Increasingly self-confident Barbados takes time to mourn

While preparing to bury a much-loved prime minister, Caribbean island also gives thanks to Thompson’s mentor for emphasizing a quality education system
This story first appeared in the Toronto Star foreign news section on October 29, 2010
By STEPHEN WICKENS

Olive Estwick was one of the pilgrims who came for a piece of the rock that came from the grave where David Thompson would be buried.

ST. JOHN’S PARISH, BARBADOS—Olive Estwick isn’t asked for an explanation but offers one anyway.

“It’s for my great-grandson,” the tearful 73-year-old says, holding up a softball-sized piece of coral rock from the pile beside a grave where the late prime minister David Thompson will be buried Wednesday. “This will always be in our family.”

Estwick is one of several pilgrims to the St. John’s parish church cemetery on a sweltering afternoon. In what would otherwise be a sleepy, idyllic setting near the edge of a cliff facing the Atlantic, gravediggers kick up a jackhammer racket and rocks they chuck to the pile become souvenirs.

A period of national mourning was declared in Barbados after Thompson died from pancreatic cancer Oct. 23, seven months after being diagnosed. Flags are half-staff, some people wear black ribbons and it seems nearly every Barbadian you speak with gets moist around the eyes when talking of him. But pursue the conversation a bit longer and you’ll often hear expressions of a rising national self-confidence.

One moment it’s a tragic tale of three young girls who don’t have a dad anymore, or a lament for a country that has lost a great leader just as he was getting started. Thompson, who became PM in 2008, was only 48.

But the locals also seem eager to tell Canadians this Caribbean island is on the verge of becoming a first-world nation. Even before your flight lands at Grantley Adams airport, you might have heard Barbados has public health care like Canada and a public education system that has placed literacy rates among the world’s best — 99.7 per cent. Stable governments and relatively low crime rates are also a source of pride.

Frank Anderson, returning to Barbados after doing temporary work in Canada, says his country’s rising living standards are “in many ways the legacy of Errol Barrow, our first prime minister after independence in 1966.”

Anderson explains that part of the sadness about Thompson’s death is his link with Barrow (who was a close and longtime friend of Pierre Trudeau). “Not only are (Barrow and Thompson) the only two people to have represented St. John’s parish in Parliament since independence in 1966, Thompson was Barrow’s protegé in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).”

Barrow, who also died in office, in 1987, had a dream — that quality public education, free to all, would make the former British colony a first-world nation providing opportunity for all, no matter how poor. The seemingly widespread belief is Thompson lived nearly long enough to see it happen; that a real middle class has quietly emerged.

“It’s not just high schools; university is free for Bajans,” Anderson says. “These kids aren’t just students at university, they were raised in educated homes.”

Rosa Alleyne, who works for an ad agency in the United States but returned to Barbados last week to visit relatives, speaks of “a new optimism despite the mourning and the recession” in the lineup at a south coast convenience store. “I live in San Francisco, but kids I went to school with are getting good jobs without leaving the country,” she said. “Go take a look at the new suburbs north of Bridgetown. It’s not foreigners buying those houses and they’re as nice as newer subdivisions in the States.”

Though tributes to Thompson dominate media coverage, the release this week of Transparency International’s 2010 report is also big news. Barbados is now ranked second to Canada for the lowest levels of corruption in the western hemisphere.

“It’s a small country that always punches above its weight,” says Ezra Catwell, of Invest Barbados, a government agency that promotes both direct foreign investment and Barbadian companies to the world.

A longstanding emphasis on transparency and rule of law, the educated workforce and the country’s tax treaties with many countries are popular with businesses. Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank and CIBC have long had big presences here. A tour of a plant owned by Florida-based Lenstec is impressive. The company began in Barbados in 1995 as a straight manufacturer of precision synthetic lenses used in cataract surgery. It has expanded several times and is now developing product lines that are being shipped around the world.

Cardiology and in vitro fertilization clinics are seen as evidence of a nascent medical tourism industry. There’s also a software cluster in Bridgetown.

The crime rate is almost certainly low by Caribbean standards, though independent, verifiable comparisons are hard to find. The 2009 United Nations Human Development Index ranks Barbados third in the Western Hemisphere behind Canada and the U.S., but evidence of poverty is still not difficult to find.

Governments in recent years have pushed diversification. Sugar was king for most of the island’s history, but exports are down 70 per cent since the 1960s. Tourism will continue to be relied upon heavily, but it’s seasonal and vulnerable to economic cycles.

“We’re past the point where we can compete as a low-cost jurisdiction,” says Darcy Boyce, minister of immigration, energy and communications under new Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. “Our wages are not low by Caribbean standards. We have to go for high value,” he says in an interview, promising the government will spend heavily on new health care and biotech labs in the near future and that green energy technology will be a priority.

“I hope the world will view us as a first-world country by 2020; in some ways we’re already there,” said Boyce.

In the meantime, confident as they may be, Barbadians clearly are in mourning as they gear up for the state funeral. Thompson touched citizens with a radio address shortly before his death; he didn’t want to be on TV because he didn’t want his appearance to detract from his parting message.

Kenmore Lynch, wearing a black ribbon while working on the front desk at the Hilton becomes choked up while trying to speak of Thompson’s commitment to “transparency and accountability. He prepared the government and he left us a road map.”

And back at the gravesite, Olive Estwick talks of Thompson as “a great young man.

“He loved people. He came to my retirement; he came to my great-grandson’s christening.”

“Please take a piece of rock back to Canada. Save it for your great-grandson.”

Brewtopia Portland serves up excellent beer, terrible puns

West Coast U.S. city claims to have more breweries than Munich

Don Younger, who died in early 2011, was owner of Horse Brass, an iconic pub within the world of Portland's craft beer revolution. On Nov. 1, 2009, when this photo was taken, Younger received a steady stream of well-wishers on what was the pub's 33rd anniversary.

 

 

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on May 28, 2010.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

PORTLAND, ORE.—Designated driver Candace Ling rolls her eyes and gives in.

“Okay Ned, one more, but that’s it,” she says, teeth clenched, her right hand making a chopping motion.

It’s not that Ling’s friend, Ned Witherspoon, is anywhere close to tipsy. He’s a big man and it’s only mid-afternoon. But he’s supposed to fly home to Australia the next day and Ling figures the San Francisco airport is a 10-hour drive.

Witherspoon says he had an “uncontrollable urge” to double back up the coast to Portland for the weekend for “a few last American pints” after seven months in the U.S., tasting beer in 37 states.

“Everyone here calls Portland ‘brewtopia’,” Witherspoon says after ordering a Rise Up Red at the Bike Bar in the Hopworks Urban Brewery. “It’s no exaggeration. There’s lots of first-rate brewing going on in lots of places — I’ve spent time in Europe and I’m sure you have some great craft beer in Canada — but I’ve never been in a city that has so many different great beers. They say Portland has more breweries than Munich. I had to come back.”

Jim Long's Brew Bus tours are not only entertaining and good value, they keep beer lovers safely off the streets.

The Munich comparison and other bad beer-related puns also came up a day earlier on Jim Long’s Portland Brew Bus tour.

“This is beervana, ground zero for the great craft beer revolution,” Long tells the 15 people on the bus — which in this case is largely a bachelor party group that took a train down from Seattle.

“There are 38 breweries in the city proper (for just 600,000 people), another eight brewers out in the suburbs and several more in the state,” says Long, a local historian and author who has been running the bus since 1996.

He says he’s had tourists from dozens of countries on six continents and all 50 states. “I think we’ve had people from all your provinces, too. Up and down the West Coast, Portland is well known as the place for a ‘hoppenin’ time.”

Long tells his tours it’s logical that Portland is a beer centre. It has long been a grain export hub, has soft water and, because of a climate that helped it earn a reputation as “the City of Roses,” local farmers can grow a great variety of hops.

Christian Geismann, the groom-to-be and today’s Brew Bus guest of honour, says the trip from Seattle to sample beers isn’t his first and won't be the last.

Christian Geismann, the groom-to-be and today’s Brew Bus guest of honour, says the trip from Seattle to sample beers isn’t his first. “It won’t be the last, either. There’s going to be quantity, of course, this is a bachelor party,” he says. “But these boys like quality, too.”

That comment prompts a round of glass-clinking at the MacTarnahan’s Taproom, stop one on the tour.

Long varies his itinerary and does some tours on foot in summer. “You should see this place during the beer festivals in July,” he says. “It’s not just beer aficionados; the place attracts lots of great bands and musicians. It’s a fun party.”

On this day, for $45 (U.S.), Long’s tour takes in six breweries, 19 beers and keeps everyone safely off the streets — not that there’s much need to drive in a city with a good transit system. It’s a bargain.

One stop with a particularly friendly atmosphere is the Lucky Labrador, a brew pub that encourages patrons to bring their dogs. Here we run into Angie Ong, a transplant from Mississauga, and her sheepdog Kato.

At Hopworks Urban Brewery, a converted former fuel oil depot, Amelia Pillow takes us for a tour of the brewing process before the tasting starts. She notes that brewing has created spinoff industries in the area besides tourism. Kettles and the precision instruments needed to measure and monitor the process are now locally made.

Witherspoon, an Aussie building contractor from the Melbourne area, says “it must be more than coincidence that all this micro-brewing took off right around the time that Portland started building its light rail system. Good public transport allows you to relax and enjoy your beer,” he says. “Pubs are central to communities,” he says, adding that his favourite in Portland is the Horse Brass.

Later that day, the Horse Brass is packed. It’s the pub’s 33rd birthday and there are 54 beers on tap, including five cask ales.

Don Younger, part owner of the place, is a bit of a Portland celebrity — a hero for championing diverse beers before a 1985 law change that kick-started the local scene by making it legal to brew and sell directly to the public through brew pubs.

“It wasn’t long ago, but it seems like ancient history,” says Younger. “All across the country you had those standard beers. Blitz was the local swill out here and you might have found a place with bottles of Heineken or something.

“Now there’s choice and it turns out there’s huge demand for it,” Younger says between people stopping by to offer him congratulations on Horse Brass’ anniversary.

“I’d love to tell you we were brilliant and we knew that we were giving birth to an industry and a tourism attraction, but the truth is that we were young, we were drunk and we were stupid.

“But we were lucky, too.”

Is Duff beer really just Blitz in disguise?

PORTLAND, ORE.—There’s a rumour around town that a once-ubiquitous local beer, Blitz, was the inspiration for Homer Simpson’s favourite brew, Duff.

I heard the tale twice in different pubs, within 48 hours.

It’s a plausible urban legend for a city with streets named Flanders, Lovejoy and Quimby. Portland is, after all, where The Simpsons creator Matt Groening was raised — and that’s clearly a point of pride among locals. And by all accounts, Blitz, was the quintessential Duff-like generic swill.

We got Antonia Coffman, executive consultant for the long-running Fox TV show, to ask Groening if Blitz inspired Duff. She tells us the answer was a terse, “no.”

But rather than feel animosity toward those who would mislead tourists, we offer thanks to one of them for steering us to a couple of old, ripe-for-parody Blitz ads on YouTube. They might be funnier if Duffman were on the water skis, but not much.

Portland Beer Festivals

 The Portland International Beerfest focuses on great, largely unknown international beers. It’s held in the city’s lively, walkable Pearl District. The 2010 edition featured 150 beers from 15 countries.

 The Oregon Brewers Festival, held on the last full weekend in July each year, focuses on American craft brewers at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, beside the Willamette River and with views of Mount Hood and the Portland skyline.

Architectural wankfests and standalone TTC stations

If you’re not bringing subways to your urban areas, you have to bring urbanity to your suburban station catchment areas. Anything else is obscenely wasteful

Hey, this field on Steeles Avenue looks like a great place for a subway station. And when we put one there, lets ensure it's really elaborate, with no irritating reasons for large numbers of people to visit the area on foot. In fact, lets make sure it has two elaborate entrances, with the second one just like the one below. Its hip, downtown facade might disguise its suburban irrelevance.

This column ran in the National Post on February 14, 2011. It’s business as usual with a wasteful approach to stations on the Spadina-York subway extension, but TTC vice-chairman Peter Milczyn made an  encouraging announcement at the January 5, 2012 planning and growth management committee meeting. He said he will push to ensure we never again build such standalone stations. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Apparently, Steeles West subway station will get a hip, downtown façade. Too bad it won’t get a real, downtown built form, hip or otherwise.

Politicians keep telling us capital and operating funds for transit are scarce, so why do we even consider standalone subway stations, let alone permit the plans and discussions about them to descend into architectural wankfests?

While we blow $857-million on stations for the $2.6-billion Spadina-York extension, many seemingly intelligent Torontonians debate the relative costs of LRTs and subways and puzzle about how some places on this planet make real rapid transit affordable and effective — even profitable on occasion.

Subways can pay for themselves in truly urban settings. We proved that a half-century ago along Yonge and Bloor streets and University and Danforth avenues. Present-day Hong Kong has turned subway building into a profitable business for all concerned.

The key is to understand and act upon the transit-land use relationship and capture the values created by rapid transit. In the 1950s and ’60s, for example, a much smaller and poorer Toronto could build subways without help from Queen’s Park and Ottawa because the existing urban form made passive value capture possible. Tax-base and ridership increases were enough.

But to make subways viable in greenfield environments and suburban areas originally designed for the car, aggressive and directed value capture strategies are needed. If you’re not bringing subways to your urban areas, you have to bring urbanity to your suburban station catchment areas. Japanese railways such as Hankyu and Tokyu pioneered these transit-oriented development models nearly 100 years ago.

In old inner-city Toronto, we had so much early urban success that we tolerated some wasteful standalone stations — though they were small and utilitarian. We should have adjusted the station and vicinity planning demands for our first forays into suburban Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, but senior governments willingly subsidized the waste. Short-term it appeared to work, but it is one factor that contributed to the erosion of our political will to properly fund transit.

In Hong Kong, MTR Corp. builds and operates the subway system and has been profitable every year since 1979, largely because it’s also a major property developer with latitude. Malcolm Gibson, MTR’s chief of project engineering, told me seven years ago the key is that “tunnels and tracks will always be costly, but stations can be gold mines.”

To make that work, especially in a suburban environment such as the Spadina-York extension, the subway builder (that’s us, the taxpayers of Ontario) must ensure every station is located in the centre of an intense mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly node.

Because the space above the station carries the biggest premium, we must ensure the basic station — platforms, escalators et cetera — are part of the basement/foundation of a major development from the start. If you wait till the line is built and then try to sell air rights or build above a working station, huge amounts of the marginal subway-generated real estate premium is gone forever. Note that the most successful stations in Toronto have almost no footprint at the surface. They’re not monuments to “starchitect” ego.

In a North American context, the chances are beyond remote we’ll ever get subways for free, but it’s realistic to demand that developers pay for our stations. If we can’t do it, we’re putting the stations in the wrong place and/or the land-use nexus potential hasn’t been properly factored into the funding model.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, as the march of folly continues, we get “hip facades” and irrelevant comments about the Steeles West plan from respected architects, university professors and their students.

Discuss landscaping, oxidized surfaces, the size of the lettering on the station, the latest celebrity gossip and the Maple Leafs if you must, but the one question that matters about Steeles West station is: How many thousands of people will perform daily functions such as living, working, shopping and playing within an easy and pleasant five-minute walk of the turnstiles?

Mentions of the station’s green roof and LED lighting, meanwhile, should make thoughtful environmentalists retch.

Sheppard West station will be a palatial spot for a few people to switch modes of transit. The green roof is a misinterpretation of what green means. And those people the rendering artist had milling about in front of the station: are we supposed to believe that will happen?

Park? What Park?

The big question about Downsview Park isn’t ‘when will it be done?’ It’s ‘why will they come and how will they get here?’

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on February 12, 2005. The plan and the planners have changed, but there’s still not a lot going on at Downsview Park, and even with a subway extension being built across the northern rim, the urbanization needed to make the place workable appears to be a long way off. There is a weekend farmers’/flea market that fills the north end parking lots and creates traffic, but …

By STEPHEN WICKENS

It was 1994 when then-finance minister Paul Martin declared in his budget speech that Canadian Forces Base Downsview would close and that its 644-acre site in North York would become a huge park.

So it should come as no surprise that pretty well anyone with any role in the project is sick of being asked: What’s the holdup? Will this thing ever really happen?

Tony Genco can’t even escape the questions when he goes for Sunday dinner at his mom’s house, a few blocks from the park.

“Yeah, she always asks,” says Mr. Genco, Parc Downsview Park Inc.’s executive vice-president who grew up nearby, often wondering about activity on the other side of the barbed wire, sometimes dreaming of what the place might become.

“It’s my life’s passion,” Mr. Genco says. ” ‘Patience,’ I tell my mom. The fence is down [on the west side]. It’s like a long gestation — only the parents know that a lot is going on. The public keeps asking, ‘when,’ and sometimes I think that’s good.”

Plans for the park include a 300-metre-long Great Lake, a skateboard park, gardens, a forest, residential and commercial developments, an amphitheatre and a hill with 360-degree views of the city. But behind the scenes at the Downsview site, there’s a growing sense that when all this happens is not the question. People are asking: If we build it, how will they get here? Why will they come?

The questions aren’t new, they don’t seem to be signs of pessimism, and they’re not a knock against the park plan produced by Bruce Mau Design, Rem Koolhaas, Oleson Worland Architect, BA Group and others, after an open design competition that drew 179 entries from 22 countries. Instead, they capture a widening realization that a park’s success is largely determined by its surroundings, and Downsview’s environs have evolved for more than a half-century to reflect a military no-go zone.

Nearly two decades since then finance minister Paul Martin announced a giant park would be created at Downsview, a bleakness overwhelms the site.

“They’ve been frustrated, we’ve been frustrated,” federal Infrastructure and Communities Minister John Godfrey says about delays he chalks up to land-transfer snags. While Mr. Godfrey cautiously predicts that by the year’s end “we’ll be visibly in the field doing what we need to do,” he’s concerned the area is cut off from the south and east by big-box stores, Highway 401 and Allen Road. He calls the fencing and roads “a double moat,” and hopes the delays will provide “the unintended benefit of allowing more thought” on such hurdles.

Brochures and the official website boast the park is easily accessible by subway, but both Mr. Godfrey and Downsview chairman David Bell express concern that the rapid transit is on the east, while the park focuses west onto Keele. The nearest TTC station is a bleak, three-kilometre hike from the main entrance.

“We need to do everything we can to encourage people to bike and take transit,” says Mr. Bell, a former dean of York University’s schools of graduate and environmental studies, who hopes plans for eventual extensions of the Spadina and Sheppard subways can be realigned to meet at what would be a new GO station on CN tracks that run through the park.

Mr. Bell even acknowledges that Downsview, which is billed as “Canada’s first urban national park,” is actually suburban, meaning its relationship with the car also poses big headaches. “Parking is kind of a conundrum for us, but we definitely won’t let asphalt become dominant,” he says, adding that the world’s great urban parks were established before the car was king.

One proposed partial solution, which mixes with the overall park vision of economic and environmental sustainability, is to further develop residential and commercial uses on about 300 of the 600-plus acres to finance Downsview’s development. That would enhance the “live-work-play” goals of the design, and make Keele and Sheppard a high-density intersection.

“The only solution to sprawl is intensification, and [Downsview] can play an important role,” Mr. Bell says, although he can’t give a precise local population goal.

“Logic would suggest we need a lot of residential activity,” Mr. Godfrey says, “but who wouldn’t want to live next to a fabulous park?”

How far must Downsview go if it is to rival New York’s Central Park?

Toronto officials don’t have an estimate for the number of residents able to walk to Downsview within 10 minutes, but it’s likely fewer than 10,000. New York officials say there are 750,000 residents and 36 subway stations within a 10-minute walk of Central Park. Several hundred thousand more work in the area and do things such as eat lunch in the park when the weather is nice.

“Project ahead 25 or even 100 years,” Mr. Bell says when presented with the comparison. “When Central Park was proposed, it was way the hell out in the boonies. Downsview will eventually be viewed as central to the [Greater Toronto Area] rather than northwest. In estimates for increased [GTA] population, you’re talking of up to two million additional people in the next 20 to 25 years.”

How is Downsview to capture the imagination of Canadians and potential tourists from other countries? The question matters because it is to be both a national park and — its boosters hope — eventually considered among the world’s great urban parks.

Much of the plan focuses on making the place a world leader in environmental technology.

There has been talk the park could be central to an “urban sustainability-themed” World’s Fair bid for 2017, the sesquicentennial of Confederation. Mr. Bell said he would encourage the idea, but even if it never comes to pass, he wants Toronto, through Downsview, to earn an international reputation as “a hothouse for the convergence of green theory and practice.” For example, he says, the park’s commercial component will attract “leading-edge businesses committed to sustainability.”

Mr. Godfrey says the residential and commercial components of the plan, which wrap the north end and southwest corner of the park, are evidence that Downsview’s planners are taking the question of the green space’s environs seriously.

“I’m anxious that we give a lot of attention to these areas,” says Mr. Godfrey, who hopes to take in the area on foot for the first time come spring. “The next challenge is to really get something happening.”

The plan for the major green spaces, the area Mr. Godfrey hopes to see under construction by the end of the year, would include an environmental study zone at the south end; wildflowers, walking areas and the Great Lake (a 300-metre long pond) in the middle area; and the Action Zone to the north, expanding on an already functioning national sports centre.

People who have avoided Downsview, or who have images of the place culled only from a passing car or from TV clips of Mick Jagger or the Pope, might be surprised to learn the Hangar, which plays host to enthusiasts in soccer, beach volleyball and archery, draws an estimated 300,000 visits a year. There’s a film studio and an aerospace museum that fits with the site’s ties to the old Royal Canadian Air Force and airplane manufacturing by de Havilland and now Bombardier.

Downsview has been a destination in recent years for school field trips, and there are four seasonal festivals, including the fifth annual winter one next Saturday, with music, sleigh rides and ice sculpting.

It adds up to possibly a million visits a year; small potatoes next to New York’s Central Park, which is said to get at least a million visits a day. But Downsview boosters see it as a great start.

“There really is a lot going on, even if the public can’t see it yet,” Mr. Genco says. And even if he hasn’t convinced his mother, he says his seven-year-old daughter, who plays soccer at the Hangar, “already sees this place as a park.

“She loves it, she really does.”

The Death and Life at 50

Portrait of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

The article first appeared in The Globe and Mail on May 7, 2011

Jane Jacobs’ first book is debated, dissected, deified and despised. But 15 months before her death, she sounded disappointed over its limited impact

By STEPHEN WICKENS

If you’re like me, calls out of the blue from the great thinkers of the age come as a surprise.

But Jane Jacobs, celebrated author of books on urbanism, economics and philosophy, phoned The Globe and Mail one afternoon in early 2005, asking questions about a seemingly minor point in a feature I’d written.

Census data showed that some of Toronto’s densest wards had low percentages of people living in buildings of five or more storeys, while several wards with the greatest proportions of high-rise residents were among the least dense.

“That’s a real nugget,” she said, adding that, “for a web of reasons,” lot sizes and building heights often matter less to density than the amount of land used for driving and parking. “This is important.”

Ms. Jacobs was 88, had 15 months to live and her final book, Dark Age Ahead, was behind her. But 44 years after publication of her once-revolutionary treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she was still seeking “nuggets” to help explain cities as “problems of organized complexity”.

It was a mission till the end and she sounded as if she feared cities and The Death and Life might never be widely enough understood. She expressed concern, in part, because media, even the venerated print institutions, were increasingly opting for the simplistic.

And that was back before anyone had heard of Twitter.

WALKING AND TALKING

This weekend, in an example of old-style social networking, groups of people in 16 countries will honour Ms. Jacobs’s ideas by walking and talking. There were just 27 Jane’s Walks in the first year, 2007, all in Toronto. It would undoubtedly please her that nearly 500 are registered for 2011, with 36 Canadian cities hosting 397 walks.

“People close to her felt she wouldn’t want a monument or her name on a park,” says Jane Farrow, a former CBC broadcaster and pedestrian activist hired to run the Jane’s Walks program. “The sense was it would be more fitting to get people out walking, connecting with neighbourhoods, discussing her ideas.”

Not that Ms. Jacob’s ideas appear likely to slide into obscurity.

This spring sees two new books of essays, Reconsidering Jane Jacobs and What We See. The latter is laudatory; the former has already upset Jacobs fans even though it won’t be published till June.

Urban designer and longtime Jacobs friend Ken Greenberg’s overtly Jacobsian Walking Home comes out this month. In September, Random House will release a 50th anniversary edition of The D&L, which still sells well in 15 languages. Calls are out for academic papers tied to the anniversary and HafenCity University in Hamburg, Germany, will host a “Queen Jane Jacobs” conference next week.

At least three major books last year dealt extensively with her ideas, including Makeshift Metropolis by Canadian-raised architect and author Witold Rybczynski of the University of Pennsylvania, Triumph of the City by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and The Battle for Gotham, by New York-based critic Roberta Brandes Gratz.

‘NICE WORDS’

Ms. Jacobs had no time for ideology – left, right or whatever. Though warm and generous, she guarded her time and didn’t suffer fools. She seemed to be without ego and she hated it when reporters called her an “urban guru.” A mildly reverential comment about The Death and Life in our January 2005 conversation seemed to wind her up.

“Oh come on, I’m weary of the praise,” she said.

Then, pausing repeatedly to formulate thoughts, she unloaded. “Nice words from politicians, planners and columnists hardly matter when we continually repeat mistakes we made decades ago. It’s like we made some progress then hit a wall. Many places still have zoning laws on the books ensuring we repeat the mistakes. The bureaucratic machinery enforces bad planning and design, and nobody thinks to question a property tax system that encourages sprawl and all its hidden costs.”

She felt many who invoke her name “cherry-pick ideas to suit their purposes.” That planners eventually came to accept the benefits of high densities was no consolation. “In the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble,” she said. “Few people take the time to understand what mixed primary uses means; most overlook the importance of short blocks.”

“Maybe you kinda blew it,” I replied, mostly in jest. “You buried a crucial part of your thesis on page 150. Lots of people in power who need to read The Death and Life probably don’t reach page 150.”

She laughed, triggering a scary sounding coughing fit. When it was apparent she’d live, her first words were: “I know what you’re getting at, but I wouldn’t have written it any other way.”

Her longtime editor, Jason Epstein, would back her. He still says, “There was nothing to edit.”

Maybe. But many feel it’s crucial for all the world’s urbanites to understand The Death and Life, even if more than a few conclude the book is flawed. This might be trouble in an era of short attention spans.

REPEAT CUSTOMERS

Vancouver planning chief Brent Toderian, author James Howard Kunstler and former Toronto mayor John Sewell have read the book repeatedly. All understand Ms. Jacobs’s frustrations but seem more optimistic about the likely long-term legacy.

Mr. Toderian was introduced to The D&L through a first-year city-planning course at the University of Waterloo.

“Incredibly, it wasn’t a prerequisite, which I still rail about to my alma mater,” he says. “There isn’t a person or book more influential in creating Vancouverism than Jane and The Death and Life. I’ve heard that through generations of my predecessors – from saying no to freeways in the 1960s to a counterintuitive approach to movement that allows congestion to be our friend.

“I know what she means about people misunderstanding density, that’s why we emphasize density done well rather than density as a mathematical exercise. People round the world praise Vancouver’s livability and she had a big hand in it.”

Mr. Kunstler, known for pithy, entertaining planning books, including 1993 bestseller The Geography of Nowhere, says we still develop badly, in part, because “changing the predictable rules of a very profitable game would be a political problem.” But because Ms. Jacobs’s ideas are timeless he expects acceptance to grow as urban crises erupt in coming decades. “She might not be fully appreciated until 2061, but nobody threw a cocktail party for Galileo in his time.”

Mr. Sewell calls the lip-service paid to Ms. Jacobs’s ideas “tragic.” “In Ontario, I’m aware of no provincial policies and no official plans that reflect some of the key points she raised.” But he sees hope in “the simplicity and applicability” of her approach. “What she’s saying is, forget the theories. If you want to make really good cities, go out and look for yourself at good parts of cities, places that feel right. Figure out why they work then replicate them.”

SMART HOUSEWIFE

The first sentence of The Death and Life is: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” It’s no surprise that some in the field counterattacked, citing her lack of credentials. Ridiculed as a “housewife,” Ms. Jacobs had taken a few university courses but never bothered to graduate. Undaunted, the amateur would later challenge key assumptions of classical economics in the first two books she published after moving with her family to Toronto from New York in 1968.

Mr. Rybczynski says she had gaping holes in her historical knowledge, overestimated the influence of planners and underestimated suburbia’s lure. “Not everyone wants 24-hour street life and, unlike Greenwich Village, most working-class districts are depressing. It’s no surprise people would want to get away from that.”

But he calls The Death and Life “the dominant book about planning of the second half of the 20th century, perhaps of the entire century.” He also writes that Ms. Jacobs’ ideas on density, short blocks and mixed uses were used successfully to create Reston, Va.

Mr. Glaeser says the most important idea behind The Death and Life is that “cities are what real people make of them;” cities are not buildings and infrastructure. “Her other themes, short blocks, the connections between buildings and the outside streets, mixed uses and density, are all fundamentally part of understanding what makes neighbourhoods work. The message has, by and large, gotten through in the planning community.”

But Mr. Glaeser also argues urban areas must get much denser for environmental and economic reasons and that healthy city cores are prohibitively expensive, in part, because Jacobs followers rule the day on preservation and height.

“She was too afraid of new buildings, too afraid of height and high density.”

Mr. Glaeser is a big Jacobs fan, but his comments have sparked debate. In a recent speech in Toronto, Ms. Brandes Gratz called some of his criticisms an “outrage,” while Mr. Sewell says Mr. Glaeser “has so misinterpreted Jane’s beliefs on density and tall buildings, it’s stunning.”

Mr. Glaeser vehemently stands by his words. He also says “I can’t help thinking she wouldn’t be pleased that the Greenwich Village of her day, which was affordable to ordinary New Yorkers, is a preserve of the ultra rich, where townhomes start at $5-million.”

Ms. Jacobs, however, felt affordability issues in gentrifying places backed her arguments about which neighbourhoods work.

“Until the car became a factor, we built primarily for pedestrians. “Those places are capable of self-regeneration.” she said in a later 2005 discussion, adding that costs soared because “we stopped building places worth gentrifying, so demand far and increasingly outstrips supply.”

FOUR CONDITIONS

There are countless intertwined concepts in The Death and Life and no room to explain “border vacuums” or “cataclysmic money” in a newspaper.

Page 150 lists four conditions needed “to generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts.” They are, in order: primary mixed uses that ensure people are outdoors on different schedules for different reasons; most blocks must be short; buildings must be of various ages; sufficient density.

Because we can’t have old buildings in all areas of rapidly growing metropolises, she felt mixed uses, short blocks and density are doubly important and that ensuring these newer areas accommodate various levels of income and commercial rents was indispensable.

Her comments about simplistic urban affairs journalism came with her defence of the book’s structure, including the buried thesis.

“Part of the reason cities are so poorly understood is that even newspapers are usually only capable of covering simple problems or problems of disorganized complexity.

“If you’ve read to the last chapter, you know cities — their parks, transportation planning, development policy, density ratios … are, like the life sciences, problems of organized complexity. It’s no good wishing it were any other way.”

I neglected to ask her if we need a special multimedia Death and Life, but Mr. Epstein, her longtime editor fears such a project would be superficial.

“Jane’s work is really a very subtle attempt to show how civilizations form, whether on the scale of neighbourhoods or eons. This would be hard to convey in a different format.”

Hard, yes, but it’s also no good wishing that new media applications won’t be essential The Death and Life’s afterlife. 

Rapid transit? Not on Spadina

Soon-to-be passengers wait as a red light holds up a northbound 510 streetcar at Dundas. Service is slow on this “rapid transit” route because streetcars regularly have to stop twice at intersections, once for the light and once for the passenger platform.

This story first appeared May 7, 2005, in The Globe and Mail. I got threatening and unpleasant phone calls in the weeks that followed (a couple from city councillors) because the St. Clair ROW debate was then at fever pitch. The TTC, which stonewalled on documentation and interview requests, complained, but could find nothing inaccurate. Luckily I worked for a great editor. Left out of the story was reference to a 14-week survey of Bloor-to-Front travel times in which the 511 Bathurst proved to be, on average, 191 seconds faster. A few months later, a TTC source tipped me off that the TTC would reprint its maps to show this route as streetcar rapid transit, even though “they know it was the TTC’s slowest route between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street.” The only things I’d change in hindsight would be to make clear that for pedestrians Augusta is 90 seconds closer to Spadina than Bathurst (strengthening the point), and I’d provide details of how misleading the claims are that Spadina ridership soared. City staff have said signal priority, mentioned as a potential solution, won’t work on Spadina because the east-west light cycles are minimum length for pedestrians for a street that wide, and that it would conflict with signal priority on east-west streetcar routes. Work started on the story in January, 2005, with the release of a city/TTC report titled Building a Transit City. Nearly 10 years later, I stand by every word.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Arja Chopra has given up on the Spadina streetcar, just as the Toronto Transit Commission appears set to fully embrace similar dedicated-lane routes across the city.

Bathurst is faster, and it’s much more pleasant than Spadina,” says Ms. Chopra, who operates Sugar & Spice, a health-food store in Kensington Market, part way between the two streetcar lines. “I tried [Bathurst] because I didn’t like the crowds at Spadina station. Then I found it saved me a few minutes each morning.

“He didn’t believe me,” she says, smiling and pointing to husband and business partner Dave Chopra.

“It’s true,” says Mr. Chopra, who adds that he always urged his wife to take Spadina, figuring that the street’s dedicated transit lanes had to make the trip faster. Now he’s convinced they don’t, but he’s puzzled by one thing: “How can there be such a secret? Everybody still thinks Spadina is better.”

Maybe not everybody, but rare are the people who question whether the 510 Spadina route has really been the better way since it replaced the No. 77 bus almost eight years ago, at a cost of $140-million. As Toronto considers constructing Spadina-like rights of way as part of a $600-million citywide “surface rapid transit” network that could see dedicated lanes along Eglinton and Lawrence Avenues and on Don Mills and Kingston Roads, the question is critical. And the answer might surprise.

In January, shortly after the Toronto Transit Commission released a report calling for transit rights of way on these arterial roads, The Globe and Mail tried to assess the effectiveness of the Spadina line. Shown the results, opponents of the proposed right of way on St. Clair Avenue West say they now wish they’d asked more questions about the Spadina route during debates about the St. Clair plan. And a transit expert thinks the findings could place the $65-million St. Clair project in jeopardy.

We found that:

– Instead of living up to pre-construction reports that streetcars on dedicated lanes would cut travel time from Bloor Street to Queen’s Quay by 5 minutes — the original environmental assessment boasted of up to 10 minutes in savings — the 510 appears to take longer than the buses that plied the route from 1948 to 1997. A TTC document obtained last month says the trip takes one minute longer in the afternoon rush hour than in 1990. Run time data on historical and current transfers indicate a 17-minute bus trip in 1993 now takes 19 minutes by streetcar.

– The 510 may be the slowest of all routes between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street. Travel times on TTC transfers put Bloor-to-Queen trips at 12 minutes on Spadina, 8 minutes on Bathurst and 10 minutes on other routes.

– The TTC says ridership on Spadina is up 30 per cent since 1997, the year the line opened. But when compared with 1992, the last year before construction tore up the street and cut into ridership, Spadina is actually down 1.5 per cent, while overall TTC ridership is up about 3.4 per cent.

– TTC cost-to-revenue ratio lists show the Spadina and Harbourfront lines (now considered one for accounting purposes) have plunged to 35th-best among the TTC’s 132 surface routes. In 1997, they were No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, with the Spadina bus one of only seven routes turning a profit.

The only finding that Mitch Stambler, the TTC’s manager of service planning, strongly disputes is the question of whether the streetcars are slower than the old buses, although the numbers we’ve used came from the TTC.

But he says that speed isn’t the primary goal of the new dedicated lanes. “We have emphasized over and over again that on Spadina or St. Clair or any other route where we’re looking to establish a right of way, it’s not an issue of speed,” he says. “Service reliability and regularity matter first and foremost.”

Still, he says, the TTC is working to speed up service through gradual changes that include increasing capacity by coupling streetcars and acquiring new cars that accommodate more passengers, as well as providing more locations where operators can manipulate traffic lights.

Ridership on all routes is subject to “many, many macroeconomic factors,” he says, arguing that “apples-to-apples” comparisons aren’t always possible. And besides, he adds, the streetcar lines have benefits that extend beyond passenger numbers. “We’ve never argued that streetcars don’t cost more to operate than buses,” he says, pointing out that they’re still a bargain compared with subways, which cost about 10 times as much to build. “But all the benefits they bring — a smooth, quiet ride; zero emissions; economic development — are well known.”

While Mr. Stambler doesn’t sound worried about our findings, people from both sides of the St. Clair debate had a stronger reaction. “Good God! This is unbelievable,” said Ed Levy, an internationally respected transportation planner and engineer who made a deputation to City Council in favour of the St. Clair plan last year. “I supported light rail then, and I still do,” Mr. Levy of BA Group says. “But you have to do it properly.”

One concern he cites is the built-in delays caused by the positioning of passenger platforms, which should be placed before traffic lights, he says, but instead were put in after them to accommodate left-turn lanes for cars. “We’re forcing [streetcars] to wait at lights before they can pick up and drop off passengers on the far side of the intersections. It’s a mistake, and it looks like they plan to do the same thing on St. Clair.

“All this other stuff [Spadina travel times, ridership and economics] should have been part of the debate,” Mr. Levy says. Now, he says he fears the provincial Ministry of the Environment will call for a full environmental assessment rather than continue to fast-track the process. “They want to start construction this summer, and a full EA will probably kill [the plan] altogether.”

Of course, if the city and TTC’s ideas for St. Clair die, it would please Save Our St. Clair leader Margaret Smith, who says “the so-called Spadina experience and all its wonderful successes were used to sell the project every step of the way.”

She and her group believe advocates oversold potential time savings on St. Clair and ridership-growth figures on Spadina, and says she’s upset that the TTC and the city didn’t mention the streetcar line’s drawbacks in more than 50 public meetings about St. Clair.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but the fact this information is only coming out now is just further proof that the whole process stunk,” she says.

Mr. Stambler defends the TTC’s push for dedicated lanes, however, saying that the round-trip time from Spadina station has actually improved. “That’s a fact I’ll do a bit of digging on,” he says.”The fact that [Spadina] revenue over cost looks worse is: A, no secret; B, we’ve never hid it; C, we’re not embarrassed; and D, it represents an investment in the health of the city and the whole TTC, and that’s a decision council made.”

Mr. Stambler points out as well that the Spadina route became more costly because it went from bus to streetcar, but that this won’t be a factor on St. Clair.

Two others who had roles on opposite sides of the St. Clair debate didn’t sound at all surprised that Spadina doesn’t appear to have lived up to its hype. Richard Gilbert, research director for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation and a former city councillor, opposed St. Clair partly because he feels we haven’t learned from mistakes on Spadina.

“They may have built dedicated lanes for streetcars, but the intersections were designed for cars,” he says. “The St. Clair plan will do much the same thing, and it will only add to the litany of misapplied capital spending the TTC has given us in the past 30 years.”

Greg Gormick, who wrote a report called The Streetcar Renaissance for the TTC and the St. Clair EA process, says if we want any of these lines to really work, we have to make hard decisions.

“We have to decide whether we’re doing light rapid transit or streetcars. Both are good concepts, but Spadina is neither fish nor fowl — too many stops, too many concessions to cars. It’s the worst of both worlds and … unless we give transit real priority, we’ll repeat the mistakes, starting with St. Clair.”

And back at the health-food store in Kensington Market, Arja Chopra has a decision to make, too.

“They’re going to tear up the tracks on Bathurst this summer. I’ll probably use the replacement bus. We’ll see how it goes.”

Statia is a little island that might restore your faith in human nature

The Quill volcano hasn't erupted for 1,700 years, but it looms over Oranjestad.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on December 15, 2011. I’d love to learn to scuba dive and head back to St. Eustatius.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

ORANJESTAD, ST. EUSTATIUS—If you’re a dreamer prone to losing a wallet in a crowded bar, this is your Caribbean island.

And if you come to Statia — an affectionate local name for this outpost of the Dutch kingdom — visit Franky’s. It’s fun, meals are excellent and affordable, and staff and patrons may bolster your faith in mankind, as they did mine.

“You see?” a laughing Lennox Roach says as he drives me — complete with wallet, cards and cash — back to my hotel.

If you run into shipping agent Lennox Roach on Statia, say hi for me. He's a cool guy.

After the night’s first exit, a customer spied my wallet under a chair and gave it to the bartender. Upon my frantic return, owner Franky Gibbs held it aloft, grinning broadly.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Roach says. “That’s Statia, my friend!”

Earlier, I’d gently chided Roach, a Trinidad-born, Venezuela-raised shipping agent who had the apparent naivete to claim his adopted land is crime-free. I still say crimeless Utopias are impossible, human nature being what it is. But I know now that Statia’s special, and not just because locals leave cars unlocked, keys in the ignition.

It seems the world must have long bypassed this island, and the ruins of Oranjestad’s exotic past are further proof. Surf rolls into kilometres of tumbledown warehouses, while up the cliff sunlight bathes the interiors of a Dutch Reformed Church and the Western Hemisphere’s second-oldest synagogue.

Ruins of the Honem Dalim synagogue are impressive. Jewish merchants played a key role in Statia golden age.

Clearly, this obscure place was once important.

“As a boy, I played pirates down there,” historian Walter Hellebrand says, pointing from the heights of Fort Oranje to the beach and stone walls that housed cannons when Europeans continually fought over Statia. (From 1636 to 1815, flags changed 22 times.)

“Conquests of Statia were front-page news in Europe,” says Hellebrand, a former documentary filmmaker who came home to focus on the story of his birthplace. “This was the Caribbean’s busiest port. Now, nobody’s even heard of the place.”

Statia rose under the Dutch as a free port and hub for repackaging, allowing businesses to circumvent the mercantilist era’s restrictions on trade beyond one’s empire.

“Plantation owners and European manufacturers loved that you could buy or sell anything here, quickly, anytime you wanted,” Hellebrand says. “The warehouses were stocked with every imaginable product. It’s been called Pompeii of the Caribbean, because of the ruin. I’d compare it more to Carthage.”

Statia was a gathering place for the emerging West, with a population at least three times the current 3,500. Many languages were spoken, and a significant Jewish community contributed greatly to Statia’s boom.

Strolling the upper town with Hellebrand, the island’s director of monuments, it’s tough not to think of former inhabitants. Pirates and spies, prostitutes and barkeeps, soldiers, sailors and slaves knew these streets. Little imagination is needed to sense the ghosts.

But Statia was also where Americans acquired arms for their revolution, which indirectly scuttled Statia.

“It’s ironic,” Hellebrand says. “Our national holiday (Statia Day) celebrates, in part, the salute given an American ship (Nov. 16, 1776). It’s considered the first foreign recognition of U.S. independence, but within 40 years, the very establishment of the free-trading U.S. made us obsolete. We fell off the map.”

Being bypassed has advantages. Hellebrand, Roach and others say if trade had continued or mass tourism had come, relics of the past would have been destroyed for redevelopment.

“Statia’s not for everyone,” Roach says. “Our hotels are all small, but guests get to know their hosts,” he says, mentioning Scotty Newton of Statia Lodge, who picked me up at the airport, and Laura and Win (Piechutzki) at the Kings Well resort, where macaws visit guests at breakfast.

Macaws were introduced to the island by the owners of the Kings Well resort, but they've naturalized.

Statia attracts 4,000 tourists a year, mostly European divers. But there’s growth. The Old Gin House, a hotel and restaurant in a former sugar mill, and Mazinga on the Bay, a gift shop and gathering place rebuilt from ruins, have triggered waterfront interest. Many hike the Quill volcano’s rainforest crater or take in views from the rim.

Statia is also a rare pedestrian-friendly island, and not just due to a lack of crime. There aren’t many cars and I never saw one go faster than 30 km/h. They can’t and they don’t have to.

Hellebrand, meanwhile, says he has nothing against a company that wants to expand a largely hidden oil terminal into a visible area of Statia, “but the plan isn’t necessary and I think most people want to focus on tourism for economic expansion.

“We’ll never be into mass tourism, but we’re unique,” he says. “We’ll never have big cruise ships and white sand beaches, which is fine. We don’t have the infrastructure for mass tourism, but we have a beautiful, well-kept secret.”

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing fly direct to St. Maarten. From there, it’s a 20-minute flight on Winair. Flight-hotel packages can be booked through statiaholiday.com, operated by Authentic Caribbean Holidays, for about $1,600 (all prices U.S.).

SLEEPING There are no big resorts. Country Inn near Zeelandia Beach starts at $50 (U.S.) a night. Housekeeping bungalows at Statia Lodge are $140 and include Wi-Fi and a light breakfast. The Old Gin House, a beautifully restored sugar mill, is $147 to $330 a night. Links to hotels and restaurants are at statiatourism.com.

DINING If there’s an expensive restaurant on the island I couldn’t find it. Smoke Alley does steak and lobster, and has lots of specials. Blue Bead specializes in French and Italian. Original Fruit Tree and Super Burger (not just a burger joint) are good and affordable for lunch or dinner.

GETTING AROUND Nearly everything is so close you probably won’t need a car. Hotels tend to look after rides to and from the airport, though locals walk. If you pick Statia Lodge, you might want to rent a scooter for $20 a day.

DOING It’s a quiet island that’s big with scuba divers, who come from around the world to the marine national park. Hike the Quill volcano, but definitely hire a guide at statiapark.org, especially if you want to descend into the rain-forested crater (full day at $90). Historical walking tours of Oranjestad, for a suggested donation of $10, leave from the museum steustatiushistory.org. Cool Corner is fun for conversation and beer, but the Chinese food wasn’t great. There are only a couple of beaches and the dark volcanic sand gets hot. Currents off Atlantic side make swimming dangerous.

Liquid luggage still causing grief

An abbreviated version of this story ran in the Toronto Star on November 12, 2011.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Five years later and travellers are still learning the hard way.

It was 2006 when British police uncovered a plot to smuggle explosives disguised as drinks onto transatlantic flights.  Ever since, tougher security checks and 100-millilitre limits on liquids allowed onto planes have been in place, but every day travellers have to surrender duty-free liquor and perfumes.

Toronto Pearson and Miami-Dade, the largest hub for the Caribbean, see many seizures, though the problem is global. Many victims are used to direct flights, unaware that changing planes can mean a second security screening.

I saw a livid woman lose her rum in Miami recently and learned of another case minutes later. I and another man would have lost out too if not for a friendly airport worker watching for people with duty-free bags.

Canadian and U.S. officials said they can’t provide specific data, but Mathieu Larocque of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) estimated the total in this country is twice 2010’s 355,000 seizures of dangerous objects such as knives.

Sari Koshetz of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) denied that any confiscations take place. “Passengers are given the opportunity to check their liquids or voluntarily abandon the items,” he said.

Whatever you call it, lost-bottle totals are down a lot since 2007, but still too high according to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) and the Miami-Dade Aviation Department (MDAD).

In 2007, angry travellers and huge stockpiles at Miami prompted emergency meetings with airlines, cruise operators, security officials and duty-free shops. Educational campaigns followed, but it wasn’t enough, said Lauren Stover, of MDAD’s security and communications department.

“This was an issue we really tried to get a grip on,” Stover said.  “It was very frustrating for us to see our passengers have to abandon perfumes and liquors upon having to re-enter the TSA checkpoints.”

Stover said cruise operators and the U.S. duty-free shop industry vowed to tackle the issue from the purchase end, “but it is a more international than local problem, and that’s where I ran into a dead end.”

She said the TSA has approved tamper-proof bags that might ease matters when widely available. But Larocque said bags have also caused problems for people arriving from Europe, having been issued ones that don’t meet Canadian standards.

As for duty-free sales to out-bound passengers, Scott Armstrong of the GTAA says shops in Toronto should check boarding passes and tickets before completing a sale to ensure customers won’t be disappointed.

Elizabeth Scotton, chief commercial officer for Jamaica’s Montego Bay airport, says departing passengers should be warned of the rules by airlines, airport officials and duty-free staff.

People on that recent St. Maarten-Miami-Toronto journey say they don’t remember being warned. The St. Maarten airport and its duty-free shop didn’t respond to interview requests.

Terrilyn Kunopaski, editor of the TravelHotNews website, was a recent victim in Miami. Upon learning she’d lose her bottles, she offered to check a bag.  “Too late,” she was told, before presenting a gift of vodka and guavaberry-rum liqueur to an American Airlines employee.

Then, as if to salt the wound, at the gate she was told the bag she’d carried onto three flights in the previous six days was too big and would have to be checked after all.

“Still breaks my heart to think about it,” Kunopaski said.

 

FACTBOX

–  If you buy on a ship or duty-free island, wrap bottles in clothes and check in the bag. Hard luggage is recommended.

–  If you’re changing planes and plan to buy at the departure lounge, check a suitcase. You’ll have access to it to stow the bottle after clearing customs. You then check in the bag and go through security.

– Don’t assume in-flight duty-free buys are safe. If a change of planes awaits, you’re the same as anyone purchasing in a departure lounge.

– If departing Canadian airports with U.S. customs, or flying to Canada via the U.S. from Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda and Ireland, you might not face a second screening. But experts advise you to confirm. As a rule, check a bag if you’re carrying bottles and changing planes.

French flair and Dutch treats

St. Martin and St. Maarten are two distinct nations basking in Caribbean sunshine on either side of the world’s shortest undefended border 

Historic Fort Louis stands guard over Marigot, the French-side capital. The 17th-century courthouse (top) in Philipsburg, the Dutch-side capital, may be the most photographed building on the island. (Stephen Wickens photos)

 

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on February, 18, 2006. The new airport and the Westin Hotel have since been completed and some specifics in the story, such as prices, will be out of date. Since 2010, when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved, St. Maarten has been a constituent country within the Dutch Kingdom. Since 2007, St. Martin has been a separate “collectivite” of France, rather than a part of Guadeloupe. Reconstruction was has finally begun at Mullet Bay Beach Club. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

BAIE NETTLE, ST. MARTIN — In Dutch St. Maarten, they really want your business.

Here on the French side of the island? Well, not so much.

Generalizations are always dangerous. But visitors who spend much time crossing what may be the world’s shortest undefended border will probably notice much more than differences in currency and language, phone numbers and the shape of electrical plugs.

It’s rare to find a small island with so much variety (at 37 square miles, it’s about one-seventh the size of Toronto). If you don’t want anything other than a North American-style vacation with casinos, nightlife and the option of fast food, load up on U.S. dollars and stay on the Dutch side, which is part of the Netherlands Antilles. It’s where your flight will land, and nearly everyone speaks English.

But if you prefer European insouciance, a good night’s sleep and a particular emphasis on good food, load up on euros and head for the other side, part of France’s department of Guadeloupe. Here, the gas station convenience store offers great pastries, tiny groceterias have huge cheese counters and even a beachside snack bar offers a long list of gourmet salads. Just be forewarned: all of this can come with attitude — and a little Gauloise smoke with your breakfast.

“Oh, the French are always trying to be so different,” William Bell says half-jokingly of the island’s split personality. Bell, a former member of the Netherlands Antilles volleyball team, considers himself Dutch. But his wife is from the French side and their two multilingual sons must eventually choose to become citizens of the Antilles or of France and the European Union.

There are, naturally, things common to both sides apart from reliable weather: It’s the only entirely duty-free island in the Caribbean, and shopaholics make parking difficult in both Marigot and Philipsburg (the French- and Dutch-side capitals, respectively).

The island is also very cosmopolitan, considering there are fewer than 100,000 residents. You’ll hear boasts of 77 to 135 nationalities here. And, while it’s said that quality dining was once the preserve of the French side, things have clearly evened out. Restaurants aren’t cheap — entrées run from $48 to $60, especially in the touristy areas of Marigot — but not one meal disappointed over the course of my one-week stay.

The cultural divide, however, is very clear. When I call St. Maarten’s Toronto office, a representative picks up messages on her Christmas break. In five calls to the French side’s Montreal office, I’m twice forgotten on hold.

Once on the island, a Dutch-side official is again eager to help by providing a tour of the whole island, including the French side. As for his French counterpart, it takes repeated phone calls to make appointments he doesn’t keep.

D’Jackson Suriam laughs upon hearing of my ordeal. “It’s not just you,” says the owner of Madinina, a Creole restaurant at Baie Nettlé. “I am French and I prefer it here on the French side. But the Dutch, they know how to make it easy for you to start a business …  or spend your money.”

Maybe that’s why the Dutch side is booming. Cramped and antiquated Princess Juliana Airport is getting a new terminal and runway extension, slated for completion in July. Condo, time-share and hotel construction appears to be everywhere on the Dutch lowlands in the southwest (with the exception of the Mullet Bay Beach Club, ruined by Hurricane Luis in 1995 and not yet rebuilt because of a legal battle). A new Westin hotel is going up at Dawn Beach, while redevelopment of the waterfront continues at Philipsburg.

Philipsburg has also made a name for itself in international yachting. The Heineken Regatta ensures both sides of the island are hopping in early March. The 12-metre challenge and its fleet of former America’s Cup boats has become a year-round sports fantasy camp for sailors.

Still, the French side isn’t entirely sleepy. Construction around Marigot’s harbour is aimed at luring wealthy mega-yacht owners, and many locals hope development will be spurred by a recent agreement to make St. Martin a separate department of France by 2008, a move that will allow Marigot to deal directly with Paris rather than having to go through Guadeloupe.

And in many respects, the laid-back approach to tourism in Gallic St. Martin is what appeals to both guests and residents. On his tour of the island, William Bell of the Dutch tourism office spends nearly as much time showing off the charms of the French side — scenic undeveloped areas in the northeast, the street-side restaurants of a picturesque former fishing village called Grand Case, and clothing-optional Orient Beach.

“I don’t mind that you prefer staying on the French side,” Mr. Bell tells me. “Lot’s of people like its style, without any fast food. But I know lots of people will prefer the Dutch nightlife. Either way, with the split personality and the hilly scenery on such a small island, there’s really nothing else like it in the Caribbean.”

JUST THE FACTS 

  • Air Canada, Westjet and Sunwing all fly directly from Toronto. Cheaper fares can be had on U.S. carriers, if you’re willing to switch planes at an American hub airport.
  • Take a day trip to Tintamarre, an uninhabited flat island east of St. Martin. It’s now a nature preserve with pristine beaches, great snorkelling and endangered species. It was once a mini-kingdom with its own currency. A battle is brewing over plans for an onsite wind farm.
  • Do the Fort Louis and the “On the Trail of the Arawaks” tour with biologist-geologist-archeologist-historian Christophe Henocq. The museum, which is going into a former prison from the 1700s, is a little hokey, but Henocq is a passionate and entertaining leader.
  • For more activities on both sides of the island check out this link or this link
  • St. Maarten/St. Martin is a hub for the northeastern Caribbean, and a short hop to other destinations such as St. Barthelemy, Saba, St. Eustatius and Anguilla. Day trips to Anguilla by ferry are popular, but remember to bring your passport.

 

Urbanism’s wheels gaining no traction in Six Points interchange

Plans for a downtown Etobicoke, on the books for 40 years, might finally be seeing a little bit of action http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=b4e98d0195ce1410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

Decades later, the lands around the old abandoned Westwood cinema in “downtown” Etobicoke present a bleak side of suburbia to passing motorists and the odd pedestrian. The condos under construction are close to the Kipling subway and GO Transit station.

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 16, 2005. Since then, a few condos have been built, but the 416’s commercial taxation disadvantages remain, as do the barriers to urban vitality created by highway-style ramps, railway tracks and a hydro corridor. It looks as if those trying to land a supermarket for Concert’s development had to settle for a Hasty Market. The litter remains, and it’s no fun being a pedestrian on this turf. Councillor Peter Milczyn won re-election in 2006 and 2010 and has since moved on to provincial politics. Getting a west exit from Islington station that goes under the CP corridor to serve the apartment neighbourhoods at Mabelle would be a huge improvement.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

David Holman can’t count the number of times he has driven through the Six Points interchange during 36 years living in central Etobicoke, but he’s certain he has never even considered walking through it.

“I have noticed a few people scurrying to get across the roads, and it doesn’t look like fun,” he says.

The retired accountant’s description may be a marvel of understatement: A steady stream of traffic whizzes through the interchange at most times of day, heading north and south on Kipling Avenue, east and west on Bloor and Dundas Streets and around in sweeping arcs on adjoining ramps surrounded by litter-strewn patches of lawn.

Fearful pedestrians may shun the 1950s tangle of asphalt, and drivers may take it for granted, but pay attention to the Six Points for the next few years and you may see the fiercest battle yet in Toronto’s attempt to turn the tide of runaway sprawl and deepening car dependence.

The city wants to remove the interchange as part of its Etobicoke Centre plan, a blueprint for the next attempt at creating a downtown in Greater Toronto’s suburbs. And while some question whether planners have had much success at developing downtowns in Scarborough, North York and Mississauga, the city’s assertive-sounding official plan states that “the area will develop the feel and function of an urban core,” and that “walking will be an interesting and pleasurable experience in Etobicoke Centre.”

But area residents aren’t so receptive to that idea. Opening shots were fired at a public meeting in 2004, when some concerned residents had to be turned away from an overcrowded Legion hall.

“The people weren’t rowdy,” says Islington Residents and Ratepayers Association director Bob Berry. “But they had a message: Six Points works as it is. I’d say 95 per cent agreed. We’ve had our discussions, and the response always seems to be that people don’t walk any more, they drive. If the city wants to push, there will be a fight.”

Ward 5 City Councillor Peter Milczyn knows there is substantial opposition and says the city is taking seriously “legitimate concerns about traffic spilling over onto residential streets.” But he supports the city’s intent and doesn’t sound willing to back down, even with elections set for next year.

“What was built there was a horrendous mistake and to not try to correct it when there’s an opportunity is irresponsible,” Mr. Milczyn says.

The opportunity he speaks of comes as part of a push to finally act on plans — nearly three decades old — to create a 2.8-kilometre-long, 420-acre downtown between Montgomery Road, east of Islington Avenue, and Shorncliffe and Shaver Roads, west of Kipling.

Already, as many as 5,000 residential units are planned, under construction or recently completed. Land surrounding Islington subway station is to be freed up for a mixed-use high-rise project by moving commuter lots and the Mississauga Transit bus terminal to Kipling.

The city plans to reconfigure the 10-acre Six Points site into a web of walkable city streets with buildings that extend to the sidewalks.

“The city has a key role here. We are the biggest landholders,” Mr. Milczyn says. “If we do this properly, if we create a real live-work-play mix and make it a pleasant walk to and from stores and restaurants, the subway and GO trains, people will get out of their cars. Visitors and office workers will arrive by transit — it will help the city, the TTC and the environment.”

But while Mr. Berry likes much of that vision, he thinks Mr. Milczyn is dreaming if he thinks people will ever give up driving. “And if you take out the Six Points, where’s all that traffic going to go?” he asks. “Who wants to live through the construction and disruption?”

John Alkins, a real-estate broker and the chairman of the Village of Islington Business Improvement Area, thinks cost might kill the Six Points plan. “But either way, development is coming, and for all the right reasons,” he says. “The key is not to have this so much as a place for people to drive through, but to make it a destination.”

Before the car was king — when the Six Points site was a rural crossroads called Wood’s Corners — suburbs gradually urbanized as a matter of course. Since the Second World War, steady road building has made it possible to perpetually develop at low densities with land uses so segregated that car dependence is unavoidable.

Even with infill and public transit expansion into Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and Mississauga, the old City of Toronto remains at least twice as dense as the older suburbs. And the downtowns of Scarborough, Mississauga and North York remain largely car-dependent, even with two subway lines meeting in North York’s case.

So can we go into areas built for the car and create, as the city hopes, “the feel and function of an urban core?” Can we ever “make walking interesting and pleasurable” if residents insist on priority for cars?

“You can’t foist things on people,” says Anne Milchberg, a City of Toronto real-estate manager and former planner who is deeply involved in the Etobicoke project. “But I think many are starting to see the value in having proper urban fabric. Whether that will ever weigh more than things such as road capacity, I don’t know. But I see encouraging signs.”

In the case of Etobicoke Centre, she says the fact the city’s works and emergency services departments would even consider trading Six Points for urban form is “a huge and positive cultural shift.”

Her hopes for Etobicoke Centre are also buoyed by two “organic shopping strips” — Bloor east of Islington and Islington Village, east of the Six Points on Dundas. “They’re already walkable, older-style places. It seems easier to graft onto something organic than to create planned places from scratch.”

But Etobicoke Centre faces hurdles besides Six Points. Most developers appear willing to build only high-rise condos in the area, rather than mixed-use projects that also cater to businesses, largely because tax rates on office and commercial properties are cheaper in nearby Mississauga..

As for retailers, most seem reluctant to deviate from the big-box model, especially in an area that can’t claim to be urban yet. Concert Developments, which is going through a site-approval process to build up to 950 units of seniors’, condo and market-rental housing east of Six Points, tried to comply with city requests to include an urban-style, pedestrian-friendly supermarket. But Concert’s Brian McCauley says the grocery chains are interested only in a suburban format surrounded by lots of parking.

“We approached them all without any luck,” Mr. McCauley says. “There will be a food store, but it won’t be what we’d all like to see.”

Another concern is the unpleasant walk between Islington station and neighbourhoods northwest of the CP and subway tracks. “That’s a deterrent to pedestrians, not unlike Six Points,” Ms. Milchberg says. “We’re working on ideas.”

But she is confident about urbanizing Etobicoke.

“This isn’t just a Toronto-area puzzle,” she says. “I don’t know of any city that has created truly lively, pedestrian-friendly places in its suburbs — at least since cars became so dominant. But we are learning. We’re chipping away and some of us are approaching Etobicoke with the hope this can really be the one, and that [other cities] might look to this as a model.”