urbanism – landscape – ideas – theory – whimsy

Before Bay St Divided Yorkville

Goad Atlas fire insurance map showing the area between Yonge St and Queen's Park/Avenue Rd from near College St to Davenport Rd in 1913 - move over with mouse to see the same area in 1924 after Bay St was cut through

One of Toronto’s little historical secrets is the mystery of why Bay St does such a large jog at Queen St. History buffs may know the answer, but I only recently came upon it myself, and it answered many questions I’d long had about the strange disconnect in (of all places) Yorkville between Yonge St and the centre of what we now think of as Yorkville, the area west of Bay St.

The jog on Bay St creates one of Toronto’s most spectacular urban design moments, but it was far from deliberately planned that way – the placement of the tower of Old City Hall simply took advantage of a precondition in which Bay St ended at Queen St. What is today Bay St north of Queen St was originally a separate street running between Queen St and College St called Terauley St. Terauley St and the grid north of Queen St were originally laid out as part of a separate estate that did not line up with the grid south of Queen (even University Ave did not originally extend south of Queen St, whereas Yonge St was the exception as it was the original concession road).

North of College St there was a one block break, and then a series of streets with slightly different alignments (called St Vincent St, Chapel St and North St) continued the rough line of Terauley St north to Bloor St. North of Bloor St, no streets crossed through Yorkville along the Terauley St alignment. In the early 1920′s, the City decided to cut the Terauley alignment all the way through from Queen St to Davenport Rd and rename it as an extension of Bay St. The late date of Bay St’s creation north of Queen partly explains the lack of significant historical buildings along the street.

The effect in Yorkville has been more profound, as Bay St essentially split the old village in two. Originally, the centre of Yorkville was clearly along Yonge St (very few commercial buildings even existed at the time along Bloor St). Both the library and the fire hall were located close to Yonge St on Yorkville Ave. Since the 1920′s and the cutting through of Bay St, the fortunes of Yorkville west and east of Bay seem to have gone in different directions. While Yonge St has lost most of its connection to Yorkville and sense of it’s former individuality, Yorkville west of Bay was destined to become a centre for artists and alternative culture and finally a very unique boutique shopping district, maintaining a significant amount of its character and village feeling.

Progress of Demolition of Kashgar

Google Earth mapping of demolition of Kashgar by Stefan Geens (ogleearth.com), click for larger version

Last year warnings were raised around the world about the impending demolition of most of the ancient old quarter of Kashgar, a key city along the fabled Silk Road caravan route between west and east, located in China’s Xinjiang province (aka Uyghur Autonomous Region) near the westernmost border of China. Before demolition started, the city was considered “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” The government plans to demolish 85% of the old town, replacing the old buildings and fabric with modern housing and development “in local style”, ostensibly to improve the local economy and living standards of residents, and ensuring housing can withstand an earthquake, though whether those are just convenient excuses is subject to a lot of discussion that I’d rather not get into. Stefan Geen (of “neogeo” website ogleearth.com) made a trip to Kashgar in late July 2010 and thoroughly documented the extent of demolition as of August 1, 2010 in Google Earth and on his website, and extensively photographed what remains and the people he met there, all mapped and located in his KMZ file for Google Earth (which you should check out for full interactivity). Above is his map of what has been demolished, and what was in the process of being demolished while he was there, as well as showing the small area that will be preserved for your typical Chinese tourist trap.

While the overall effect so far from the air perhaps doesn’t seem as shocking as the demolition of Tianjin’s old town I wrote about earlier (without more uptodate airphotos, the destruction is not yet obvious, the base is the latest Google Earth has, from October 26, 2009), the damage to the cultural heritage and tourism prospects of Kashgar will certainly be far, far worse once demolition is completed. It is frankly shocking that Kashgar was not made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something that would have certainly at least preserved the physical character of the old town, and is an incredibly popular route for Chinese heritage tourism spots these days (China has the 3rd highest number of World Heritage Sites in the world, and growing). Of course, the country itself has to nominate the place to become designated a World Heritage Site, which likely explains why Kashgar has never been designated. While being designated is not some kind of magical panacea of preservation (leading as it almost inevitably does to massive tourism and the changes of ownership, character and development that brings with it), the degree of preservation that does occur, whether through international or financial pressures from UNESCO, can be gauged by the fact that only 2 World Heritage sites have ever been delisted for destroying the character that led to designation.

In any case, I was hoping to make it to Kashgar to experience its unique ancient character before demolition, but not sure I’ll make it now (the disturbances in Xinjiang last year didn’t help). Actually, I just came back from Shangri-La (or at least, the self-named Shangri-La which is not the same thing at all, with a stop in Lijiang, another World Heritage Site), which ironically, despite the name, is a far cry from the unique, isolated kind of place that I imagine Kashgar is (or is that was?).

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Demolition of Tianjin’s old city

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

Mass demolition of old districts is something of a “normal” thing in China, but to people who imagine that the large-scale destruction of historic city centres is a thing of the relatively distant past, the fate of Tianjin’s old chinese city serves as a sobering case. As Google Earth imagery shows, between November 2000 and January 2004 almost the entirety of the area within the old city walls (defined by the large roads forming a horizontal rectangle that replaced the walls), and a considerable part of historic districts outside the walls, was destroyed. Apart from a couple of important temples, hardly a building escaped the destruction. Between 2004 and 2009 the entire area was rebuilt primarily with high-rise residential buildings and a grid of large wide avenues (see 2009 airphoto below).

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in May 2009

Two streets were rebuilt (not preserved) as “historic” streets in faux Qing style architecture – in the airphoto you can clearly see that the size and roofs of these buildings are not those of the original old buildings, and this type of street is certainly not unique to Tianjin, nor is the concept of demolishing a historic district and replacing it with a sanitized disneyfied historical recreation. Below in the central detail area you can also see the incredibly fine grain of the original historic city fabric.

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

East of the old city walls was an old commercial district along the Hai River, now home to something called “Ancient Culture Street”, but again you can clearly see from the 2000 airphoto (see rollover below) just how much of the historic fabric has been preserved (one temple and 6 courtyard warehouses along a lane). Even Beijing has been guilty of this attitude towards a “historic” street in the Qianmen St “renovation” which includes an “old tyme” streetcar route and restaurant staff dressed up in Qing dynasty costumes.

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and May 2009 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

It seems pretty odd (but fairly typical in China) to have a city concerned to display and exploit its historic pedigree, while at the same time indiscriminately demolishing its own genuine heritage. The reasons are certainly complex and numerous, but foremost among them seems to be a perception that the actual heritage is not nearly impressive or valuable enough to warrant saving, nor, if saved, would give the city’s history the requisite prestige, dignity and respect. Most chinese cities seem to have decided that as far as both tourists and city residents are concerned, it’s far more popular, profitable, and prestigious to create sanitized reproduction tourist traps.

Of course, the excuse of “face” may just be masking a deeper reason for demolition and development: money. Many current residents of the overcrowded, underserviced and dilapidated buildings in older districts tend to be eager to receive the government rehousing compensation that comes from the repossession of their homes, giving them the opportunity to move into more humanely spacious and serviced modern apartments. Meanwhile, the government is just as eager to earn the profits from selling (or should we say flipping?) the repossessed and cleared land to the highest bidding developer. Needless to say, the profits available from renovating buildings within the existing fabric would fall far short of those from even relatively low-density redevelopment, and given that there are no property taxes in China, cities are basically forced to make money from land sales. Meanwhile, the compensation for the original residents tends to allow them to buy cheap apartments far out at the edges of the city, while the property prices in the older districts inflate endlessly beyond the reach of even many of the middle class.

Further complicating the situation in Tianjin is the city’s history (or in this case, lack of ancient history). As history in China goes, Tianjin’s 600 years of establishment (at least as a walled, officially recognized city) pales in comparison to most chinese cities. Then, like Shanghai, Tianjin was opened up to foreign concessions in the 19th century and the history of the chinese city essentially was overshadowed from that point forward. As a result, the many western buildings of the former foreign concessions have been seen as far more valuable than the messy, dilapidated, overcrowded chinese city.

Regardless of the reasons, the end result is the same: widespread demolition of whole districts, destroying hundreds of years of history. The scale of the destruction can be so huge, it makes you wonder if the city has been bombed during a war or experienced some horrendous natural catastrophe. Alas, no, this is a wholly manmade and peacetime catastrophe of epic proportions.

Google Earth imagery of area north of the walled old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and May 2009 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

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Old Town Shanghai

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Danfeng Lu between Wutong Lu 梧桐路 and Fangbang Zhong Lu, Nan Shi 南市 (Southern City, Chinese Old Town)

A misunderstood and underestimated side of Shanghai, the “Chinese Old Town” (called Nan Shi 南市 or Southern City by locals) is the truly historic district of this complex and cosmopolitan city, with the street fabric and many buildings far predating any of the development of the Concessions while controlled by the foreign powers.

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Anren Lu behind the east wall of Yuyuan Garden

Frequently (and erroneously) dismissed as simply an insignificant “fishing village” before the area was opened to foreign trade by the Nanjing Treaty of 1842, Shanghai was in fact already a significant Chinese port and trading city with as large (or greater) a volume of shipping as contemporary London (at least according to Lynn Pan in “Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars“). The core of the city was surrounded by a 5km circle of walls built in 1553 to protect against Japanese pirates, the line of these walls is preserved today by a circle of streets built after their demolition (Renmin Lu and Zhonghua Lu). Outside the walls running down to the Huangpu River was a large commercial, warehouse and port district, with a “forest of innumerable masts” at its wharves.

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A remnant building that's survived demolition in a large cleared district of demolished buildings off Qinglian Jie and Wanzhu Jie

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Same building 8 months later with empty site now a forest of weeds

Sadly, today large areas of the Old Town have been demolished and the former walled city is divided into 4 parts by two large traffic arteries cut through its fabric (Henan Nan Lu and Fuxing Dong Lu). Worse still, its position as the historic origin of a great trading city is largely forgotten or ignored: many tourists simply visit the heavily restored and questionably antique Old Street (Fangbang Zhong Lu east of Henan Nan Lu), Yuyuan garden and pastiche tourist-trap Yuyuan Bazaar and feel they’ve “hit” the Old Town; expats are generally too enamoured with the faded glories of the French Concession to bother with it; and most locals seem more embarrassed by the Old Town than anything else, barely admitting to its existence, as though it doesn’t live up to the hype that is Shanghai, either its past glories or its future potential.

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Wutong Lu 梧桐路 between Danfeng Lu and Baodai Nong

But they don’t know what they’re missing, because the Chinese Old Town (as one would expect) is one of the few places in Shanghai where you can experience a truly Chinese urbanism and a genuine taste of what the city was like before the foreign devils forced their way in. Significant areas still survive filled with lively streetlife, small twisting lanes, and endlessly fascinating visual stimulation of a thoroughly different kind than in the historic lilongs of the French Concession. How much longer this old fabric will survive is anyone’s guess since most of the architecture is undervalued by locals in comparison to buildings such as Shikumen housing in the foreign concessions, and the fine street network is particularly unsuitable to high density redevelopment resulting in whole districts being levelled to create large parcels, with no trace of the hundreds of years old fabric beneath. Only time will tell how much of what remains will survive and in what form, but so far there seems to be relative restraint from officials compared to other districts of the city with regard to the upcoming 2010 Expo. I remain hopeful they will pursue a renovation/revitalization approach addressing living standards and servicing rather than the wholesale demolition that has been all too common in Shanghai.

Browse more photos Old Town Shanghai here at bricoleurbanism.org

…or here on my Old Town Shanghai Flickr Set

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Dajing Lu west of Luxiangyuan Lu with cleared sites of demolished buildings for development behind the walls

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A lane north off Fuchan Nong

Wujiang Lu: Past, Present & Future

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Wujiang Lu food street, near Nanjing Xi Lu station

Wujiang Rd (吴江路) is a small street in Shanghai that has gone through several transformations in its history, from a den of vice, to a popular food street, to a high-end pedestrian “leisure” street. Situated in Jing’an district just off Nanjing Xi Lu near the subway station on Line 2, the street’s origins lie sometime before the 1860′s when its winding path following a creek made such a convenient shortcut that it became Shanghai’s first toll road and was known in chinese as Diamond Bridge Rd.

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Wujiang Lu was (rather ironically) called Love Lane when it was part of the International Settlement and was notorious from the 1920′s as a den of brothels and vice unparalleled even in the Shanghai of the time. “Despite its romantic name, everything was for sale on Love Lane.”

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At some point in later decades Wujiang Lu became a very popular food street with crowds of locals jostling for cheap treats from all over China. Unlicensed stalls lined the pedestrianized street competing with the small restaurants, some of them quite famous.

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"Wujiang Road Leisure Street" west of Shimen 1st Rd

Then along came the spectre of Expo 2010 and a very strong government desire to “clean up” places like Wujiang Lu. The section of the street west of Shimen 1st Rd was entirely demolished and replaced with “Wujiang Road Leisure Street”, a new pedestrian street of fashion boutiques and chain restaurants, a dull corporatized pedestrian mall. In events very typical of current chinese redevelopment, a place abounding in street life and food and shops affordable for most chinese locals has been replaced with expensive shops and restaurants targeted at the nouveau riche.

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The section of Wujiang Lu east of Shimen 1st Rd has survived so far, but it seems has been cleaned up a lot and the unlicensed vendors removed. It’s unclear whether or not the short remaining block still has demolition looming over its head.

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History in the Junction: Part I

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Knesseth Israel Synagogue (also called “The Junction Shul”) at 56 Maria St in the Junction in Toronto just off Dundas St W. The building was built starting in 1911 and  is a designated heritage building and also has an Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque.

The building dates from a time when the Junction was a key centre of industry for Toronto, drawing many working class immigrants to the plentiful jobs.

The historical plaque reads:

“The Junction Shul” was founded early in the 20th century in a building at the corner of Maria St and Runnymede Rd, with a congregation primarily of Polish and Russian Jews. As the congregation grew, construction of this building began in 1911 and it appears that services were first held here about 1913. Designed by the architectural firm Ellis and Connery, the exterior is simple and the interior evokes the splendour of Eastern Europe. Typical of orthodox synagogues, the hall of worship faces toward Jerusalem. The circular windows are divided into eighteen segments, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for life, “chai”. This is now the oldest purpose-built synagogue building in Ontario still in use as a synagogue.

The dedication reads:

“This plaque donated by Joey and Toby Tanenbaum in loving memory of our grandparents Abraham and Chipa Sura Tanenbaum, September 2001″

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Past and Future on Shanghai’s Famous Bund

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The Bund in the 1930's

Shanghai’s waterfront is synonymous with its history. The archetypal image of Old Shanghai is a view of the city’s former front door, the storied Bund along the Huangpu River, lined with ostentatious colonial banking and commercial buildings, symbols of Shanghai’s bizarre history of foreign control and profiteering. For New Shanghai, you simply have to turn your view across the River to Pudong, where a profusion of skyscrapers have sprouted on what was docks, warehouses and fields only 15 years ago, giving Shanghai as modern a skyline as anywhere.

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Pudong Skyline from the Bund

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The Bund in the 1930's

Historically, the Bund was characterized by having an old port’s chaos of ships, wharfs, docks and cargo on the water side, and the dignified solidity of the city’s prime address on the other. In the past, this waterfront vibrancy tended to be the rule rather than the exception, but Shanghai took the activity to a delightful extreme with streetcar routes and plenty of promenaders on both sides of the street. Even so, you can clearly see parallels with historic views along the Old Port in Montreal, and doubtless many other cities.

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View of the Bund in 2008 showing highway off-ramp (now demolished)

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The Bund in 2006: 10 or 11 lanes of uncrossableness, including a raised median to stop anyone crazy enough to try jaywalking - I'm not sure if the trees will be saved

Unfortunately, Shanghai’s waterfront Bund is today a pale shadow of its former self. As in so many other cities, the waterfront was eventually seen as the easiest place to put a major cross-town traffic artery – in this case, at grade, though with a large flyover (now demolished) connecting to an elevated expressway. Ten or eleven lanes of through traffic later, the waterfront promenade that is such a major tourist attraction is as separated from the famous buildings that line the Bund (and the narrow sidewalk in front of them) as possible. At-grade pedestrian crossings are essentially outlawed for the entire length of the historic area, with pedestrians forced into underground tunnels to cross to the waterfront (a temporary pedestrian overpass during construction shows how wonderful it is to see what you’re crossing). Exasperating the strange and tenuous connection between the two sides is the elevation of the waterfront promenade a few metres above street level (something that seems to have been done for flood control reasons).

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View along the Bund from the temporary pedestrian overpass during construction in 2009

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Before and after views of the Bund revitalization, from a poster on a street near the waterfront

Happily, changes are afoot that will be attempting to address some of the Bund’s deficiencies. Firstly, the major traffic artery is being placed in a tunnel below ground level in a huge engineering project which will leave only four lanes of traffic at grade. The Bund will be streetscaped as an urban avenue, with at-grade pedestrian crossings, trees and a much stronger connection between the two sides of the street. The raised promenade along the river will remain elevated (I presume that flood control precludes any change to that), but a series of ramps will tie it much more closely to the street and grade level of the buildings of the Bund. Clearly the proposals will be a strong step in the right direction for an urban locale that is high on the agenda for every tourist that visits Shanghai. One also hopes that reconnecting the waterfront promenade to the city this way will also encourage ordinary Shanghainese to visit more easily.

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View of proposed changes of the Bund revitalization, from a poster on a street near the waterfront

Still though, it’s hard not to be a little nostalgic for the chaos, bustle and business of the old Bund. Somehow a tourist-oriented waterfront promenade choked with package tourists, silly crap for sale to tourists, and potential scams and scammers to watch out for doesn’t quite compare. Hopefully the revitalization scheme, if successful, will help to add a little more action simply by tying the promenade back to the city and encouraging a wider diversity of users. However, a view of what might have been can be glimpsed through a couple of photos found on Flickr showing the Bund in 1983 and 1984 (see below) – a beautiful tree-lined boulevard that looks like it might have compared well to the great waterfronts of the world. It’s rather funny that today Shanghai is desperately trying to get back to where it was 25 years ago when it comes to its most recognizable and impressive urban space. It’s also amusing that despite a building boom of unbelievable scale, and skyscrapers in lots of silly shapes and sizes, the waterfront that has defined the image of the city since the establishment of the international concessions continues to outclass them all.

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View along the Bund in 1983

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View along the Bund in 1984