Eurotrip Destination #10 Brussels

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 5:39 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 10th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

After 6 days in the UK and 4 in the Netherlands, the next country on the itinerary was Belgium, first stop:  Brussels.  As the capital of the EU, and located in the center of Europe’s densest transportation network, Brussels has played a prominent role in the politics of modern Europe.  It’s also a great place to wander around.

Brussels is centered around a dense urban core.  Buildings old and new rise several stories above city streets.
Brussels is also very walkable, with several pedestrian malls in the city centre.
Its most famous site is the Grand Place (pronounced with a French accent).
The Grand Place consists of a square which is believed to have been a central market spot as early as the 11th Century.
The Grand Place has all the elements of a tourist trap, but nonetheless the architecture is quite magnificent, and outweighs the rows of souvenir shops which surround it.
The following images are all shots from different angles within the Grand Place.
Brussels (and Belgium as a whole) has a unique linguistic history.  Belgium is divided into the Flemish (Dutch) speaking region of Flanders and the French speaking region of Walloonia, as well as several small German speaking areas.   Brussels is geographically located within Flanders, and is traditionally a Flemish speaking city.  However over the past several hundred years, migration and social pressures have created a language shift, whereby Brussels has transitioned into being a primarily francophone city.  Today, while all signs are written in both Flemish and French, most of the language heard on the streets of Brussels is French.
Just around the corner from the Grand Place is Manneken Pis, another world famous Brussels landmark.  Literally “Little Man Pee” Manneken Pis has been continuously urinating in Brussels since 1619.  According to tradition, he is often dressed in costumes covering his genitalia, and sometimes reflecting themes of foreign dignitaries who are visiting Brussels.
Brussels is well served by its subway system, with several lines all leading towards a loop in the city centre.
With Brussels’ compactness, most sites can be reached in under 15 minutes on the subway.
Brussels has an interesting city centre, with several inner neighborhoods having experienced significant post-industrial urban decay.
Like most European capitals, Brussels does not have many large skyscrapers, such as those which dominate skylines in Asia and North America.  The Tour du Midi (above) is the tallest building in Belgium and sticks out among skyline.
But much of Brussels streetscape is 3 and 4 story dense urban development typical of European capitals.
Brussels’ most unique feature may be its ethnic heterogeneity.  Rather unique among European cities, Brussels’ immigrant communities (and poor communities generally speaking) tend to cluster around the city centre rather than on the outskirts.  I covered several large swaths of city centre, which felt entirely, well…un-Belgian, such as this dowwtown Moroccan enclave.
In Moroccan neighborhoods, the streets are frequently lined with these outdoor cafes where Moroccan men (I hardly ever saw women at these establishments) would sit outside, drinking tea and conversing loudly in large groups.
In addition to Moroccans, the largest foreign ethnic groups in Brussels include Turks, Congolese, and emigres from the rest of the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya).  After French, I probably heard more Arabic on the streets of Brussels than I heard Flemish.  Brussels’ ethnic mix makes it an excellent town to sample various foodstuffs from the Muslim and Arab world.
The hostel I stayed at was located in the Molenbeek district, home of one of Brussels’ largest Moroccan enclaves, and the Sint-Regimius Church (above), built in 1907.
Here’s a typical street shot from Molenbeek.  Most of the housing was occupied by Moroccans and various other immigrant groups from around the Middle East and Europe.  As a primarily francophone city, Brussels makes for a convenient draw for immigrants of the Maghreb, many of whom learn French in school in their home countries.
Brussels doesn’t have the volume of historical and cultural sites as other Western European capitals such as London and Amsterdam.  But it what it does have is a broad snapshot of the multi-ethnic metropolises of which many are presently becoming.  In this respect, and considering the amount of international organizations located within its boundaries, Brussels feels almost more like a world capital than it does the capital of Belgium.  Next stop:  Bruges



Eurotrip Destination #9: Rotterdam

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 12:54 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 9th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

Without checking Wikipedia, what’s the largest port in Europe?  I didn’t know either until about two months ago, but it’s Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ second largest city.  Also part of the Ranstad is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Rotterdam is an anomaly in the Netherlands, and Europe as a whole.  With nearly the entire city having been destroyed by bombing raids, Rotterdam has been rebuilt in a modern, futuresque paradigm, which in some respects looks more Asian than European.
Rotterdam does not have a compact city centre like Amsterdam and Utrecht.  Instead, it is spread out and centered around several high-rise business districts, which are home to some of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers.
Linking the various districts is the shiny Rotterdam Metro.
Unlike Amsterdam with its compact, walkable, bikable, city centre, getting around Rotterdam usually entails a ride on the Metro.
With large populations of Africans, Asians, and Arabs, Rotterdam is a polyglot city, filled with ethnic enclaves from around the world.  It’s hard to see from this picture, but this is a picture of the Chinatown, located just 5 minutes away from the Rotterdam Centraal Station.
The next few pictures are shots from around central Rotterdam.
The European breakfast of champions
What I found most appealing about Rotterdam was the modern architecture.  I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like it outside of Hong Kong and Shanghai.
European cities aren’t generally known for their skylines, but in this regard, Rotterdam was impressive.
Here’s the Erasmus Bridge, Rotterdam’s most famous architectural landmark.
modern office parks
and even a wind mill for good measure
The district of Delfshaven is one of the few splices of old Rotterdam which survived the war.  There wasn’t a whole lot to see here, but for Old Rotterdam, this is all that’s left to offer.
Much of Delfshaven’s residential space has been redeveloped into these.  Even in a modern city, Dutch developers maintain urban density by keeping houses close together.
Rotterdam isn’t exactly a hotbed of tourism.  But as a wonderland of modern architecture, it provides a good foil to a European trip centered on the old and ancient.
I did Rotterdam in a day trip from Utrecht, and while I could have stayed longer, this felt like the right amount of time to soak up much of what Holland’s second city has to offer.  Rotterdam’s appeal is in the modern and not the ancient, and in this regard, the architecture is well worth the trip.  Next stop:  Brussels



Eurotrip Destination #8: Utrecht

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 12:00 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 8th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

Utrecht is the Holland’s 4th largest city, and was the dark horse of my stay in the Netherlands. Part of the Randstad conurbation, Utrecht is a short, half hour train ride from Amsterdam Centraal.

Utrecht is known as the Netherlands’ college town, but there’s more to this city than just college students.  In  many ways, Utrecht feels like a smaller version of Amsterdam, but without all the tourists and commercialization.  Like Amsterdam, Utrecht has canals, “coffeeshops,” and red light districts, but on a smaller scale than the capital.
Utrecht is traversed by several canals which cut through the main pedestrian arteries of the city centre.
Many of the buildings are built next to the canals.  A door on the canal allows people to step out of their home and directly on to a boat.
Originally built as shipping lanes, thesedays the canals are primarily used for recreation.
Utrecht has a quaint, compact, city centre, centered around the Medieval Dom Tower.
Originally intended to be part of a cathedral, the cathedral itself was never finished due to lack of funds.  The tower was completed in 1382 after 60 years of construction, and remains today as the marker of Utrecht’s geographic center.
The Dom Tower attracts many tourists, but by in large, Utrecht is off of the mainstream Eurotour route.  It’s an excellent town to visit if you want to get away from the typical tourism circuit.
Unlike Amsterdam where organized religion was uncharacteristically absent from the city’s power structure, Utrecht has traditionally been the center of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands.  The grandiose Dom Tower was constructed, in no small part, as a visual reminder of the Church’s power.
Below and around the Dom Tower is the heart of Utrecht’s city centre.
Utrecht was one of the most well-intact old cities I visited on my trip.  The streets are full of old churches, houses, and canals, and everything is reachable via walking or bicycle.
Like just about anywhere else in the Netherlands, bicycles are ubiquitous in Utrecht.
“Wok to Go,” the Dutch take on Chinese fast food.  These seem to be almost as common as McDonalds in the Netherlands.  I didn’t actually go inside.
The Netherlands is a hotbed for delicious snacks and junk food, which is interesting because they have very few obese people.  Here’s one of my favorites, frites topped with mayonnaise, curry sauce, and chopped onions.
random night shot
English isn’t as widely spoken in Utrecht as it is in Amsterdam.  Most of what’s heard on the streets is Dutch, which has possibly the longest average word length of any language on the planet.
By in large, Utrecht’s most appealing attraction is its canals which line the main thoroughfares of the city centre.
What’s so impressive about Utrecht’s canal network is the way in which it has been woven into the contemporary urban fabric.
Utrecht’s canals are not rebuilt or museumified, rather they have been seamlessly integrated into the flow of city life.
When the canals were first built, they were used to ship goods to and from Utrecht merchants.  The doors along the canals lead to the basements of the storefronts along the street.  Goods could be delivered directly to merchants without interrupting the street traffic above.
Along Utrecht’s main canal several miles outside the city centre, is the Red Light District.
The Red Light District itself is literally on the canal, with a mile-long stretch of house boats available for prostitutes to rent.  Each unit has a window in which the women display the goods and oggle at potential customers.
Once a deal is made, the John steps onto the house boat, and the curtains are drawn.
A special dead end road runs along the canal so that motorists can drive up and down to scope out the merchandise.
Unlike Amsterdam’s De Wallen Red Light District which is as much a tourist attraction as it is a center of vice,the majority of the people in Utrecht’s Red Light District are there because they are legitimately looking for some evening company.
Utrecht is at the center of the Netherlands’ comprehensive high-speed rail network.  The 4 cities of the Radstad are so well-linked by rail that you could conceivably live in any of the 4 and commute daily to any of the other 3.
Trains leave about every half hour, and tickets can be purchased up until 10 minutes before departure making train travel through the Netherlands, at least the major urbanized part, seamlessly easy.
Utrecht is a can’t miss destination on any trip to the Netherlands.  It’s close enough to Amsterdam that it can be seen in a day trip, but it’s worth staying longer if you have the time.  Utrecht is an ideal place to kick back, relax, sip a beer (or smoke legal marijuana) in a medieval city centre overlooking 17th Century canals.  It doesn’t have as many cultural amenities as Amsterdam, but for a relaxing place to soak up Dutch culture and architecture, it doesn’t get better than Utrecht.  Next Stop:  Rotterdam



Eurotrip Destination #7: Amsterdam

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 1:40 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 7th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

The first place my feet touched down on the European continent was Amsterdam.  Once the center of the world’s first modern capitalist economy, Amsterdam of today is a bustling Old World metropolis, full of both culture and debauchery.

Amsterdam’s most defining feature is the ring of concentric canals which form belts around the old city.
Amsterdam was one of the world’s first cities to urbanize on an industrial sale, and its canals are the result of an extensive city plan enacted in the early 1600’s to deal with the city’s rapidly expanding urban population.
Amsterdam, and the Netherlands as a whole, also prides itself on a history of tolerance.  One physical symbol of this is the house (middle) in which Anne Frank and her family were hidden from the Nazis by their Dutch friends.
Another symbol of Amsterdam’s spirit of tolerance is the De Wallen Red Light District, now one of Amsterdam’s prime tourist attractions.  More on De Wallen below.
Amsterdam is one of the world’s most pedestrian-friendly cities.  With many of its old streets too narrow for any motorized vehicles to enter, pedestrian access has always been a major consideration for Amsterdam’s city planners.
Amsterdam also has one of the world’s most innovative multi-modal transportation systems, the central point of which is Centraal Station.  Opened in 1889, Centraal Station also forms one of the busiest inter-city transit hubs in the Netherlands.
Servicing the city centre is a web of trams which run on rails in the middle of city streets.  These provide the primary means of mass transit within the city centre.
Amsterdam also has a metro system.  But unlike North America where subways serve only urban cores and suburbs are entirely dependent on the automobile, the Amsterdam Metro is primarily used by suburbanites commuting to the city centre.
The development of Amsterdam suburbs generally follows extensions of the subway, with even the furthest suburban districts having access to mass transit into the city centre.
The majority of the Netherlands’ population lives in the “Ranstad” a conurbation consisting of the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Den Haag, as well as several small communities in between.  A high-speed inter-city train system links all cities within the Ranstad so that each one is in commuting distance of the other three.
With its concentric canal belts, boats are another way to get around Amsterdam.
But perhaps Amsterdam’s most conspicuous mode of transportation is its widespread embracing of cycling.  With a population of under 1 million, Amsterdam claims to be home of nearly half a million bicycles, with estimates as high as 30% of the population using bicycles as their primary means of transportation.
Chained to fences, sprawled along curbs, and tied to trees, parked bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam.
Most of Amsterdam’s streets also have dedicated bike lanes, grade separated from vehicular traffic.
Next to Amsterdam Centraal Station is what could quite possibly be the largest bike parking garage in the world.
Here’s a view of the bike garage from the side.  There are so many bikes in Amsterdam that providing ample bike parking is a legitimate challenge to city planners.
Creative methods, such as this underground bike parking garage, are often devised to create parking space for Amsterdam’s army of bicycles.
Amsterdam does a marvelous job of integrating all four primary methods of city transportation, with most major streets having separate lanes for pedestrians, bicycles, automobiles, and the tram.
Amsterdam’s most distinct physical features are its canals and tall, narrow, buildings.  When much of the city centre was being laid out, taxes were levied based on storefront space at ground level.  This encouraged building upwards, and has contributed to Amsterdam’s present urban design, which continues to harness the efficiencies of urban density.
Amsterdam’s high rates non-automotive transportation are facilitated by its high urban density which makes biking, walking, and mass transit convenient and efficient, while car ownership is unnecessary, and often more of a headache than a convenience.
Amsterdam, and the Netherlands as a whole, is also one of the flattest places on Earth, another convenience for pedestrians and cyclists.
With streets hardly wide enough for a bicycle and many buildings built directly on the canals, conceding Amsterdam to the automobile (which was done in most of North America, and even some of Europe post-World War II) would have necessitated bulldozing entire sections of the city centre to clear way for highways and parking.
There are spaces for automobiles in the city, but as shown by this picture, it isn’t exactly the most convenient way to get around.
Another fortunate point for Amsterdam was that although it was invaded by the Nazis in 1940, the city’s infrastructure remained relatively unscathed by World War 2.  Amsterdam was never subjected to the widespread bombings which leveled Rotterdam, and thus much of the old city remains, whereas Rotterdam had to be rebuilt from scratch after the war.
Amsterdam is also one of the most picturesque and historically well-preserved cities I’ve ever visited.  I spent an entire day wandering around and snapping random pictures.
Unique among European capital cities, organized religion had only a minor influence on the history of Amsterdam.  The city museum makes proud mention that Amsterdam was one of the first European cities to drive out the Catholic Church.  Thus, there are no opulent churches and ostentatious displays of power in the form of architectural monuments.  From the 1600’s onward, Amsterdam was controlled by wealthy Protestant businessmen who were more interested in making a buck than flaunting their power to the masses.
Even Dam Square, the geographic center of Amsterdam, is paltry by the standards of European capitals.
Regardless, it’s probably still the most photographed place in Amsterdam.  If you want to get your picture taken next to Halloween-skeleton men or a human statue, Dam Square is the place to be.
You can always tell how touristy a particular place is by how friendly the pigeons are.
hanging out at Dam Square at night
the Albert Cuypmarkt
The Netherlands has a relaxed attitude towards drugs, and “coffeeshops” in most Dutch cities sell marijuana.  The legal limit to own and carry is 5 grams, and most coffeehouses sell a wide variety of strands at prices listed by the gram.
Amsterdam coffeeshops come in a wide variety of themes, and in addition to marijuana, most sell soft drinks, coffee, snacks, and provide tables and couches at which to smoke.  Coffeeshops which serve alcohol are not allowed to sell marijuana, although they do allow customers to bring their own and smoke on premises.  If you’re looking for a place to drink coffee without the company of pot smokers, then you want to find a “cafe,” not a “coffeehouse.”  It should also be mentioned that most Amsterdam coffeehouses cater primarily to tourists as opposed to the Dutch, who as a whole (I’m making a big generalization here) don’t seem too interested in mind-altering drugs.
On the southern end of the city centre is the massive Vondelpark.
Being that Amsterdam is the world capital of stoner tourism, Vondelpark is chalked full of tourists taking full advantage of the Netherlands’ lenient drug laws.
It’s a beautiful urban park, and an ideal place to take a run, take a walk, or to stare at the trees for a couple hours.
pretty sure everybody in this picture is stoned
Like drugs sales, prostitution is also legal in the Netherlands and the De Wallen Red Light District is one of Amsterdam’s premier tourist attractions.
Prostitutes rent windows from which they display the goods to onlookers.  Johns walk up an down the street, and window shop (literally) for a hooker.
Pimping is illegal in the Netherlands, and therefore each prostitute is the sole proprietor of her own business.  Prostitutes are frequently tested for diseases, subject to protective labor laws, and also join local unions.
De Wallen is so heavily touristed that it feels like a Disneyland version of a Red Light District.  The majority of the people there are tourists walking around gawking at the sites of scantily-clad women posing in windows, as opposed to people actually looking for a “good time.”  (In case you’re wondering, I fell into the first category).
De Wallen isn’t necessarily unique in the Netherlands.  Every Dutch major city has a Red Light District, if not several.
In addition to prostitution, voyeur enthusiasts can enjoy multiple theatres providing live sex shows in De Wallen.
De Wallen is a site not to be missed in Amsterdam, granted some of it’s character (and much of its seediness) gets lost in commercialization.
Adjacent to De Wallen is Amsterdam’s Chinatown.
Like Amsterdam itself, Chinatown is small and compact, consisting of only two or three streets and the requisite restaurants and tourist shops.  From those I talked to, it seems like the majority of the Amsterdam Chinese community comes from Wenzhou.
The main tourist attraction is the Buddhist Temple.
inside the temple
Seeing as Indonesia was once part of the Dutch colonial empire as well as a major destination for Chinese emigrants, Amsterdam has many Indonesian Chinese restaurants.
I’m no expert in this field, and these are certainly not the best specimens, but the Netherlands also has a very active graffiti culture.
Most of the best work I saw was looking out the windows from high-speed trains (hence no pictures).  This above looks more like typical teenage angst.
The city of Amsterdam provides several free ferry lines across the IJ Bay to the outlying districts on the other side.
another view from the ferry
Though Amsterdam is arguable the birthplace of the modern industrial capitalist economy, by the end of the 18th Century the center of world production had shifted to England, and later the United States.  Amsterdam did however see its fair share of industrial buildup, and today is still home to many obsolete industrial spaces especially north of the IJ.
Many of these industrial spaces are now serving as a creative playgrounds for artists, architects, and urban planners.
…such as this collection of apartment units constructed out of old shipping containers.
…and a decrepit loading dock converted into an industrial artistic wonderland
The following group of pictures are all from the old loading dock.  I wasn’t able to ascertain whether the space was an officially sanctioned art project or an aesthetically pleasing act of mass vandalism.
Back on the Southern bank of the IJ again…In North America, we tend to associate the word “suburb” with expansive strip centers, low-density housing, and car-dependent transportation.  As energy costs have risen in recent years, the inefficiency of American suburbs has been exposed to a wider audience, and the smart growt movement and a revival or cities is well under way.  In the Netherlands, suburban development has stuck to a different paradigm.  Dutch suburbs are of comparatively high population density, are built in conjunction with mass transit, and facilitate mixed-use commercial/residential spaces.  There is little sprawl, and the suburbs remain integrated to the efficiencies of the urban core.
The Amsterdam Metro is designed to transport suburban residents from their suburban homes to employment centers in and near the city centre.  Construction of new suburban districts generally follows the development of the Metro system, with even the most distant suburban districts having access to the Metro.
Unlike their counterparts in North America, suburbs in Amsterdam are both pedestrian and cyclist friendly.  Due to efficient land use and population densities, most suburban destinations can be reached without the use of a car.
Here’s a typical suburban Amsterdam residential block.  Individual units do not have their own private outdoor space, as they would in suburbs in the US or Canada.  Instead, units are close together, and most open spaces are shared by the community.  Without the typical dead space endemic to North American suburbs, Dutch suburbs are able to maintain high enough densities to support mass transit systems and allow for convenient pedestrian shopping and entertainment.
all the while maintaining much of the greenery and quiet which make suburbs appealing
Suburbs in Amsterdam provide many of the advantages of life away from the city centre, while at the same time allowing for the advantages of dense urban living including energy efficiency, walkability, and mass transit access.  American urban planners:  take note!
Several miles south of Amsterdam’s city centre is the Zaidas, also known as  Amsterdam’s Financial Mile.
The Zuidas is the Netherlands’ foremost business district.  Its Zuid train station is expected to eventually overtake Amsterdam Centraal as the main point of departure for high speed trains to Belgium, Germany, and France.
Currently Zuid sits at the axis of 2 of the Amsterdam Metro’s 4 lines, with another being built, making it a central point of the Metro system.
Exploring Zuidas, you feel centuries removed from the old narrow houses and canals of the city centre.
The Zuidas is another fine example of Amsterdam’s superb urban planning.  Buildings are built up and not outward, there is little dead space between them, and everything is within a convenient stroll from the metro station.
One reason Dutch urban planning works so well because it builds urban spaces for people, not for cars.  Even among the wealthy, most Amsterdam residents rely on a combination of mass transit, bicycles, and their own feet to commute to and from  the office.
and here are some more shots of the Zuidas
What’s even more impressive about The Zuidas is that technically speaking, it’s in the suburbs.  Yet the design paradigms implemented are those which are typically thought of being unique to high-density downtowns, at least in North America.
notice the bicycle parking lot in front
Whereas North American office parks commonly surround buildings with functionally useless greenspace, the Zuidas (and Amsterdam in general) makes wise use of its open spaces.  Rather than spacing out the buildings, they are built close together, allowing for convenient pedestrian access.  Open spaces are built in strategic locations, where they are accessible from many of the high-rises, rather than being spaced out, with several under-utilized open areas for each building.
When it comes to urban, suburban, and transportation planning, Amsterdam puts on a clinic to which the whole world (and especially the United States) would by wise to pay heed, the Zuidas being just one of the more recent examples.
If I had to pick one city from my trip which I would say is essential for any trip to NW Europe, it would probably be Amsterdam (with London a close second).  The city simply has it all: culture, history, art museums, public art, old architecture, ethnic food, parks, and partying, and a sophisticated transportation network to get you anywhere you need to go.  I stayed here a full 3 days, longer than anywhere else on my trip, and I’d gladly go back again and spend a week.  Next stop:  Utrecht



Eurotrip Destination #6: Manchester

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:30 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 6th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

The last stop in the UK, before heading to “Europe” was Manchester.  Home of the world’s most valuable sports team and a plethora of industrial history, Manchester is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from Leeds.

Manchester’s city centre is dense and compact, and built around Piccadilly Gardens (above) as its geographic center.
Like much of Northern England, Manchester urbanized rapidly corresponding with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and much of its architecture reflects its blue collar origins.
In the latter half of the 20th Century, Manchester experienced many of the common problems associated with de-industrialization including poverty and urban blight.  But in recent decades, the city has seen a resurgence with many now jockeying Manchester as Britain’s “second city,” a claim traditionally held by Birmingham.
Of the 3 post-industrial cities on my itinerary (Birmingham, Leeds, & Manchester) Manchester has probably been the most effective in reinventing itself.  Today, it has a funky, alternative edge to it, and is rapidly emerging as a major European cultural center.  This is especially apparent in the Northern Quarter, Manchester’s booming boho neighborhood.
Manchester’s city centre was so compact and walkable I didn’t even need public transportation to get around.
Manchester, and much of England in general,  has peculiar weather.  When I first got off the bus, it was a bright sunny morning.  Within the half hour, the sky was grey and rain was slowly drizzling from above.  I went into a cafe to check my e-mail and Facebook, and by the time I finished it was sunny again.  I walked around for an hour before it started pouring.  I went inside to eat, and the sun came out.
My advice to anybody traveling in England:  Bring a day bag packed with a raincoat and multiple layers for different temperatures.  I probably changed clothes 3 or 4 times a day in Manchester and Leeds.
City Hall
5 minutes south of Piccadilly Gardens is Manchester’s Chinatown.
If I had to choose, Manchester’s Chinatown was my personal favorite of the several I visited in England, much less Disneyfied than the Chinatowns of London and Birmingham.
reminded me of the Chinatown in Boston
Manchester is a great place to explore old railroad and industrial infrastructure.
with the occasional touch of modernity
Like Birmingham, Manchester also has an extensive canal network which has been redeveloped in the post-industrial era.
Manchester has always been an important transportation hub in England, with the conflux of canals, railroads, and nowadays international flights.
Manchester has done a marvelous job redeveloping many of its former industrial zones into urban residential space while maintaining the historical character of the environs.  This appears to be an old mill building along the canal (notice the space where river previously flowed through) turned into condos.
One conclusion from my trip through industrial England is that British post-industrial cities have adapted more effectively to a post-industrial economy than most of their counterparts in the United States.
There are numerous reasons for this, but I’m thinking part of the explanation lies in the compactness of British cities, as opposed to the urban sprawl which has plagued the US over much of the last century.  With populations still concentrated around city centres, post-industrial British cities have not experienced the acuteness of urban problems associated with suburban exodus as have American industrial behemoths such as Cleveland and Detroit.
With compact, walkable, city centres, efficient public transportation, and high fuel taxes (gas in the UK routinely costs over $8 USD/gallon), British cities provide more incentive to remain in or near city centres.  Meanwhile American urban policy and design since World War II has generally encouraged movement away from downtowns and into the suburbs.
These old industrial buildings along the canal now provide high demand residential space, within walking distance from Manchester’s city centre.
In many ways, Manchester feels a lot like Boston.  I’m no architecture expert, but this looks a lot like South Station.
Switching back to the modern, this is Urbis, Manchester’s cultural exhibition center, and future home of the National Football Museum.
the new and the old
Manchester’s answer to the London Eye:  the “Wheel of Manchester”
busy Manchester streetscape
No trip to England would be complete without the token meal of fish & chips, washed down with a cool Guinness.
“There’s London, and then there’s everything else in England.”  This is how it was broken down by multiple Brits I encountered on my trip.  London is indeed distinct from the rest of England.  But as far as “everything else” goes, Manchester fits the role of England’s second city.  It’s the perfect mix of an industrial past and a hip, trendy, present, with many of the cultural amenities of a diverse, urban metropolis.  Between the weather, the blight, and the general greyness, Northern England can be a bit depressing, but Manchester is a diamond in the rough, and a town not to be missed on any trip through the UK.  Next stop:  Amsterdam



Eurotrip Destination #5: Leeds

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 10:20 am by Benjamin Ross

This is the 3rd entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

Leeds is a classic English Rust Belt city.  Though smaller than Birmingham and Manchester, Leeds also played a key role in England’s industrialization.  Today it’s the UK’s largest English financial center outside of London, but much of the character of Leeds’ industrial past remains intact.

Leeds is the primary urban center for the region known as West Yorkshire.  A small market town until the 17th Century, Leeds became a major trade and manufacturing center during the Industrial Revolution.
Best known as the center of England’s wool industry, a wide variety of industrial activity thrived in Leeds, especially after the opening of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in 1816.
Leeds is a pleasantly gritty town, with much of its architecture still showing a working class/industrial aesthetic.
Here’s the market in the center of town.
another shot of the market
and some more typical Leeds-esque steetscape
the pedestrian shopping district in the center of town
a cleaver way to use an overhanging to adjoin two old buildings and turn the street between them into an indoor mall
You can’t tell from this picture, but this street in the city centre is what appears to be the former Leeds Chinatown, now in the process of evaporating.  Roughly every other storefront is a Chinese business, and it seemed as if the process of neighborhood succession was already well-advanced, with non-ethnic businesses on their way in and Chinese businesses trickling out.  If anybody has more detailed info on the history of this area, please share in the comments section.
Leeds has a well-defined architectural style with wide usage of brick, and most of the buildings in the city centre look something like this.
Like Birmingham, Leeds is also traversed by a web of canals.  Many of the old mill buildings along the canals have been converted into apartment spaces.
An old friend of mine from Kansas City lives in Leeds with his British wife and children.  This is their neighborhood, where I stayed.  The neighborhood was uniformly laid out in these almost surreal brick housing blocks which extend for several hundred feet in each direction.
I’m not sure on the date exactly, but I’m guessing they’re probably mid-19th Century and were built for middle class families looking to get away from the city centre.
Leeds is small and compact, even by British standards, and the bus system is efficient for getting around.  An extensie commuter rail network connects the city centre with suburban and outlying towns across West Yorkshire and beyond.
Just a 15 minute train ride from the Leeds City Centre is the town of Saltaire.  Founded in 1853, Saltaire claims to be the most well-intact 19th Century planned industrial village in the UK.
Planned industrial villages such as these were built in both the UK and the US during the later phases of the Industrial Revolution.  Typically a large company would build a production plant in a distant suburban area far from the city centre in order to take advantage of cheaper land and/or favorable transportation routes.  Since workers were out of reach of most city amenities, the company would construct an entire town from scratch, including markets, schools, churches, and hospitals.  The workers would then be able to carry out most regular activities without ever leaving the village.  In many ways, these British industrial villages form the prototypes for those currently operating in China in which large companies (particularly in the Southeast) build all-inclusive factory campuses for their employees.
Saltaire was built to house workers of Salt’s Mill (above).  A major textile producing mill in its heyday, Salt’s Mill originally consisted of five separate mills which were consolidated to this site in the 1850’s.
The mill remained active until it was closed in 1986, and a plan to convert it into a shopping center was begun.
Today, the town of Saltaire stands in pristine condition, with the former homes of mill workers preserved and occupied by local residents, many of whom commute daily to Leeds for work.
Saltaire and its uniformity have been preserved impeccably over the years.
For folks on the other side of the Atlantic, a similarly planned industrial village can be found in the Pullman district of Chicago (not pictured).
Although Saltaire has been weaved into the fabric of modern technology, the architectural integrity of its period of construction remains well intact.
Saltaire is graced by a lush, green, backdrop of West Yorkshire hills.
Considering the train ride from Leeds to Saltaire is shorter than an average inner-city trip on the London Tube, I’d recommend a visit to Saltaire for any Leeds itinerary.
The following set of images are all more shots from Saltaire.
What trip to England would be complete without watching a proper English football (soccer) match?  It was just my luck that Manchester United was in town during my stay, playing a Carling Cup match against Leeds at Elland Road Stadium.
This was my first time seeing British football live and the cultural experience in the crowd was as interesting as the game itself (Manchester obliterated Leeds 3-0 by the way).  Growing up going to NFL games, I was used to the typical rabid antagonism which happens among spectators at a sporting event.  But what I wasn’t totally prepared for was the authentic sense of hatred and desire to inflict bodily harm on opposing fans that permeates a British football match.
The Leeds fans in my section were hurling obscenities and threats of physical violence to the players and fans of Manchester United (as well as female members of their families) throughout most of the match.
Tickets to each match are purchased through the club to which one is a fan.  For example, if you’re a Manchester United fan, and you want to see the match in Leeds, you buy tickets directly through Manchester United.  This is because there are separate seating sections for the opposing fans, in order to prevent all-out brawls.  As you can see above, the Manchester fans were seated in their own section, cordoned off by a veritable mechitza of police in full riot gear.  When the match concludes, the home fans leave first.  The visiting fans must stay in their corral until all the home fans have left in another measure to prevent an all out war between the fans of the opposing squads.
Additionally, alcohol is not allowed into the viewing area of the stadium.  Beer can be purchased at concession stands, but has to be finished before going back to the seating area.  (I assume this is a further measure to decrease the likelihood of soccer-related violence).  I was also surprised at how cheap concessions were compared with sporting events in the US.
In my last few hours in Leeds, my friend Melech drove me out to this pasture just outside of Leeds.  In the far distance is an old manor house, which I am guessing belongs to the owner of the land and the sheep.
Leeds may no longer be the center of world wool production, but it’s still the home to lots of sheep.
One of the beauties of English (compared with American) cities is that there is very little urban sprawl.  On our way to these pasturelands, we were driving through city neighborhoods when all of a sudden we reached the country…no suburban “subdivisions,” no strip centers, and no office parks…just town and country.
From Leeds I headed off to my final destination in the UK, Manchester.  Leeds has a beaming, modern train station, and I thought I’d include a few shots.
From Leeds Station, you can get just about anywhere in England in under 3 hours.
For tourists interested in England’s industrial past, Leeds is a fascinating little city.  Much of what I had expected to find in Birmingham, I ended up discovering in Leeds.  With its central location, Leeds is within day-trip distance of both London and Manchester, but warrants more than a day of exploration, and for architecture and industrial history buffs, Saltaire is a must.  Next, (and final) stop on the industrial tour through England:  Manchester.



Eurotrip Destination #4: Birmingham

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 6:20 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 4th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

“Don’t go to Birmingham.”  “There’s nothing to do there, it’s an industrial wasteland.”  “Don’t waste your time.  It’s the most boring city in England.”  These were the typical responses I received from Londoners when I told them of my plan to visit Birmingham.  These were also the most common responses I heard from Brummies (the colloquial term for Birmingham aka “Brum” natives) who questioned why I would ever visit such a horrendous place as their home town.  In fact, outside of a few rural towns in China, I have never visited a place with such an acute sense of self-deprecation as Birmingham.  That being said, I had particular reasons for including it on my itinerary.  The next three stops on my trip (Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester) were all important production centers for England’s Industrial Revolution.  How have these industrial hubs adapted to a post-industrial economy, and in what ways have they paralleled or diverged from post-industrial cities in the United States?  This is what I hoped to shed some light upon in England’s industrial strongholds.

Birmingham was one of the world’s first major industrial centers, and is anchor of the second largest metropolitan region in the United Kingdom.  It’s also the hometown of John Michael (aka Ozzy) Osbourne. Not to be confused with Birmingham, Alabama (the British city is pronounced “Birming’um), Birmingham is indeed quite boring in terms of culture and nightlife.  With London less than 90 minutes away, and Manchester emerging as the cultural center of the North, Birmingham is England’s often forgotten second city.
Like many UK cities, Birmingham’s city centre consists of a dense commercial shopping district, with several pedestrian areas closed off to vehicular traffic.  While a fair amount of old industrial buildings remain around the fringes of the city centre, the majority of central Birmingham has been rehabbed and redeveloped, with few physical hints of its industrial past remaining.
Here’s one of those old industrial buildings, located just between the city centre and the adjacent district of Digbeth.
Several of Birmingham’s post-industrial districts are now showing the signs of gentrification.
Boredom aside, Birmingham seems to still be a thriving place, with copious shopping and much new construction, especially in and near the city centre.
Several of the areas surrounding the city centre still show the signs of post-industrial urban decay.
Brownfields like this are abundant, where entire industrial districts have been cleared, seemingly in anticipation of future growth outward from the city centre.
Inside the city centre itself, there are smatterings of older buildings, but for the most part, its older industrial architecture has been replaced by newer commercial and residential developments.
There are however, a few standing relics of Birmingham’s past in the city centre.
Of the 6 cities I visited in the UK, Birmingham appeared to be the most ethnically diverse.  I saw large numbers of Middle Easterners, South Asians, and Chinese, among others, particularly near the city centre.
At the geographic center of Birmingham, and adjoining to its pedestrian shopping malls is Victoria Square.
Victoria Square is also home to Birmingham Town Hall, the main library and several museums.
As the geographic center, it also serves as a convenient meeting point.
another look
Although much of Birmingham’s industrial past lies buried below high-rises and shopping malls, Birmingham Back-to-Backs has preserved a small sliver of the physical history of Birmingham’s industrial labor force.  So called because the back of one building faces the back of another, Birmingham Back-to-Backs consists of three pairs of adjoining back-to-back houses built around a courtyard.  They were built with no indoor plumbing, and residents had to use loos and washbasins located in the public courtyard.  Unlike London, Glasgow, or New York, Birmingham never had vertical tenement housing.  Instead, it was in adjoining back-to-backs where the majority of Birmingham’s working class families were housed.
In the 1800’s, thousands of these buildings were constructed to house Birmingham’s primarily immigrant labor force.  As late as the 1950’s, much of Birmingham was still covered with back-to-back houses, mostly in dilapidated condition.  Today, these 6 are all that remain.  Birmingham Back-to-Backs provides a guided tour through the buildings which traces the histories of three different families who lived in the buildings.
While the general cost of living in England is quite high, I found that on the whole, reasonably healthy and fast meals were quite cheap.  Take for example this Thai chicken baguette which cost only 1 pound.  Sandwich shops, especially those selling a large variety of pre-made sandwiches in plastic triangular boxes are everywhere.  They’re cheaper, faster, and more portable than even a meal at McDonald’s, and make the perfect subsistence for a backpacking trip.
Then there are also some culinary inventions or more questionable origin, such as the Unlimited All-You-Can-Eat East Meets West Flaming Dragon Buffet.
Birmingham has a sizable Chinese population and a Chinatown, colloquially called the “Chinese Quarter,” located just south of the central pedestrian mall.  It consisted primarily of restaurants, and there didn’t seem to be a large concentration of Chinese people actually living there.  Instead, it appeared that the Chinese population was more dispersed around the city centre.  (I could be wrong on this, so please correct me if anybody is more familiar.)  On the whole though, there isn’t much in Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter that couldn’t be found in a Chinatown anywhere else on the planet.
Chinatown is also straddled between some of Birmingham’s more glitzy downtown developments.  I wasn’t sure how much of this was connected to Chinatown and how much was encroaching on it.
Although Brummies tend to be self-deprecating when it comes to their city, one thing they are quite boastful about is their markets.
Located right near the heart of the city centre, you can still buy just about any daily need (food, clothing, kitchenware, cell phone chargers) at Birmingham’s city market.
In terms of relics of its industrial past, I found Birmingham is surprisingly lacking, especially compared to Leeds and Manchester.  One bright spot however, was the Birmingham Canal Zone.
The extensive development of a canal system in England preceded the proliferation of the railroads, and for the early part of the Industrial Revolution, it was the canals which facilitated the cheap, efficient shipping necessary for industrial production.  Birmingham, one of the world’s first true industrial centers was also, not coincidentally, the center of the British canal network.
Thesedays, much of Birmingham’s canal zones have been redeveloped into urban residential districts such as these.
Others remain derelict and are frequent targets of vandalism and seedy activity.
Also built along one of the old canals is the Birmingham National Indoor Arena, which hosts concerts and a slew of sporting events.
and one final canal shot
Located just south of the city centre, is Digbeth, one of Birmingham’s most interesting post-industrial neighborhoods.  Digbeth first became a site of industrial activity in the mid-18th century, and there is still a significant amount of industry in the district today.
Digbeth’s most noticeable feature are the ubiquitous Victorian railway viaducts, which dominate the horizon.
The origins of the peculiar name “Digbeth” are debated, with some saying it’s a derivative of “dyke path” while others claiming it was originally “duck’s bath.”
Unlike the city centre, most of the architecture in Digbeth still consists of 19th Century industrial buildings.
In recent decades, Digbeth has been associated with the British electronic music, and has also started seeing the incipient signs of gentrification.
With cheap rents, proximity to the city centre, and oodles of urban grit, Digbeth shows signs of a neighborhood potentially on the verge of urban regeneration.
In other words, if I’m a Brummie, and I’m a hipster, Digbeth is definitely a place where I want to be seen.
more industrial schenanigans in Digbeth
a typical Digbeth storefront
canal running through Digbeth factory zones
Digbeth makes an ideal place for an urban hike.  I spent the better part of an afternoon wandering around, following canals and railroad tracks, and snapping pictures.  It isn’t pretty (in the typical aesthetic sense), but for industrial or urban enthusiasts, it’s the crown jewel of greater Birmingham.
Birmingham generally isn’t high on the list of most tourist itineraries.  It lacks the glamor and glitz of London, and for historical purposes Leeds and Manchester have more to offer.
But as the UK’s second largest city and one of the world’s earliest industrial pioneers, Birmingham does have a story to tell which makes up for its other shortcomings.  “Brum” isn’t for everybody, but if you’ve read this far and haven’t gotten bored, consider a visit if you’re ever in the UK.  Next stop: Leeds

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