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.

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Filming Griffintown

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.

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.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Part 3

March 3, 2012 § 11 Comments

There is an SAQ outlet at the corner of Centre and Charlevoix here in Pointe-Saint-Charles. For those of you non-Quebecers reading this, SAQ is the Société des Alcools du Québec, the state monopoly, the liquor store.  The SAQ here in the Pointe is a tiny one, a little boutique, but very busy and the staff there are friendly, helpful, and very knowledgeable.  But the SAQ is closing it down as of 30 March this year because, it alleges, the outlet is unprofitable.  If that outlet is unprofitable, I am the King of Siam.  What is at work here is the SAQ forgetting its mandate as a state monopoly, which is not just to make money hand-over-fist, but to provide a service.

So the people of the Pointe, as mobilised as ever, are protesting the closure of our SAQ outlet. There was a march to our MNA’s office on rue Saint-Jacques yesterday to protest.  Why are people protesting? That should seem to be obvious, quite frankly. But the SAQ at the corner of Centre and Charlevoix is in many ways an anchor of the commercial outlets along the next few blocks of Centre. Kitty corner from the SAQ is Restaurant Machiavelli, a relatively upscale eatery. Next door over is Cari Mela, one of the handful of Indian restaurants in the Pointe, and probably the best. Cari Mela, Machiavelli, and the other Indian restaurants along Centre are all bring your own wine.  This makes sense, given the SAQ down the block.

Centre has seen some rough times, but in the past few years there has been a slow regeneration and revival. There have been these new Indian restaurants opening.  There is a mosque acros the street and up a block.  A series of Bengal dépanneurs have popped up. And a series of coffee shops/casse croutes have opened up or have maintained.  More recently, a trendy boutique restaurant, Ma Tante Quiche has opened its doors next to a laundromat, and there are rumours a boulangerie is opening up where the old video store was.

Losing an anchor like the SAQ will have serious ramifications for Centre as a commercial zone.

The CBC had a short story on its website yesterday about the protest, which will no doubt come to naught. The story itself is innocuous, but the comments on it are quite simply, jaw-droppingly stupid. Michael59 says the protest was a stupid joke because the next store is a few blocks away. mikeysm notes that the Pointe is a poor neighbourhood. HughNugent reports that most of his family grew up here and their response would be for us to get up off our fat arses and walk to the Atwater Market, where there’s a big SAQ outlet.

These comments reflect the general idea of the Pointe of a neighbourhood of poor folk, collecting welfare, and spending their banlieue money on lottery tickets.  But there is obviously more than that.  The Pointe is a diverse neighbourhood these days, and the clientele of the SAQ reflects this.  There are people of all ethnicities and socio-economic classes at the outlet buying their alcohol, primarily wine, as that’s what dominates the shelves.  Atwater Market is a good 15 minute walk from the corner of Centre and Charlevoix. It’s a lot farther away if you live further into the Pointe.

But beyond that, the general gist of these comments is that the people of the Pointe are fat and lazy and because they are such, they shouldn’t be wasting their money on alcohol to start with.  I am very curious what the comments would be in response to a story about the closing of a busy SAQ outlet on, say, the Plateau, or the Mile End, or Outremont, or NDG or Westmount.  I’d bet they would be asinine comments such as these.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, part 1

February 20, 2012 § 11 Comments

A couple of weeks ago as I was coming home from work, I passed two young women on my block looking at a big, fat cat crouched underneath a pickup truck.  They were concerned about the cat’s welfare and were worried it might be homeless (a tip, no cat that fat is homeless).  I told them it lived in the housing project right next to us.  They looked relieved and one said, “Well, you never know, you know what kind of people live in this neighbourhood.”  “Yes,” I said, “I do.  People like me.”  This rather left them speechless, before one attempted to apologise, saying she didn’t mean…”I know exactly what you meant,” I said as I walked off, shaking my head.

So what made them think I wasn’t the sort who lives here?  Could be I looked like them, wearing designer clothing, carrying a briefcase, clearly a worker commuting.  Just like them.  But I’m not, apparently. I’m the kind of person who lives here.

Where is here?  Here is Pointe-Saint-Charles, a kind of gritty neighbourhood in Montreal’s sud-ouest borough in the throes of gentrification as we speak.  Within a five minute walk out my front door, there are 8 new or on-going condo developments.  And at least as many old tenement houses being renovated as single-family dwellings.  But this kind of gentrification is relatively new, the past 4-5 years or so.

These two young women no doubt worked in the old NordElec building on Richardson at the corner of Shearer.  The NordElec was re-jigged and fixed up years ago and is now home to a whole range of businesses, most of them of the cultural sort, producing various forms of art, there’s a yoga studio there on the ground floor, a cooking school, and a rock-climbing gym.  If memory serves me, Ninja Tunes Records’ North American outpost was there once.

What amenities that exist in the Pointe are largely geared towards these workers, the various cafés and restaurants that serve them don’t think it’s worth their time to be open in the evenings or at the weekends.  After all, you know the type who live here.

I grew up poor, I grew up working class.  I never had security of tenure in our housing growing up, always renting, always at the whims of landlords.  More importantly, we were always at the whim of the economy.  The old man got laid off a lot, despite being a skilled worker (a welder).  Therefore, I know what it feels like to be invisible.  Not just feel it, but to be invisible.  My high school guidance counsellor told me that “People like you don’t go to university.”  People like me?  Working class people.  I keep meaning to send Ms. Samuda-Lehman a postcard.

We like to think that class doesn’t exist in Canada.  It doesn’t for most Canadians.  For the most part, the people who work at the NordElec building and other outposts here on the frontier of Pointe-Saint-Charles don’t see what’s around them.  Or if they do, they see the housing projects and the downtrodden buying alcohol in the dep the moment it opens.  And they are beneath contempt for the most part.

I see this every day in the Pointe.  I see it in the yuppy and hipster workers who deem themselves to be more important than I am walking down the sidewalks, refusing to give me space to pass.  Perhaps they don’t see me if I’m wearing jeans and a hoodie.  Perhaps my tattoos and piercings make them think I’m just another piece of white trash.  I know they don’t see me when I’m crossing a busy street, like Saint-Patrick, with my dog.  I have a big dog, he weighs over 150 pounds, so maybe they just see another piece of white trash walking his overgrown, vicious dog.  How do I know this?  Because at least once or twice a week, the dog and I are nearly hit crossing Saint-Patrick at the intersection of Island on our way up to the Lachine Canal for a walk.

What do drivers do?  They fail to stop at the stop sign, they fail to yield to the pedestrian crossing.  Some look at me and then take off right in front of me, stepping on the gas as I am crossing the street but before I’m in front of them.  This always scares the dog.  Or perhaps they’ll just keep coming through the intersection even if I am right in front of them.

The police don’t care.  I have emailed the police.  I have tweeted at them.  I have called them.  No one returns my calls or emails.  Someone is going to get seriously hurt crossing at that intersection, and given it’s on a bike path…

How do I know the drivers’ behaviour is class based?  I’m not 100% certain, but it feels familiar.  And also, if I walk to the train station downtown on my way to work, and I am dressed like another urban professional, they yield for me, at least most of the time.

And herein lies the crux.  If I am dressed properly, if I wear the right clothes, I am given respect on the streets of my neighbourhood by the workers who come here during the day.  They don’t try to push me off the sidewalk into the snow and ice.  They don’t dismiss my presence in the intersections.  They don’t cut in front of me in the cafés.  But I’m dressed down, if I am in more comfortable clothing, this is what happens to me.

And it’s not personal.  I watch it happen hundreds of times a week to the actual working classes in the Pointe.  I see them squeezed off the sidewalks, cut in front of, threatened with cars.  Every day.

Of course I know I am as much part of the problem in the Pointe as the solution; I am part of the crowd pushing the working classes out.  But I live here, and I have lived here for most of the past decade.  Certainly, there are others like me living in the Pointe.  Increasingly more and more, what with all the condos, and one day, those cafés and restaurants will be open in the evenings and at the weekend, so we, too, can get a pint after work, or some decent take-away food.

In many ways, the Pointe is a fascinating place to be, as the neighbourhood both gentrifies and diversifies.  The big church next to me, Saint-Charles, is an old French Canadian parish that has been rejuvenated by Africans and Haitians.  There’s an African grocery store on Centre across from the Church.  There are a series of Bengali grocery stores around the intersection of Centre and Charlevoix, where a bunch of Indian restaurants can also be found (interestingly, they are open in the evenings and at the weekend).

But in the meantime, the workers who come here to do just that, work, they don’t see this.  They see a Pointe that existed a decade or longer ago.  They see “those people” all around them, people not worth their respect or the time of day.  And they act it out too.

Constructing Landscapes

February 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

[note: I originally wrote this article nearly 4 years ago for a site that no longer exists; as the ideas contained in this piece are still of interest to me, I am re-publishing it now, mostly for my own purposes going forward.  I have updated parts of this article that were dated.]

I read a fascinating post at Geoff Manaugh’s BLDG Blog about a new video game from LucasArts that allows the player to modify the game’s battlespace through various (fictive?) technologies. And while that in an of itself is interesting, what struck me most was Manaugh’s reference to historian David Blackbourn’s book, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany.

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, 1740-86

Blackbourn argues that modern Prussia (a pre-cursor state to today’s Germany) was literally “made,” or at least its coastline was, during the reign of the Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740-86. During this period, dykes were built, bogs and marshes were drained, land along the shoreline was created, moulded, and so on. Vegetation was imported and shifted from one locale to another along Prussia’s coastline. Frederick’s imperial projects in Prussia were not, in fact, unlike the works the Dutch did along their coastline to make the Netherlands both more productive and more liveable.

Blackbourn’s argument is an interesting one, to be sure: that modern Prussia (and therefore, today’s Germany) was literally made in the shape that Frederick desired; the land was sculpted. This was done not to give him more land to rule over, as Manaugh suggests, but to increase Prussia’s wealth. In the pre-Adam Smith era, the wealth of nations was measured in agricultural production. Indeed, this was a pretty common Enlightenment argument, popularised by François Quesnay and his colleagues in France, the Physiocrats.

Frederick was keenly interested in Enlightenment theories, and corresponded with many leading thinkers of the era. He even hosted the idiosyncratic French thinker Voltaire at his palace at Sans Souci for a while, until their particular personalities led to conflict. Adam Smith, for his part, was a colleague and correspondent of Quesnay and the Physiocrats, and developed his own theories on the wealth of nations, in part from this correspondence.

What’s of interest here is Blackbourn’s argument. Germany isn’t the only nation to be literally made from the ground up. All modern, industrialised, militarised Western nations are so-made. Many former colonial territories, such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, also fall into this category. Our landscape is, all around us, “made”, both in the physical and intellectual sense. Our landscape is only as it is because we – as a culture, a society, as individuals – see it in a certain way.

More than this, the landscapes of these industrialised, Western nations (and their former colonies) are man-made in many ways. Germany and the Netherlands are but two examples. England, also, is crisscrossed by canals, constructed by re-shaping the landscape of the nation to transport goods and commodities during its Industrial Revolution. Indeed, England is a good example of the forging, or of a landscape, as it has been largely deforested in order to create the fuel for industrialisation, and the landscape for industrialisation.

There’s more. All countries are made, or manufactured, in the sense Blackbourn means. In some cases, this is a natural phenomenon, such as the erosion of sea shores and river banks and coastlinesIn others, it’s man-made. Take, for example, the Gulf Coast of the United States and, in particular, New Orleans. We saw how much of that coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  While the hurricane was devastating enough, what failed in the case of New Orleans were man-made defences around the city, located as it is on the delta of the Mississippi River, and on the shores of Lac Pontchartrain.

New Orleans after Katrina

New Orleans after Katrina

Close to 49% of the New Orleans’s geographic footprint is below sea level, and large parts of the city are sinking. New Orleans averages out at 0.5 metres below sea level, with some parts reaching 5 metres below sea level; but the city has been made a viable location for settlement, industrialisation, and economic activity due to mitigating works being built on the Mississippi and Lac Pontchartrain. All of this economic and industrial activity in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast has also meant the destruction of nearly 5,000 square kilometres of coastline in Louisiana alone in the twentieth century, including many off-shore islands, all of which used to protect New Orleans and the Mississippi delta.

Thus, when Katrina hit 6 ½ years ago, on 28 August 2005, there were few natural defences left to protect New Orleans. The man-made “improvements” to New Orleans and the surrounding area were simply insufficient to deal with a hurricane the force of Katrina, which was classified as a Class 1 or 2 storm. The result was nearly 80 per cent of the city was flooded out, as well as massive social and economic dislocation. Today, New Orleans’s population is still only 60 per cent what it was prior to Katrina.

Getting back to Blackbourn’s argument: his arguments vis-à-vis the creation of modern Prussia can be transported across and around the industrialised Western world. Montréal (the population of Montréal’s metropolitan area is nearly four times the size of that of New Orleans), is the beneficiary of similar modern landscape engineering. The city is located on an island in the middle of the Saint-Lawrence River, and in a cold, northern climate. In the nineteenth century, each spring, during the spring run-off and thawing of the river, the low-lying portions of the city, located near the river bank on the flood plain, were swamped with water.

1886 Flood, Chaboillez Square, Griffintown, Montréal

In 1886, flood waters were over 3 metres deep. The flood led to mitigating works being constructed along the river, the bank was re-landscaped and engineered, dyking was constructed, and so on, all in order to prevent further flooding. This allowed Montréal’s industrial development to continue throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century . This allowed it go through an unprecedented growth cycle that only ended with the Depression of the 1930s, and enabled Montréal to solidify its position as Canada’s metropole (a role it has since lost to Toronto).

This re-shaping of the environment, however, is not limited to the West. More recently, the insta-city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has followed suit.  Dubai itself is a manufactured landscape, as all cities are to a degree, but in the case of Dubai, the landscape has been purposely re-appropriated for the construction of the city.  A more specific example can be seen in the city’s golf courses, for example, the Tiger Woods Dubai golf resort and residences. Golf courses are, in fact, a perfect example of the re-engineering of the landscape, as grass and various other features such as sand traps and water hazards – to say nothing of surrounding vegetation – are imported and planted into foreign

The construction and maintenance (such as irrigation and pesticides) of Dubai’s golf courses, situated as they are in the desert, present us with a massive redevelopment of the landscape, the environmental consequences of which appear to be lost on Woods and his partners in the project. Dubai City itself is an example of environmental re-landscaping for human needs and settlement. Without the sorts of technologies created by the Dutch and the Prussians (to say nothing of the English, Americans, and Canadians), Dubai itself would not exist in its present, insta-city form.

Phoenix, British Columbia: Ghost Town Reclaimed by Nature

February 5, 2012 § 12 Comments

Continuing in the vein of the Hawley Town Commons in Western Massachusetts and the changing rural landscape of Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, I present now to you the ghost town of Phoenix, British Columbia.  Phoenix is located in the Kootenay Mountains of eastern BC, not far north of the American border.

Phoenix, BC, 1912

About a century ago, Phoenix was a thriving copper mining town. It boasted modern amenities such as electricity and phone lines, there was a ballroom and an opera house. it had a stop on the stage lines that ran through the Boundary Region of the Kootenays, there was a post office and around 1900, both the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Great Northern Railway arrived in Phoenix.  In short, the town had made it. It was thriving.  But as was often the case in the mining regions of the North American west, the boom years were short.  At the end of the First World War, the price of copper dropped dramatically and the Phoenix Mine was shut down.  And the town of Phoenix died.

 

Phoenix Cenotaph, 1937

Phoenix First World War Cenotaph, 1937

In the 1920s, the homes and buildings were torn down or buried and there was nothing left of Phoenix, except for its First World War cenotaph, which is still there today.  Otherwise, nature has reclaimed the old town site of Phoenix, despite the operation of an open-pit mine in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  When I visited Phoenix about 15 years ago, I was floored by the site.  I had seen other ghost towns in BC, most notably Barkerville, a tourist site.  But many other sites I had seen were maintained to at least some degree.  Phoenix was a smallish clearing in the dense forest, and the forest was rapidly moving back in, re-claiming its territory.  The grave yard was the most fascinating location on the old Phoenix townsite.  Most of the head stones were long gone.  Many of the graves no doubt never had a proper head stone in the first place, graves marked by wooden crosses, wooden heads, or whatever was handy.  One grave, otherwise unmarked, had a furniture cabinet as a marker.

But otherwise, the grave yard had 80 year old pine trees reclaiming their territory, encouraged by the heavy fertiliser in the soil in the form of decomposing human bodies.  (Since my visit, residents of nearby towns have sought to restore the graveyard some, restoring the headstones that do exist).  What struck me the most about standing in the Phoenix cemetery, though, was not so much the dilapidated headstones, the cenotaph in the distance, or the trees.  It was the black bear about 500 metres away, happily munching away on some berries.  It was also the bear that convinced us to get back in the car, slowly and quietly, and get the hell out of there.

 

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