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.

 

Boston’s Architectural Behemothology — UPDATED

February 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

800px-CityHallPlaza_Boston_2009_908Government Center, downtown Boston.  It is rare to see such a massive, overwhelming failure of this sort anywhere.  Standing outside the T station last fall, I looked across the windswept brick City Hall Plaza, amazed that anyone ever thought this kind of brutalist behemethology was a good idea.  Especially in a city like Boston that generally boasts beautiful architecture from the colonial era forward.  Indeed, from Government Center, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, or Beacon Hill, or the Common and Public Gardens.  Boston’s public spaces are always full of people, tourists and Bostonians taking in the sights and the vibe.  The city has even done a great job rehabilitating the old waterfront around Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park.  Hell, even the park space over what was the Big Dig and the buried I-93 is used.  But City Hall Plaza?  There wasn’t a single soul on that desert of hideousness.  Not a one.  And, looking at this image, you can see why.

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Government Center is, well, the centre of government in Boston, this perfect amalgam of city, county, and state government on one location.  Government Center looms over downtown Boston like some horrible spaceship from the nightmares you have as a child.  The New England Holocaust Memorial is just across Congress St. from Government Center.  As I walked through the memorial, which is one of the most effective I’ve seen, I couldn’t help but feel the spectre of Government Center on me.  Even as we walked on to Faneuil Hall, Government Center loomed above.  It reminded me of that strange ball that followed No. 6 around in The Prisoner, keeping him from ever finding happiness or freedom.

Yes, Government Center is that bad.  It sucks joy from the air around it.  It stands as an insult against everything that surrounds it.  It is, as a friend (an architect) would call it, an aesthetic insult.  City Hall Plaza is bad, no doubt, but as that name indicates, there is a City Hall that comes with it.  Boston’s City Hall is, not surprisingly, a horrible piece of brutalism, designed to intimidate the poor citizen standing outside of it.  Every time I pass it, I imagine a cartoon of some poor, downtrodden sod standing in front of a faceless bureaucracy.  Brutalist architecture is designed to be imposing and intimidating.  And Boston is certainly not the only city to be marred by this abomination.  University campuses are particularly good examples of brutalism, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog.

479px-City_Hall_and_Volunteer_Monument,_Winnipeg,_MB,_1887Winnipeg is a fine example of this.  Its glorious initial City Hall, constructed in the late 19th century when Winnipeg was a boomtown, the laying of its cornerstone was a momentous occasion and a public holiday.  Looking at the old building, it’s easy to see why Winnipeggers were so proud of it.  It was a striking Victorian presence over the city.  But, by the 1960s, it was antiquated and, like Boston, the ‘Peg choose to replace its City Hall with a new brutalist design.

However, unlike Boston, Winnipeg’s brutalist City Hall at least has greenspace around it.  Interestingly, the introduction of greenery and foliage around brutalist architecture can go a long way to normalising it and reducing its imposition on the landscape.  This is, I would think, why brutalist architecture on university campuses, as ugly as it is, doesn’t impose in the same way that Government Center does. Government Center is devoid of green space, there isn’t a single one anywhere on the massive, sprawling development.  WpgCityhall

What Government Center replaced is Scollay Square, which was created officially in 1838, though the name dates back to the end of the 18th century; it was named for William Scollay, a local businessman.  Scollay Square was the centre of downtown Boston throughout its existence.  The problem was that by the Second World War, Scollay Square was getting seedy.  One of its centrepieces was the Howard Theatre, and by this point, it was starting to slide downscale and attract a sleezy clientèle, mostly sailors on shore leave and, oh heavens!, students.  Scollay Square was on the decline.  And when the Howard was raided by the city’s vice squad in 1953 and shutdown due to a burlesque show, the writing was on the wall.  The Howard eventually burned down in 1961.  By the 1950s, Boston city officials were looking around for excuses to tear apart Scollay Square.  The area was becoming home to too many flophouses and Boston’s rough waterfront had migrated too far inland.  The Howard’s destruction by fire became the excuse to step into action, and it was torn down.  Over 1,000 buildings were torn down and over 20,000 residents, most of whom were low income, were displaced.

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In many ways, Boston is no different than any other North American (or, for that matter, European) city in the 1960s, undergoing urban redevelopment.  Montréal also underwent massive redevelopment in the 1960s and 70s, as a trip through the downtown core shows today.  Place-des-Arts, Place Desjardins, Place Ville-Marie, the Palais de Justice and the Palais de Congrès all date from this period.  It’s not even the scale of Government Center that sets it apart from other redevelopment.  No, it’s simply the massive failure of it, and its horrid imposition on the landscape of downtown Boston.  Certainly, breaking up the monotony of concrete and red brick with trees, grass, and other such things would help.  But, at the end of the day, as ugly as brutalist architecture is elsewhere, nothing can quite touch the size and grandeur of the buildings in Government Center.  Walking up Staniford Street, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed (or maybe the proper term is underwhelmed) by the Government Service Center.

Boston’s mayor, Thomas Mennino, has mused several times in recent years about doing away with at least City Hall and re-locating to South Boston.  Not surprisingly, this was met with controversy, as a group called “Citizens for City Hall,” professing to love the building, threatened all kinds of hellfire and damnation should Mennino think about destroying it.  Fortunately for them, the recession got in the mayor’s plans.  Citizens City Hall sought to have the location designated as a landmark, and also noted that re-locating the seat of city government to Southie, as Mennino planned, would also lead to the dislocation of thousands of residents (again, just as when Government Center was built).  At any rate, by 2011, cooler heads prevailed and a new group, “Friends of City Hall” sought to improve the present location and do something to make both City Hall and the Plaza more user friendly.  Part of this work will begin this summer, when the MBTA shuts down the Government Center T station to remodel it.  Hopefully something can be done to improve Government Center as a whole, not just City Hall and its Plaza, to make this abomination more user-friendly and more aesthetically appealing.

coliseumUPDATE: From personal friend and Tweep, John P. Fahey. who grew up in New Haven, CT: Agreed, Government Center suffers in comparison with the architecture in the surrounding area.  Urban Renewal was a hot button topic in the 1960s.  The idea was to sweep out the old neighborhoods and replace them with new buildings.   New Haven did the exact same thing in the 1960s as part of the Model Cities initiative.  It knocked down a narrow swathe of a neighborhood that ran from where I-91 starts about 3 miles to Route 34.  The City put up an ugly Coliseum that has since been knocked down.  When I was a kid I used to ask my mother when they were going to finish it because it never looked complete. New Haven ran out of Urban Renewal money and thus there is this long narrow strip of land extending from the center of New Haven that resembles Dresden after the fire bombing.  There was enough Model Cities money to knock down the old neighborhood but not enough to put up the new buildings.  If the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum was an example of the  type of the architecture that the Elm City would have received, then maybe it was lucky.

Arrival Cities: The Book

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011.  So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.

Doug Saunders.  Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010.  ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.

Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall.  The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us.  And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.

Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for  The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities.  I did not get it.  While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish.  And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.

Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised.  Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.

More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create.  The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents.  The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy.  This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.

The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism.  In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.

Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book.  He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.

In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris.  He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.

Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters.  In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two.  In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world.  This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States.  Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.

But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines.  Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul.  Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home.  The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city.  They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers.  The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down.  By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years).  Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus.  However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.

In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities.  He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents.  In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so.  This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh.  Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus.  But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation.  And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:

What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition.  When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].

What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto.  In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis.  I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.

The Uniqueness of Cities

June 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

For some odd reason, I find myself reading a lot about London these days.  I’m really not sure why, I have no real love for the city, to me, as represented in pop culture, it’s a megalopolis of bad architecture.  Nonetheless, I am fascinated by authors’ attempts to tease out what it is that makes London a unique location.  For the most part, I am reading cultural histories, so the focus is less on the built landscape of London (though that certainly frames the action) than on the people who live(d) there.  For the most part, Londoners tend to be praised for their resourcefulness.  And their stolidity.  And the city itself for the ways in which it constantly re-invents itself.

I live in Montréal, a city that claims to be a unique location itself: a French-speaking metropolis in the Anglo sea of North America (conveniently, the Hispanic fact of the southern part of the continent always gets overlooked).  Montréal is a bit of Europe in North America, I am constantly told by both the natives and the tourists who come here.  When I lived in Vancouver, it was the outdoorsiness of the people that made the city unique (nevermind the fact that most Vancouverites AREN’T the outdoorsy types at all).  And Doug Coupland argued it was the glass architecture.

I could go on, taking a trip around the world, laying out urban stereotypes as to what makes each unique.  But in reading all this ephemera about London, I am continually struck by the fact that the things that apparently make London unique in the eyes of erudite and knowledgeable authors really just make London another generic big city.  I would think that ALL urbanites are resourceful and stolid.  And ALL cities constantly reinvent themselves. (As a running series on this blog about my neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles makes clear).

So what then?  Cities are indeed generic.  They all contain the same basics, which vary according to size.  When it comes to the built environment, you’ve got a downtown core, inner-city residential neighbourhoods, some industrial (or post-industrial) inner city neighbourhoods, and these patterns repeat themselves out to and through the suburbs, residential/industrial, until you get to the city limits and the countryside takes over.  Urbanites are a shifty breed, skilled at not noticing the homeless dude begging for change, but very skilled at noticing the various challenges along the sidewalk, including how to carefully avoid the homeless guy.  Neighbourhoods in cities all follow similar patterns, there are points of convergence for the residents, there are amenities, parks, and so on.

And, of course, there is the anonymity of city life.  I live in a city of around 4 million people, but I can go days, weeks, even months without running into someone I know on the streets of Montréal.  I seriously doubt that is any different in Dublin, Boston, San Francisco, Nairobi, Tokyo, or Beijing.

So what is it that makes cities unique?  What is it that makes London or Montréal unique?  Does it come down to how we, the urbanites ourselves, choose to build our cities, and reinvent our cities, and carry out our lives in them?  Certainly Pittsburgh has different things to offer than, say, Winnipeg.  But either way, trying to boil down the lived experience of millions of people, and their millions upon millions of ancestors in any one urban location, whether it has existed for over 2000 years like London or for just over 200 years like Vancouver, is a pointless exercise.  London is no more unique for its constant reinventions and the resourcefulness and stolidity of its people than is, I don’t know, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Adding to the Wasteland of Griffintown

April 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have taken to going through Griffintown on my morning run of late, in part because it gives me a chance to keep an eye on the redevelopment there.  I come up from the Lachine Canal to de la Montagne, to Ottawa, over to Peel and then down Wellington back down to the Canal, which gives me a quick tour through the heart of old Griffintown, past the old ruins of St. Ann’s Church, by the recently sold Horse Palace, past the Merciers’ old home and Fire Station No. 3.

A condo tower is going up at the corner of de la Montagne and Ottawa, there is work going on around the Horse Palace, there is a new condo bloc at the corner of Ottawa and Murray.  And another development is underway on the northeastern corner of Peel and Wellington.  And then, of course, across Wellington, between Young and Shannon is Devimco’s massive construction site.  Buildings have come down and holes have been dug for Devimco.

And Devimco has moved its condo sales office.  It was once located up the block on the eastern side of Peel near Ottawa, but now it sits proudly, if not somewhat barrenly, on the southeastern corner of Peel and Wellington.  I did find myself wondering if the sales people are still promising potential buyers that the CNR would move its railway, as the viaduct is across the very narrow Smith street from the site of Devimco’s condo towers.

At any rate, the old sales office is now just another wasteland on Griffintown’s landscape, yet another lot of urban refuse, but this time created by the very company which proposes to rejuvenate and renovate the Griff.  Ironic, I thought.

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