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« Constructing Dr. Manhattan | Main | Caught in Kafka's Landscape »

Re-Landscaping the Slum

In late November, I posted the first of what is intended to be a series of examinations of the inner-city slum and its consequences for a whole host of security issues.  In that post, I focussed primarily on the late 19th century in North America, primarily New York and Montréal.  The experiences of these two cities, at the time the metropoles of the United States and Canada, could be universalised to any other major city in North America.  

Recently, in doing some edits on my doctoral dissertation, I was reminded of Kay J. Anderson's 1991 book, Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875-1980 (Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press).  In this book, Anderson examines the slum discourse that emerged and surrounded Chinatown in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Vancouver has long been the recipient of East and South Asian immigrants, who received an ambivalent, at best, welcome in the city, even as this Asian population helped to build Vancouver and Western Canada as a whole.  In 1907, for example, a race riot broke out in Vancouver, which led to the sacking of Japantown, where Japanese immigrants settled in the city.  Seven years later, a group of immigrants from India were denied permission to deboard their ship, the Komagata Maru, in Vancouver's harbour due to Canadian immigration laws.  According to Canadian law at the time, immigrant ships from India had to travel direct to Canada, which was virtually impossible; the Komagata Maru stopped for provisions in Hong Kong.  In the early twentieth century, Canada had made Asian immigration into Canada virtually impossible due to prohibitive head taxes.  India, however, was a special case for Canada, as it was also part of the British Empire.  Thus, more inventive means were necessary to keep Indians from emigrating to Canada; hence the continuous journey provisions.  And while Canadian immigration laws reflected racial discourse of the era in general across North America, it was on the west coast of the continent that we saw the most extreme examples of discrimination and racism, largely because it was on the west coast that Asian immigrants settled.  And Vancouver was the Canadian entrepôt.

For most of its history, then, Vancouver's Chinatown was under attack from urban reformers and good old fashioned racist rednecks.  In the 1960s, it was threatened with eradication when the city proposed to construct a freeway through it.  And this is when something very interesting happened.  Chinatown, and its allies, fought back.  Vancouver's Chinese population was still largely marginalised, though some Chinese-Canadians had earned great fortunes in business and were infiltrating the mainstream of the city's economy.  Others recognised the historical value of Chinatown, which is located just south of Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside.  

Together, this odd coalition of Chinese Canadians and urban preservationists fought off the freeway idea, which would have also destroyed the oldest settlement in Vancouver, Gastown, and the freeway was built to the east through what was then largely an industrial wasteland that then led to the Port of Vancouver and the newly constructed Iron Workers' Memorial Bridge over Burrard Inlet.  Ironically, in the years since the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway through Vancouver, Chinatown has emerged as a primary tourist site location, and in the summer, the streets are full of tourists.  Of course, another discourse has emerged around Chinatown, about the essentialisation of the city's Chinese population vis-à-vis Chinatown, but that's another story. 

Scenes similar to the Vancouver experience were played out in large urban centres around North America all throughout the 1950s and 60s, and oftentimes as racially charged.  This was the period of the automobile, the symbol of modernity, and thus these cities needed an infrastructure to privilege the car; cities wanted to show off their own modernity.  And, of course, the persistence of slums constructed largely of old Victorian-era housing, mocked modernity in these cities.  

Enter the freeway.  The freeway is a huge, imposing, ugly, and intimidating structure on the urban environment.  They are responsibly for a good deal of pollution, both in terms of noise and carbon dioxide.  In some cities, freeways were constructed as a means of ameliorating the slum.  In other cities, freeways were designed to separate and divide.

  (Los Angeles freeways)

This was the goal in Las Vegas.  There, the freeways were constructed in such a way as to separate the Strip from Las Vegas proper.  Novelist Charles Bock, in his novel Beautiful Children, repeats a local urban legend that the freeways were constructed as they were in Vegas so that, if race riots came erupted, the Army could situate its tanks on the freeways, between white and African American neighbourhoods, to attempt to enforce peace.  

Thus, in Las Vegas, the freeway became a tool of urban design and re-design in the inner city.  It was a multipurpose construction.  At the core, freeways are used as a vessel of transportation, conveying cars and their passengers in and out of the downtown cores of the cities they serve, the places where these people were meant to work and shop.  And the language surrounding the freeway upon its construction echoes this.  Take this quote, for example, from The Montreal Gazette in 1967, the year the Autoroute Bonaventure opened there, a freeway that runs along the waterfront into the downtown core of the city: "The Bonaventure expressway, for example, sweeps around the shore of the river and into the centre of the city, some of it going through land which was undeveloped and unkempt and other parts of it through former slum areas." (The Gazette (Montreal), 14 June 1967).  

But the freeway as a tool of urban re-design is something that is woefully understudied.

Even a cursory examination of the location of freeways through major urban centres in North America gives this away.  In many cities, such as Toronto, freeways traverse the waterfront.  What this serves to do is to separate the waterfront from the city.  Waterfronts in port cities, such as Toronto, have long been dangerous locations, both in real terms and in the minds of bourgeois reformers.  Now, the waterfronts are cut off from the city, quarantining the ills of the port from the pristine city.  In Toronto, known as "Toronto the Good" throughout the 20th century (in stark contrast to its cousin downriver, Montréal, "Sin City North"), the Gardiner Expressway does this job, separating the pristine, clean city from the foul, diseased, and crime-ridden port.  

In Las Vegas, it was the Strip that was (rather ironically) quarantined from the ills of Vegas itself.  There, the tourists, gamblers, and mobsters could get their party on in a sanitised space, safe from the disease of the city.  In Seattle, I-5 was constructed through the city, dividing it in two, and protecting the business core of downtown from the predominately African-American neighbourhoods to the east of the downtown core.

All of this is about security, about protecting and quaranting, and creating sanitised spaces on the urban landscape.  The inner-city slum was still problematised in the same was it was in the 19th century, but now there were new means of combatting it.  Reformers came to realise, at least in part, that the slum could not be done away with. That poor people would always exist and would always need a place to live.  Thus, the slums were torn down, rebuilt, and housing projects came into vogue (this will be the subject of my next post on the slum).  Freeways, then, became the primary means of separating the city from its less savoury inhabitants on the ports and in the slums.  This kept the bourgeois residents and businesspeople of the downtown core safe from infection.

Even in Vancouver, whilst Chinatown was saved, it was in the years after the freeway battles that the neighbourhood's specific ethnic identity was capitalised upon and successfully marketed.  Thus, Chinatown was saved by the very thing that always separated it from Vancouver as a whole: it's Chineseness.

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