Race, Class, and Food Insecurity

May 21, 2014 § 5 Comments

When we lived in Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montreal, we lived about two doors down from a community garden in the shadows of the massive Église Saint-Charles.  That community garden had been there as long as I could remember, it pre-dated my first residence in the Pointe back in 2002-4.  The people who used it were the poor, working-class and marginalised Irish and French Canadians who lived in the Pointe. But, by about 2009 or 2010, the garden had been taken over by the gentrifiers, forcing out the old school urban harvesters.  Many of these gentrifiers thought they were new and unique in gardening in an inner-city neighbourhood.  Indeed, this is something I saw over and over again in Montreal, on the Plateau, Saint-Henri, the Pointe, and other neighbourhoods, as hipsters discovered the benefits of community gardens.

But they were hardly new ideas in old working-class neighbourhoods, particularly in the Pointe.  The Pointe had long had community gardens.  Aside from this one in on the rue Island, there was also a bigger one in the shadows of the railway viaduct along the rue Knox.  And the problems arise when the original inhabitants of the Pointe were forced out of these gardens by the gentrifiers.  The gardens were used to supplement diets, obviously.  I also noticed something else when I lived in the Pointe in the early part of the past decade and when I was in Saint-Henri mid-decade.  In both neighbourhoods, the local IGA (grocery store), both owned by the same family, the Topettas, opened new, glitzy stores.  The IGAs in the Pointe and Saint-Henri had been in grotty store fronts, on rue du Centre in the Pointe, and rue Notre-Dame in Saint-Henri.  When the new IGA opened in the Pointe c. 2002 and in Saint-Henri in 2005-6, I noticed a lot of low income families wandering around the stores with a slightly dazed look on their faces, complaining about rising prices.  This was ameliorated some by the opening of the big Super C at Atwater Market, which generally had much lower prices than either IGA.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading an excellent article on TheGrio about food insecurity and food gentrification.  The article was written by Mikki Kendall, an African American feminists in the States, about the process of food gentrification.  Kendall writes about having grown up poor and eating the more undesirable cuts of meat, like hamhocks, neck bones, and the like.  She recalls her grandmother being an expert at turning “turning offal into delicious.”  Kendall notes the gentrification of what I call poor people’s food.  As haute cuisine chefs re-discover these traditionally less desirable foods and turn them into fancy dishes for the wealthy, it drives up the prices of these cuts.

[As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if the joke is ultimately on the wealthy eating these cuts of meat at expensive restaurants and I think of Timothy Taylor’s brilliant début novel, Stanley Park, which recounts, in part, the story of Jeremy Papier, a chef and restaurauteur in Vancouver.  Papier favours local ingredients and culture and comes to rely on animals trapped in Stanley Park for his fancy restaurant on the border of the Downtown Eastside, the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada.]

But to return to Kendall and the IGA and community gardens in Pointe-Saint-Charles: Kendall notes that with the rising cost of these traditional cuts of meat used by the poor comes an inability to purchase them:

Yet, as consumers range further and further afield from their traditional diets, each new “discovery” comes at the expense of another marginalized community. Complaints about the problem are often met with, “Well, eat something else that you can afford” as though the poor have a wealth of options, and are immune to dietary restrictions based on religion, allergies, access, or storage capabilities.

So, ultimately, the poor are left to eat processed food, which isn’t good for any of us.  That is the only thing that is easily accessible.  When I was student, I noted with deep and bitter irony that the cheapest meal option was often McDonalds.  Or, if I went to the grocery store, aside from Ramen noodles (a processed food I cannot stand), the cheapest option was Kraft Dinner (or Mac & Cheese for you Americans), another slightly vile processed food (full confession: KD remains my comfort food of choice, I import large quantities of it from Canada).

And the end result of all of this bad, processed food is the toll it takes on the health of the poor, both in urban centres and rural areas.  In the United States, African Americans are, on the whole, poorer than everyone else.  In Canada, it is the aboriginals.  It is no coincidence that food insecurity hits African Americans in the US hard.  It is also no coincidence that rates of heart disease, hyper-tension, diabetes, and obesity are much higher in African American and Canadian aboriginal communities than in the rest of both nations.

We can and must do better.

Griffintown and the Importance of Urban Planning

May 12, 2014 § 6 Comments

This will be the first of a series of posts on Griffintown this week.  I was in Montréal last week, mostly to finish up a bit of research on the Griffintown book, which, at least has a title, ‘The House of the Irish’: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013.  The last chapter of the manuscript deals with what I call the post-memory of Griffintown, the period of the past half-decade or so of redevelopment and gentrification of the neighbourhood.  Griffintown was in desperate need of redevelopment, so let’s get that out of the way first and foremost.  A large swath of near-vacant city blocks next to the Old Port, along the North Bank of the Lachine Canal, and down the hill from downtown, it was inevitable that it would attract attention.

My problem was never with redevelopment per se, then.  My problem was with unsustainable development, willful neglect of the environment, of the landscape of the neighbourhood, and with blatant cash grabs by condo developers, and tax grabs on the part of the Ville de Montréal.  And so that’s what we now have in Griffintown, for the most part.

In between conducting oral history interviews with my former allies in the fight for sustainable redevelopment, I wandered around Griffintown, Pointe-Saint-Charles, and Saint-Henri a fair bit.  This was both professional interest and because I lived in the Pointe and Saint-Henri.  I also had an interesting discussion with a clerk at Paragraphe Books on McGill College.  Then there were the interviews.

deserted

Housing development, Copenhagen.

My friend Scott MacLeod says that many of the condos going up in Griffintown look like “Scandinavian social housing.”  I think he’s onto something.  This is a picture from a housing development in Copenhagen.  It is quite similar to what’s going up in Griffintown, with one key difference.  In Copenhagen, there is green space.  In Griffintown, there is none.

Part of the genius of Montreal is an almost utter lack of urban planning on

Griffintown condos.

Griffintown condos.

the grand scale.  And in the case of Griffintown, the city has been almost negligent in its approach.  During its overzealous attempt to approve any and all projects proposed by developers in Griffintown from about 2006 to 2010, the Ville de Montréal overlooked a few key components for the new neighbourhood: parks and schools.  It was only after 2010 that the city thought that maybe it should earmark some land for, you know, parks.  Schools? Who needs them?

 

The West and the Rest and the Fate of the Environment

May 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

I just read a quick book review in Foreign Affairs of Charles Kenny’s new book, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West.  This comes on the heels of a spate of books in recent years about why it is that the West rules now, but why it won’t shortly.  The best of these books (at least amongst those I’ve read) is Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of HIstory and What They Reveal about the Future. The worst is my favourite village idiot, Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, and not just because of his incredibly stupid device of the “killer apps” that the West downloaded first, but have since been downloaded by the rest, but because of Ferguson’s inability to hide his triumphalist ethno-centrism.  I also teach a lot of World History, so the topic interests me.

Kenny argues that, in contrast to Ferguson and others, that the rise of the Rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the West.  Moreover, Kenny also claims that the rise of the Rest isn’t due to any failure on the part of the US, but, rather, is a function of Washington’s global leadership.  And, unlike any other writer I’ve read on the matter, Kenny is also concerned about the possibilities for environmental degradation due to global economic advancement.  This is interesting, actually, making me think of Doug Saunder’s Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Re-Shaping Our World (I reviewed that here on this blog).  Saunders is also a triumphalist, arguing that urbanisation is a great boon to humankind, but he overlooks the environmental degradation from cities.

However.  Where Kenny falls down, at least according to this review (I do look forward to reading The Upside of Down), is that he expects the free market (along with education and innovation) to take care of that problem.  This is where I get suspicious, given that the free market has done very little for environmental degradation, and left to our own devices, we humans would destroy the environment without some kind of governmental intervention.  I don’t see why it would work any better in the developing world, frankly.

But, Kenny also redeems himself in his concluding argument wherein he favours the establishment of global rules and regulations to regulate global development and environmental damage.  Of course, I’m not sure how this squares with his faith in the free market, but I suppose I’ll have to read the book to find the answer to that.

Genesis 1:28: Justification for Colonialism

January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I assigned William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England this semester in American History.  I read this the first a long, long time ago at the University of British Columbia during my undergrad.  I read it again at Simon Fraser University during my MA studies.  The book itself is 31 years old this year, but it was re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2003.  It is still a fantastic book, in my opinion.

But one thing struck me as I was reading.  Cronon writes, concerning the English Crown’s attempts at taking possession of the land of New England:

The Crown derived its own claim to the region from several sources: Cabot’s “discovery” of New England in 1479-98; the failure of the Indians to adequately subdue the soil as Geneis 1.28 required; and from the King’s status — initially a decidedly speculative one — as the first Christian monarch to establish colonies there.

These are all points I am familiar with, obviously, after all those years of schooling and my teaching career.  But sometimes, when I see the justification for early imperialism laid so bare as this, I am astounded.  I won’t even get into the logical fallacies of relying on the Bible to justify the Crown’s claim to the land, possessed by non-Christians.

It gets better though, Cronon notes:

…by the late seventeenth century, Indian lands were regarded as being entirely within English colonial jurisdiction; indeed, the logic of the situation seemed to indicate that, for Indians to own land at all, it had first to be granted them by the English Crown.

Oy vey.

Urban Redevelopment: Getting it Wrong, Springfield, MA

October 27, 2013 § 3 Comments

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

As regular readers of this blog know, I am interested in urban redevelopment, especially when it comes to questions of doing it right and doing it wrong (and chances at redemption).  For the most part, the wave of urban redevelopment that hit North American cities in the 70s and 80s was the wrong way, in that it left us with neo-brutalist architecture in the midst of our cities that is cold, uninviting and intimidating.  A case in point of this would be City Hall Plaza in Boston.  It’s a desolate, soulless urban square that people use for one of three purposes: 1) official events, because they have no choice; 2) to sit on the fringes of to eat lunch; 3) to get to the Government Center T station.  Many cities have this problem today, these horrid, horrid neo-brutalist buildings.  In some places, like Boston, it doesn’t so much matter, because the downtown core of the city is bustling, Government Center lies between Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market and the stately Boston Common.  Government Center is the site of, well, government in Boston and so this site is full of civil servants, but also tourists and Bostonians crossing between the tourist centres, the North End, and the downtown core of the city.  In other places, like nearby Worcester, this 70s/80s wave of urban redevelopment led to a massive #fail.

But, the legacy of deindustrialisation is also very real, especially in small formerly urban centres, like Worcester, but also Springfield, Mass.  Springfield is about 100 miles west of Boston and it feels about as faraway from Boston as one can get.  Springfield is a depressed, sad little city.  It has a high crime rate, nearly double that for the rest of the Commonwealth, including Boston.  It’s murder rate, .13 per thousand, is almost triple the national average (perhaps unironically, Smith & Wesson’s corporate headquarters are in Springfield). The same is true for robbery and assault.  Its property crime rates are also well above the national average.

It wasn’t always like this for Springfield.  Until the 1960s, it was a bucolic industrial city, surrounded by natural beauty.  It had a low crime and unemployment.  It was the very first Springfield in the USA, and was the birthplace of basketball.  Indian Motorcycles were from Springfield.  So was Charles Goodyear.  Merriam-Webster’s first dictionary was published there in 1805.

I-91, downtown Springfield and the Basketball Hall of Fame

Springfield experienced decline due to a combination of deindustrialisation, the closing of the Springfield Armory in 1969 (the target of Daniel Shays and his rebels in 1786), and poor urban development decisions (most notably the running of I-91 through the downtown core and cutting off downtown from the waterfront of the Connecticut River.  Various attempts to redevelop the city have failed miserably (like the basketball Hall of Fame).  And recently, the city decided that it was going to open a massive urban casino to flag the failing fortunes of Springfield.  Why they thought this would work is beyond me.  Certainly, people will now come to Springfield to shop and gamble.  But, the casino will also siphon off jobs and hurt what business still exists in the downtown core.  And now, even that appears to be at risk.

Rural Palimpsests: Amity, Missouri

October 24, 2013 § 9 Comments

DSC01146Amity is a blink-and-you-miss it tiny town on Route J in northwestern Missouri.  The last census put its population at 54, though it has since shrunk to 47 (though, in the stupidity of American metropolitan areas, it is apart of the St. Joseph MO-KS Metropolitan Statistical Area, despite the fact that there is 30 miles of relatively empty farmland between St. Joseph and Amity).  It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a dying town.  Amity was founded in 1872, but when the Chicago and Rock Island Railway was completed in 1885, the townsite moved about a mile north to straddle the tracks.  In its new location, Amity thrived, as general stores, hotels, banks, schools, and churches popped up as the town became an important stop on the railway.  A stockyard for the Rock developed and the town became a waystation and loading zone for agricultural products from DeKalb County onto the railway.  Similarly, consumer items were unloaded in Amity for the stores there and for DeKalb County in general.  The town’s population rose to a high of 225 in the 1920s.

But Amity was a victim of circumstances, as it lived with the Rock, it also died with it.  The Chicago Rock Island and Pacific (as it was eventually called) was a notoriously poorly-run and inefficient railway.  By the 1970s, the gig was up.  It had been run into the ground, and it pulled out of Amity in 1975.  But the Rock (and Amity) were the victims of more than just poor management.  Deindustrialisation was also central to the story here.  As factories shut down in the major cities of the MidWest, from Chicago to Kansas City and beyond, the railways became increasingly less important to the heartland of the United States.  And Amitysuffered.  Even before the railway pulled out, the stores were suffering, the schools and churches were closing.

The former site of the Chicago Rock Island Pacific Railway through Amity

The former site of the Chicago Rock Island Pacific Railway through Amity

Today, Amity is barely hanging on. During our cross-country trip in August, we stayed with friends in Amity, Sam and Monica.  To my city eyes, Amity was a piece of rural paradise.  But Sam and I got talking about the history of the town.  Sam is a native of Amity and Monica is from nearby Maysville.  The longer we talked, the more fascinated with Amity’s past and present I became.  I have written before on the changing rural landscape in North America (Hawley, Massachusetts, Phoenix, British Columbia, and Sainte-Sylvestre, Québec), but in talking with Sam I began to think about the costs of deindustrialisation in North America.

Abandoned home, Amity

Abandoned home, Amity

Reams of work has been done on deindustrialisation in major cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Hamilton), and my own work has looked at the cost of deindustrialisation on Griffintown, Montréal.  But there was a real trickle-down effect at work here.  The landscape of the MidWest (to say nothing of the rest of the continent) is cluttered with Amitys, places that were once important waystations on the railways, or homes to factories themselves (Monica’s mother worked at a Quaker Oats plant packaging instant oatmeal for two decades before it closed down).  But their stories are in danger of being lost through little more than negligence.

As a culture, we don’t pay attention to these forgotten places, hell, we don’t even pay attention to the MidWest, at least outside of Chicago.  For the life of me, I cannot call to mind a single TV show or movie set in a Midwestern city that’s not Chicago in the past quarter century.  No wonder the people of the MidWest feel left out.

2nd Street, Amity, looking north towards where the railway used to be

2nd Street, Amity, looking north towards where the railway used to be

But there is history here (I realise that sounds like a dead obvious statement) and the stories from places like Amity are important, as they speak to the human and cultural cost of deindustrialisation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s just as much as those stories that arise out of Buffalo and Hamilton and Milwaukee.  They place a human cost on the depopulation of rural areas of North America, and they place a cost on the loss of culture.  The four of us (my wife, Margo, and I, Sam and Monica) are barely into our 40s, but we have lived through a series of cultural revolutions, from politics to technology.  We are a transitional generation between the old ways of doing things and the (post)modern, post-industrial culture that we live in today.  We remember rotary telephones and a world before the internet.  Hard to imagine.  But we’re also glued to our iPhones and lost without the internet when it goes down.  Sam’s work as an artist seeks to preserve what he calls “obscure” technologies, printmaking and pottery.  And I am an historian, my entire professional life is centred on the past.  As a public historian, my work is centred on how we remember that past.

I am currently working on a research project that looks at the relationship between the far right of American politics and its relationship to history.  But once that wraps up, hopefully in the next 6-8 months, I am going to begin work on my next project, which will be based on Amity and DeKalb County, looking at the cost of deindustrialisation on these rural spaces in the MidWest.

The Failure of Urban Redevelopment and the Chance at Redemption: Worcester

October 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

Worcester, Massachusetts, is like pretty much every city in New England not named Boston or Providence, and kinda like those Easter Bunnies I used to get when I was a kid: hollow centre.  The downtowns of Hartford, New Haven, Springfield, Worcester, etc. were done in by deindustrialisation and horrid, horrid urban redevelopment schemes.  The urban redevelopments schemes of the 70s, in hindsight, look as though they were especially created to destroy urban centres, not save them.  Boston’s Government Center, for example, is one of the most hideous examples of neo-brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen.

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Government Center, Boston

Government Center, Boston

Worcester’s other problem is that it’s near Boston, less than an hour away.  In fact, before I moved to Massachusetts, I thought Worcester was just a suburb of Boston.  Boston is by far the biggest city in New England, over 5 times as big as the number 2 city, which just so happens to be Worcester (in fact, Worcester is the western boundary of the ridiculous Boston-Worcester-Manchester Combined Statistical Area).  Worcester gets by, it is the home to several universities, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School, plus hospitals.  But the downtown is a disaster.

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

Worcester attempted and failed miserably to redesign its downtown in the 70s.  It made sense at the time, as Paul McMorrow points out in today’s Boston Globe, the city erected a shopping mall downtown to counter the growth of suburban shopping malls.  This was a common tactic.  In some places, usually Canadian cities, this worked.  Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Ottawa all have shopping malls downtown.  And in those cities, the malls are successful.  Those are also very large cities, Ottawa is the smallest and its urban centre is still over 1 million people.  It is worth noting, however, that I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a large American city with a successful shopping mall at its core.  Boston has a small shopping concourse in the Prudential Center, but that’s it.

Nevertheless, the Worcester Center Galleria was a valiant effort.  But it failed.  Twice.

Worcester Center Galleria

The mall, when it was constructed, obliterated the street grid and landscape of downtown Worcester.  But now, it’s been town down and the old street grid is being restored.  The new CitySquare development is designed to do what most new urban redevelopments do: provide shopping, office space, and urban condos.  All to convince a new, wealthy, demographic to move downtown, and stay downtown.  McMorrow is hopeful for Worcester, as am I.  And as Providence shows, urban redevelopment can be done and can be successful.  But Worcester has the same problems as the rest of Massachusetts outside of Boston: the economy.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Pt. V

October 2, 2013 § 6 Comments

[I thought I was done with this series (parts I, II, III, and IV and the prequel) when I left Pointe-Saint-Charles last summer and moved to New England. Apparently not.]

In the mid-1980s in Vancouver, the BC provincial government built the SkyTrain, a new light-rail system connecting the western suburbs of New Westminster and Burnaby to the City of Vancouver.  SkyTrain caused a lot of disruption when it was built, as you might expect for a brand new system. When it finally opened, just in time for Expo ’86, people were excited.  Vancouver finally got rapid trasit!  But some people weren’t so happy, the people who lived along the line in New West, Burnaby, and East Vancouver (it’s worth noting the SkyTrain went primarily through working-class neighbourhoods).  I recall a news segment that investigated the claims of the noise.  In particular, I remember a glass of water on a counter next to an open window as the SkyTrain went by.  The water didn’t move.  At all.

Nonetheless, I can understand in the inconvenience of the SkyTrain for those whose day-to-day lives were affected by it.  They were there before SkyTrain, it moved into their neighbourhood.

But let us now consider Pointe-Saint-Charles.  The Pointe has been home to a train yard since the Grand Trunk Railway built its yards there in 1853.  For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that’s 160 years ago.  In other words, the trains have been in the Pointe for a long, long time.  And for much of its history, the trains were part and parcel of the experience of living in the Pointe.  There was a train yard there.  Life goes on.

But, as I’ve been noting in this series, the Pointe is undergoing redevelopment and gentrification.  And nowhere is this clearer than in that part of the southern part of the Pointe which, even a decade ago, was a pretty dodgy part of town.  Here, people have been snapping up cheap housing, both the 19th century stock and hideous new condos, and movingin.  The Pointe, ever-so-slowly has become a more happening place because of this gentrification and that closer to the north end of the neighbourhood, near the Canal and the Nordelec building (which is in the process of being condofied now).   In short, the yuppies (of whom I was obviously one when I lived there) are moving in.

For the most part, the process of gentrification has been more or less smooth in the Pointe, but, then again, I’m not one of the people being priced out of the neighbourhood.  But the tension that exists in Saint-Henri was lacking in the Pointe. But, there were subtle changes in the culture of the neighbourhood when I lived there.  This was seen most obviously to me in the case of the community garden at the end of our block.  A couple of years ago, the arrivistes took control of it and essentially pushed the old-timers out of the garden. Not cool.

So, today I was reading the news on CBC Montréal, and I came across this little gem.  Some of the yuppies who’ve moved into that southern part of the Pointe (taking advantage of cheap housing and pushing the poor out) are crying foul over the sound of the trains at all hours of the day.  Yup.  Imagine that! Trains! In a train yard!  One resident hears the trains and he gets afraid of what might happen.  Others complain sound like The Grinch, complaining about the noise, noise, noise!

Certainly, some of this is in response to the disaster in Lac Mégantic.  But, it is worth noting that in all my years in the sud-ouest, I cannot recall a single accident involving trains in Pointe-Saint-Charles or Saint-Henri.  Accidents between cars, bikes, and peoples, certainly.  But not trains.

So, these people want Canadian National to reduce the trains and the noise they make.  This is not unprecedented.  There is a condo building on rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri, right where the CN tracks go through Saint-Henri.  When it was first opened up, the people who bought in there respectfully asked that the Canadian National STOP running trains through their backyards.  That line, which is connected to the largely disused yards in the Pointe, remains one of the busiest train tracks in North America, used by CN and ViaRail between Montréal and Ottawa and Toronto.  I’m not making that up.

It would seem to me that one of the basic facts of living in a city is that there is noise.  And if you are on the market for a new condo, you would look at what’s around you in your new neighbourhood and consider the inconvenience of the noise factor, or other things that might upset you.  And, if you move into a condo near a train yard, you might want to consider the fact that it’s going to get loud occasionally. Trains are like that, they’re loud (I can hear the Commuter Rail train from my house here at all hours of the day and night, in fact, one is going by right now!).  It is asinine and selfish to move into a neighbourhood with a train yard in and then act surprised when there are trains that make lots of noise.  It is the height of idiocy, quite frankly.  If you don’t like the noise, then go live somewhere else.  It’s that simple.  And so, that is my solution for these fine people in the Pointe.  Sell.  Move elsewhere.

The Urban Cacophony

June 28, 2013 § 31 Comments

I’m currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography. This is the third non-fiction book I’ve read in the past year on the history and culture of London (the others were Peter White’s London in the 20th Centuryand Iain Sinclair’s luminous London Orbital). I’m not entirely sure why I’m reading so much of London, a city I don’t have any connection to; nor is it a city I feel any attraction to.  But, here I am, no doubt attracted to these books because I find the city to be so fascinating (that’s the city in generic, not London particularly).  And London is the most written-about city in the English language.  Anyway.

One of Ackroyd’s chapters is about the sounds of London in the early modern era.  I find acoustic history to be fascinating.  Historians are increasingly interested in the sounds of the past (including my good friend, S.D. Jowett, whose blog is here), and this shouldn’t be surprising.  Given the innovative uses we historians have made of our sources, it’s really no surprise that now we’re beginning to ponder the smells and sounds of the past.  And cities, of course, are prime locations for such explorations.  One of my favourite Montréal websites is the Montréal Sound Map, which documents the soundscapes of the city.

Ackroyd has done interesting work in excavating the audio history of London, including references to the combined sound of the city in the early modern era, like a cacophony or like the roaring of the ocean.  These noises, of course, were and are entirely human created, the noise of people living in close quarters in a big city.  Even the sounds of nature in cities are mediated through human intervention, such as the rushing streams and rivers of early modern London, or the mediated parks of the modern city, such as Mont-Royal in Montréal or Central Park in New York, both of which were created and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted.  It came as a shock to me when I learned that most of the flora and fauna on Mont-Royal were not, in fact, native species, but were brought in by Olmsted and planted there for aesthetic reasons.

When I think of the roar of the city, I tend to think of Manhattan.  For my money, there is no urban space on this planet as loud as mid-town.  The endless roar of traffic, the honking of horns, the sounds of people on the streets talking, sirens wailing, fights breaking out, the sound of planes flying overhead, people hawking things along the sidewalks.  I had never really thought all that much about the noise of the city, it was just part of the background noise.  But a few years ago, I realised that I like white noise machines.  They were, I though, supposed to be evocative of the ocean (near which I grew up), but that’s not what the sounds evoked in me.  They evoked the sounds of the city, the constant hum of human activity.  The only other place I’ve been that challenges Manhattan for the capital of noise is my hometown.  Montréal is downright noisy, as all cities are, but Montréal hurts my ears.  Hence my love for Parc Mont-Royal.  Once you get amongst the trees on the side of the mountain, the sounds of the city become a distant roar.  The same is true for Central Park.

Where I sit right now, I hear the sounds of the city, over the sound of the loud music blasting out of my speakers.  But I can hear people walking by my house, I can hear the traffic on the busy street at the end of my block, and sirens.

It’s not surprising that academics as a whole are starting to turn to the sounds that surround us, given how much of an impact our environment has upon us.  This is just as true of rural areas (in which case, the silence can tend to frighten city folk).  In the late 19th century, the anti-modernists took hold of a part of North American culture.  They were turned off by the city, by the noise, by the hustle & bustle, by the fast pace of life.  People began to develop neurasthenia, wherein the patient began to feel frazzled, burned out, and depressed due to a frazzling of the nerves.  It was particularly common in American cities, and for awhile was also known as “Americanitis.”  So the anti-modernists, who preached a basic ‘back to the land’ message.  Canada’s most famous artistic sons, the Group of Seven, were predicated on this kind of anti-modernism, they championed the mid-Canadian north as a tonic against the aggravation of living in the city.

But what I find most interesting about the kind of acoustic history that Ackroyd introduces us to is the way in which he is so successful at recreating the past, I can almost put myself in the streets of London in the 17th century.  Perhaps this is not surprising.  I read something once that said that sounds, more than sights, triggered our other senses, as well as our imagination and memory (think of this next time you hear a song that has meaning for you, you will be transported back to that meaning).  But, for historians, acoustic histories (as well as histories of smells, the other incredibly evocative sense) really do work at making history come alive, so to speak.  Plus, it’s also just kind of cool to imagine what a city sounded like 200 years ago.

Getting Redevelopment and Community Right

March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Yaletown in Vancouver has undergone massive redevelopment in the past two decades.  It was once the site of Expo 86 along False Creek, and before that, an urban wasteland (actually, after Expo, too).  But today, it is a sea of glass towers; one statistic I’ve seen said the population just in Yaletown approaches 30,000, though I find that hard to believe.  All along False Creek is a string of residential condo towers; all along Pacific Boulevard, from Granville to Cambie streets there are towers and pied-à-terre condos.  Some of them even look nice.

IMG_1128As I went out for my morning run today (I’m staying with my sister here), I noticed something: this is actually a well-thought out urban redevelopment.  There’s a billboard on Pacific Blvd that says that Concord, one of the developers is building community here.  It’s easy to scoff at that claim.  But it’s not a ridiculous claim. My sister knows her neighbours.  More than that, she has friends amongst them.  Dog owners around here have claimed a patch of Cooperage Park on False Creek as a dog run.  They police each other, making sure nobody leaves their dog doo behind.  They also police each other’s dogs, making sure they behave.  There’s a bunch of cafés and restaurants along Marinaside Drive (I know, what a horrible name), and they’re populated with regulars, the neighbours around here.  People nod and say hello to each other on the streets and along the path that goes along the bank of the water.

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There’s more, though. There’s actual, real parks here.  Cooperage stretches almost from the Plaza of Nations at the head of False Creek towards and under the Cambie Bridge.  A few blocks on is David Lam Park, which lies between Pacific, Drake, and Homer streets.  But it’s more than that.  These parks are actually used.  There’s basketball and tennis courts at David Lam, and a playground. An elementary school is on David Lam and the children can be seen playing in the park at recess and lunch and after school.  The path along the water is almost always busy with joggers and cyclists, as well as roller-bladers and walkers (Vancouver was experiencing one of its trademark torrential downpours when I was out taking pictures today, thus, aside from one intrepid jogger, there was no one out playing).

When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the redevelopment of the old Expo site. The city was determined to increase density, to follow the model of the West End, which is apparently the densest neighbourhood of North America that’s not Manhattan.  So the old Expo lands saw these condo towers grow out of the ground.  The major difference between the West End, which lies on the other side of the Burrard and Granville Street bridges and this area, which is part of the larger Yaletown neighbourhood, is that Yaletown tends to be resident owners, whereas the West End is largely rental units (there are, of course, many exceptions to both).

IMG_1111At the end of the day, however, Vancouver got it right.  There is community here, the public spaces are widely used.  The cafés and restaurants are, with the exception of one Starbucks (this IS Vancouver, after all) independent operators (this isn’t as true as Pacific Blvd., the main east/west thoroughfare, which has plenty of chains in between and around the indie stores).  This also contributes to community, as the small business owners connect to their local community in a way that Starbucks and Quiznos can’t.  And studies show that locals are more likely to patronise these small businesses than the chains.  Indeed, this morning, Bojangles, the local indie café was busy, filled with both commuters on their way to work and those with more time to sit and enjoy their coffee.  Whereas the Starbucks, while it got a fair amount of foot traffic from commuters, it doesn’t have the same community feel.

I fear, however, that Montréal is getting it wrong with Griffintown.  The early plans for the massive redevelopment of Griff by Devimco called for massive shopping areas and big box stores.  The commercial developments were supposed to pay for the residential developments.  As for anything else that urban residents might need, well, “Whatever,” Devimco seemed to say.  Of course, Devimco’s bold plans were thwarted somewhat by the recession.  The redevelopment is now a mixture of Devimco’s big District Griffin (how tragic it would be to have that old English name on the neighbourhood, eh, OQLF?) and a smattering of smaller developments, with the massive redevelopment of the old Canada Post Lands at the other end of Griff at the foot of rue Guy.

Missing, though, from all these redevelopment plans in Griff was any idea of what residents were supposed to do.  There still are no plans for schools in the neighbourhood.  It wasn’t until early 2012 that the Ville de Montréal announced that it had earmarked some money to create public parks.  It’s still not entirely clear where they’ll be, other than the already extant Parc St. Ann/Griffintown at the bottom of rue de la Montagne at Wellington.  And given Montréal’s history of development and redevelopment, and the fact that the mayor, first Gérald Tremblay and now Michael Applebaum, just has dollar signs in his eyes when talking about Griffintown, I have zero hope of Griffintown being redeveloped right.  In fact, I am almost positive it will be a disaster.

It’s tragic, as Montréal has a chance to redevelop a huge swath of valuable land at the foot of downtown, to emulate what Vancouver did with Yaletown in the 90s and 00s.  But it has done nothing to suggest that it will get it right.  And that’s trafic.

 

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