Blog: entries tagged with "cities"


A quick summary of an eventful season:

I’m settled into my new position as web maintainer for Evergreen, an organization focused on environmental education and community-based greening initiatives. It’s a fine bunch of people, and the work feels much more worthwhile than almost anything I did working on the “agency side”.

We’ve been dropping into Don Kerr’s studio every few weekends to record the new Flickershow album - we have ten songs in progress, with vocals, guitar, bass and drums complete on almost all of them and keyboards on about half. I’m currently working on the trumpet arrangement for a recent song called “Mute”. We’ve also played a whole pile of gigs, most notably busking in front of Pages Books on Queen St, and a swell gig for Earth Hour which included an hour-long, completely acoustic songwriters’ circle.

Sean and I spent a few days in San Francisco last month - he was there to attend a couple of different conferences, and we got to visit his sister, her partner and their two black cats (it seems to run in the family). I spent several days walking all over the downtown area, and up to Fort Mason, where I visited the Long Now Foundation’s museum and shop. Spent many hours checking out every sound-related exhibit at the Exploratorium. I came home with far too many books, and a new pair of shoes - my old pair having disintegrated completely after several dozen hills too many.

Much more to come - more musical experiences; several books to discuss; and my obsession with ruins continues.

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As cities go, Detroit is pretty much the ultimate American example of what can go wrong. From its height during the heyday of the auto industry, the Motor City fell hard, strangled by freeways, unbalanced by “white flight”, and battered by the decline of US automakers. Attempts at jump-starting the ailing downtown were mostly miserable failures, in particular the fortress-like Renaissance Center.

It took until the 1990s to see any serious signs of recovery, including major investment in renovation and new construction. Today, downtown Detroit is still full of abandoned buildings - shacks and mansions, skyscrapers and factories. (Visit DetroitYES and Forgotten Detroit for a photo tour of some of the most remarkable of these. And perhaps most poignant of all, see the photos from Sweet Juniper of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, still full of rotting books and educational materials - “a warehouse full of abandoned hope.”)

Naturally, all this has made the city a magnet for urban explorers in search of “lost” places to discover, and others drawn by the peculiar romance of urban decay. Writing in Metropolis magazine, Camilo José Vergara put forth a fanciful but entirely serious notion:

Cloud Gardens Parkette

“I propose that as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley.”

Not surprisingly, preservationists and downtown boosters were aghast. “If you allow nature to win back man-made objects you are being anti-urban,” one argued. “It’s an insult to America, to what America stands for,” another told the New York Times.

Personally, I love the idea (though I can understand why Detroiters, ever-sensitive about their city’s reputation, would be especially touchy about it). Ruins serve as a sort of memento mori on a grand scale, reminding us of our mortality. They’re not tidy or comfortable. They nudge us toward thinking about time and life, on a scale that’s bigger than our own lives.

And when ruins become overrun by the wild again, they can also be reminders of the endless abundance of nature, that power of rebirth I wrote about a while back. And, as Vergara argues, “Such buildings need to be preserved as symbols of the aspirations they represented when built.”

Gardiner Expressway pillar during demolition (City of Toronto Archives)Thinking along the same lines, artist John McKinnon headed a project here in Toronto to preserve the concrete pillars from the eastern leg of the Gardiner Expressway. The kilometer-long elevated spur, a vestige of a plan to extend the expressway all the way through Scarborough, was torn down in 2001, but the pillars remain as a peculiar tribute to the spirit of “Big Daddy” Gardiner’s Toronto (I’m sure he would have been livid). Stripped of the dangling bits of rusted rebar, tidied up and refinished (how very Toronto), the pillars are slowly being overgrown with ivy.

Another “deliberate ruin” here in town is the Cloud Garden Parkette near Bay and Adelaide (pictured above). Architects Baird and Sampson, together with artist Margaret Priest, took inspiration from Giovanni Piranesi, whose etchings of Roman ruins had captured the imagination of 18th-century Europe. They set out to design and construct a Modernist ruin, with beams and rough bits of wall peeking through here and there. It’s a bit contrived, but the park itself is delightful, somehow creating all kinds of intimate, contemplative spaces all packed onto a relatively tiny lot - dense without feeling crowded. All that and a greenhouse with a little rainforest conservatory too. But I digress.

The Bay-Adelaide Centre, circa 2002The parkette was built as a concession by the developers of the Bay-Adelaide Centre. However, before the office tower was completed, the 1980s office-building boom in Toronto staggered to a halt, and for years a vast concrete stump loomed over the Cloud Garden - a real ruin next to a fake one. (The story is told in more detail in Robert Fulford’s book Accidental City.)

Now, at last, a tower is being built on the site. It fills in a significant gap, but I’ll miss the Bay-Adelaide Stump. Okay, as a memento, it was more a reminder of financial folly than of impending doom, but it was like our own tiny, tidy version of Vergara’s historic ruins park.

Even ruins aren’t forever.

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Glimpses of the past

(It’s been a whole month since I last posted, and what a month. Lots of things are up in the air, but in general it’s been going well. There are promising job leads, I’ve had time to reorganize the studio at last, and resume work on some projects, both musical and electronic - more about those soon. Meanwhile…)

Claremont Confectionery - photo: Sean HowardThe other day, while Sean and I were out for a bite to eat, we noticed a store sign across the street proudly announcing “Claremont Confectionery - Smoke and Gifts - Complete Line of Guns & Fishing Tackle” in handsome hand-painted lettering… might have been forty or fifty years old, by the look of it. The building is now a restaurant, but the owners had apparently liked the sign enough to keep it around. It’s not the only such “historic” sign on Queen Street, either.

I like this sort of nod to the past. I’ve heard it criticized as pretentious and empty - like “façadism” in architecture, where the front of a historic building is kept, and attached to a brand new, usually much larger building. You’re appropriating a cultural artifact that has its own layered history, the argument goes, presumably hoping that some of its essence carries over into your new enterprise.

But nah… it’s pretty neat that elements like this are being kept, however superficial they might be. If it’s done with a bit of reverence and respect, they can help connect us with our surroundings, and remind us that we’re all part of this vast stretch of history.

I once designed a logo for a friend, which was eventually made into a sign that hung over her storefront on Queen West. I’d designed logos before, and web sites and business cards, but this felt different - the first time seeing something I’d created become such a visible part of her shop’s public face, physical and permanent.

Well, not that permanent, of course. It’s been gone for years now. Dozens of signs appear on and vanish from that block alone every year, only slightly more permanent than the cards, posters and other ephemera that flutter through it. It’s cool that every once in a while one survives.

(Next: decay, ruins, and aesthetics.)

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Nuit Blanche 2007

Event Horizon at U of T. Photo: Luke Hollins, aka Hercules Rockafeller. Used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.Once again, Nuit Blanche was a smash. I’ve never seen another event bring the city to life in the same way - nothing like the sensory overload of Pride or Caribana, though those are great in their own ways. The streets all over downtown were packed with people of all ages, wandering from one site to the next, bumping into friends and excitedly trading recommendations. And there was such a sense of curiosity and discovery in the air - what’s that weird light in the distance? What’s waiting around the next corner?

Wonderful things:

Swintak’s ThunderEgg Alley: A Dumpster Diver’s Paradise, wherein a dingy alleyway near Spadina and College was turned into a tiny hotel using found furnishings, complete with spa, boutique and a front desk clerk who asked if we’d like to book the room (a rather cozy-looking dumpster) for a ten-minute stay. The earliest slot available wasn’t until 5:45am, sadly - it would have been great to hold a room party.

Brian Cort’s It’s A Cloud: in the north atrium of the Eaton Centre, people lay on their backs in a meadow of artificial grass and shrubbery, watching the sky projected on a screen high above while oddly-shaped clouds drifted by. The clouds, in fact, were painted by visitors to the exhibit using black paint, then scanned and cunningly rendered by a Java app.

I still maintain that the best “interactive art” is usually the simplest. In front of the Italian Consulate, there was a giant sheet of phosphorescent paper on one wall, and a dude with a great big strobe light. Strike a pose and flash! - your shadow remained frozen on the wall. A circle had formed around the screen, and people stepped in and out: oddballs with flags who’d apparently drifted in from another performance, couples kissing (to general murmurs of “Awwww…”), dancers showing off their uncanny flexibility, half a dozen people hastily lining up to form a single multi-armed silhouette.

King’s College Circle, in the heart of the U of T campus, was a scene straight out of War of the Worlds or Quatermass - an apparent UFO crash site, surrounded by emergency personnel and people in hazmat suits. I understand there was more to the piece (Marman and Borins’ Event Horizon, pictured above) but we didn’t get to see that.

The park beneath Will Alsop’s famous “tabletop” at OCAD makes a natural and comfy hub for the central exhibit zone, and a nice spot to sit for a while and catch a few artsy short films (we saw one that was an adaptation of a piece by the wonderful troupe Corpus - organizers of the Dusk Dances festival every summer).

We didn’t check out The Ghost Station, a sound installation at the abandoned subway platform Lower Bay, because the lineup literally extended around the block, and by then I was starting to fade. Which meant that, sadly, we missed out on all the fun in the far west: the giant inflated locust at Lamport Stadium, the freaky looking animations at Massey Harris Park, the video projection-graffiti bike (based on that Graffiti Research Lab project), and Misha Glouberman’s Terrible Noises For Beautiful People: Music for a participatory noise choir.

It was barely 1am by the time I crashed. I’m determined to stay up later next year, and maybe bring a bike to get from one site to another. And more than that - to participate. To create an exhibit, or help out with one, or even just grab a guitar and busk somewhere. Dear city and sponsors: let there be a next year.

Pier Giorgio di Cicco: Municipal MindA friend recently gave me a copy of Municipal Mind: Manifestoes for the Creative City, an inspiring collection of short essays and manifestoes from Toronto’s Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio di Cicco. Nuit Blanche is just the sort of thing he prescribes: a celebration that brings out the “elements one no longer dares to ask for – conviviality, joy, delight in wonder, the shared forum of imagining and play, of unreserved laughter and serenity ... the playful and ecstatic registers that justify city life, without which the city becomes a place of business, or indentured servitude.”

It takes a poet to say what planners and politicians almost never dare. It’s easy, especially given the City of Toronto’s precarious financial situation, to get lost in talk of dollars and cents. Art, creativity, love: these things are what make us - and our cities - human.

Photos at the Flickr pool.

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Bringing back the Don

Artist's conception of a renaturalized Don River mouth, from the MVVA proposal.Monday night I caught the presentations by the four design teams chosen as finalists in the TWRC competition to create a plan for the Lower Don Lands - the area west of the Don Roadway, between the railway yard north of the Gardiner and the shipping channel. All four presentations had some great elements, and some were downright inspiring. (It was a stark contrast to the city’s street-furniture tender, a shabby excercise that seems to get worse the more we hear about it.)

The mouth of the Don River was once the largest wetland on the Great Lakes, according to one of last night’s presentations. 19th-century development and industry reduced it to a cesspit, and engineers finally confined it to a narrow concrete-lined ditch to prevent floods and channel sewage straight into the lake. Goal one of the competition, therefore, was to renaturalize the river mouth - a task that most of them handled well.

Here’s a rundown of the four proposals:


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Along the streets

Aerial viewTook a couple cool walks through the west end, down the hill north of Davenport that marks the ancient Lake Iroquois shoreline, past the old Wychwood streetcar barns and the Tollkeeper’s Cottage, a couple of souvenirs of Toronto’s transportation history. The former site is slated for conversion to artists’ studios, greenhouses and parkland, the latter for restoration as a national heritage site.

And there were other neat things along the way - parks and neighbourhoods and friendly cats, and other stuff that may provide inspiration for the radio scripts I’ve been working on.

Down on Bloor Street, we passed by the trio of construction sites at Varsity Stadium, the Royal Conservatory and the ROM, and wandered down Philosopher’s Walk past the Conservatory and the U of T music building, there to check out the second lamppost bass installed by Richard Bishop (who ran across my post about his earlier installation, the Kensington Bass, and was kind enough to alert me to the arrival of its new sibling). A bit tough to play, but fun! I’ll have to come by with my contact microphone and an amp or recorder sometime.

Eucan megabin Speaking of the urban landscape, city council is now seeking proposals to provide street furniture citywide. One side effect of this is that the Eucan “monster bin” project (see left) is dead. Good thing too - but we’d better keep an eye on the proceedings and let councillors know we want ads kept under control.

There’s also one really maddening bit: those three-sided “ad pillars” that AstralMedia have installed in parks are exempt from all this. They’re just off the sidewalk, and therefore within the jurisdiction of Parks and Rec, not Urban Planning.

More about this via Spacing Wire. Also, a Star article by Christopher Hume.

Also, on Friday, Newmindspace (instigators of Bubble Battles, subway and streetcar parties, and other revelry) are having a big mobile party they’re calling Flight Of Fancy, somewhere close to downtown. Route to be annouced via email. I’m gonna be there, hopefully playing some music!

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Dan Gibson, nature sound recordist. He actually died over a month ago, but I hadn’t heard until now. When I was a kid, we had the very first Solitudes LP, back before his son talked him into adding music (a smart commercial move, I’ll grant you, but no thanks - I’d rather have just the sounds).

Jane Jacobs, author and champion of neighbourhoods and cities as vital entities. Her book The Death and Life Of Great American Cities spurred me to study urban planning (I discovered it, in turn, through Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn). (via Spacing Wire)

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feels like 1973 all over again

My faith in this city has been restored. David Miller’s the new mayor. On balance, the changes to council look good: Glen de Baeremaeker is in in Scarborough (diss Scarberia all you like - I’ll take it over Etobicoke any day) and most of the other new faces are promising. And now we’ll have an actual leader at the helm - and not a vile embarrassment of a furniture salesman elected on name recognition and blabbermouthedness alone who knows jack about the city and no longer even gives a crap about his job.

Out in the 905, things aren’t quite so pretty: same old suburban developer-sponsored louts, for the most part. In Hamilton, the new mayor backs the Red Hill Valley Expressway. Construction is underway, so short of a minor miracle (say, new provincial premier Dalton McGuinty pulling a Bill Davis), things don’t look too good on that front.

Beyond that, a federal election is looming, and I think Chretien’s slow-motion retirement might have pissed off people in sufficient numbers that a right-wing landslide is conceivable (if the Conservatives and Alliance do indeed manage to unite).

But for now, I am optimistic and highly relieved.

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The Walker Terrace, 2003It’s been really weird watching them tear down the central part of the Royal Ontario Museum to make way for what they’re calling the Lee-Chin Crystal. To me, the Walker Terrace (the mild-mannered 1980s addition that they’re now demolishing, pictured above) was always there, like the CN Tower or Maple Leaf Gardens. It’s pretty weird to see it torn out.

The Crystal is a jagged explosion of metal and glass designed by Daniel Liebeskind, the flashy musician-turned-architect dude who did the Holocaust Museum in Berlin and is now working on the New York World Trade Center site. (His entry in the ROM’s so-called redesign ‘competition’ was scribbled on napkins from the museum’s chi-chi upstairs restaurant.)

I have some pretty strong reservations about the new design, most of which boil down to maintenance. All those weird angles and custom-fitted panels are begging for leaks. And they’ve already had to revise the plans, replacing a lot of the glass with metal. Memo to architects: windows that face up collect dust, snow and bird poop and look like hell in pretty short order. I forsee great gobs of money having to be spent annually just to keep the thing together - money which could be better spent on running a good museum. On the other hand, it does a lot of good things, starting with re-orienting the building to face Bloor Street (a ritzy shopping street) rather than Queen’s Park (a relatively barren car thoroughfare).

I had a bigger shock a few blocks away, where they’re building a new expansion to OCAD, the Ontario College of Art and Design. There, rather than extending horizontally, perches an entire new building a couple floors above the roof of the existing building, propping it up above the park to the south (so as to keep it sunny). People have likened it to a matchbox standing on toothpicks, and it’s completely true. I’d seen renderings of the building-to-be, but to actually see It looming several stories above McCaul St was pretty damn freaky.

The architecture critics tell us that this is all a good thing, that these audacious new buildings will get people excited about our city and its institutions. And I suppose that’s true - people do have a certain fondness for our New City Hall, which was built in the 1950s and still shows up in movies as some sci-fi government or corporate HQ. I have to feel sorry for the people that are going to have to work in these places, though. (I could go on and on about this, but Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn says it better than I could.)

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Rivers and rebirth

Read in the Star the other day: there’s a hidden river flowing through a good stretch of southern Ontario, way below the surface. Not too long ago, they found out where it comes out, somewhere under High Park (very roughly, our equivalent of Central Park). I love stories like that - the idea that there’s all sorts of stuff we still don’t know about, like buried rivers and tiny 500-year-old cedar trees and squid the size of houses.

I’ve noticed that in any animated film, one sure way to get me crying is to show a bleak landscape suddenly suffused by some elemental Power and come bursting to life: happens in Yellow Submarine, Princess Mononoke, the Firebird piece from Fantasia 2000, even that silly Lemonjelly video. There’s something about that symbolism that really nails me deep down: the idea of rebirth, of the world healing itself, of the power of Nature to regenerate.

I’ve seen pictures of the bleak, rocky landscape where I grew up (near the mining town of Sudbury, where according to Canadian urban legend the Apollo astronauts trained because of its similarity to the moon) turning into pine forest again, and it brought a smile to my face. So did word that parts of the Ukraine and Belarus, uninhabited by humans since the Chernobyl accident, have become refuges for wildlife. And I’m realizing that principle - that life keeps coming back, if only we quit messing with it and let it happen - is essentially how I conceive of God or the divine. It was that force that some in Hiroshima and Nagasaki feared was dead after the atom bombs fell. It says - even if we screw up utterly, there is hope; something new and wonderful will arise in time.

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