraordinary waste of space, especially in a city like Hong Kong where space is the most precious commodity of all. In the 1980s, cemetery space ran out, people here stopped burying their dead; cremation became the norm, and urns were stored in vast columbaria. Now even columbarium space is at a premium. Devious landowners in the New Territories build illegal columbaria for desperate families; the government has even promoted the idea of burials at sea.