January 24th, 2011

Everyone’s Talking About the Weather

Posted in Politics, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla

“Everyone’s talking about the weather,” runs a loose translation of an old German political poster, “except us.” The slogan was used to parody a period railroad ad that trumpeted the Deutsche Bahn’s storm-resistant resilience, but it also attempted a deeper point: that meaningful politics is serious business, above the fray of such trivial, provincial preoccupations as the latest shower, hail, or frost.

In a recent essay at 3 Quarks Daily, Alyssa Pelish takes the other side of the argument. At first, she wonders whether talking about the three-day forecast might really be a sort of code obscuring some underlying purpose — functioning as a form of empathy, for example. Ultimately, she sees an even greater significance in sharing news about the weather: it provides one of the few “universally shared narratives” available to everyone.

It’s true that everyone experiences weather, full stop. But the way we do seems like it might be more effective at fostering individual communities rather than any single, universal one. Think, for example, of a snowstorm, when the collective, Herculean task of removing tons and tons of heavy, disruptive white stuff requires a city’s residents to work together — and, together, to interact with their government — at the most intimate, personal level.

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November 30th, 2010

This is Argentina Crying

Posted in Latin America, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

“Everything you foreigners know about Argentina,” the older gentleman asserted, “you know from that Madonna movie.” We’re standing in Palermo Viejo, a trendy neighborhood miles away from the buildings and blocks that pencil in postcard Buenos Aires. If his statement — referencing Evita, the 1996 musical melodrama about Argentina’s most charismatic first lady — were true, outsiders would be thrown by what they found here. There’s little of the country’s trademark tango of mournful melancholy and testy protest politics present among Palermo’s buzzing bars and chic shops. This is not an Argentina that Evita would have ever had to ask to stop crying.

But Palermo is an asterisk on Buenos Aires’ cultural and political map. Elsewhere, BA is a city of brooding memory: the names of generals and battles overwhelm its street signs and the friezes of its major edifices. There’s even a “Parque de la Memoria” in the city’s far north, devoted to the victims of Argentina’s dictatorial Dirty War.

Natives to such history-saturated soil eagerly invoked Evita and her husband, Juan Peron, when the Kirchners (Nestor and Cristina), came to power in 2003 — each eventually taking a turn as president. The parallels went well beyond their power couple personas. Nestor’s gutsy decision to stand up to the IMF on Argentina’s unbearable debt burden earned him acclaim for rescuing the country’s finances. Along with later accusations the Kirchners were attempting to consolidate domestic power, the move helped breed deeper comparisons to their autarkic (and somewhat autocratic) predecessors.

The Kirchners, fittingly, slated a dusty lot just downhill from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, as the future site of a vast, permanent homage to Juan Peron. But however prevalent, Buenos Aires’ paint-spacked, graffiti-covered monuments are a reminder that Argentine politics offer only illusory glory. Power here has been made and unmade on the street. Raucous demonstrations for, against, or barely related to the controversy of the week are common in the Plaza de Mayo, the vast square reaching out from the front of the Casa Rosada — and tend to radiate well beyond.

That made it natural for many to gravitate to the Plaza on October 27, when word spread of Nestor’s untimely death — and the political shakeup it might portend. The resulting outbreak of national mourning begat a see-and-be-seen atmosphere of patriotic celebration, protest action, and all-out street carnival, coming to resemble the country’s passionate soccer matches more than any somber state vigil.

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July 24th, 2010

Beirut: Signs of Postwar Politics

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Public Space by Patrick Donovan

Beirut signs

Posters along the former green line calling for “real change.”

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After years of foreign/militia rule, the Lebanese navy reasserts itself through this poster featuring a group of scowling teenage boys. “We’re back!” reads the caption in the lower left. Should we feel threatened or reassured?
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October 20th, 2009

Electoral Politics by Plop

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

My friend Mark's city

I recently sat down to write an article about the municipal elections. I started reading up about the candidates, browsed their pages, explored some of the Montreal blogs. And the more I read the more depressed I became, to the point that the only way I was able to regain sanity was through a marathon session of SimCity 4, in which I decided to regain the trust of my simulated citizens by installing a tramway on my own personal Côte-des-Neiges Boulevard. Believe you me, I fixed transportation for a generation, and it’s all totally sustainable.

See, I like SimCity. By now it’s an old game, but it’s still a classic. As the benevolent mayor of a few hundred thousand simulated yous and mes, I can flex my muscles and do whatever I like. A housing project in my way? Bring in the bulldozers. I’ve installed add-on packs for everything you can think of: elevated trains, pedestrian malls, depressed freeways. In my town of Saint-Sam-sur-Richelieu, or whatever the current mayoral endeavour is called, there are no elections to speak of—but if I’m reeling from the strain of low mayoral ratings, I can always just build a few landmarks. I drop Statue of Liberty here; a Petronas Tower there.

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July 3rd, 2009

Forty Years Since Stonewall

Posted in History, Politics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

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“Freedom! I want freedom! Let me go!” The woman’s arms were flailing wildly, and she was shouting at a police officer standing guard at the intersection of Christopher and Greenwich Streets. Her gesticulations could have been mistaken for a political protest — she was, after all, among the hundreds pressed against the crowd control barriers, not more than a few feet from which New York’s gay pride parade was moving past: an hours-long stream of floats and dancers coursed down Fifth Avenue and filtered into ever-narrower Village streets before reaching the route’s terminus near the foot of Christopher. But it turned out all she really wanted to do was cross the street and get home.

For all the inconvenience and discomfort of hosting a full-scale urban celebration along its slim sidewalks and underneath the drooping limbs of its trees, though, there could be no more poignant destination for the parade than Christopher Street, where, forty years ago, an uprising began the U.S.’ gay rights movement.

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September 7th, 2008

Tau Yat Piu! Throw a Vote!

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

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It’s election time in Hong Kong. Today, hundreds of thousands of people headed to the polls to determine the makeup of the Legislative Council, a territorial legislature that meets in an old court building marked by a statue of Themis, the Greek goddess of justice. Half of the council’s 60 members represent geographical constituencies and are elected directly by the public, while the rest are elected by members of “functional constituencies” such as law, social welfare and the arts.

A cynical interpretation of Hong Kong’s electoral system would be to dismiss it as an ersatz democracy designed to shore up the power of Hong Kong’s establishment and maintain the territory’s status quo, while giving people the illusion of having a say. But, for all its flaws, I’m willing to subscribe to a most optimistic view, which is that this is a very much a nascent democracy, which I think is pretty remarkable when you consider the context in which it exists. For all the efforts Beijing and its supporters have made to influence the way that Hong Kongers think and vote, 60 percent of the popularly-elected seats in the 2004 Legislative Council election were won by pro-democrats.

Here, perhaps more than in many more established democracies, election time is messy, emotional and pervasive. I love elections because they bring a process that is normally aloof and unseen right down into the streets. In Montreal, there seems to be an election or by-election every year, be it of the federal, provincial or municipal variety. Posters and advertisements are ubiquitous but, as passionate as people there are about politics, you never quite get the feeling that there is anything particularly gritty or grassroots going on.

There’s no shortage of that here, where vast slates of candidates compete intensely for the few seats available. Vans with loudspeakers mounted on the roof drive around town blasting warbly messages in support of one party or another. Candidates and other well-known politicians stand on neighbourhood streetcorners, pageant-style sashes strung across their torsos, where they attempt to glad-hand onto anyone who walks by. Election posters festoon shops, buildings and minibus windows.

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April 7th, 2008

Long Live the King

Posted in Asia Pacific, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Although Canada has a monarch, Britain’s queen retains very little presence in Canadian culture. The kind of curiosity and adulation that inspired thousands of Montrealers to flood the streets when King George VI visited in 1939 has long since vanished. It’s a bit of a shock, then, to visit Bangkok and realize the exent to which the King of Thailand appears to be adored, with utmost earnesty, by the city’s inhabitants. Shrines to the king are found throughout the city, on streets and in shopping malls. Each Monday, many people in Bangkok—a significant minority, at least—wear yellow shirts in honour of the king.

Of course, it’s easy to forget that, as well-loved as Thailand’s king appears, he is protected by lèse majesté laws that are used to prosecute anyone who dares criticize any of Thailand’s royalty. This despite the fact that the king himself, an American-born, Swiss-educated man named Bhumibol Adulyadej, has admitted that “the king can do wrong,” and that “I must also be criticized.” Nonetheless, accusations of lèse majesté levied against Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, were among the motives behind the 2006 military coup against the country’s democratically-elected government.

Earlier this year, the king’s only sister died; shrines to her have been erected in the city’s metro stations. In one station, the shrine is accompanied by a book in which passersby can write their condolences. If only I could read Thai — what have people written?


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October 25th, 2007

Will the United Nations Move to Montreal?

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Politics by Christopher DeWolf

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Last week, La Presse reported quite breathlessly that the federal government, which owns the Port of Montreal and much of the land along its waterfront, has been lobbying the United Nations to move its headquarters from New York to Montreal. The rationale, apparently, is that the UN’s current headquarters, housed in an iconic complex built in 1949 along the East River, needs nearly $2 billion worth of renovations over the next couple of decades. It would cost a lot less to simply pack up and move to Montreal, where a state-of-the-art new headquarters would be waiting on the site of the Silo No. 5 and on adjacent piers.

You have to admit, as outlandish an idea as this may be, it would be pretty cool to have the United Nations in Montreal. So far, La Presse is the only paper reporting any of this in depth — Montreal’s other media outlets seem to be rolling their eyes in disbelief — but the Gazette’s Henry Aubin came up with a list of reasons why moving the UN to Montreal would be a swell idea. Among the most convincing? The UN would be an enormous boon to the city’s economy, bringing in 20,000 highly-paid workers and creating as many as 60,000 spinoff jobs. The UN’s two working languages are French and English, which would reinforce Montreal’s bilingualism while infusing the city with plenty of new people who speak good French.

Real estate promoters certainly like the idea of moving the world organization: here in Montreal, they’d get a share of multi-billion dollar contracts to design and develop the new headquarters. In New York, they’d get to redevelop the UN’s old headquarters, also worth billions of dollars.

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March 26th, 2007

Politicians, Slippery in More Ways than One

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

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Quebeckers head to the polls today in a provincial election that might produce the first minority government in more than a century. Most of the snow has melted, but for most of February and March, the election provided for more than just news-hour entertainment: it made for great impromptu tobogganing for people who don’t have enough room in their apartments for real sleds. Just like politicians, you see, election signs are very slippery.

My first experience with election sign tobogganing came just over a year ago, on a clear, cold January night. Canadians have gotten used to constant election fever since the Liberals lost their majority in 2004, but last winter was exceptional: in Montreal’s Outremont riding, there were three elections in as many months. First was a municipal election in November, then a provincial by-election in December. By the time we trudged to the polls to vote in January’s federal election, leftover election signs from all three races were in abundance. It only seemed natural to put some of them to good use on the bunny hill at the corner of Park and Mount Royal.

So, armed with scissors, we snipped down a few green Omar Aktoufs, found some NDP-orange Léo-Paul Lauzons, recovered a diamond-shaped Farouk Karim and scored what we considered to be the prize of the night, a giant rectangular Raya Mileva. Bracing against the wind, our skin frosty despite layers of wool sweaters, scarves and mittens, we walked to the edge of Mount Royal and clamoured up the small tobogganing hill.

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January 17th, 2007

The Motorcycles of the Pearl River Delta

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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The fast ferry between Hong Kong and Macau is disorienting. It is essentially a floating airline cabin, with neat rows of preassigned seats in which you are expected to remain for the duration of the trip. Roving attendants offer drinks and sandwiches. There is no outside deck on which you can stand and taste the salt air, or feel the wind on your face as you move inexorably towards your destination. Instead, you sit down, take a nap and then, one hour later, emerge into a city that in theory shares a language and culture with Hong Kong but in practice is so much more exuberantly Latin.

Macau is an disorderly but very intimate city, especially in the labyrinth of crowded streets and laneways that make up its oldest, most interesting and thankfully least-touristed section. The first thing you notice when you leave the ferry terminal and emerge into its streets is the abundance of motorcycles and scooters, giving Macau the feel of a grimy Mediterranean port that somehow washed up on the shores of the Pearl River Delta.

From a practical standpoint, scooters make sense in Macau because the city is so dense and compact. The Macau Peninsula, home to 390,000 people, covers just 8.5 square kilometres—in the Santo António parish, 104,200 people are squeezed into a single kilometre—so scooters are the fastest and most space-efficient way to move the population. In fact, scooters are so popular they outnumber cars 66,000 to 64,000. Something about the constant buzz of tiny motorcycles speeding down impossibly narrow streets and leafy boulevards gives Macau an unpredictable edge that even Hong Kong lacks.

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November 3rd, 2006

Ottawa Votes!

Posted in Canada, Politics, Society and Culture, Transportation by Nick Wellington

Although not big news outside of Ottawa, the municipal election this year is making daily headlines in the local papers. I’m not sure if this is a regular thing, as I’ve only been here for one previous, but based on my experience in Calgary I’d guess it isn’t. I’ve taken a collection of photos of the numerous election signs all over Ottawa, which seem to be even more extensive then for the last federal election.


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