April 24th, 2008

Apartment Building Names

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


Maplecourt, McGill Ghetto

On a cold, grey day last December, stir-crazy after more than a week of snow, I took a walk down Decarie Boulevard in Montreal. It’s not the most obvious place for a stroll—a six-lane, sunken expressway runs down the middle of it—but it’s a pretty interesting street nonetheless, taking you through a growing Russian neighbourhood and past old landmarks like the Snowdon Theatre and the Snowdon Deli.

Along the way from Van Horne to Queen Mary, I noticed something else, too: the names of the apartment houses along Decarie. Heading south, I passed a series of boxy 1940s-era buildings with strangely terse names—King, York, Michel—each inscribed very plainly above the main entrance. Some of the more modern buildings along the street had more flamboyant names, like the Decarie Towers, which as far as I could tell consisted of just one tower, and a fairly short one at that.

Historically, property developers have used names to distinguish and define their apartment buildings. They’re a marketing gimmick, in other words. Inadvertently, though, apartment building names can reveal a lot about a city’s character.

In Montreal, apartment houses first became fashionable in the late nineteenth century, mostly in the upper-middle-class anglophone neighbourhoods around the Golden Square Mile. That might explain why, in a city that was about half French-speaking, the names of these buildings were strikingly Anglo-Saxon. Some were reliably conservative, like the Waldorf and the Smithsonian. Others traded on imperial glory, like the King Edward and the Majestic. Still others were almost cloyingly quaint, like the Pickwick Arms.


January 28th, 2008

Chinatown’s Jewish History


If Chinatown’s Jewish heritage isn’t obvious, it’s probably because it has been erased by time and redevelopment, swept away like Chenneville St. and its quietly imposing synagogue.

Makom: Seeking Sacred Space, an ongoing exhibition at Hampstead’s Dorshei Emet synagogue, examines the historical traces of Montreal’s Jewish community with photos of former synagogues near the Main.

“The exhibition raises some really interesting questions about the way that spaces that are claimed by one group of people or one community are also claimed, in their own way, by other communities,” said Leanore Lieblein, a retired McGill English professor who helped organize the exhibition. Even in a synagogue that has been renovated and used for something else, she added, “you can feel the presence of past lives in that building.”

Chenneville’s synagogue was a case in point. Located on a small street (now shortened and written as Cheneville) between St. Urbain and Jeanne Mance Sts., below Dorchester (now René Lévesque) Blvd. and above Craig (now St. Antoine) St., it was built in 1838 by Montreal’s oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel.

In 1887, when Shearith Israel moved to a much larger home on Stanley St. – following the westward migration of Montreal’s older generations of Canadian-born, anglicized Jews – the synagogue was rented by Beth David, a congregation of Romanian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century, part of a huge wave of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Over the next three decades, the area around present-day Chinatown – with Bleury St. to the west, Sanguinet St. to the east, Craig to the south and Ontario St. to the north – became the heart of Jewish Montreal, a haven for Yiddish-speaking immigrants who established businesses, synagogues and many of the Jewish institutions that still exist.

Israel Medresh, a journalist for the Kanader Adler, a Yiddish-language daily newspaper, sketched a portrait of the neighbourhood in his 1947 book Montreal Foun Nekhtn, translated into English in 2000 as Montreal of Yesterday.

“The corner of St. Urbain and Dorchester was the very heart of the Jewish neighbourhood,” he wrote. “Nearby was Dufferin Park, then a ‘Jewish park’ where Jewish immigrants went to breathe the fresh air, meet their landslayt (compatriots), hear the latest news, look for work and read the newspapers.”


January 9th, 2008

Nathalie and Denbigh

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


My hunt for apartment building names has only just begun, but these two photos show exactly why I’m interested in them in the first place. Appartement Nathalie is located on St. Denis near Rachel, right in the middle of the Plateau Mont-Royal. The Denbigh, meanwhile, can be found about five kilometres to the west, at the corner of de Maisonneuve and Elm in Westmount.

Both were built around the same time in the late nineteenth century. Without being too obvious, their names speak a lot to Montreal’s cultural and linguistic divide, between francophones and anglophones, French-Canadians and Anglo-Scots. But they also hint at trends that bridged that divide, like the increasing popularity of apartment buildings among Montreal’s upper middle-class, French and English alike, in the late 1800s.


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.


October 15th, 2007

Il fait beau dans l’métro

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf
YouTube Preview Image

(I first posted about Il fait beau dans l’métro last April. Today, an article was published with a more in-depth look at the advertisement.)

A troupe of exuberant dancers isn’t what most commuters expect when they descend into the métro. But there they were, in Il fait beau dans l’métro, an iconic 1976 television advertisement that was a triumph of public transit geekery, gaudy fashion and vintage Québécois kitsch.

The advertisement opens with the familiar sight of a métro car entering Atwater station. A troupe of lively dancers jumps out, singing, “Il fait beau dans l’métro, tout le monde est gai, tout le monde a le coeur au soleil.” The métro’s distinctive three-tone chime – created by air rushing out of the brakes when trains leave the station – is incorporated into the tune.

You would think that this ad would be long forgotten. In the last year, however, Il fait beau dans l’métro has won a new generation of fans online, part of a burgeoning trend of nostalgia for public transit imagery and pop culture kitsch from the 1960s and ’70s.

The ad has racked up more than 100,000 views on YouTube and it has been featured on most of Montreal’s most widely read blogs. On Facebook, a group devoted to the ad has attracted close to 600 members.

Andrew Martin and Michael Baillargeon, undergraduate students at McGill University, created the Facebook group this year.

“I am a rapid-transit nerd, with interests in advertising, musicals, and costumes, so naturally I became an instant fan of the clip,” said Martin.

“It was Michael who took the initiative to start the Facebook group. Part of the original intention was to get a group of people to go down and reenact the ad. Sadly, to my knowledge, this has yet to take place.”


September 24th, 2007

Calgary’s Montreal Suburb


Stroll up the hill just south of downtown and take a look at the street signs: Frontenac Avenue. Montreal Avenue. Wolfe Street. Cabot Street. Montcalm Crescent. Talon Avenue. Laval Avenue. Dorchester Avenue. Where are we? In Mount Royal, of course, Calgary’s most prestigious neighbourhood.

I’ve always found it odd that the street names found in this hilltop district — hell, even the name of the neighbourhood itself — are meant to so deliberately to evoke Montreal and Quebec. In terms of architecture or design, Mount Royal is typical of pretty much any Garden City-inspired suburb developed in the early twentieth century. So why the references to a city and province so far removed from what was once bald prairie?

At the dawn of the twentieth century, American entrepreneurs, many from property speculators from the Dakotas, flocked to Calgary and settled on the hill just south of town. Very quickly, it came to be known as American Hill, and towards the end of the 1900s many of its residents expressed their desire to name the district’s streets after American presidents such as Washington, Cleveland and Grant.

“This did not go down well with the predominantly British-Canadian culture of Calgary at that time,” write Elise Corbet and Lorne Simpson in their detailed history of Mount Royal. “The majority of the population came from eastern Canada or the British Isles, and they were proud of their connection with the British Empire,” write Corbert and Simpson. “This did not go down well with the predominantly British-Canadian culture of Calgary at that time. The majority of the population came from eastern Canada or the British Isles, and they were proud of their connection with the British Empire. The initial reaction came with the 1907 plan, showing such names as Sydenham, Durham, Colborne, Carleton, Dorchester and Amherst, names resonant of British rule in Canada, which should have been enough to counter the concept of American Hill.”

But it wasn’t enough. In 1910, two Tory members of Calgary’s elite, R.B. Bennett and William Toole — Bennett would later become Prime Minister — convinced the Canadian Pacific Railway, which owned most land around Calgary, to officially rename American Hill after Mount Royal, in honour of the CPR’s president, William Van Horne, who lived in Montreal.

Then, write Corbet and Simpson, “the full force of Canadian patriotism was brought to bear when the street names zeroed in on prominent French Canadians in our history: Frontenac, Montcalm, Talon, Laval, Joliet, Verchères (the only woman in the group), and early explorers such as Cabot and Champlain. Montreal, Quebec and Levis were thrown in for good measure. After this, there was no more talk of American Hill.”

Of course, most of these names, from Amherst to Talon, would be familiar to Montrealers. After all, they grace a number of our own streets. But, removed from local history as they are, the street names of Calgary’s Mount Royal never seem to have become grafted to the landscape. Nearly a century after their imposition, they seem somehow contrived.

(I should add that this isn’t true for the name of Mount Royal itself: it quickly entered Calgary’s collective imagination as a symbol of the city’s elite. In 1910, it was even reflected in the name of Calgary’s first college.)

Today, nearly a third of Mount Royal’s residents are American immigrants or expatriates. In a way, the legacy of American Hill lives on.


July 29th, 2007

The King is Dead; Long Live the King


One of the King of Kowloon’s last remaining pieces.
Photo by Dustin Shum of the South China Morning Post

Tsang Tsou Choi, the King of Kowloon, died two weeks ago at the age of 86. I wrote about Tsang in March, outlining my first encounter with his graffiti and the strange and sometimes nonsensical messages it contains.

Hong Kongers will remember his denunciations of Queen Elizabeth II and his outlandish claim to be the rightful proprietor of most of Kowloon. But Tsang’s impact was less trivial than it might seem: in a society that for decades stressed material gain and social mobility above all else, the King of Kowloon was an oddball and an outsider. His unique visual style influenced a generation of creative young Hong Kongers and, in 2003, his work was featured in the Venice Biennial.

For most of his life, however, Tsang was not viewed with such high regard by the Hong Kong authorities, who doggedly erased his work as soon as he put it up. Only a few of his murals remain, the most prominent being located on a pillar at the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. Now, pressure is mounting on Hong Kong’s leaders to preserve what is left of the King’s legacy. “Friends, exhibitors, members of the Antiquities Advisory Board and a legislator said Tsang’s work, some of which remains on walls in Kowloon, was part of the city’s collective memory and must be preserved,” reports the South China Morning Post.

Ever since its handover to China in 1997 and the economic recession that followed, the question of Hong Kong’s identity has weighed heavily on its citizens. Last year, the decision to destroy the Queen’s Pier and an historic Star Ferry terminal sparked widespread outrage, as did the eviction of hundreds of residents and businesses for “Wedding Card Street” to make way for a new real estate development. Issues of heritage and “collective memory” have become standard fodder for discussion.

For many Hong Kongers, then, the King of Kowloon represented a part of the territory’s local identity, a small part of the unique culture that sets it apart from the overbearing mainland. So far, government officials appear to be listening. The SCMP reports that they promised yesterday not to remove any of the King’s remaining work. “I don’t see any reason why they should be removed,” said Bernard Chan, a member of Hong Kong’s executive council.

The King might be dead, but his spirit lives on.

April 15th, 2007

Are Canada’s Cities Becoming More Segregated?

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Mapped Presence

“Mapped Presence” by blacqbook

According to Statistics Canada, Canada now has 254 “visible minority neighbourhoods”—neighbourhoods that have more than 30 percent of their population from a particular visible minority group—most of which are found in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. When this number was first revealed in 2004, many members of Canada’s mass media saw it as an indication that our cities are becoming racially segregated patchworks of ethnic enclaves and insular communities.

Some have used the number as a convenient way to raise questions about official multiculturalism. Last year, pollster and pundit Alan Gregg wrote in a Walrus essay that the rise of “ethnic enclaves” tells us that “Canada’s fabled mosaic is fracturing and that ethnic groups are self-segregating.” Later, he adds that “this growing sense of separateness can have troubling consequences for national identity.”

More recently, in a Le Devoir article on the 25th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the reporter Hélène Buzzetti rolled out the same numbers to question whether Charter-led multicultural policy might be undermining Canada’s social fabric. Could the rise of such enclaves ethniques be a sign of the “obliteration of Canadian society?” she asks.

But Buzzetti and Gregg, like many others, cite the “ethnic enclave” number without seeming to understand the demographics behind it. In fact, few people in the mass media have ever taken a close look at why the number of visible minority neighbourhoods has increased. (For one, nobody really seems to grasp that Statistics Canada’s “visible minority neighbourhoods” are not actually the same as ethnic enclaves.) The end result is that the media give the impression that Canadian cities are becoming more and more segregated when, in fact, the opposite is true.


April 6th, 2007

You Are Here: A City In Its Street Signs

Rue Groll St.

Rue Groll St., reads the street sign, jutting out from a wood hydro pole. This isn’t a sign in officially bilingual Ottawa: it is found in officially French Montreal, on a tiny lane in Mile End. The original sign was in English, but some time ago a sticker reading “Rue” was added, in a rather haphazard fashion, at the top of the sign.

Lost in the clutter of the urban landscape, street signs go largely unnoticed, but small details like this speak volumes about Montreal’s past and present. They convey more than just the names of streets. They are part of what is known as our “living heritage,” the everyday things we take for granted but are nonetheless a vital part of who we are. They tell us about Montreal’s complicated relationship with language and place.

Street signs did not appear in Montreal until 1818, when crude wood planks bearing the names of streets were erected on buildings adjacent to squares and intersections. In 1851, the system was refined when bilingual wood signs were used to identify all streets and parks.

Today, dozens of different types of street signs can be found across the city, from the red-and-beige ones in Old Montreal, which maintain the colour scheme and typeface of Montreal’s first 19th-century signs, to the bulbous, oval-shaped plaques de rue of Outremont and St. Laurent.


March 24th, 2007

The King of Kowloon


Before we left for our trip to Hong Kong, my girlfriend told me about the world’s oldest graffiti artist. “He’s eighty-five years old and he calls himself the King of Kowloon,” she explained. I had trouble reconciling the image of a frail old man with that of a typical paint-wielding street artist, especially after seeing a photo of some of the King’s work, which consisted of densely-packed, obssesive Chinese script arranged in neat lines and scrawled over the side of a pedestrian overpass.

About two weeks after I arrived in Hong Kong, I was walking from our apartment in leafy Yau Yat Chuen to go explore the more downscale Sham Shui Po. It had been raining that morning; the humid midday heat was so intense that I felt I was walking through water. As sweat poured down my back, I wished I hadn’t worn a thin pink shirt. Eventually, I emerged onto the inhospitable Boundary Road, walking towards the intersection with Tai Hang Tung Road. As I began crossing the street, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a grey utility boxed covered with Chinese script.

I knew it at once: I had finally crossed paths with the King of Kowloon.


February 2nd, 2007

A New “Chinatown” Grows in Montreal

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


On a cold January night, Fabian Jean and his mother, Lily, were enjoying a warming bowl of tong shui (sweet dessert soup) at the Chinese restaurant Prêt à Manger on Ste. Catherine St. West.

“I find it’s actually a lot better than the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown,” Fabian said.

“It’s so hard to park in Chinatown, too,” added his mother, who was born in Hong Kong, but moved to Montreal “too long ago to remember.”

Lily Jean (the name, which is Toisanese, is pronounced like the jean in blue jeans) and Montreal-born Fabian, an artist who lives on the Plateau, have seen the area west of Concordia University revitalized by students and immigrants.

“It was a struggling part of Ste. Catherine St. for many years,” Fabian said. “It’s refreshing to see a bit of life here.”

The transformation goes beyond Ste. Catherine. In the last few years, thousands of students, immigrants and business owners from Asia have turned the west end of downtown, from Guy St. to Atwater Ave., into a sort of Chinatown West.


February 1st, 2007

Dépanneur Weijia

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


I can’t remember what was there before Weijia. Another depanneur, sure, but obviously not a remarkable one. I’m not even sure it had a sign. But then, a couple of years ago, a friendly, middle-aged couple from the northern Chinese province of Shandong bought the depanneur and mounted a large vinyl banner that clearly announced both the store’s vocation and the ethnic origin of its owners. Neither of the couple can speak French or English; instead, they speak a mangled hybrid, so that when you buy a bottle of beer they are likely to say, “Bonjour! Two dollar! Merci!”

Dépanneur Weijia is located on Park Avenue in Mile End, between a laundromat and a vacant building that onced housed Marko’s Textiles. (The story of Marko, which involves a shooting death, flags and a mysterious fire, can read here.) Although it has a Chinese name and sign, there is nothing particularly Chinese about what is sold at Weijia, just a run-of-the-mill assortment of newspapers, snacks, soft drinks, beer and cigarettes.

Intentionally or not, however, Weijia is part of a neighbourhood trend. As new Chinese immigrants buy Mile End’s depanneurs, they are giving them distinctly Chinese names: Zi Yuan, for instance, or Xin Ying. This appears to be a break from the tradition of maintaining old or generic names. Of course, every Montrealer knows that a depanneur’s name is hardly important. Some stores don’t even bother to display them, or even to mount a sign—the Molson placards in the windows will suffice.

Perhaps, then, giving their dépanneur a name like Weijia was a way for an immigrant couple to claim a bit of the Park Avenue landscape for themselves. That certainly seemed the case last summer, when the neighbourhood was experiencing a bout of World Cup fever and flags from around the world were paraded around Montreal. China’s team didn’t even qualify for the cup, but that didn’t stop Weijia’s owners from mounting a small People’s Republic flag on their door, five yellow stars shining in the summer sun.