Insta-Memory: Dismantling the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial

July 10, 2013 § 12 Comments

Over at NCPH’s History@Work, I have a piece up today on the dismantling of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial a couple of weeks ago by the City of Boston. In it, I explore the meaning of the memorial and what happens to commemorations and memories once a temporary memorial, like this one, is taken down.  Today, incidentally, is the day that the surviving bomber/terrorist makes his first court appearance.

The Symbolism of Maps

July 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

London Tube map. 1908

London Tube map. 1908


As noted, I’m reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography.  As might be expected of such a tome, it’s a treasure of information, some interesting, some not so much.  But in reading it, I’m reminded of the London Underground map.  Like the transportation network in any major city, London’s was originally a hodgepodge of private companies providing service, which were eventually centralised and then nationalised.  The maps were created for what maps are always created for: to help people navigate their way around the system.  The first map dates from 1908.

London Tube map, 2013

London Tube map, 2013

The basic template of this map remains in use today.  As Ackroyd notes, “The original Underground map bears only approximate relation to the location of lines and stations, but it is so aesthetically pleasing that its lineaments have never been changed.”  In other words, today’s Tube map is a representation of reality, it only gives a vague idea of the system.  Countless Londoners and tourists both state at the map with great intensity trying to figure out where to go.  And while the map does give a vague idea of where things are, it is highly impressionistic.  But, boy, it sure does look great, doesn’t it?

Montréal métro system map

Montréal métro system map

The thing I find most interesting about the London Tube map, though, is that it has become the template for subway/métro systems the world over.  These maps are stylistic triumphs, but they are, quite frankly, useless as maps.  Nonetheless, as urbanites, we are trained to be able to read these maps and navigate our way around the city.  And let me also point out that cities are incredibly complex organisms.  Navigating them has become second nature to us, but if we stop and thinking about it, what we can do on a daily basis without thinking too much is pretty impressive.  At any rate, these transit maps.  Consider, for example, the Montréal métro map. It’s a highly stylised representation of the métro and commuter rail lines in the city and its surrounding areas.  Nothing other than the stations and ultimate destinations of the train lines are identified.  In order to read the métro map, one requires a basic knowledge of the geography of the city.

Map of Montréal

Map of Montréal

Compare the métro map with that of the city as a whole.  The métro map only covers a small part of the central portion of the Île-de-Montréal.  Of course, that’s where the métro is. And note that the map of Montréal as a whole is missing perhaps the biggest geographical fact of the island, other than it is an island: Mont-Royal.  That, of course, suggests that maps in general are just impressionistic and little more than symbols of what it is they are meant to represent.

canada1This is a point that I like to make to my students about the great explosion of map-making in the West during the Age of Exploration, as well as the process of state formation in the Early Modern era: I ask them to think about what it is that they know makes them American (or Canadian, when I lived in Montréal), what makes them know that they in the upper right corner of the country know that all those people down in the lower left hand corner are all American.  The map of the United States.  As Benedict Anderson notes in his still brilliant Imagined Communities (seriously, this remains one of the greatest books I’ve ever read), part of the process of state-formation is achieved through the creation of a logoised map that is then emblazoned into the brains of the citizenry.  When someone says the word “Canada” to me, many things flash through my head, but amongst all these images is the outline of the map of Canada.

In other words, maps aren’t really anything more than symbols of what it is they represent.  We are trained in map reading from a very young age, so that even as children we can look at a map and instantly recognise what it is we’re supposed to be seeing.

Stephen Harper: Revisionist Historian

May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

By now, it should be patently clear that Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is not a benign force.  He likes to consider himself an historian, he’s apparently publishing a book on hockey this fall.   But, I find myself wondering just what Harper thinks he’s doing.  I’ve written about the sucking up of the Winnipeg Jets hockey club to Harper’s government and militaristic tendencies.  I’ve noted Ian McKay and Jamie Swift’s book, Warrior Nation: The Rebranding of Canada in the Age of Anxiety (read it!).  And I’ve had something to say about Harper’s laughably embarrassing attempt to re-brand the War of 1812 to fit his ridiculous notion of Canada being forged in fire and blood.

Now comes news that Harper’s government has decided it needs to re-brand Canadian history as a whole.  According to the Ottawa Citizen:

Federal politicians have launched a “thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history” in Parliament that will be led by Conservative MPs, investigating courses taught in schools, with a focus on several armed conflicts of the past century.

The study was launched by the House of Commons Canadian heritage committee that went behind closed doors last Monday to approve its review, despite apparent objections from the opposition MPs.

When this first passed through my Twitter timeline, I thought it HAD to be a joke.  But it’s not.  Apparently, Harper thinks that Canada needs to re-acquaint itself with this imagined military history.  I’m not saying that Canadians shouldn’t be proud of their military history.  We should, Canada’s military has performed more than admirably in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, and Afghanistan, as well as countless peacekeeping missions.  Hell, Canadians INVENTED peacekeeping. Not that you would know that from the Harper government’s mantra.

As admirable as Canada’s military has performed, often under-equipped and under-funded, it is simply a flat out lie to suggest that we are a nation forged of war, blood, and sacrifice.  Canada’s independence was achieved peacefully, over the course of a century-and-a-half (from responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982).  And nothing Harper’s minions can make up or say will change that, Jack Granatstein be damned.

To quote myself at the end of my War of 1812 piece:

Certainly history gets used to multiple ends every day, and very often by governments.  But it is rare that we get to watch a government of a peaceful democracy so fully rewrite a national history to suit its own interests and outlook, to remove or play down aspects of that history that have long made Canadians proud, and to magnify moments that serve no real purpose other than the government’s very particular view of the nation’s past and present.  The paranoiac in me sees historical parallels with the actions of the Bolsheviks in the late 1910s and early 1920s in Russia.  The Bolshevik propaganda sought to construct an alternate version of Russian history; in many ways, Canada’s prime minister is attempting the same thing.  The public historian in me sees a laboratory for the manufacturing of a new usable past on behalf of an entire nation, and a massive nation at that.

Every time I read about Harper’s imaginary Canadian history, I am reminded by Orwellian propaganda.  And I’m reminded of the way propaganda works.  Repeat something often enough, and it becomes true.  The George W. Bush administration did that to disastrous effects insofar as the war in Iraq is concerned.  But today, I came across something interesting in Iain Sinclair’s tour de force, London Orbitalwherein Sinclair and friends explore the landscape and history of the territory surrounding the M25, the orbital highway that surrounds London.  Sinclair is heavily critical of both the Thatcherite and New Labour visions of England.  In discussing the closing of mental health hospitals and the de-institutionalisation of the patients in England, Sinclair writes:

That was the Thatcher method: the shameless lie, endlessly repeated, with furious intensity — as if passion meant truth.

I suppose in looking for conservative heroes, Harper could do worse than the Iron Lady.  But it also seems as if Harper is attempting nothing less than the re-branding of an entire nation.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Writing Montréal

February 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

I am reading Kim Echlin’s beautiful novel, The Disappeared, right now.  It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada, and it won a Barnes & Noble award down here in the States.  The awards are very much deserved, Echlin’s prose is beautifully constructed; sparse, taut, sensual sentences follow the heroine, Anne Greves, from the cold streets of Montréal to the scarred streets of Phnom Penh in the wake of Pol Pot and genocide in Cambodia.  It is compelling reading.

But (and you knew this but was coming), I find myself fascinated with the problems in writing Montréal, as The Disappeared is full of them.  I have sometimes wondered if Montréal, being the complicated, chaotic, bizarre city it is, can even be successfully written, especially en Anglais.  But, of course it can.  Mordecai Richler.  Rawi Hage.  Occasionally, even we academic types get it right, most notably, Sherry Simon in her brilliant book, Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City.  Montréal is not your average city.  Your average city is a huge, complicated, seething multitude of humanity.  Your average city is complicated, it is corrupt, it is beautiful and it is dirty and savage.  Montréal is all that and more, in large part because it is, as Simon argues, a divided city.  Divided cities, of which there are many in the world, are necessarily more complex and complicated.  There are competing historical narratives and political realities battling for space on the cultural and political landscape of the city.  Derry, Northern Ireland, is a small divided city, but the city is caught between two competing narratives of the city’s past, one Catholic, one Protestant, fighting for dominance.

Montréal, of course, is rent between the francophone version of the past and vision of the present and the anglophone equivalent.  Historically, the city is split down the middle, blvd. Saint-Laurent, the Main.  To the east, francophone and Catholic, to the west, Anglophone and Protestant.  But this dichotomy doesn’t really work in reality, as the Irish complicated it, they were Catholic and lived in the west end, they were English-speaking and lived in the east end.  Then the Jews came around the turn of the last century and settled in between the French- and English- speakers.  And then the rest of the world came, and the city became multicultural in the last third of the 20th century.  Then there’s the question of class.  Montréal today is a city that holds a history for all these diverse populations, speaking their own languages, going to their own houses of worship, patronising their own businesses.  But Montréal also holds a history of these people crossing their divides, and working together, shopping together, sharing their food and their language across these divides.  We historians are left to find all these disparate strands of Montréal and attempt to unravel the complications, to look at how the complications arose, to see how all these peoples co-operated, and how they conflicted.

To return to The Disappeared, Echlin gets caught up in all of these complications.  For example, the main character, Anne Greves, an Anglophone teenager in the 1970s, whose father teaches at McGill, lives on avenue du Parc.  Anglos in Montréal today tend to call it Park Ave.  Even bilingual ones.  In the 1970s, Anglos did not call it av du Parc.  But Anne also uses the English names for nearly everything else in the city.  Bleury Street.  The Oratory.  Mount Royal.  Old Montréal.  And of course Anne would, all my cousins who are Anne’s age, who still live in Montréal, use the Anglo names.  The only other locale in Montréal that gets called by its French name by Anne is the bishop’s cathedral downtown, Marie-Reigne-du-Monde.  Being the Montréal purist and historian, I find these kinds of misnomers distracting.  Perhaps it’s because Anne is caught between these various Montréals, perhaps it’s because she came of age in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when we fought about all of this, what to call things, what language we must speak and so on.  And maybe it’s because Montréal is just here in passing, it’s where Anne is from.  Soon, we are in Phnom Penh with her, sifting through the aftermath of Pol Pot’s psychotic reign.

But Echlin’s problems with nomenclature in Montréal really only speak to the general day-to-day issues on the street there.  What you call av du Parc (OK, I admit, I’m an Anglophone who tends to use the French names) reflects a lot on who you are, where you’re from in the city, what your politics are.  The same is true of Saint-Viateur, Mary Queen of the World, the Oratory and so on and so forth.  And it is exactly this nature of the divided city I adore about my hometown.  And I have to admit, I kind of miss it.

The “Curation” of Southie and the General Over Use of the Term

December 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

We were in Southie yesterday, the former Irish-Catholic working-class neighbourhood of Boston.  Southie is undergoing massive yuppification these days.  The working classes are being squeezed out, and the yuppies are moving in.  This was clear as we took the #9 Broadway bus from Copley Square into Southie.  The bus is the great equaliser of Boston society; in some parts of the city, it’s the only time one sees large numbers of minorities.  We got off the bus at the corner of West Broadway and A Street, on our way to a yuppified Christmas foodie craft fair at Artists for Humanity on West 2nd Street.  In a lot of ways, Southie looked to me like a combination of parts of the Plateau Mont-Royal and Pointe-Saint-Charles back home in Montréal.  The architecture was Plateau-like in terms of post-industrial spaces and housing, but the people looked like they could be in the Pointe.  There was a curious mixture of the down and out, the working-classes, hipsters, and yuppies of every skin colour.

Gentrification is a creeping problem in pretty much every North American and European city, and much has been written about this, including on this very blog (like, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).  But what struck me the most was Social Wines, a wine and beer emporium in a spanking new building on West Broadway at A Street.  Social Wines offers its clientele “Curated Craft Beer and Spirits.”  Now, I must confess, this is my kind of store: it focuses on smaller, indie breweries and vineyards.  I like giving my money to these kinds of companies, rather than the Molsons, Budweisers, and massive vineyard conglomerates of the world.  But curated?  What the hell does that mean?

According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary on-line, a “curator” is “one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.  To “curate” is: “to act as curator of a museum or exhibit curated by the museum’s director.”

Of late, hipsters and academics have abused the term “curate” like it’s nobody’s business.  It is one thing, in the field of Public History and its corollaries, to write of the ways in which museums and the like have “curated” items.  That is the proper use of the term.  But when editors of edited collections of academic papers start referring to themselves as “curators” and not “editors,” well, then we have a problem.  Meanwhile.  Hipsters.  On any given day, one can go to PitchforkMedia and see articles about this or that music festival that has been “curated” by someone.  The most egregious example of this is the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which takes place in merry olde England, with branches occurring in the US, too.  Each year, ATP is “curated” by a guest musician, one of stature and great fame.  What that means is that someone is in charge of deciding who should play, and the list of artists reflects the curator’s tastes.  Yup, deciding who should play a music festival is curation.

And so now we have a hipster beer and wine store in Southie that offers us “curated” booze.  What, exactly is curated?  The collection of booze on sale.  See, the old ma and pop liquor store down the street just orders in booze that they figure their clientele will enjoy.  But, not hipsters, they lovingly and carefully “curate” the collection of booze on sale at Social Wines.  I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better knowing that rather than having some old geezer just randomly order wines and beers that may or may not be any good, we have the fine folk at Social Wines to very carefully curate their collection.

My problem with the use of this term?  It’s very simple.  It’s pretentious.  And nothing quite says “I’m a wanker” like declaring that you curated your liquor store.  I applaud Social Wines’ mission.  Hell, next time I’m in Southie, I may even stop in and peruse their collection of wines.  But the use of this term by book editors, musicians, and liquor store owners also seriously devalues the meaning of the word in its true professional sense.

Professional curators, those who work in museums and art galleries, do not just collect stuff they like to display.  They are responsible for the content of exhibits, and they are required to carefully make decisions on what is appropriate and what is not, to carefully arrange the displays, to negotiate with sponsors, and so on and so forth.  There is a reason why curators go to school to learn how to properly curate.  Musicians and liquor store owners do not.


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.

In Griffintown

June 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

I spent Sunday morning, prior to the destruction of the Irish team at the hans of Croatia in Euro 2012, in Griffintown, with Scott MacLeod, working on his documentary, In Griffintown/Dans l’Griff.  It was an incredibly hot day, and Scott, myself, the crew, and Claude Mercier who, along with his wife, Lyse, are the stars of the film, all got nice and sunburned.  Below are some action shots, as well as Claude, Scott, and I in Parc Saint-Ann/Griffintown, squinting in the bright sunlight.  It was a great experience, in between shots, Scott and I talked about his vision for the film, how he planned to intersplice archival footage, his own animations, and live action shots to create the documentary. I look forward to seeing the final version.

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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