Eurotrip Destination #3: Oxford

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 8:01 am by Benjamin Ross

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

The third stop on my jaunt through the UK was Oxford. Getting there from Cardiff was a cinch, considering I bought my ticket half an hour before departure.  A high speed train from Cardiff whisked me off to some transit point in the middle of nowhere.  After a four minute wait, another high speed train picked me up and within half an hour, I was in Oxford.  The entire trip took under 90 minutes.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world with roots going as far back as the 11th Century.  It’s the prototype to which all “college towns” can trace at least some roots back to.
Unlike most American college towns which have well-defined campus areas, Oxford University’s buildings are scattered throughout the town, blurring the boundaries between the city and the campus.
The university itself is broken into roughly 40 different “colleges” with each student belonging to one of the colleges in addition to the university umbrella.
Architecturally, Oxford is a treat to explore.
The town of Oxford itself is very much a college town, with most local businesses catered towards a student clientele.
Oxford is a fantastic city to be a pedestrian, and a complete pain in the arse to drive through.  Streets are narrow, parking is difficult or non-existent, and flocks of pedestrians often crowd the street (which you don’t see here since this was taken at 8 in the morning).   While most North American cities have spent the greater part of the last half century facilitating drivers, many English towns, even the small ones, remain centered on the pedestrian paradigm.  Oxford is a fine example of this.
What’s behind this door?
The Radcliffe Camera, aka “Radcam” arguably Oxford’s most recognizable building
The University Church of St. Mary
This is All Souls College, one of Oxford’s most exclusive colleges.  Every year students compete for automatic 7-year fellowships to All Souls in what’s dubbed “the hardest exam in the world.”  The exam lasts 3-6 hours and recent questions have reportedly been as obscure as “Water, discuss.”
and another
Oxford colleges each have their own mini-campuses which are closed to the general public.  One of my classmates in Chicago had previously spent some time at Trinity College, and was able to arrange for me to take a tour with one of his old friends.
When you talk to students of Oxford, past and present, they will often identify themselves with whichever college they attended.  College function as mini-universities within Oxford, with each having its own residence hall, dining hall, and library, and holding its own exclusive social functions.
I don’t think I saw better manicured grass anywhere else on my trip.
Trinity Chapel
Now back in public grounds.  This the famous Hertford  Bride aka “The Bridge of Sighs.”
The Radcam Theater
The Bodleian library aka “The Bod”
more old cobblestone Oxford streets
and another view of the University Church (I think)
One of Oxford’s more recent tourist landmarks, the Turf Tavern secured its place in Oxford lore when Bill Clinton smoked pot (but didn’t inhale) on this very spot, the back patio.
Oxford also seems to be high on the wrung of Chinese tourist destinations.  There were few sites I saw which weren’t surrounded with SLR-camera-wielding Chinese tour groups.
Oxford is also home to some of the best landscaping I saw anywhere in the UK.
Oxford is a fine place to visit, and like Cardiff, is an easy day-trip from London.  With a history predating Harvard by roughly half a millennium, Oxford is the place to go to explore the history and development of the “college town.”  (I’m told Cambridge is as well, but I don’t want to start a war here).  It’s also fine town to take a relaxing urban walk, throw back a few pints at the pub, and bask in the company of some of the world’s brightest intellectuals.  Next stop:  Birmingham



Eurotrip Destination #2: Cardiff

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:47 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 2nd entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

Cardiff is the largest city and chief economic and cultural center of Wales.  That’s all I knew about it before making it the second stop on my trip.

Getting anywhere in England is easy.  With the high speed rail system, you’re never more than a 3 or 4 hour reach of any major city.  And with Megabus and National Express Coach, you’re hardly ever more than 20 pounds from your destination either.  My Megabus ticket from London to Cardiff, booked less than 24 hours in advance, cost a walloping 13 GBP.
Like most mid-sized UK cities, the core of Cardiff’s city centre consists of a pedestrian mall which serves as the metro region’s primary shopping district.
Although 21% of the Welsh population allegedly speaks the Welsh language, the only Welsh I heard during my day in Cardiff was on broadcast announcements at the train station.
While conspicuous symbols of Welsh national pride were abundant, for all intents and purposes, Cardiff felt very much like an English city.
Cardiff isn’t usually a place people visit for the architecture, but there are a few aesthetically pleasing older buildings.
…and a soccer stadium
While taking a walk through the park, I inadvertently ran into a cricket match between India and England.  I don’t know the first thing about cricket, but from what I could see and hear, it seemed like quite a party, especially among the Indian fans.
Cardiff’s most famous tourist attraction is Cardiff Castle.
The oldest extant section, the Norman “keep” (pictured above from the inside) dates back to 1091.
Cardiff Castle isn’t so much a castle per se as it is a campus of buildings and green space enclosed by an old cement wall.  Here’s a view from the keep, which is perched on a hill in the center of the “castle.”  In the background is the city centre.
…and an up-close view at some of the castle architecture
…and another view from the side
…and here’s a shot of the keep, perched on its mound overlooking the rest of the castle
some interesting signage
Cardiff is geographically small and compact, but there were a few old industrial neighborhoods I wanted to stroll through such at Butetown, just south of the city centre.  Located in the vicinity of Cardiff’s docks, Butetown became one of the UK’s first multi-cultural districts around the time of World War I.  Today it’s home to large communities, of Yemenis, Greeks, and Somalis.  Butetown shows signs of decay, including vacated and poorly maintained buildings.  Several locals advised me against walking around there at night.
What’s interesting from an American perspective is that the areas, locally defined as “slums” in the UK, are like a walk through the suburbs compared to many neighborhoods in say, the South Side of Chicago or North Philly.  There are certainly historical, economic, and sociological reasons for this, but part of the reason (I would posit) that the UK’s  streets are safer is the high levels of urban density which allow for more informal social control and more efficient policing.  In very few places did I encounter urban blight and sparseness in levels similar to that of most post-industrial American cities.
Just south of Butetown are the Cardiff docks district, which unlike Butetown, have seen a fair share of gentrification and redevelopment in recent years.
Here are the docks themselves, (schnazzy commercial developments not pictured)
more docks
Throughout much of the UK, South Asian culture has permeated in similar fashion to how Latin American culture has become part of the general culture in the US.  Nowhere is this more relevant than in the culinary realm, where even multinational fast food chains are quick to localize.
more old industrial Cardiff streetscape
UK cities, and European cities in general, have done a more effective job of embracing the social, economic, and environmental advantages of urban density, than has been the case in North America.  Cardiff is a prime example of this, exemplified by these newer residential developments, built up rather than out.
looking just down the river from the new mid-rises
another old neighborhood with dense housing blocks
and a view of the city centre from afar
more city centre
older mixed-use commercial/residential buildings in the city centre
and finally off to Oxford on the high speed train
Cardiff is an interesting town, and with its compactness and proximity to London, it makes an ideal spot for a day trip.  If you’re looking for an authentically Welsh cultural experience, Cardiff probably isn’t the place to find it.  From what I gathered, the smaller towns have retained more of the Welsh culture, while Cardiff has served as the de facto gateway to England.  Nonetheless, it was one of the more livable cities I saw in the UK, and was well worth the day trip.  Next stop:  Oxford


Eurotrip Destination #1: London

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:44 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 1st entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

London!  The economic capital of Europe, the gateway to the Western Hemisphere, the center of the Industrial Age’s most powerful empire.  Fittingly, London seemed like the ideal starting point for my 18 day tour through Europe, although I was corrected several times by Brits that England is in fact not part of Europe by their definition.  So here’s part 1 of a 14 part series on my recent trip through Europe…and the UK.

London is simply fabulous!  At first I thought it was jitters from finally landing in Europe, but London is truly one of the most exciting cities on the planet.
With the mix of new and old, of English and  foreign, and of wealth and squalor, London just about has it all.
In total, I visited 14 European cities, and when all was said and done, London takes the cake when it comes to architecture.  Walking through the West End (the de facto city centre), you can feel the monetary spoils of the Industrial Revolution flowing through veins of the Victorian housing and commercial blocks.
London is touristy, very touristy.  But it’s one of those cities where most of the tourist attractions are well worth the visit, both old…
…and new
…and somewhat old
…and royal.
The changing of the guard is the big draw to Buckingham Palace, but after warnings of crowds so big I wouldn’t be able to see the changing, let alone the guard himself, I opted to view the guard in his unchanged state.
London is one of those cities where you can wander around in any direction and inevitably run into something majestic, old, and famous without ever even knowing it was there.  The entire city is overflowing with history, and after checking 6 or 7 monuments off my travel notes, I gave up trying to figure out what was what.
Possibly the most famous tourist attraction in town is the Tower of London.
With a slew of museums and neighborhoods I wanted to see, I didn’t end up going inside.
The view is indeed quite nice from outside though.
Here’s Trafalgar Square, another major West End landmark.
Compared with its West End environs, there isn’t anything extraordinary about Trafalgar Square at first glance.  But something about this square just works.
I can’t put a finger on it exactly, but the more I passed through Trafalgar, the more I wanted to take a break, relax, eat one of those pre-packaged plastic triangle sandwiches, hacky sack, people watch, or a combination of the above.
It also helped that it was 70 degrees and sunny for the full two days I was in London.  Apparently, this never happens.
London is the host of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.  But if not for this sign in Trafalgar Square, I would have never even noticed.  This was quite the contrast to China in the years leading up to 2008.  You couldn’t go anywhere in Beijing (let alone the entire country) without overhearing the Beijing 2008 brew-haha.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is another one of Central London’s masterpieces of architecture.
The front steps of St. Paul’s is another classic London public space.  At mid-day, it was full of office workers on lunch break and tourists snapping photos.
…and a view of St. Paul’s from the side
…and a view across the street from St. Paul’s.  Central London is one of those places where every building looks different, yet somehow matches perfectly within the architectural theme.
Moving outward now…London has one of the world’s most efficient public transit systems, and getting almost anywhere is cake.  London was also a pioneer in public transportation branding.  It’s “roundel” is one of the most widely-recognized symbols in the world, and its system map, using color-coded lines and a non-geographic layout has become the template for public transit maps across the world.
The backbone of the system is the London Underground, or as it’s colloquially called “The Tube.”  With the first line opening in 1863, the Tube is the oldest underground railroad in the world.
In addition to the Tube, London has several lines of elevated mass transit, appropriately dubbed “The London Overground.”
And the newest addition to London’s mass transit network is the Docklands Light Rail (DLR), covering the vast Dockland’s district (more on that below), formerly not connected to the public transit grid.  All 3 systems (Underground, Overground, and DLR) work in conjunction with one another with free transfers from system to system.
London also has a dense network of buses with many of them running in dedicated bus lanes.  As a response to growing congestion, London became one of the first major cities to introduce “congestion charges” in 2003.  Private vehicles wishing to enter Central London between 7 am and 6 pm Monday through Friday are charged a 10 Pound congestion charge for each entrance, easing congestion for bus transit.
A web of commuter rail also surrounds London providing convenient transport from surrounding suburbs and towns to the city centre.
Attempting to navigate London with a map is a hopeless exercise in futility.  Even with a compass in hand, the simple act figuring out which direction you are headed is enough to make the head spin.  But London does have some of the most informative public signage I’ve ever encountered.  Unfortunately I didn’t snap a picture, but street signs are flanked with arrows pointing in every direction to landmarks, districts, and virtually anything else a tourist would want to locate.  Just follow the signage, and you can find just about anything, even without a map.  London’s hyper-informative signage even extends to casual reminders of which direction the traffic flows.
can’t remember the last time I used one of these
Or how about this “authentic Canadian-style” sports bar and grill.
more random architecture shots from the West End
rush hour
The city area of London is bisected by the Thames River.  Most of the river crossings are underwhelming, except for the illustrious Tower Bridge, constructed between 1886 and 1894
In addition to the bridge itself, crossing it on foot allows for some of the most scenic views of London skyline.
Much of London’s modern architecture is located along the bank south of the river.
With street grids and traffic patterns laid out long before the advent of steel, London has few skyscrapers compared with other world financial centers such as New York and Tokyo.  But a sizable chunk of the more recent office development, especially those areas just south of the Thames, seems to be employing the high-rise paradigm.
Here’s another shot of the Tower Bridge, looking north from the south bank of the river.
…and a final view of the bridge from the South
With my first day in London devoted primarily to exploring the more posh districts in the West End and just south of the river, I spent my second day exploring several of London’s ethnic as well as outerlying neighborhoods.  The first was Brick Lane, London’s Little Bangladesh.
Brick Lane was more disneyfied than I had expected, but still housed several streets worth of South Asian shops and eateries.
London is also home to a sizable Chinatown.   For a city its size, London’s Chinatown was mostly a disappointment.  It’s highly disneyfied and has all the characteristics of a downtown tourist trap.   With most of the restaurants and businesses catering to a non-Chinese clientele, I was led to believe that there are probably additional satellite Chinatown in the London metro area, with “Chinatown” now functioning primarily as an economic rather than residential district.  Anybody have any more info on this?
One pleasant surprise of Chinatown was this delicious Lanzhou “pulled noodles” restaurant I found.  You can hardly walk 10 minutes in any Chinese city without bumping into one of them, but in North American Chinatowns they can be surprisingly elusive.
Like most disneyfied Chinatowns, the conspicuous symbols of Chinese culture are everywhere in London’s Chinatown.  By my count, the red-lanterns-per-Chinese-resident ratio was hovering somewhere around 1:1.
The Chinese characters in this sign read “Old Hunan Village, Hunan Food.”  Gotta love deceptive advertising.
Moving on to the East End, which has traditionally been home to London’s working class masses.
Famously the origin of London’s Cockney population, the East End is now inhabited in large part by immigrants from across the globe.  Pictured here is the Middle Eastern market in Whitechapel.
In all my travels, the Whitechapel market is the only shopping district I have encountered where buqas and lingerie can be purchased from adjoining stalls.
And here’s the Spitalfields Market, one of the more gentrified parts of East London.
These next few pics are from the neighborhood of Hackney.  Hackney was originally an independent town just down the road from London, but with urban expansion in the 19th Century, it was swallowed up into the greater metropolis.  Hackney is also one of the few spots in the East End where I heard mutterings of Cockney still being spoken.
Old Hackney flats like these provided housing to the vast pool of human labor which flocked to the East End during the Industrial Revolution.
more flats
a small creek running through Hackney
recreational boats
more boats
Now shifting to the Docklands.  Located in East London, along the Thames, the Docklands were once home to the largest port in the world.   It was mainly from this port that raw materials from across the British Empire were shipped in, and manufactured goods were transported around the world.
As England deindustrialized, the port shrunk, until finally by 1980 all of the docks had been closed.  The 8 square mile swath of land lay derelict as crime and poverty set in.  As soon as the docks were closed, redevelopment plans were begun, which have turned the Docklands into a thriving high-rise financial, commercial, and residential district.
As you can see, very little physical remnants of the district’s past remain.
I should also mention, there is a free Docklands Museum housed in an old warehouse along the river, which was the most interesting museum I visited in London.  So much of London’s history revolved around the history of the docks, and the museum does an excellent job of putting it in perspective, as well as documenting the changes in the Docklands occurring in present times.
Another major recent development has been the Docklands Light Rail (pictured about 50 slides up).  Previously, the Docklands had been entirely cut off from the London Underground, but when the DLR first opened in 1987, the Docklands became conveniently linked to the rest of the city’s transit grid.
London is a magnificent array of lighting arrangements at night.  One regret I have from my visit is that I didn’t spend more time bumbling around at night and taking pictures.  This one is from Piccadilly Circus, London’s Times Square of sorts.
Victoria Station, one of London’s many commuter transit terminals.
glitzy shopping
Big Ben
up close
The London Eye
Westminster Abbey
…and a couple more random night shots from the West End
London is one of those destinations which receives an ungodly amount of hype on the travel circuit.  And it’s one of those unique places where the plethora of hype is well-justified.  Due to the time constraints of my trip, I only budgeted 2 days to explore this city of endless intrigue and excitement.  But even 2 weeks probably wouldn’t have been enough to take in all London has to offer.  With 18 days and 4 countries on the itinerary, I had a schedule to keep, so the rest of London will have to wait for another trip.  Next stop:  Cardiff, Wales.



Detroit: The Shrinking City

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:52 pm by Benjamin Ross

From Henry Ford to Motown, and from the Great Migration to the Great Recession, there is perhaps no other city in the world with a story like Detroit. Detroit was the prototypical boom town of the early industrial age, and then a generation later the poster child of post-industrial decay.  As an undisputed “industry town,” Detroit’s prosperity has paralleled that of the American automotive industry.  When times were good for Ford, GM, and Chrysler, times were very good for Detroit.  And as the Big 3’s dominance has waned in the post-WW2 era, so have the fortunes of the Motor City.  Reaching a peak population of 1.85 million in the 1950 Census. 2010 figures show the population has not dropped to 713,000. In 1950, Detroit had more people than any American city outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Today, it’s bleeding population, as the shell of a great city remains, under-utilized and in decay.

For an up-close view of Detroit, and to learn first hand about the effects of industrialization and deindustrialization on the Motor City, and America as a whole, I spent last weekend in Detroit.  The following are photos and observations from my trip.

While Detroit is infamous for its urban decay, Downtown is in much better shape than the city as a whole, especially when compared against the broad spectrum of American downtowns of the 21st Century.  Although much of the city has deteriorated, Downtown remains a primary employment center, and still sees a fair amount of economic activity.
Downtown Detroit actually has more pedestrian activity than a fair amount of other Midwestern downtowns, but when considering the scale of the architecture, it still feels under-utilized.  With a bit of imagination, one can feel the aura of a bustling megalopolis of the first half of the 20th Century.
My first impression of Downtown was that it looked as if it was a spectacle of architectural magnificence 50 years ago, but that little had been built since.
Ford Road, Chrysler Freeway, Cadillac Square (pictured), even place names in Detroit bear the influence of the automotive industry.
Between all the art deco skyscrapers and other vintage early 20th Century architecture, there are also occasional modern structures as well, but these are few and far between.
In many respects, I’d say the closest analog to Downtown Detroit would be Philadelphia’s Center City.  They both have that feel of past munificence lost in the age of post-industrialism, but still a spirit of resilience in the face of economic restructuring.
Overall, I was impressed with the early 20th Century architecture of Downtown, my own personal favorite being the Book Tower, completed in 1916.
Like other Midwestern and rust belt downtowns, Detroit also has the requisite expanses of parking lots, endemic of post-war urban development.
These days, increasing amounts of tourists come to Detroit to see the blight and urban decay.  But downtown is, on the contrary, a surprising contrast to the conditions of most of the rest of the urban core.
Downtown Detroit is also home to many well-intact early 20th Century church buildings.
…and the Isaac Agree Downtown synagogue, the only congregationally-owned synagogue left in Detroit proper,
The Detroit metropolitan area is also home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab Americans.  Whereas many American cities post signage in English ans Spanish, signs in Detroit are often posted in English and Arabic.
The most eye-catching landmark in Downtown Detroit is the 750 foot Renaissance Center.  Built in 1977, the “RenCen” is home of General Motors’ world headquarters as well as a hotel, shopping center, restaurants, banks and a 4-screen movie theatre.
To clear up any potential confusion about its country of origin, eight American flags fly in front of the RenCen.  Yes, for those unaware, GM is an American company.
While no doubt an architectural work of mastery, the RenCen appears out of place in its surroundings dominated by art deco skyscrapers and other early 20th Century architectural styles.  Originally conceived as a means to revitalize the downtown core, the RenCen instead sticks out as if a building from Dubai or Shanghai was plopped down in the middle of the America Rust Belt.
No Midwestern city would be complete without its signature hot-dog-based local food specialty.  In Detroit, it’s the Coney Island hot dog, or as it’s commonly referred to “the Coney.”  Consisting of a beef hot dog, topped with beanless chili, onions and yellow mustard, Coney’s make for the ideal late-night post-bar indulgence.
On the suggestion of friends, my Coney came from Lafayette Coney Island, which as you can see, has a limited menu.  You come here for the dogs…and maybe the chili fries.
Detroit is home to the most peculiar mass transit system I have ever encountered.  Opened in 1987 as another boondoggle attempt to “revitalize” Downtown, the Detroit People Mover (yes, it’s really called the “People Mover”) consists of 2.9 miles of looping track, which runs in a single direction, around Downtown.  For comparison sake, that’s only .2 miles longer than the internal transit system at O’hare Airport.  Being that it doesn’t go anywhere a person couldn’t walk in 15 minutes, I couldn’t figure out much practical use for this system.  The only other people I saw aboard were there for the same reason as me: an aerial view of the city and a chance to take cheesy tourist photos.  For this purpose, the People Mover is well worth the 50 cent toll.
But being that Detroit’s boom followed closely with that of the automotive industry, Motown is truly a city built for cars.  Broad, straight avenues radiate from all directions of downtown in a wheel-and-spoke pattern, connected by a vast network of interstate highways which cuts through the city neighborhoods.
While Downtown is in reasonable shape for an aging American city, the same cannot be said for the remainder of the urban core.  After reaching its apex in the 1950’s, the American manufacturing industries began their steady decline which continues to this day.  As blue collar jobs were automated and outsourced, no city was hit harder than Detroit.  Today, much of the land between Downtown and the suburbs lies barren and abandoned, a relic of Detroit’s former industrial hegemony.  This image shows the area known as Midtown, with Downtown in the background.
A quick drive up Woodward Avenue into Midtown provides a stark contrast to Downtown, with much of the landscape consisting of abandoned buildings and parking lots.
Midtown is showing signs of some gentrification, especially along Woodward where a new light rail is being built, but much of the housing stock remains out-of-date and dilapidated, such as this old church(?) which had a sign advertising cheap rooms for rent.
and then across the street…not sure exactly what’s being sold here
Near Midtown is also Detroit’s former Chinatown, which is also abandoned.  (This is especially telling considering that the US is currently experiencing its largest wave ever of Chinese immigration, and most other American Chinatowns are overflowing with new arrivals.)  Located in the “Cass Corridor,” this small Chinatown persisted through the 70’s and 80’s with its last restaurant closing in 2004.  Today all that remains is this sign, and a mall of abandoned storefronts with the Chinese signs still hanging over the doors.  Interestingly, there is still a functioning Chinatown across the river in the much smaller city of Windsor, Ontario (see bottom).
Detroit’s most famous abandoned structure is the Michigan Central Rail Depot. Built in 1913, the Depot served as the region’s primarily passenger rail center until the final train departed in 1988.
Located in the Corktown district, west of Downtown, the Depot is visible from miles away and remains stagnant as another symbol of Detroit’s decline.
Though it’s illegal to go inside, the Depot is a popular site for urban spelunking.  Trespassers who can sneak in without being picked up by police can climb all 18 floors, and even reach the roof.
Future plans for the Depot are up in the air, with some brass campaigning for its demolition and others for a possible renovation.  Ideas include a casino and a police center.  As the Depot’s future, like the city’s, remains uncertain, it has taken on the status as a symbol of both Detroit’s decline and potential.  It’s difficult to see from this picture, but the large white letters graffitied horizontally across the building read “Save the Depot.”
The Detroit metro area’s most blighted areas are located in the ring of neighborhoods located between Downtown and the suburbs.  With the job market dried up, and no signs of recovery, Detroit’s precipitous population decline has also led to a corresponding drop in property values.  Rather than pay property taxes on housing which will likely remain uninhabited, many residents and landlords have simply vacated their premises.
If I had to estimate, I’d say the typical Detroit neighborhood is about 1/3 occupied houses, 1/3 vacant houses, and 1/3 vacant lots and vegetation.  Many of the vacant houses, such as this one, show sign of fire damage.
With decades of neglect, many of the vacant lots have sprouted trees and vegetation and reverted almost completely back to nature.
In some parts of the city, expanses of land where neighborhoods once existed now show no signs of civilization except for the occasional electrical wire and a crumbly sidewalk.
But between the blight, Detroit is still home to three quarter of a million people.  With the job market dry, some residents take up their own cottage industries such as in-house eateries.
There are some areas, such as this strip along Michigan Avenue, where commercial activity has remained buoyant.
But these areas of commercial activity are often islands in a sea of blight. This picture was taken only a few blocks West of the previous one.  Even commercial strips which remain occupied are usually surrounded by others which are vacant.
Like the housing stock, much of Detroit’s commercial real estate has been abandoned, and left to decay.
It should be pointed out that the previous 4 pictures were all taken along Michigan Avenue, one of Detroit’s main commercial arteries, and less than 10 minutes from Downtown.
Along with the Michigan Central Depot, the old Packard Plant is one of Detroit’s most famous abandoned structures.  Built in 1903, the Packard plant was the most modern automobile manufacturing plant in the world when it opened.  It closed in 1958, and today remains standing, vacated, along East Grand Boulevard.
Unlike the Michigan Rail Depot, which involves some ingenuity and the potential risk of arrest in order to enter, the Packard plant is easily accessible.  While technically illegal to enter, many of the facilities’ doors are no longer functioning leaving numerous entry points at ground level.  The Rail Depot, in contrast, is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and the various ways in include sneaking through an abandoned underground tunnel and wading through waste deep water.
I have never experienced anything quite like the Packard Plant.  Measuring over 3.5 million square feet, it would take hours, or perhaps days, to explore the entire premises.
With its easy accessibility, the Packard plant has become a haven for graffiti artists, squatters, urban explorers, and even paintball enthusiasts.
I even encountered a two men in a pickup truck, driving around inside the plant, collecting scrap.
Here’s a view from outside.
…and another from within.
an old office inside the plant
and a view from outside, looking in
In few places is the effect of deindustrialization as apparent as in the neighborhood surrounding the Packard plant.  While there still remain some occupied houses, much of the neighborhood looks like this.
Among all the hardships and social problems, the urban decay of Detroit does provide for unique opportunities which require cheap, bountiful, (and in many cases uninhabitable) housing.  In the early 1980’s, this section of Heidelberg Street was almost entirely blighted out.  Most houses were abandoned and showing signs of fire damage, and their primarily use was as a venue for crack dealing.  In 1986, an artist named Tyree Guyton decided to start painting the vacant houses, and the Heidelberg Project was born.
Today the Heidelberg has evolved into a block-wide outdoor museum, built with salvaged items collected around the city.
The Heidelberg Project is a constantly changing work of art, and on two occasions has even been bulldozed by the city.
Today it has become one of Detroit’s premiere tourist attractions, for locals and travelers alike.
Each house has its own theme, with corresponding items affixed throughout.
Vacant lots in the Heidelberg are also covered in artsy displays.
A central tenant of the Heidelberg Project has been to engage the local neighborhood kids, here seen working the information booth.
The various exhibits are all unique and quirky, such as this pile of salvaged shoes.
…and this boat covered in stuffed animals
With so many vacant properties, in many of which the owners are unknown, Detroit is one of the few places where this kind of unchecked urban artistic expression can happen.
Detroiters refer to these expressions as “urban art project,” or simply “projects.” Here’s another one, the “Disneyland of Hamtramck,” Hamtramck being an independent city surrounded by Detroit, and being the traditional center of the region’s Polish community.
After two days in Detroit, I spent an afternoon in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.
As a city whose economy is based around education rather than industry Ann Arbor’s has followed an economic path different from Detroit and Michigan as a whole.
Thus it bears little of the blight and decay which characterize so much of Detroit and other smaller cities in Michigan.
Also, in Detroit’s vicinity is the small town of Windsor, Ontario, located just across the Detroit River in Canada.
The Windsor-Detroit border is the busiest crossing along the Canada-US border, and is unique in that it’s the only crossing where you travel south to Canada and north to the US.
Windsor isn’t the most exciting town, but there are a few scattered historical sites, such as this old pumping station.  It’s also the best vantage point from which to photograph the Detroit skyline.  The picture at the very top of this post was taken from the shore in Windsor.
But my most interesting discovery in Windsor (thanks to the help of my local friend Fai), is that Windsor, unlike the city of Detroit, still has a functioning Chinatown.
As Detroit’s Chinatown dissolved, Windsor increasingly became the spot where Chinese in Detroit would go to eat out, purchase groceries, and procure any of the other goods and services commonly provided by Chinatowns.  To my knowledge, this is the only Chinatown in the world which is located in a different country than the regional anchor city which it serves. (If anybody knows anywhere else where this is the case, please mention so in the comment section).
For a city of just over 200,000 people, Windsor’s Chinatown is surprisingly big, and I would posit this due to it being the de facto Detroit Chinatown. By in large the majority of spoken Chinese I heard was Cantonese/Taishanese, hinting that this is primarily an older, long-established immigrant community.
Although still home to many Chinese businesses, Windsor’s Chinatown does appear to be in decline.  According to Fai, this is due to the appreciation of the Canadian dollar against the USD.  As Canada has become increasingly expensive, fewer Chinese from the American side have been shopping and eating in Windsor, instead patronizing Chinese establishments in the Detroit suburbs.
There is possibly no American city whose future is in question as much as the Motor City.  Detroit’s economy is never going to return to the robustness of the first half of the 20th Century, and filling the vacuum left behind has become an unrealistic fantasy.  But Detroit’s precarious situation has presented unique opportunities artists, tech companies, and other creative industries which require space, but not necessarily location. (Houses can be purchased for around 10k).  And ironically, Detroit’s vacant buildings and neighborhoods are increasingly providing a niche for tourism based on industrial history and urban decay.

Yet the plan for the city as a whole remains in the air.  One idea is to downsize the city by bulldozing vacated and semi-vacated neighborhoods and replacing them with agricultural land.  Scattered residents would then be relocated into more concentrated neighborhoods with fewer vacancies.  This would enable the city to cut service expenses, while also providing agricultural jobs for residents.  But as it stands, Detroit is simply too big for its shrinking population.

While many of these pictures (as well as media reports) present Detroit as a modern-day ghost town, it is important to remember that the city still has 750,000 residents, mostly poor, mostly African-American, and mostly with nowhere else to go.  Although the city proper is struggling, the metropolitan region is still home to 4.5 million people, with many of the suburban communities still thriving and economically viable.  But with 2010 census estimates already predicting the greater region’s first decade of negative population growth, it may not be long before the blight of the city radiates out towards surrounding suburbs.

Detroit is a fascinating city to visit, and serves as living evidence of both the perks and drawbacks of rapid industrialization.  As an American, it’s difficult to ignore Detroit’s place in our country’s history.  It serves to remind us how bright ideas are not always sustainable in the long run.  And in the future, it will hopefully provide us with new solutions to the problems of post-industrial urban America.  In the meantime, Detroit is well worth the trip. If anything, increasing tourism dollars will provide the city with some sustenance in these hard times.  And hopefully as the world economy continues to evolve, Detroit will not be completely left behind.




LA, in photos

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 7:13 pm by Benjamin Ross

Here’s a photo essay from my recent trip to Los Angeles, and vicinity.

financial district
City Hall
old downtown
Broadway vendors
Grand Street Market
Echo Park (where I stayed)
more skyline
Union Station
public service announcement
San Bernardino Rail Depot
Downtown San Diego
San Diego Marina
Santa Monica
beach houses
bike trail
Santa Monica Pier
Venice Beach
the end



Quebec City

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:12 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the last post in a 6-part series on my trip to Canada.

Montreal is bona fide French Canada, but the undisputed capital of Francophone North America is La Ville de Québec, or as we say en anglais, Quebec City.  This was the last major stop on my 2 week tour through Canada.

In addition to being the most completely francophone city in North America, Quebec City is also the continent’s oldest extant urban area.
Quebec City was founded in 1608 by French navigator Samuel de Champlain.  Although several other outposts predate it, Quebec City was the earliest European city in North America intended for permanent settlement.
As might be expected, Quebec City is touristy, regularly finding itself on the lists of top tourist destinations for travelers from Canada and abroad. But Quebec City is touristy for good reason.  Unlike its younger sister Montreal, and American cousin Boston, Quebec did not boom into a major urban center during the industrialization swept through North America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  The resulting slower growth spared much of Quebec’s older districts from the wrecking ball.  (This explanation is based primarily on my own observations.  If anyone is more versed in Quebec City’s urban history, please feel free to chime in.)
Quebec City is centered around the Old City, aka Old Quebec, the entirety of which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Thanks in part to preservation efforts, Old Quebec retains many of the characteristics of a French colonial town.
Walking through the streets of Old Quebec is like no other urban experience in North America.  With the exception of roadways for vehicular traffic, much of the streetscape has retained the layout and feel of colonial New France.
Old Quebec is tiny and can be traversed by foot in under half an hour.  With its endless backroads and alleys, it is well worth a full day of wondering around and getting lost.
True to its pre-automobile European urban design, the streets in Old Quebec are constantly curving and winding, and do not follow any semblance of a grid.  After a futile hour of attempted navigation, I ditched my map, and instead began relying on landmarks for my bearings.
Old Quebec’s most recognizable architectural landmark is the Château Frontenac hotel, completed in 1893.
Quebec City is one of the most racially and ethnically homogeneous cities in Canada, yet like most places on Earth, the Chinese have made their presence, as indicated by this Shanghainese restaurant.  Across the river, in the town of Levis, I also met a convenience store owner from Fuzhou.
Old Quebec is divided into two distinct areas: Upper and Lower Town.  Upper Town (previous pics) was traditionally home to clergy and military officials while the Lower Town (pictured above and following 3 pics) served as the port, housing merchants and craftsmen.
The settlement in Lower Town is older than Upper Town, and even more touristy, with expensive French restaurants and gift shops bustling out of nearly every storefront..
Old Quebec was built on a veritable natural fortress: a peninsula jutting into the St. Laurence river, with Lower Town (foreground) just above river level, and Upper Town on a natural mound several hundred feet above, as shown here  by the Château Frontenac in the background.
These collections of modest buildings in Lower Town represent the oldest architecture of the city.
Now back to Upper Town.
Old Quebec is particularly photogenic.
especially at night
The boundaries of Old Quebec are demarcated by the defensible wall, originally constructed to keep out would-be invaders.  It’s the only city wall in the Americas still standing, north of Mexico.
There are several points where the city wall can be scaled, and a path on top, which provides excellent views of the city.
Slits in the walls were left for cannons, and ramparts were constructed to fight off invaders of France’s most prized settlement in the New World.
The urban landscape of Quebec City outside the wall is quite different from that of inside the wall, as it’s referred to in the vernacular.
Adjacent to Old Quebec, across the St. Lawrence River, are Quebec’s primary industrial districts.
West of Old Quebec, just outside of the city wall lies Quebec City’s primary downtown commercial district.
The modest skyscrapers downtown represent the most heavily urbanized (I use this term loosely) part of Quebec City.
The biggest mistake tourists make in Quebec City is spending all of their time inside Old Quebec and never venturing beyond the wall.  Some of the most unique architecture in the city is located in the residential neighborhoods just outside of the walls.  Since many tourists never venture outside of the walls, these neighborhoods also have a markedly local feel, quite the contrast to Old Quebec.  You won’t hear much English in these parts.  And you also won’t encounter many people who aren’t white and Catholic.
As I alluded to above, on account of it never becoming a major urban center, Quebec City hasn’t seen the large-scale urban redevelopment which had reshaped North America’s other “ancient” cities such as Boston and Montreal.  Walking through these neighborhoods feels like walking through a major city North American city in the mid-late 19th Century at the dawn of industrialization.
Northwest of (and several hundred feet below) Old Quebec lies the Saint-Sauveur neighborhood, which originally developed as a separate town from Quebec City proper.
Though formally annexed in 1887, Saint-Sauveur still feels like a slow paced, blue collar, French Canadian small town.
The neighborhood is now becoming a center of gentrification, as low rents and proximity to downtown is attracting many of the younger denizens of Quebec City.
Like much of Quebec City, Saint-Sauveur hasn’t seen much redevelopment over the years, giving it the feeling of a late 19th Century blue collar neighborhood stranded in time.
There isn’t anything outwardly spectacular about Saint-Sauveur, but I couldn’t help meandering around for several hours and taking pictures of the houses.
Outside of Old Quebec, signs in Quebec City are all in French, and you’re likely to receive blank stares if you attempt to ask for anything in English.  What I found particularly amusing about all of Quebec (not just Quebec City) is that in the rest of Canada, even in areas which are 99% English, most signage is bilingual.  However, Quebecers don’t even bother an attempt to be bilingual, and just post everything in French only.
Unlike much of Canada, Quebec City is not an overflowing bastion of ethnic diversity.  This Mexican grocery store near Saint-Sauveur was one of the few businesses I encountered which catered to a primarily foreign clientele.
On the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, adjacent to Quebec City, is the town of Levis.
Feeling adventurous, I decided to rent a bicycle and ride down the southern coast of Quebec City, and across the St. Lawrence River to Levis.  Aside from almost getting killed biking uphill on the shoulder of a curvy 4 lane highway which was somehow part of the “bike trail,” the trip was rather uneventful.
After biking west along the coast of Quebec City proper, and crossing a windy bridge which would have kept Indiana Jones on edge, the path led back east to the center of Levis.  Expecting a quaint French village, I was disappointed to find Levis not much more than the strip-center infused urban sprawl of Quebec City.  This was, however, where I met the convenience store operator from Fuzhou (where I had lived in China for 3 years), which was probably the highlight of the jaunt.  From Levis, a ferry takes passengers back to Quebec City (in background) for 3 dollars.
…and another view of Old Quebec, from the ferry, with Château Frontenac in the middle
I have never seen any place quite like Quebec City.  The architecture is more ancient (again, using term loosely) than anything else in North America, and it is also probably the most European city on the continent (Montreal included).  For travelers who truly want to experience French Canada, Quebec City a must-see…and that just about wraps up my 2010 summer trip to Canada.



Canada Trip, Stop #5: Montreal

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 5:55 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the fifth post in a 6-part series on my trip to Canada.

After five days in Ontario, I crossed the border into Quebec, the primary remaining bastion of French civilization in North America.

With a metropolitan population of 3.8 million, Montreal is the largest urban area in Quebec; roughly 5 times the size of Quebec City, the province’s second largest urban region.
Montreal is also the second largest metro area in Canada, after Toronto.  But to the uninformed visitor to both cities, it would hardly appear that Toronto and Montreal are part of the same unified nation.  From my own anecdotal observations, I experienced less culture difference traveling between Illinois and Ontario than I did between Ontario and Quebec.
The most obvious difference is language;  Montreal is a French city.  While English competency is relatively high (especially compared with the rest of Quebec) the primary language spoken on the streets of Montreal is Quebecois French.  Montreal’s English speaking population is concentrated downtown (previous 3 pics) and consists mainly of Americans and Canadians native to outside provinces.
The English majority of Canada has a history of attempts to placate the French, while the French have tended to shun English encroachment.  This is apparent in Canadian signage (unfortunately not pictured).  In Ontario, most signs, public and private, are in both English and French, even in areas with miniscule francophone populations.  In Quebec, most signs are in French only.
Living up to the worldwide stereotype, French Canadians are proud of their French language, and encourage its use by outsiders.  When I attempted to speak French, most locals and shop employees were obliged to continue the conversation in their local tongue, even when it was obvious English would have been more expedient.
Until Toronto’s ascendancy in the middle of the 20th Century, Montreal was Canada’s largest city and economic center.  At that time, Montreal’s economy was based on manufacturing and shipping along the St. Laurence River.  A product of its industrial past, Old Montreal (not to be confused with Downtown) is Montreal’s premiere tourist draw.
From an urban planning and architectural standpoint, Montreal is the most European major city in North America, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Old Montreal.
These days, Old Montreal’s function as a downtown economic center have long expired, and the area is home primarily to guesthouses, souvenir shops, expensive French restaurants, and any other kind of establishment which caters to tourists.
Despite its over-commercialization, a stroll through Old Montreal is still probably the most authentic way to experience Europe in North America.  My recommendation is to visit early in the morning (8 or 9ish) before the souvenir shops open and the streets flood with tourists.
The commercialization of Old Montreal does simplify gift shopping.  Maple leaf refrigerator magnets, “J’aime Montreal” T-shirts, Quebec flags, bandannas, and ashtrays…you can buy it all in Old Montreal.
Just northwest of Old Montreal is Chinatown.
Montreal’s “Quartier Chinois” is much smaller than the gynormous Chinese settlement at Spadina and Dundas in Toronto.  Consisting of only about 5 or 6 dense city blocks along Rue De la Gauchetière, Montreal’s Chinatown is still a bustling little enclave, with restaurants, souvenir shops, and the usual hoopala associated with Chinese neighborhoods in North America.
Le Quartier Chinois caters to tourists and locals alike, and its proximity to Old Montreal has certainly contributed to its becoming a major tourist attraction.  For this reason, it is also one of the few neighborhoods in Montreal where the default language of commerce is English.
Montreal’s Chinatown may be touristy, but not to the point where it’s become a charicature of itself.  Between all the tourists and giftshops, scenes still exist like the one above which could have come from a street in Anytown, China.
It also serves as the organizational center of the Quebecois Chinese population.
Like Old Montreal, Le Quartier Chinois fills to the brim with tourists as the day progresses.  For a less congested experience, go early.
I’m not sure if this is an every weekend thing or a special occasion, but on the Saturday I spent in Chinatown, there was an outdoor fair, selling crafts and tourist knickknacks.  Other than the Canada and Quebec themed flair, it’s basically the same stuff sold in any other Chinatown around the world (or any street market in China for about 10% of the North American price).
Next on the itinerary was the site of the 1976 Summer Olympics, arguably Canada’s most eminent financial disaster since the Great Depression.
The Olympic Stadium wasn’t finished until after the conclusion of the Games.  When it was finally paid off in 2006, the total expenses, including interest and inflation, had totaled $1.6 billion.   At the time it was built, Olympic Stadium was arguably the most sophisticated sporting venue in the world.  34 years later, it sticks out as an awkward, historical anomaly, lacking a primary tenant since MLB’s Expos left in 2004.
Walking around Olympic Stadium is a bit like wandering through a ghost town.  The infrastructure reveals a glorious past, but in its current state, it feels empty, underutilized, and misplaced.  The site of Montreal’s 3 weeks of Olympic fame leaves one wondering what will come of the Beijing Olympic Park in another 30 years as well.
and here’s a shot from inside the stadium, where it looks pretty much like any other arena
Like Toronto, Montreal is a city of neighborhoods.  One of my favorites was the area surrounding Square Sainte-Louis.
On most public signage, Montrealers prefer writing out “Sainte” in full rather than abbreviating it as “St.”  I found this ironic, since probably at least 85% of all streets and squares include “Sainte” in their name.
more houses near Square Sainte-Louis
With urban planning from the European mold, Montreal is dense.  For a North American city of its population, there are relatively few high rises.  Rather, its density lies in efficient land use, with buildings close together and few parking lots.
Because of Montreal’s density, it’s also one of the most walkable cities in North America.  The best way to explore most neighborhoods is on foot.
For cross town trips, Montreal has one of the best rapid transit systems on the continent.  With four lines wrapping around Mount Royal (the mountain in the center of town) and extending out in all four directions, there is hardly a location in the city centre not reachable via Metro.  Trains run regular and frequent, and due to Montreal’s compactness, most trips are short, even those involving transfers.  It is also very affordable, with a  3 day pass costing only $14.

The Montreal Metro is one of the world’s few subway systems which uses rubber tires (see pic).  While one might assume the rubber tires would provide a smoother ride than the metal wheels used in most mass transit systems, I found the opposite to be the case.  My only gripe on the Montreal Metro is that you can feel every bump of the surface. This makes noticeably more strenuous on the eyes to read on the train.

Since Montreal’s subway cars are not designed to be weather resistant, the entire system runs underground.  Most stations are modern and quite clean.
The Montreal Metro has the highest daily ridership in Canada, and is one of only 3 North American mass transit systems with over 1 million average weekday riders (New York and Mexico City are the other 2).
Because of its ridership rates, trains run frequently, and I rarely waited more than 2 or 3 minutes at a station.
Here was an interesting application of street parking from the Mont-Royal neighborhood.  Spaces for street parking were located offset towards the middle of the street as opposed to being flush against the car, creating a barrier between the bike lane and vehicular traffic.
As a proper tourist, there were 2 “can’t miss” eateries included in my itinerary.  The first was Schwartz’s, Montreal’s renowned Jewish deli, in business since 1928.  With lines always extending into the street, Schwartz’s is a veritable feedlot, and possibly the busiest restaurant in Montreal.   With tables crammed together like animal corrals and it’s old school decor, Schwartz’s gets a 10 for ambiance.
Schwartz’s specialty is “smoked meat.”  (They even call it “smoked meat” in French).  Smoked meat is served on rye bread and (if memory serves me correctly) comes in 3 grades, lean, fat, and medium fat.  While the sandwich was top-notch, it certainly wasn’t the best deli food I’ve even consumed.  If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d probably eat it once a month, but overall it’s over-hyped.
The second item on my culinary checklist was La Banquise.  La Banquise is Montreal’s premiere poutine joint, and on my last night in town I discovered it to be the Holy Grail of Quebecois Cuisine.  In case you missed the description from the last post, poutine is french fries topped with cheese curds and then drowned in brown gravy.  La Banquise elevates poutine to the next level by combining the 3 base ingredients with a choice of 28 different combinations of toppings.   (click here for a more legible version of the menu).
Average poutine will never taste quite right after a trip to La Banquise.  In fact, it is so scrumptious, that they require patrons to pay their bill (with tip) before the food is even served.
On my last full day in Montreal, I took a trip outside of the city centre to Lachine.  An inner suburb of Montreal, Lachine was a separate municipality until it was annexed by Montreal in 2002.  Lachine was formerly a canal town, and the token tourist activity is to rent a bicycle and bike along the canal all the way to Old Montreal.
The route along the Lachine Canal provides an exquisite visual history of Montreal’s industrial past.
Most of the infrastructure is now either abandoned, or used for non-industrial purposes.
Near Downtown, the Lachine Canal trail also provides some of the best views of Montreal’s skyline.
…and finally the old factories adjacent to Old Montreal
Montreal is often listed as one of the most attractive cities in North America.  After my short visit, I’d have to concur.  In terms of urban design as well as size and scope, Montreal reminded me of a French Canadian version of Boston.  Well on the cusp of cultural trends, Montreal might also be the hippest city in the North America with accolades also going to New York and San Francisco.  Next leg of the journey, the heart of Quebecois culture:  Quebec City.



Canada Trip, Stop #4: Ottawa

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the fourth post in a 6-part series on my trip to Canada.

Ottawa is the capital of Canada and it’s located between Toronto and Montreal.  I have to admit, this is all I knew of Canada’s fourth largest city before I began planning my trip.  But as I would find, Ottawa is much, much more than a non-descript capital city sandwiched between Canada’s two largest cities.

A decree by Queen Victoria in 1857, and Ottawa became capital of the then “Province of Canada.”  Straddling the border of anglophone Canada West and francophone Canada East, Ottawa was a natural compromise for the fledgling bicultural colony.
The geographic center of Ottawa is Parliament Hill, located on the southern bank of the Ottawa River. Parliament Hill’s main building is the Centre Block which houses the commons and senate chambers as well as the offices of many high ranking government officials.  Here’s a panoramic video I took from the middle of the Hill.
In 1916 the original Centre Block was destroyed by fire.  The structure standing today was completed in 1927.
Built in the Gothic Revival style, the Centre Block is one of Canada’s most recognizable works of architecture.  It’s image is emblazened on $10, $20, and $50 bills.
Parliament Hill is situated along Wellington Street (not pictured) which is also home to the Canadian Supreme Court and the Canadian War Museum. For government and history buffs, Ottawa is chalked full of attractions, mostly all within convenient walking distance from Parliament Hill.
The East Block (pictured here) is home to parliamentary offices, and is one of only two Parliament structures which have survived from the original construction.
Across from the East Block is the West Block, with similar functions.  The West Block is slated as the temporary home to the House of Commons during a renovation to the Centre Block in 2019.
On the rear of the Centre Block is the Library of Parliament, the only surviving remnant from the original Centre Block built in 1876.
With the Canadian government as its largest employer, Ottawa’s city center pushes right up against Parliament Hill.
Downtown Ottawa’s main thoroughfare is the Sparks Street Mall.  Sparks Street became North America’s first outdoor pedestrian mall in 1966 when automobile traffic was permanently diverted to other streets.
Ottawa’s downtown is dense and lively during the day, with federal employees creating much of the pedestrian traffic.
Due to its proximity to Quebec and the high concentration of federal employees, a substantial amount of French is spoken in Ottawa.  From my unscientific estimations, I’d say about 1 in 5 conversations I overheard downtown were in French.
Ottawa also has an active Europe-esque cafe culture, with cafes and bars throughout the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
Alive and vibrant by day, much of Sparks Street Mall closes shop after 4 pm.  According to several locals, Sparks Street used to be the location of much of Ottawa’s nightlife, but now caters almost exclusively to the daytime working crowd.
As one of North America’s premiere pedestrian cities, Ottawa is a hot spot for street food.  Popular items include poutine as well as pogos (what Americans call “corn dogs”)  Most trucks also carry the standards such as burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, and Italian sausage.
Like much of Canada, Ottawa is a cultural mosaic of customs and languages from around the world.
And like much of Canada, the three most prevalent languages are English, French, and Chinese (in that order).
Ottawa’s urban core is compact geographically, and much of its vitality is centered around downtown.  A ten minute walk away from Sparks Street is the Byward Market area.  Inside the market (pictured above) are stalls selling various handyworks and touristy knickknacks.  The area surrounding the market serves as one of Ottawa’s premiere drinking and dining districts.
The outdoor portion of Byward is Canada’s oldest continuously operated farmers market. My personal favorite was the ready-to-eat organic fruit bowls, selling for around $2 a piece.  Most transactions at Byward Market are conducted in French.
Just west of Byward Market is Major’s Hill Park, which provides this rear vantage point of Parliament Hill.
Ottawa is home to one of the world’s most innovative liquor stores, appropriately named “The Beer Store.”
Boards on the wall list all beers in stock.  Below each logo is a price listing for various quantities.  The quantities include 6-packs, 12-packs, 24-packs, and singles.  Some beers are available in all quantities, while others are limited to one or two options.  This allows for convenient mixing and matching on large purchases.
Customers wait in line at the counter, and place their order with an attendant.  The most popular beers, listed on a board as “The Big Ten” are stocked (cold) directly behind the counter for quick dispension.  More obscure beers are stored in the back room refridgerator.
Ottawa has mandatory deposit laws, which means most customers return their old bottles to the site of purchase.  To expedite this process, The Beer Store employs a sophisticated conveyor belt system to process returned glass.
Now moving south of Downtown we find many of Ottawa’s traditional residential neighborhoods.
Ottawa regularly appears at the top of many North American quality-of-living city rankings.  As one of Canada’s most livable cities, it has experienced high rates of gentrification in recent decades.  The proliferation of condo developments in Ottawa is widespread, angering at least one individual who has proclaimed his distaste for “uppee scum” on this real estate advertisement.
Also south of Downtown is Ottawa’s Chinatown.
Small in size compared to the Chinatowns of Toronto and Montreal, Ottawa’s Chinatown consists primarily of the area along a single street:  Somerset from Bay Street to Rochester.
Ottawa’s Chinatown contains many of the same services and businesses found in most North American Chinatowns; restaurants, groceries, souvenir shops being most prevalent.
Although commercial activity caters to Chinese residents, Ottawa’s Chinatown is also home to businesses serving various other ethnic communitites, notably Arabs and Vietnamese.
The city of Ottawa spans across the southern bank of the Ottawa River, which also serves as the boundary between Ontario and Quebec.  On the north bank of the river is the town of Gatineau (aka Hull).
Home to roughly 240,000 citizens, Gatineau is markedly different from its sister city across the river.  While Ottawa has a majority English speaking populace, Gatineau is almost exclusively francophone.  The main tourist attraction in Gatineau is the Canadian Museum of Civilization (far right) with exhibits focusing on Canada’s indigenous peoples (aka First Nations).
It’s a fifteen minute walk from Ottawa to Gatineau, and upon crossing the bridge, the tone and surroundings change drastically.  Storefront and street signs are all in French, major streets lack the hustle and bustle of Ottawa, and there are very few non-white people. With a quarter the population, Gatineau has the vibe of a tranquil Quebec town, rather than the cosmopolitan urbanity of Ottawa.
Even with only a quarter of a million people, Gatineau is the third largest metro area in Quebec, after Montreal and Quebec City.  Although there isn’t a whole lot to do in Gatineau, it’s definitely worth spending an afternoon there for a taste of francophone Canada.
The people of Gatineau generally prefer not to use English for public notices, unless of course they are targeting a wider non-local audience.
And amongst non-locals (particularly those from across the river) Gatineau is commonly regarded as the region’s vice capital.
As bona fide Quebecois territory, Gatineau is an ideal place to sample poutine, Quebec’s preeminent contribution to Canadian cuisine.  In simplest form, poutine consists of french fries, topped with cheese curds, and smothered in gravy
As I wandered through Gatineau for an afternoon, one question constantly ran through my mind.  How was it that two cities, separated only by a river, could remain so culturally dissimilar from one another?  One explanation was provided by a historical marker which indicated that the bridge links between the two cities had been plagued by frequent collapses and natural disasters, making convenient transport between the cities relatively rare until recent times.  Today there are 4 bridges linking the two cities, yet the francophone anglophone cleavage remains markedly distinct.
Coming to Ottawa, I wasn’t expecting much.  It was located on the way from Toronto to Montreal, and since it was the capital of Canada I figured I might as well check it out.  What I found was that Ottawa is an attraction in and of itself, equally as worthy of a visit as Toronto or Montreal.  Ottawa is clean, livable, and has comparatively few of the urban problems which plague most North American cities such as crime, poverty, and sprawl.  Transportation in Ottawa is also a cinch, as I didn’t even require public transit during my stay. I went everywhere on foot.  With the Canadian government, museums, a bustling downtown, ethnic neighborhoods, and a French settlement across the river, Ottawa has more than enough attractions to pack a multi-day tourist itinerary.  Next stop:  Montreal.



Blue Collar Canada: Hamilton, ON

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 1:56 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the third post in a 6-part series on my trip to Canada.

Toronto has its skyscrapers and Niagara Falls its natural beauty.  But sometimes when you’re on the road, the best places to see are those with nothing to see at all.  In between Toronto and Niagara Falls lies the blue collar town of Hamilton, a city of half a million residents and without any unique tourist draw.

Hamilton wraps around the westernmost reach of Lake Ontario.  It’s about an hour west of Toronto and an hour north of Niagara Falls, making it a convenient stop for travelers from Toronto en route to Niagara.
The urbanized region stretching around Lake Ontario from Toronto to Buffalo is colloquially known as the “Golden Horseshoe.” 25% of Canada’s population lives within this region, and Hamilton is its second largest city on the Canadian side of the border.  Convenient transit to Toronto is provided by the Go Transit Lake Shore West line allowing many Hamiltonians to commute to jobs in downtown Toronto. Originally focused on heavy manufacturing, recent years have seen Hamilton’s economy shift towards the service sector, particularly healthcare.  Thesedays Hamilton is not exactly a boom town.  But it isn’t dying a slow death either, like so many other North American Rust Belt cities.
Without a laundry list of tourist attractions, I spent my day casually wandering through the Hamilton city center.  I had been expecting a run-down, under-utilized downtown, with few pedestrians and the remnants of a one-time industrial glory. Instead, I found downtown Hamilton surprisingly lively.
Walking through downtown, it became apparent that Hamilton has been the recipient of prescient, pedestrian-centered urban planning. Downtown centers around King Street, a split boulevard with wide sidewalks on the edges and a broad pedestrian zone in the middle.  In the pedestrian area are benches, fountains, and green space, providing space for a bustling pedestrian street life.
Nothing kills a pedestrian zone more than parking lots, and downtown Hamilton’s planners addressed this by locating most of its parking behind King Street.
Locating parking and other dead space behind the main drag has helped to ensure the vitality of streetlife on Hamilton’s main drag.  (medium-sized US cities, take note)
Back on King Street, a variety of restaurants and shops compliment the active pedestrian zone (I intentionally took this pic when few pedestrians were in view).
For a city its size, Hamilton also posseses a substantial international flair, with various eateries and groceries on most major streets.
Like much of Canada, there is a significant Chinese presence in Hamilton.  I counted at least 5 Chinese restaurants on King Street alone. Locals told me that there had originally been a downtown Chinatown, but in recent decades the population had dispersed throughout the city.
Just south of King Street are some of Hamilton’s more pleasant residential districts.  After the hustle and bustle of Toronto, and the barrage of tourists at Niagara Falls, a quiet walk through Hamilton residential neighborhoods was a welcome contrast.
These are some of the typical row houses common in neighborhoods surrounding downtown.
At this point you may be wondering what exactly I was trying to see or do in Hamilton…well, that’s just the point.  In a dynamic country like Canada, it would be impossible to define a “normal” city.  But, if I had to throw out my lot, I would say Hamilton is close as you could get.
Hamilton is not flashy, and it isn’t exactly overflowing with tourist attractions.  While it does have a significant immigration population, Hamilton is the kind of town where you feel like most residents are locals rather than transplants.  It’s the kind of town where people are authentically appreciative of visitors who don’t bypass their town on the way to Toronto.  And it’s the kind of town where a local will stop for half an hour in a Greyhound station and give you a in-depth oral history of their local CFL franchise (this actually happened).  I wouldn’t have added a multi-day stay in Hamilton to my itinerary, but for the half day on my way from Niagara to Toronto, it was well worth it.  At the end of the day, I took the bus back to Toronto and was off to stop number 4:  Ottawa.



Canada Adventure, Leg 2 – Niagara Falls

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 6:19 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the second post in a 6-part series on my trip to Canada.

Located 75 miles south of Toronto and 17 miles north of Buffalo, tourists arrive from all corners of the globe to visit Niagara Falls.  With convenient transportation to and from Toronto, taking the day trip to Niagara was a no-brainer.

Transit between Toronto and Niagara Falls is provided by Go Transit, Toronto’s commuter rail/bus service. During weekends the train runs all the way from Union Station to Niagara Falls.  On weekdays, riders have to take the train to Burlington, where a Go bus completes the journey to Niagara Falls (the town, not the actual falls). From the town, it’s a ten minute bus ride on local transit to reach the falls.  In total, the journey takes about 2 hours. 
Niagara Falls’ fame doesn’t come from its height, but rather its width. At high flow, nearly 4 million cubic feet of water rush over the Falls every minute.
The Niagara River serves as the border between the United States and Canada.  On the Canadian side lies Niagara Falls, Ontario and on the American, Niagara Falls, New York.
“Niagara Falls” consists of two separate waterfalls, the Horseshoe Falls, located mostly in Canada, and the smaller American Falls (pictured above), located in the United States.
There is no admission required to view the Falls, but the best view is not from land, but by boat. A ride on the “Maid of the Mist” costs $15 and is well worth it.  Ticket price includes a complimentary poncho which all passengers are advised to don.
The first leg of the boat ride passes the American Falls.
At the bottom of the Falls, the boat stops for a few minutes, allowing passengers this close-up view.
The Maid of the Mist then heads away from the American Falls and toward the Horseshoe.
For another two minutes the boat ride is calm.  Rounding the corner, the great Horseshoe comes into view.
Aesthetically speaking, the American Falls are more photogenic than the Horseshoe.  But when in a boat, the feeling of being surrounded entirely by the Horseshoe Falls is unmatchable.  Between the roar of the river tumbling down the falls, the airborne water soaking the deck, and the ensuing claustrophobia, the ride into the Horseshoe was the highlight of my afternoon.
Niagara Falls may spew 4 million cubic feet over the falls every minute, but it also shoots an ungodly amount of water into the air.  This shot was taken just below the Horseshoe Falls, and it’s at this point when passengers get drenched. 
After spending two or three minutes below Horseshoe Falls, the Maid of the Mist heads back past the American Falls en route to the dock.
After the boat ride, I took a long walk along the promenade stretching the length of the cliff on the opposite side of the Falls. (promenade is behind me in this pic.)
The multiple viewing angles along the length of the promenade serve to space out the droves of tourists who diverge on the Falls any given day.
another shot from the promenade of American Falls with Niagara Falls, NY in the background
Horseshoe Falls from the promenade
…and another shot of Horseshoe Falls.  The white stuff in the picture is not fog, but rather water bouncing off the Falls.
Here’s a view showing the ledge of the promenade (right) overlooking the falls. 
Although Niagara Falls is extremely touristy, the surroundings are set up so that the most touristy stuff (souvenir shops, go carts, $6 hot dogs, etc.) are on a road a few hundred feet off of the promenade.  It’s fairly easy to walk the length of the promenade and experience the Falls, while bypassing most of the tourist traps.   
Unless you plan to explore some of the surrounding nature, a single day in Niagara Falls is more than enough time.  As long as you prepare in advance (check transit schedules, pack food, etc.) it’s quite affordable as well.  My entire expenses for the day including 2-way transit from Toronto, bus transit within Niagara Falls, and ticket for the Maiden of the Mist boat ride, came to just under $50.  For a world class natural wonder of the world, that can’t be beat.  In addition to the photos above, I took 3 videos, posted below.  Next stop:  Hamilton.   

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