June 19th, 2010

Gentrification: Y2K to Today

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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December 14th, 2009

A Brief History of Noho

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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.

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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.

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December 10th, 2007

The Lower Main

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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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.

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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.

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May 23rd, 2007

The Industrial City Time-Warp: Shenzhen

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

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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?

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January 1st, 2007

Welcome to Mile End

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Mile End feels like Sesame Street. It has the right combination of rusty cornices, a welcoming atmosphere and multiethnic groups of children playing in the street, although big yellow birds and blue cookie monsters are lamentably absent.

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November 18th, 2006

Upper East Exodus?

Posted in Demographics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

Park Avenue; photo by flickr user Ansual

The Upper East Side is dying, at least according to New York magazine, in the latest issue of which Jay McInerney tries to convince us that the bastion of the New York elite is heading towards extinction. If such a proclamation is meant to be anything but hubris, however, it ought at least to come with a few caveats.

The first is that the existence of New York itself is partially driven by the very blonde-wigged, fur-wearing gossip mavens of whom McInerney flags the imminent decline; the article’s appearance is akin to those on the covers of political-science tomes asking if the United States’ power will soon be eclipsed. In other words, it has the effect of precipitating panic, demanding defences, and, above all, marketing magazines which contain within the secret signs of this dangerous denouement.

That said, it is hardly surprising that this purported “death” is really the product a soporifically-composed pseudo-sociology. Its greatest fault is this: its author inhabits a small world, one which is a stronghold of the superficial. In its characteristic enchantment with surface baudles and clubby clans it deludes itself–and McInerney–into envsioning an elusively myopic, narrowminded portrait of the city’s social strata. Wherever the diaspora (or whatever the death rate) of its bold-named mainstays, not only the social characteristics of the Upper East Side but, especially, the idea of the neighborhood are stronger than ever- whether or not either are synonymous with the neighborhood’s physical constraints.

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November 2nd, 2006

This Lamb Sells Condos

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

This is the first in a series of posts on city-related pop songs.


Photo by Chiron Bramberger on Flickr

Owen Pallett doesn’t like condos. This is abundantly clear in “This Lamb Sells Condos,” a song on his most recent Final Fantasy record, He Poos Clouds, winner of this year’s Polaris Music Prize for best new Canadian album. The Lamb in question is Brad Lamb, a Toronto condo broker whose billboards, including one with Lamb’s face photoshopped onto the body of a sheep, are found throughout the city. “The lyrics of Pallett’s song are a scathing psychoanalysis of Lamb and his colleagues in the loft and condominium development business, as well as a critical look at the costs — emotional and communal — of urban growth,” Torontoist informs us. Pallet himself elaborates, explaining that “these condos make me wickedly mad. It is turning Toronto into the architectural equivalent of a Glade Plug-In.”

But don’t expect a polemic in “This Lamb Sells Condos.” Instead, its lyrics are decidedly off-kilter and tongue-in-cheek, set to a gorgeous piano composition. The song isn’t so much a personal attack on Lamb as a poke at condo promoters in general, big-ego characters who have gleefully reduced urban life to a kitschy brand. “There’s a merchant in our midst and with a barrel fist / He’s coloured every surface, he’s slapped up a portrait / And yes, it is his own! He’s gonna take your home!” sings Pallett. “Look! Over the treetops! / Newly conjured erections are making him a killing / And Richmond St. is illing, so the graduates are willing / To buy in to the pillage, now there is no hope for the village.”

Click here to download “This Lamb Sells Condos.” The lyrics are after the jump.

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