September 8th, 2012

Foreign Interventions in (Calle) Honduras

Posted in Art and Design, Latin America, Politics by Christopher Szabla

You can tell you’re in Palermo by the names of the streets: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica — every one of them running parallel to the Rio de la Plata a different Central American country. Together with the bright pastels and fluorescents of the buildings that line them, these calles give the Buenos Aires barrio a sort of carefree party vibe that transports you from sometimes grey, blustery, near-Antarctic Argentina to the tropics.

The wealthy district has also, like so many acronymed corners of New York, been subdivided by real estate neologisms: “Palermo Chico,” “Palermo Soho,” “Palermo Hollywood”. Calle Honduras runs between two of them — Palermo Hollywood, a sort of laid-back hangout for media types, and Palermo Viejo, the old heart of the neighborhood and center of its nightlife. When I wandered through in October 2010, I found signs at both ends of the street were not only plastered with an endless variety of stickers advertising local clubs and galleries, but hacked using a graffiti-like scrawl: “Honduras” (the signs omit “Calle”) had been changed to read “Honduras Resiste”.

At the time, it was clear to what the altered signs referred. For the past year, Honduras had been in crisis. Its populist president, Manuel Zelaya, attempted to hold a referendum on amending the constitution; opponents claimed it was an attempt to extend his term limits. But siding with many members of the government and Zelaya’s own party, the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the attempt for violating the constitution itself. On June 28, 2009, soldiers raided the presidential palace, seized the president, and flew him to exile in Costa Rica. Honduras immediately erupted in protest.

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August 2nd, 2012

Mongkok’s Rural Past

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

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Hong Kong remakes itself with such ruthless efficiency that few physical traces remain of its past. In many neighbourhoods, the only reminders of what came before are the names of streets. Take Mongkok for example. Today, this is one of the busiest and most crowded parts of Hong Kong, a shopping district, transport hub, industrial area and residential zone packed into one rather small patch of land. It has been that way for decades — this is how the New York Times described it in 1988:

In Mong Kok, space, any space, is special. Here, high-rise buildings are so close to one another they touch like row houses, and many of the apartments jammed inside are so small, families sleep on bunk beds stacked three and four high and keep their belongings in chests and baskets suspended from the ceiling.

In Mong Kok, the family pet is a goldfish or a tiny bird.

Mong Kok students often go to the waiting areas of Hong Kong’s busy Kai Tak Airport when they want a quiet place to study, and their parents check into hourly rate hotel rooms when they want privacy.

But Mongkok’s street names tell a different story. They speak of a more pastoral time, though one that was surely short-lived, since the area developed quickly after the Kowloon street grid was extended north from Yau Ma Tei. Above is a picture of Sai Yeung Choi Street — Watercress Street — which is lined by clothing stores and electronics shops, but which once ran through fields that presumably grew the bitter green vegetable.

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September 11th, 2011

September 11th Street

Posted in History, Latin America, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Between Avenidas Juramento and Olazábal, Calle 11 de Setiembre — September 11th Street — is one of the most beautiful in the upscale Buenos Aires barrio of Belgrano. Its trees arch over the rooflines of multistory apartment buildings, meeting above the middle of the street to form a cavernous, emerald archway that resembles the nave of a cathedral. No wonder visitors to Buenos Aires’ tiny Chinatown, along the congested stretch of Calle Arribeños one block north, often choose to float back to the Subte station on Avenida Cabildo via this pretty street with an improbably weighty name.

The stuff of rote history lessons — caudillos, dates, and battles — makes up many Buenos Aires toponyms, but in this corner of Argentina’s capital, they seem especially heavy with historical references. The next streets south are named 3 de Febrero (the date of a victory in battle over Spanish forces during the Argentine War of Independence) and Calle O’Higgins (for Bernardo O’Higgins, liberator and national hero of Chile). Nearby Calle Cuba, a once surely neutral name, now invites little but political and historical associations. Intersecting each is Calle Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But September 11th Street stands out among them as the most pregnant with meaning. In Latin America, as critics of US foreign policy pointed out in the years after September 11, 2001, the date held sinister connotations long before the attacks: on that day in 1973, a CIA-sponsored coup toppled the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, ushering in Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. That’s not been forgotten in neighboring Argentina, even if Buenos Aires has its own reasons to recall September 11th — a date of significance more than once in the city’s past.

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April 7th, 2011

An Alternate Map of Manhattan

Posted in History, Maps, United States by Christopher Szabla

The original, ca. 1800 Mangin-Goerck Plan (top) and part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, as engraved by William Bridges

Last month, New York celebrated the bicentennial of one of its most iconic works of engineering and urban design — Manhattan’s grid. The 1811 street layout was officially known as the Commissioners’ Plan, but its execution is really owed to John Randel, Jr., the plan’s chief surveyor and engineer, who endured — and persevered through — endless legal and physical challenges to imprinting his vision on what was, north of the burgeoning city, a wild, hilly, watery island.

Randel’s difficult (and often amusing) travails have been widely recounted elsewhere: he was, among other things, pelted with vegetables and even arrested for trespass in the course of carrying out the Commissioners’ scheme, which involved seizing property and, in the course of leveling hillsides, leaving some houses stranded on bluffs along his new avenues. The New York Times has a colorful story about him as part of a larger feature celebrating the grid — which, the paper proclaimed, had easily stood the test of time.

But what if Randel had encountered more propertyholders like Henry Brevoot? His obstinant refusal to part with his estate means that, to this day, you can’t walk the length of 11th Street uninterrupted — it doesn’t run between Broadway and Fourth Ave. Or what if the considerable engineering challenges his project faced — eight million cubic yards of dirt had to be moved from the future west side to fill in the valleys of the future east — simply couldn’t be overcome, either physically or financially?

There’s been plenty of aimless speculation over centuries as to what Manhattan would look like sans grid. Among the more tongue-in-cheek illustrations were Charles-Antoine Perrault and Alex Wallach’s views of what the island would look like if crisscrossed not by its grid, but by Paris’ medieval streets and strident boulevards. Cutting and pasting the Left Bank from one Google Earth grid to another didn’t exactly make for a perfect fit, but the idea that a gridless Manhattan may have developed in a similarly piecemeal, haphazard fashion — as it had, with farmers subdividing their land into individual, poorly meshing grids, until 1811 — makes sense.

But there was at least one serious master plan for Manhattan that predated the Commissioners’. Surviving in only a few rare maps (themselves mostly reproductions), it demonstrates that, had the Commissioners’ Plan not prevailed, New York could have been a considerably different place today.

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August 18th, 2010

Mosque Street’s Other Name

In contrast to the bland apartment buildings on its south side, the northern side of Mosque Street is lined by a crumbling stone wall and vegetation spilling over from the lush grounds of the Jamia Mosque. If you peek over the wall, there’s a nice view of the mosque, which is the oldest in Hong Kong. It’s a surprisingly rustic scene in the Central Mid-Levels, a neighbourhood that has obliterated most traces of its 170-year history.

Another throwback is Mosque Street’s name. Though perfectly straightforward in English, it’s a lot more complicated in Chinese. While the proper standard Chinese name for mosque is 清真寺 (ching tsam tsi), or回教廟 (wui gaau miu) in Cantonese, Mosque Street’s Chinese name uses the expression 摩羅廟 (mo lo miu), which derives from mo lo cha, an old and derogatory term for South Asians.

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April 22nd, 2010

Dear Hong Kong: A Letter from Montreal

Posted in Canada, History, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


The following essay appears in the April 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine. The same issue also contains my feature-length profile on Hong Kong’s “tree professor,” Jim Chi-yung. The magazine can be found at major bookstores throughout the city.

In my neighbourhood, I know exactly what language to speak. At Jean-Coutu (the drugstore), Nouveau Palais (the corner diner) and Première Moisson (the upscale bakery), it’s French. At Zoubris (the copy shop), Cheskie (the Jewish bakery) and Club Social (the Italian café), it’s English.

But in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, on the other side of town, I’m lost. I know the neighbourhood is mostly English-speaking, but I don’t want to offend anyone. So before walking into the clothing store, I decide to take the safe route and speak French. Turns out it was the right decision. The owner was francophone.

Nothing is simple when it comes to language in Montreal. The city’s history has made it one of the most linguistically contested places in the world, but far from being a hindrance, it gives it the kind of powerful creative charge that can only come from cultural friction.

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December 21st, 2009

The Many Chinese Words for “Lane”

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Suoyi Hutong Beijing

Suoyi Hutong, Beijing

There’s several different names in English for small, secondary streets that run between blocks or behind major roads. Alley and lane are the words most often used in North America, but there’s significant variation in the UK, where regional words like vennel, chare, wynd, twitten and jigger are common.

It’s a similar story in China. Just about every city has a lu (路), which is the word mostly commonly used to describe important roads. And even though there is a basic word for lane — xiang (巷) — there are also many regional variations. In Beijing, it’s hutong (衚衕); in Shanghai, it’s longtang (弄堂) and in Chengdu, it’s xiangzi (巷子).

I don’t know anything about the exact origins of these different words for alley, but I imagine they have roots in local languages and geography. In Guangzhou, for example, a common name for alley is tung jeun in Cantonese (衕津), which literally means “alley dock” and refers to a lane near the Pearl River. Nobody uses this word in Hong Kong, where two other words are used to refer to alleys: fong (坊) and lei (里), which is a Cantonese transliteration of the English word “lane.”

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November 29th, 2009

The Mystery of Swiss Lane

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

Swiss Lane

Swiss Lane

Even after seven years of walking its streets, I’m still finding new things in Mile End, the neighbourhood I called home before I left Montreal. Back for a visit last month, I got around mostly by bike, which took me down streets on which I wouldn’t normally walk, like the quiet stretch of Casgrain in the old garment district. That’s where I spotted a laneway with an unusual name: Swiss Lane, according to the street sign, though “lane” has been patched over with white tape and the alley’s official name is now “ruelle Swiss.”

I can’t find any clues as to the origins of Swiss Lane’s name. The city’s otherwise comprehensive Répertoire historique des toponymes montréalais contains no reference to anything Swiss or Suisse. The only mention I can find in the Lovell’s Directory indicates that Swiss Lane was “not built upon.” (Its entry in the 1935 directory is found right under Swastika Avenue, which was apparently a lane off Ste. Famille Street.) So what’s the story behind Swiss Lane?

August 13th, 2009

The Politics of Toponymy

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

Rue University Street

Few things are as contentious and politically charged as the names of where we live, so it’s not surprising to see toponymy back in Montreal’s political spotlight, three years after the Park Avenue/Parc Avenue/avenue du Parc debacle. Earlier this week, a variety of nationalist groups began to advocate the renaming of Amherst Street, ostensibly because its namesake, Jeffrey Amherst, an officer of the British Army who helped conquer Quebec in 1760, advocated the genocide of North America’s native peoples.

Fair enough, I guess. There has long been a movement to give Lionel Groulx the boot from the St. Henri metro station that bears his name because of what he thought and said about Jews. Thing is, in the case of both Amherst and Groulx, as much as their beliefs and actions would be unacceptable today, they were in keeping with the general attitudes of their time. Groulx was far from the only anti-Semite in pre-WWII Canada; Amherst was not the only military leader who engaged in despicable tactics to win a war.

Besides, plenty of other unsettling people whose names have been enshrined in the landscape. If we want to get rid of all of the skeletons in our toponymical closet, we have a lot of cleaning to do, starting with Christopher Columbus (genocidal imperialist), René Lévesque (lethal drunk-driver), Maurice Duplessis (corrupt autocrat) and Saint Zotique (he wasn’t even a saint!).

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April 21st, 2009

Old China in Yau Ma Tei

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher DeWolf

Yau Ma Tei map

While harbour reclamation has made Yau Ma Tei a landlocked neighbourhood, it began life as a waterfront village, with a large Tin Hau temple serving as a hub for trade and activity. When the British gained control of Kowloon in 1860, it laid a grid of mostly numbered streets through Yau Ma Tei. Most of these streets had counterparts on Hong Kong Island, but it wasn’t an issue until the early twentieth century, when Kowloon began to develop in earnest. In 1909, the colonial government formed a committee to rename the streets, which resulted in the interesting assortment of names that still exist today.

Most newer Chinese cities have streets named after other parts of China: massage touts and neon signs compete for attention on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, some of Taipei’s best coffee can be found on Chengdu Road and Chongqing Road is where all the action is in rustbelt Changchun. With the renaming of Yau Ma Tei’s streets, Hong Kong proved no exception — but what makes it unique is that those streets were named by the British after important treaty ports and British-influenced parts of China. What’s more, their romanized versions are based on Cantonese rather than Mandarin. Canton Road was named for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong; Woosung Street for Wusong, a trading hub near Shanghai; and Pak Hoi Street for Beihai, a Cantonese-speaking port in Guangxi.

June 11th, 2008

Canada’s Only Good Boulevard

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Canadian cities fail miserably grandiose urban planning. Every single effort at creating a monumental boulevard has resulted in something mediocre. University Street in Toronto, which runs straight into the Ontario provincial parliament building, has a nice median and a good visual terminus, but it’s ruined by drab furnishings and even more banal buildings. Montreal’s René-Lévesque Boulevard starts nowhere in particular and ends nowhere in particular; although it passes by a number of great Modernist landmarks, like Place Ville-Marie, the CIBC Tower, Hydro-Quebec building and Maison Radio-Canada, it feels aimless and kind of pointless. Ottawa, the one city that could really use a boulevard or two, suffers from an ordinary provincial street grid that ignores the existence of the capital’s many important buildings.

The only example of a Canadian boulevard that really works, at least in my experience, is in Quebec City: Honoré-Mercier Avenue, formerly known as Dufferin Avenue (it was renamed in 1996, with Dufferin’s name given to an expressway, an exchange that brings to mind the renaming, in Montreal, of Dorchester Boulevard after René Lévesque and Dominion Square after Lord Dorchester). First planned in the late nineteenth century, after the construction of Quebec’s provincial legislature, it runs between the Mercier Monument and the edge of the hill separating Quebec’s upper and lower towns. What makes it so remarkable is that it opens up a spectacular vista of the suburbs and hills to the north of Quebec. Restrained street furniture keeps the view uncluttered. Walking down from the parliament, or from the narrow streets of either Old Quebec or Saint-Jean-Baptiste, it is breathtaking.

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April 10th, 2008

Imperial Pedigree

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

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Peel Street, Montreal

I had travelled more than 15,000 kilometres only to stand, once again, at the corner of Peel and Wellington. Of course, it wasn’t the same Peel and Wellington as back home — with a shared colonial past, it shouldn’t be surprising to find some similar street names in both Montreal and Hong Kong.

In Montreal, Peel and Wellington finds itself in the heart of Griffintown, a neighbourhood that was once a centre of industry and working-class Irish life. In Hong Kong, it sits in the middle of a busy market district in Central, an area that was once part of Victoria City, Britain’s nineteenth-century foothold in South China. It seems somehow appropriate that, even halfway across the world from one another, Peel Street and Wellington Street intersect. Peel was named after Robert Peel, a Tory who first elected to Parliament in a “rotten borough” home to just 24 easily-bribed voters, and who served twice as Prime Minister, from 1834-35 and 1841-46. Wellington Street was named after Peel’s longtime ally, the Duke of Wellington, another two-time Prime Minister who served one of his terms immediately after Peel.

There are plenty of other names that will ring familiar to anyone who has spent time in a former outpost of the British Empire: Elgin, Dalhousie, Drake, Drummond, Granville, Argyle. Like shadows left behind by a passing giant, they testify to a kind of globalization that began before the term even existed.

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Peel Street, Hong Kong

November 14th, 2007

Calgary’s Missing Street Names

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I’ve always resented the fact that Calgary’s streets are numbered. Not just numbered, but numbered according to quadrant, so that streets are known as 4th Street SW or 36th Avenue NE, and 4th Street and 4th Avenue intersect not just once, but four times, in each corner of the city. What makes this even worse is that nearly all streets in Calgary are numbered. Except in recent subdivisons, or in rare cases, there are no names to break up the monotony. It lends the city a certain soulless, anonymous air.

That wasn’t always the case. When Calgary was just a young city, a town really, all of its streets were named. Look at an old map and the history of Calgary is revealed in its street names. In the downtown area, straddling the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks, many streets were named after CPR executives: Stephen Avenue, for the company’s first president; Van Horne Avenue, after the man who oversaw construction of the transcontinental railway; McIntyre Avenue and Angus Avenue, after two of the CPR’s investors. In Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Avenue, which ran along the north and south side of the railroad tracks, there was a certain sweet harmony.

Even more interesting was Rouleauville, an old French-Canadian village located just south of Calgary, around St. Mary’s Cathedral, in what is now known as the Mission. Here, the street names honoured prominent Franco-Albertan religious leaders like Lacombe, Doucet and Grandin. Rouleau Street enshrined the name of the two brothers who promoted the idea of a French village near Calgary and secured a land grant from the federal government. Other streets testified to Rouleauville’s Catholic faith, like Notre Dame Road, St. Jean Baptiste Street and St. Joseph Street.

Calgary lost its street names in 1904, when it adopted a numbering system that saw the city divided into quadrants, with Centre Street — formerly McTavish Street — dividing east from west. Rouleauville, a separate municipal entity, retained its street names until 1907, when it was annexed to Calgary. Not only did its French-speaking character eventually erode, it lost the only overt reminder of that French-Canadian heritage: its street names.

I can’t help but wonder Calgary’s the loss of its street names at such a formative time in its history planted the seed of an ahistorical city. For years, Calgary’s relationship with its own history has been one of complete ignorance. Its politicians and developers have long been eager to do away with what few old buildings it has and it could be said, at least until recently, that Calgary has lacked a sense of self. Much of its identity revolves around traditions invented for the purpose of tourism and economic investment, like the white cowboy hats that have come to symbolize the city.

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September 24th, 2007

Calgary’s Montreal Suburb

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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.

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