All posts by Andrea Cordonier

WinnipegPublicArt

Winnipeg is the Most Interesting City

Over dinner last week in Manhattan I declared to our three local hosts that Winnipeg is The Most Interesting City in Canada. They appeared politely skeptical as I tried to explain.

I’ve written about the city before here, here, herehere, and here, praising it up one side and down the other. I can easily list the qualities I love, but it wasn’t until this morning that I could boil down the essence of it into one sentence: Winnipeg feels like New York used to feel before it went and got all gentrified.

Another day of relentless blue skies and the city continues to surprise me with its ubiquitous public art, wealth of classic architecture, and intriguing tapestry of grand and pocket public spaces. I love that these work so seamlessly together, that art is interwoven with everyday life and business, that social justice issues appear to be studied in plain view, and that artists of all stature seem to command a respect here that isn’t as obvious in other Canadian cities.

I wasn’t exactly hanging in New York during the ’70’s and early ’80’s, but I hear myriad voices in the media nostalgic for cheap rents, interesting characters, and the scrappy creativity of that era, if not for its scarier or less desirable attributes.

It appears that geographic isolation and benign neglect, due to a dearth of speculative investment, has protected Winnipeg from being torn to bits and rebuilt from scratch. I feel no pity when I say that. Quite the opposite. Limited means keeps it from becoming stale and commercially and socially milquetoast. The city possesses a unique energy that reflects a particular moment in time, a socio-economic status, and a necessity to invent, then reinvent, gradually by way of internal muse instead of instant external gratification.

There are still areas in the city I’m advised not to walk after dark, unlike, say, Vancouver which has been washed clean of its sins. I mostly take that advice, but I am happiest when I walk the streets to search out the vast and evolving collection of street art, the undiscovered historic corners and architectural magnificence. Every time I feel a frisson of excitement, a distinct lack of predictability about how my day will play out, what exactly I will experience and whom I will encounter.

The city teeters a bit and it’s hard to say which way it will go.  But, as all lovers know, keeping things a little off-balance provides a sense of mystery that’s worth jealously guarding.

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Displaced Words

I spy with my little eye a billboard I don’t understand.

This inscription is “AP3851,” a remnant of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir’s recent installation ex libris (2010-2012) at Alexander and Bonin in Chelsea.

The 1948 Palestinian exodus, also known as al Nakba (Arabic for disaster, catastrophe, or cataclysm)1 occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, as a result of the UN General Assembly recommendation for the partition of Palestine. The term nakba also refers to the period of war itself and events affecting Palestinians from December 1947 to January 1949.2

According to a number of sources, not only were land and properties taken during the expulsion, but cultural treasures, among them books, manuscripts, personal papers, photographs and works of art, were seized, first by individual looters, then through systematic seizures by the Israeli army and universities.3

From the exhibition press release:

ex libris commemorates the approximately thirty thousand books from Palestinian homes, libraries, and institutions that were looted by Israeli authorities in 1948. Six thousand of these books are kept and catalogued at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem under the designation “A.P.” (Abandoned Property).

Jacir photographed these books with her cell phone during repeated visits to the library over the course of two years. Jacir’s explorations and her subsequent selection of specific images create an intimate register of fragments and traces. Her work not only addresses the looting and destruction of books but also raises questions regarding repatriation and restitution.4

The Great Book Robbery by Benny Brunner expands on Jacir’s explorations.

Today I studied maps of Israel/Palestine and read some history of the conflict for the first time. The concepts were vaguely familiar but I lacked all context. Nothing like a little High Line elevation to plant the seed of perspective.


  1. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/al-Nakba 

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Palestinian_exodus 

  3. http://jfjfp.com/?tag=nakba 

  4. http://www.alexanderandbonin.com/sites/default/files/Emily%20Jacir%2C%20intervals.pdf 

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Walking Jane’s ‘Hood

In setting forth different principles, I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things: for instance, what kids of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are marvellous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centres; what, if anything, is a city neighbourhood, and what jobs, if any neighbourhoods in great cities do. In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practices in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes. ~ Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

Back in May, I lucked into being in New York City during Jane’s Walk, the annual neighbourhood walking event held in cities around the world. It’s named in honour of Jane Jacobs, the celebrated urbanist, activist, and writer who established herself first in Greenwich Village, and then in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. While I caught a couple of the walking tours (Park Avenue and Manhattan Civic Centre), I didn’t make it to the village, to the pilgrimage site of her former home at 555 Hudson Street.

This week, Jane’s neighbourhood was my unfinished business and a Google maps walking tour my guide. I wish I could say I discovered the area as something more than a tourist, but that’s what I was, poking around to get an initial sense of the shape of the place.

I walked (of course) from E.61st down to 14th, via W.11th and Hell’s Kitchen. The torrential downpour slowed, and then stopped, by the time I joined the High Line at 30th. At Hudson I stripped off my raincoat, sweating in the summer-like heat and humidity.

At midday the streets were mostly sleepy, dotted by women-of-a-certain-age and their tiny dogs taking lunch at streetside tables and benches. A solitary man in sunglasses and his shaggy pooch ruled over the sun-soaked patio of the iconic White Horse Tavern, traditional haunt of longshoremen and poets and writers like Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and Anais Nin. A few blocks on, a crew shot a television series, crowding the sidewalk with imaginary activity. High sun and deep shadows framed the sidewalks; every hour or so the spotlight would shift, illuminating a different person, place or thing.  By dinner time, the bright orange rays beamed low and magically along the east-west axis and the sidewalks teaming with people of all ages: suited men whisking uniformed children home from school and day care, office workers picking up groceries, college students taking advantage of happy hour prices, elegant high-heeled women rushing home from work.

Greenwich/West Village ranks as some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. The inevitability of gentrification has priced it out of the hands of everyone but the very wealthy or those lucky enough to benefit from rent controls.  I can understand the attraction of the place. The scale remains intimate, human, the roads organic, confusing and enviously leafy, brick townhomes uniform yet eclectic, all molded by history. Everything is at hand: There are restaurants, taverns, shops, churches, schools, pocket parks, public transport, and the river. Charming, pretty, yet solid, it’s a fairytale village where communion with other souls seems possible. And all in the heart of a city of eight-and-a-half million.

Jane’s former home is plain painted brick, two floors over vacant retail space and, at this moment, burdened by scaffold.  In quick succession, it has recently housed a specialty baby shop, a seller of glass wear, and a purveyor of ladies clothing. One has to sell a lot of chotchkes to make the pricey rent, never mind a reasonable living. Unfortunately, it’s the predictable, vanilla chains that can afford this, simultaneously putting dollars in the jeans of landlords while chiselling down the rough edges that lend neighbourhoods their uniqueness and real interest. It’s not exactly what Jane envisioned back in 1961 when she rallied for the preservation of old (old, low-rent and therefore useful vs. old, fancy, expensive) buildings in her famous treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

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I felt the urge to genuflect on her doorstep, but settled for taking coffee in the adjacent cafe and effectively becoming a pair of her famously-invoked eyes on the street. How’s that for life imitating art?

I wandered for several hours photographing to my heart’s content before ending the afternoon with a glass of wine and some charcuterie at the delicious and artfully-styled Buvette. Then I hoofed it back uptown in the day’s remaining light.

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Greenwich Village
The not-so-secret private/public gardens of St. Luke-in-the-Fields.
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Everyone’s getting in the Halloween spirit
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My hands-down favourite? The formerly low-rent Grove Court. Now gated and oh-so-private.
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The ‘Friends’ apartment building
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Home of the infamous John Wilkes Booth. Where he planned the assassination of President Lincoln.
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A rare wood-frame house, formerly a civil war brothel. Wood buildings were phased out after the fire of 1845.
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Buried under scaffolding: At 10-feet wide, the narrowest building in NYC. Former home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Cary Grant and others.
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The apartment building where John Belushi drew his last breath.
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Home of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted and executed in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Russians
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Home of Washington Irving, author of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle. A great companion piece to our Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow visit in 2013.
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The Color of Water

What a deceptively simple way to capture the colors of a seasonally changing river in an historic/site-specific installation. Not that I hadn’t walked this portion of the High Line before, it just took a fourth go to stop me in my tracks.

I might have to try this at home with my own river…

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The River That Flows Both Ways – by Spencer Finch

Inspired by the Hudson River, Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways documents a 700-minute (11 hours, 40 minutes) journey on the river in a single day. The title is a translation of Muhheakantuck, the Native American name for the Hudson, referring to the river’s natural flow in two directions. Like the rail line that existed on the High Line, the Hudson River was, and still is, an active route for the transportation of goods into Manhattan. The river and the High Line have always been linked in their geography, their function, and their imprints on the industrial legacy of the city.

From a tugboat drifting on Manhattan’s west side and past the High Line, Finch photographed the river’s surface once every minute. The color of each pane of glass was based on a single pixel point in each photograph and arranged chronologically in the tunnel’s existing steel mullions. Time is translated into a grid, reading from left to right and top to bottom, capturing the varied reflective and translucent conditions of the water’s surface. The work, like the river, is experienced differently depending on the light levels and atmospheric conditions of the site. In this narrative orientation, the glass reveals Finch’s impossible quest for the color of water.

Taken from: High Line Art

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If Wes Anderson Owned a Museum

A shrunken head. Mummies. Dinosaur bones. An anaconda skeleton. Shells the size of a child’s head. A life-sized origami Pterodactyl. A gorilla guarding the staircase. With nearly three million objects spanning natural history, ethnology and mineralogy, the Redpath Museum in Montreal is the ultimate Victorian curio cabinet.

The first purpose-built museum in Canada, it was commissioned by Peter Redpath and opened in 1882 to preserve and display the collections of Sir William Dawson, a noted Canadian natural scientist and Principal of McGill University. Architects A.C. Hutchison and A.D. Steele “conceived an idiosyncratic expression of eclectic Victorian Classicism, synthesizing ancient and modern as well as European and North American sources to dignify the campus and express the significance of its purpose.”

The controllers of the overwhelming majority of Canadian rail, shipping, timber, mining, fur and banking consisted of a small group of about fifty men who called the Square Mile ‘home’ …[F]rom about 1870 to 1900, 70% of all wealth in Canada was firmly in the hands of this small group.1

It sits in the centre of the ‘Golden Square Mile’,  former farmland on the slope of Mount Royal north of Sherbrooke Street. It became, from the late 1700’s until the early 20th century, the wealthiest residential enclave in Canada. Montreal’s anglophone captains of industry shifted from the crowded confines of Old Montreal to rural, expansive surroundings, building estates that reflected their social position.

The Redpath is a theatrical, bodacious building, a late example of  Greek Revival and a shrine to the wealth and civilizing pursuits of the English. For fans of the film A Night at the Museum, think an intimate, manageable version of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

While the eclectic collection is fun and cleverly curated, it’s the building that steals the show; no Hollywood set designer could offer improvements. The coffered ceiling, Virgin Mary blue, is the heavenly colour of ecclesiastical ceilings and temple-like public buildings. With its apse and nave, it was designed in the classical shape of a church. Honey-coloured wood trim, cast plaster ornamentation, and built-up mouldings deck the walls floor to ceiling. Freestanding and built-in oak and glass cabinets house the collections. Shifting light streams through the atrium windows, creating late-afternoon shadow play between the cast iron balustrade and floors of the elevated walkway. Imagine what it must look like by moonlight.

The museum has several research labs and a unique, circular Victorian teaching auditorium, which can be seen in this Historica Canada Heritage Minute.

The fortunes of the neighbourhood eventually waned and most of the mansions were torn down or assimilated into the university.  The Redpath remains an enchanting remnant of a dynamic time and place in Canadian history.

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Front-door details
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The 2nd largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in Canada
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The shrunken head

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  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Square_Mile