November 18th, 2010

The Cheonggyecheon Experience

What amazed me most about Cheonggyecheon was its freedom. Here was a stream running through the middle of Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities, and it gurgled as contentedly as any country creek. You can walk next to the water, sit next to it, wade in and feel its sharp chill on your calves.

It becomes all the more remarkable when you realize that, ten years ago, it was little more than a sewer running beneath a traffic-clogged highway. For decades, Cheonggyecheon was buried under an expressway; it was famously restored in the early 2000s. (David Maloney wrote an exhaustive account of its history a few years ago.) When I visited Seoul last year, it was one of the things I was most eager to see, and luckily enough, I happened to be staying a short walk from it.

After the expressway was demolished, a six-kilometre linear park was built along the stream, from the business district near Gwanghwamun in the west to another river, Jungnangcheon, in the east. The stream runs several metres below street level, and descending towards the stream is a liberation from the noise and exhaust above it. Late at night, I sat next to the water and watched two couples wade into the stream, pants rolled up, giggling as they splashed around. During the day, kids played on stepping stones that traverse the water.

Cheonggyecheon is one of the best-designed examples of urban nature I have encountered. Its impact has been fare-reaching. Fewer cars enter central Seoul now and public transit use is up. Summer temperatures around the stream have been reduced by several degrees since the stream was restored.


November 10th, 2010

Two Sides of Sinan Lu

The contrast on both sides of the street is only as jarring as you make it out to be, if you notice it at all.

You can see it while standing in the middle of Sinan Lu (思南路), facing Fuxing West Lu (复兴西路) in Shanghai’s French Concession. A noted commercial development of ostentatious luxury sits face to face with the ghosts of past riches. Both Shanghai past and Shanghai present are embodied in the traditional, old, European-style villas. But those on one side of the street have had their layouts redesigned, their foundations tilted sideways, their innards replaced with modern amenities (lifts!), and their courtyards beautified with plenty of commercial landscaping. On the other side of the street stand facsimiles of the original, unmodified versions of these structures: tired, broken down and devoid of occupants.


October 22nd, 2010

A Walk Through San Lorenzo di Roma

Aux portes de Rome

Un quartier singulier. La seule zone de Rome bombardée, lors de la deuxième guerre.

Quatre mille bombes ; trois mille victimes, dont le souvenir flotte toujours autour de ces rues.

Ces quelques rues, un kilomètre carré tout au plus, où se regroupe la Rome révolutionnaire.

Malgré tout, ce qui choque le visiteur, ce sont ces milliers de mètres de graffitis.


October 20th, 2010

Say Goodbye to Old Hong Kong

Old buildings bought for redevelopment are displayed in the window of an acquisition company office on Victory Avenue in Ho Man Tin

There goes the neighbourhood. A new government policy on compulsory sales in old buildings has led to a property gold rush in Hong Kong’s older districts, putting homeowners on guard and worrying many that well-established communities will be uprooted and destroyed.

Before April, acquisition companies working for developers had to buy 90 percent of a building’s units before they could force the remaining owners to sell. Now the government has lowered that threshold to 80 percent for buildings more than 50 years old.

The impact can be felt in places like Ho Man Tin, where up to 20 buildings in the few blocks just east of the MTR’s East Rail Line are now targeted for redevelopment. About half are being acquired by Richfield Realty, a company whose controversial acquisition methods include the hanging of large red banners over targeted buildings, a tactic that many homeowners say creates an atmosphere of intimidation.

“We’re very angry and upset to see those banners all over the place — it’s like a cancer that’s spreading throughout the city,” said Kobe Ho, a bookstore manager who lives on Waterloo Road in Ho Man Tin. Some of her friends in the neighbourhood have already been displaced by Richfield’s acquisitions.

“The new legislation has really sped up the process of urban renewal in Hong Kong,” said Wong Ho-yin, a member of the Minority Owners’ Alliance Against Compulsory Sales, which works with homeowners who do not want to leave their homes. “But urban renewal has so many negative effects, in terms of urban planning, social networks and protecting the rights of homeowners. It’s bad enough with the Urban Renewal Authority, but when the private sector gets involved, things are even worse.”


July 4th, 2010

Growing Pains in a Hong Kong Backwater

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Last month, two stray dogs were found dead on a Mui Wo beach. News of their fate spread quickly through the nearby villages. “It was definitely a poisoning,” said a worker in a beachside restaurant. She explained that people walking through the nearby hills often felt intimidated by the dogs.

But who would do such a thing? “Those people coming from D.B.,” she said with a scowl, referring to Discovery Bay, the upscale development north of Mui Wo.

Mui Wo has long been a shabby sprawl of rural villages on Lantau Island, prized for its eccentric lifestyle and cheap housing. But recent years have seen an influx of transplants looking for suburban luxury at prices far lower than those in Discovery Bay or Sai Kung. As village houses are bought and renovated, property prices have more than doubled in the past five years, and the government now plans to spend HK$300 million on beautification and leisure facilities over the next few years. All of the change has been met by audible grumbling from some long-time Mui Wo residents. “The yuppies are taking over the asylum” is how one blogger described it.


June 21st, 2010

Cape Tin

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher Szabla

A row of numbered tin shacks in Blikkiesdorp. Photo from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Nestled in a sun-kissed valley amid coastal mountains, pastel-hued, historic Cape Town is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. So it’s long been a rude awakening for first time visitors expecting to arrive amid its sweeping vistas and colonial architecture that the N2, the highway stretching between the Cape Town’s airport and the city center, is lined by the handmade shacks that constitute the Joe Slovo informal settlement.

Nestled between the highway and the formal black townships established by the apartheid government on the Cape Flats, Joe Slovo was the result of the rapid population influx into South Africa’s cities since the end of racial discrimination in 1994 — and of the government’s inability to keep up with demand for housing, guaranteed as a right in South Africa’s progressive constitution.

In 2005, a fire that rapidly ate through Joe Slovo’s makeshift shacks left hundreds homeless. At the same time, the government began planning a permanent solution to the housing crisis that had produced the settlement, which was ironically named for Nelson Mandela’s first housing minister. Joe Slovo’s shacks were to be replaced by the N2 Gateway, a proper housing development. But first, Cape Town needed a place to put the refugees of the fire — and those whom it would eventually relocate to the N2 Gateway.

Enter Blikkiesdorp, officially the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, and unofficially what translates from Afrikaans as, literally, “block village” — more often known as “Tin Can City” in English. Established in 2007, it was initially built to house another set of shack dwellers who had set up camp nearby — and it’s increasingly housing refugees from shack settlement and apartment evictions all across Cape Town. Enclosed by a thick concrete fence, constantly patrolled by vigilant police, its rows of numbered tin shacks have elicited comparisons to a concentration camp.


June 19th, 2010

Gentrification: Y2K to Today



Change is a constant in most cities, and it’s no surprise that a decade can yield dramatic alterations to a specific street or even storefront. Take this slice of San Francisco’s Mission Street, photographed by Eric Fischer, creator of the locals v. tourists photography maps, which he captured in 2000 and again just last year.

In 2000, the block was showing evidence of prosperity. The millennium bug hadn’t shut down “Y2K Furnishings”, despite its ominous name. And the space next door is decorated in retro-50s futurism, reflecting a latent desire to resurrect that decade’s optimistic streak. But what Y2K didn’t do to San Francisco, the dot-com bubble’s burst ultimately did. In 2000, Y2K Furnishings was already having a going out of business sale. Today, save for one floor of the building it formerly occupied, the entire block looks mothballed.

The story of Y2K’s block is fairly rare, but it’s not wholly unique. It demonstrates one way in which cities have defied the narrative arc of unremitting, sometimes totalizing gentrification that U.S. cities have been said to confront throughout much of the 2000s. At worst, the last ten years of gentrification have been more mild, and less sweeping, than many critics have assumed.


April 27th, 2010

Killing Prince Edward Road’s Creative Buzz

Twenty years ago, when film producer Amy Chin was looking for a new office, she came across a 1,500-square-foot flat in an old shophouse in the Mong Kok Flower Market. She fell in love as soon as she saw the 12-foot ceilings, balcony and huge, enclosed verandah. “This place is very good for creative people because of the ambiance,” she said. “We work late, until three or four in the morning, when the flower hawkers come out. The air is so fresh.”

Over the years, some of the biggest names in Hong Kong film joined Chin: John Woo Yu-sen shared an office with her until he moved to Los Angeles, film director Fruit Chan Gor leased the flat upstairs, Chow Yun-fat’s agency moved in and Ann Hui On-wah used one of the building’s flats to film a movie. Chin credits her landlord, a retired civil engineer, for keeping the building in good shape while keeping rents low. “He’s done a better job of taking care of this property than the government ever could,” she said. “The reason I can keep on making movies is because of this place.”

Now her building is one of 10 shophouses that will be renovated by the Urban Renewal Authority. The buildings, which were built in the 1930s by the Belgian construction company Crédit Foncier d’Extrème Orient, were originally targeted at middle-class homeowners, with amenities like private bathrooms that were unusual in other shophouses. Today, the buildings contain a mix of flower shops on the ground level and businesses and residential flats on the upper floors.


February 25th, 2010

Moving on from Fort Point

Posted in Art and Design, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

The bridge where Summer Street crosses over A is literally the bowels of Fort Point, the shadowy bottom of a neighborhood where buildings reach different heights depending where they meet the grade of the street. In October, the underside of the bridge was covered in rainbow-colored, neon slinkys. Closer to the holiday season, it was bedecked in the brilliant illumination of hundreds of blue lights.

A block away, prints by Shepard Fairey — infamously arrested last year for promoting his show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, just a stone’s throw from Fort Point, with a guerilla street art installation — cover an abandoned diner, and ghostly photo portraits intermittently stare from walls.

This prevalence of open-air art — not even counting what’s in the neighborhood’s galleries and studio spaces — give one the impression that Fort Point’s art scene is thriving. But stroll just a few feet from the Summer Street bridge and a pair of homemade, laser-printed posters bearing the logo of the Fort Point Artist Community proclaim it an “endangered neighborhood”.


December 14th, 2009

A Brief History of Noho

Queen's Road

Queen’s Road, near Noho, in 1930 and today. Photo by HK Man

Noho is Hong Kong’s newest neighbourhood. It’s also one of the oldest. This is, of course, an old part of town that has just recently gentrified and been given a New York-inspired moniker, which stands for North of Hollywood Road and is a counterpoint to the already-trendy enclave of Soho, which as you might guess sits on the other side of Hollywood Road.

Though it might now be known for dining, drinking and shopping, Noho was once associated with a few other things: revolution, prostitution and printing. First developed in the 1850s, shortly after the arrival of the British in Hong Kong, the area around Gough Street was a borderland between the city’s European and Chinese quarters. To the east were the banks, clubs and colonial institutions that served Hong Kong’s elite; to the west was a parallel Chinese city, crowded with migrant workers and merchants from across the harbour.

Living conditions were dire. With the villas and apartments of Central reserved only for whites, space was at a premium, and Chinese families were forced to live seven or eight to a room in squalid tenements.


December 13th, 2009

Hipster-Hasid Bike War in Brooklyn

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The tensions had to bubble to the surface at some point. That’s the consensus that has emerged since underground cylcing activists literally took their fight to the streets, reclaiming a fourteen block stretch of bike lane that had been removed in Brooklyn earlier this year — at the possible behest of the area’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.

The removal occurred on a stretch of Bedford Avenue, the main artery of Williamsburg. For the uninitiated, the neighborhood is roughly split between a gentrifying playground for youngish hipsters to the north and a tradition-bound, family-oriented Hasidic district to the south. The contrast between the two Williamsburgs can be stark, especially on Saturdays: whereas the northside is often packed with revelers, the storefronts of the southside are shut, and, save for families walking to and from synogogues, its sidewalks deserted.

Neither part of Williamsburg could remain contained within its own sphere for very long, and a culture clash was probably inevitable. The city cited safety concerns — including a prevalence of double parking and an increasing number of pedestrians being hit by bikes — as its reason for removing the lanes, but cycling advocates blamed Hasidic complaints that bikers’ skimpy attire was an affront to their moral sensibilities.


December 10th, 2007

The Lower Main

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf




Keep a close eye on the block of the Main between René Lévesque and Ste. Catherine — it’s due for some big changes. Already, the peep shows, sketchy bars and strip clubs are finding themselves neighbours with art galleries and the SAT. You’ll notice that some of these buildings, like the one containing the Épicerie d’Importations Main, a Middle Eastern grocery store that opened in 1903, are merely façades being propped up by a steel frame. With the development of the Quartier des spectacles, it won’t be long until they make way for something more rentable.

December 6th, 2007

Paris: Beyond the End of History

Posted in Europe, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Quai d'Orsay: From Commuters to Connoisseurs

Quai d’Orsay: From Commuters to Connoisseurs

French culture is dead. So declared Time magazine’s Don Morrison recently. Complacently subsisting off plentiful government subsidies, France’s once-trendsetting culture class have failed to keep up and compete with any of the noise issuing forth from the anglophone world. If France’s capital city is any reflection of the country’s cultural decline, one might be inclined to agree with him — at least superficially.

The museum-like quality of Paris, which remains — seemingly — a sort of improbable continuation of its late 19th century self, has long been lamented. The City of Light has maybe taken its very apt nickname a bit too far, bathing, perhaps, in too much of a stage-set’s glow. It’s easy to forgeet, while strolling through the Tuileries in the evening, that the city isn’t some recently dreamed-up theme park — especially since half the park literally serves as a sort of fairground.

It’s telling that the two most controversial building projects in central Paris – the reconstruction of Les Halles, a former marketplace turned mall and train station, and the potential rebuilding of the Tuileries palace, are, respectively, an attempt to snuff out one of the few mid-20th century intrusions into central Paris, and the attempt to restore a building lost to fire in 1871. The recent installation of the Velib’ bike-sharing system has only added further to Paris’ 19th century flair: never since then have there been so many pedal warriors on the city’s boulevards. Paris may not only be ossifying, but taking active steps to turn back the clock.

Place Vendôme: Sepulchral City

Place Vendôme: Sepulchral City

Morrison hasn’t completely given up on French culture, claiming that hope lies in the cultural explosion percolating in the immigrant ghettos that proliferate in France’s suburban banlieues and the untapped engine of neoliberal economic growth: the former providing new twists on what “French” means, the latter allowing this new France to competitively export itself to the rest of the world.

It’s true that these two forces have brought considerable change to Paris, though not, perhaps, in the positive ways Morrison expects. The upscale offices of American firms have quintupled along the Avenue Georges V, and St-Germain has steeply declined from Bohemian Rhapsody to Banana Republic. This sort of sterility, more than the mere preservation of belle époque facades, has paralyzed Paris.


September 2nd, 2007

The Contradicitons of Södra Sofielund

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture by Olga Schlyter

A picturesque garden city or a gritty ghetto? Both can be claimed about Södra Sofielund, a small neighbourhood in Malmö where high rates of criminality and poverty go side by side with idyllic homes of the intellectual middle class.

Rosenlundsgatan is a nice little street with row houses and small detached houses from the early 1900’s with hollyhocks on the front and gardens on the back. The street is also in the top three of places with lots of car break-ins in the city. One street away you find the home of Malmö’s mayor. Yet another street away is Sevedsplan, an area with low-rise residentials from the mid 1900’s. It’s one of the poorest parts of town, and by Swedish measures a gritty place.

There is a gentrification process going on among the small houses, but it is going surprisingly slowly. Even in the more idyllic parts there is still a big diversity among in the population. Södra Sofielund is one of the most central parts of Malmö where you can get a house with a garden, and the house prices have been going up a lot during the last years. The neighbourhood is located next to Möllevången, a young, hip and vibrant part of town, and lots of the not-so-young-anymore-but-still-claiming-to-be-hip people from Möllevången dream of a small house with a garden at Sofielund. I’m one of them.