October 22, 2013 § 4 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.
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.
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.
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.
September 12, 2013 § 5 Comments
I like reading The New Yorker. It’s generally a pretty good general interest magazine and I appreciate its particular slant and humour. But sometimes I read things that are profoundly stupid. Like in the 2 September issue, in a profile of the Serbian tennis player (and world #1), Novak Djokovic. Djokovic grew up during a difficult time in the former Yugoslavia, as it disintegrated. And he grew up during a difficult time for Serbia, while it was committing genocide. So, when the author of this piece, Lauren Collins, casually mentions that NATO began bombing Belgrade, without any context, I was left gobsmacked. Belgrade was bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War, during which the Kosovars fought for their independence from the remaining rump of Yugoslavia, which was really just Bosnia.
Serbian troops, with their wonderful record of genocide in Bosnia/Herzogovina (in conjunction, of course, with Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb army) were suspected of committing genocide, or at least engaging in genocidal massacres, against the Kosovars. Hence, NATO, as it had done in 1995 during the Bosnian genocide, stepped in. In the end, it turns out that Serbia wasn’t exactly committing genocide in Kosovo, merely “”a systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments” (to quote from the BBC), the Serbian army sought to remove, not eradicate the Kosovars.
Whether NATO was right or wrong to drop bombs on Belgrade, Serbia has a history of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity. There’s a reason former Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison in The Hague whilst on trial for war crimes and former Serbian general Ratko Mladic is presently on trial in The Hague.
Clearly Collins is trying to engender a sympathetic audience for Djokovic, who, as an 11-year old boy had nothing to do with Serbian genocides, and it is largely an entertaining article. Nonetheless, she is guilty of a gross misappropriation of history in describing the bombing of Belgrade in an entirely passive voice: “When he was eleven, NATO began bombing Belgrade…”, she then goes on to explain the young Djokovic’s means of survival. She goes onto write “In the aftermath of the war, as sanctions crippled Serbia’s economy, Djokovic’s family struggled to support Djokovic’s ambition [to be the world No. 1 tennis player].” Again, this is a tragedy for the Djokovics, but there are very real reasons why Serbia was hit with economic sanctions by NATO and its allies, and that’s genocide.
The New Yorker and its editors, as well as Lauren Collins, should know better. It’s that simple.
July 1, 2013 § 4 Comments
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.
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?
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.
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.
This 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.
February 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Government 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.
Winnipeg 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.
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.
UPDATE: 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.
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.
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, 579-1215. Either 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.
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.
June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
Two months ago, I posted this about film-maker Scott MacLeod‘s fundraising attempts for a documentary on Griffintown. I’m happy to report he raised enough money and all systems are go. Today, I will be meeting up with Scott and his crew for a bit of filming before Ireland takes on Croatia in its first match of Euro 2012. I am slated to discuss the destruction of Griffintown in the 20th century, due to both bureaucratic inertia on the part of Hôtel de Ville, and depopulation due to deindustrialisation in Griffintown. Of course, all the Lachine Canal-side neighbourhoods of Montréal experienced deindustrialisation, but Pointe-Saint-Charles, Little Burgundy, Saint-Henri, Côte-Saint-Paul and the like didn’t become ghost towns like the Griff. The difference? A combination of local populations resisting deindustrialisation and depopulation (the Pointe, in particular, was home to a radical, populist resistance), as well as political support. Griffintown got none of that. The city abandoned Griffintown, left it to die.
Fast-forward 50 years and now there is nothing the Ville de Montréal loves more than Griffintown. You can practically see the dollar signs in Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s eyes whenever someone mentions the word “Griffintown.” All the city can see is the tax dollars that will come in from all the condo dwellers there once Devimco and a handful of other developers are done with the neighbourhood. Did I say neighbourhood? Oops, sorry. To me, neighbourhood means a form of community, there is common cause amongst neighbours. In some cases, this is organic, in other cases, communities can be planned to encourage neighbourliness. The re-jigged Griffintown, however, is not one of those. No parks, no schools. None of that. Can’t have that, that’d steal space from condos!
So we are going to get a district of high rise condominiums, populated by harried, busy urban dwellers with no real, organic chances for community living, unless they seize the chances themselves. Maybe they’ll become the condo dwellers here in the Pointe, many of whom have joined the casseroles protests, such as they exist in the Pointe, and have joined the community gardens, and have joined the old populist community organisations of the Pointe? Or maybe they won’t. I’m not optimistic, because the Pointe already had this community-based model when the condos went up and when we gentrifiers moved into remodelled tenements. The Griff has none of that.
But don’t tell Gerald Tremblay. Actually, go ahead, he’s not listening anyway.
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.