Friday, May 8, 2009

Of Buildings Old and New

A while back, Slow Reader left a comment asking me if I missed the oldness of Toronto, the architecture and the buildings. I started into my answer by a long, meandering route, first going on about the color green, and then the color grey. Today I think I have arrived at my destination, having long since passed through segue station, and am ready to give it a go.

On Homes

Growing up, I moved around quite a bit. At various points in my life, I've lived in a trailer, an apartment, a townhouse, a duplex, a condominium, a basement couch, an office, a storage closet, and, once or twice, in an actual honest-to-god detached house. During my first two decades on this coil, I moved in and out of those many types of accommodation in three of Canada's four largest cities, and numerous small towns.

Nice as that little bit of biography is, what's it got to do with the oldness of buildings in Toronto? I guess it has to do with how I've come to view how others see their own homes.

In Canada, just as it is in the United States, a dilapidated house with chipped paint on the walls and an unkempt front lawn signals poverty. It signals the presence of a person or family uninterested in how the community views them, or how their behavior affects the community. On the other end of the spectrum, a house that is completely walled off, disallowing the any passersby the possibility of glimpse inside signals someone who is could be rich, crazily eccentric, or preparing for the coming apocalypse. Either side of the coin is considered a derivation from the norm, and the norm for homes in Canada and the United States means houses with a front and back lawn, a big window facing the road, and a driveway with one or two cars. We mow our lawns, tend our gardens, and in general ensure that cleanliness and order rules the day. A fence with chipped paint quickly gets repainted. A leaning chimney gets straightened. A wild looking lawn gets tamed. And on, &c.

To care for our homes and lawns, a entire multi-billion dollar economy centered around home improvement sprang into being, replete with a profusion of Home Depots, Home Hardwares, and Canadian Tires. Something needs doing? Head on over, buy some 2x4s, nails, get a new power saw, and maybe a can of paint for the garage door. With do-it-yourself not only an option, but every homeowner's duty, there is no reason, short of financial ruin, why a person's house shouldn't be spic and span.

Which is why, when I moved to Tokyo, I was at first disoriented by what seemed, to me, a total lack of care and concern homeowners seemed to have for their homes. Rust, chipped paint, stained walls. In entirely prosperous areas, I saw homes that would have faced the wrath of suburban bylaw committees back home. More than that, most homes were entirely walled off, and cars parked in driveways behind a padlocked gate. That irony of that last little bit never ceased to amuse me. Of all the cities in the world, Tokyo is one place where you would have to go out of your way to be victimized in any way. A buddy of mine left his laptop in a Mister Donut for two hours one fine day, and after all the panic, breathless running, and racing with a sunken heart, sure as shine that it would be long gone, he arrived at the Mister Donut and there was his laptop. Though every table in the shop was full, nobody sat near the laptop, perhaps thinking that the owner would be by soon enough.

It seemed strange to me that in such a safe society, people would act so paranoid. Almost every house I saw was a walled in compound. Little or no care seemed to be lavished on the house, almost as if to say to onlookers "Look away. There is nothing to see here."

In Dubai, most stand alone homes are that way as well. Pretty much all are closed off from the outside world, which is less due to taxation (there is none) and more due to social and cultural norms. And while many villas are shiny and new, they won't look that way for long, and soon the new villas and the old will all seem dilapidated.

I had never put much thought into the matter until I listened to Malcolm Gladwell read his book . In Outliers, Gladwell mentions how Chinese homes were assessed for taxation purposes. The poorer a home seemed, the less it would be taxed, which provided an incentive for people to let the external portions of their home fall to seeming ruin, leaving them to focus on what was inside the home. In Japan, the interiors of homes were very much the opposite of the exteriors, as it is in Dubai as well. In both places homeowners do care about their homes, it's just that they have different priorities as to where to apply that care.

On Buildings

The most common complaint about Dubai is that, architecturally, it has no history. All the buildings are new. How I feel about those thoughts is best summed up by Christopher Saul.

As I approach this brand new building, I am struck by something so few others seem to have noticed – it's new. This new city is filled with new buildings. There is not a single Anglo-Saxon era church, no Roman remains, no Georgian terraces. Nothing built here over the last twenty years is older than twenty years. How can British people sink so low as to live here? Why have they not built anything older?

The old versus new issue really has no place where I live. Not just because of the age of the place, but due to the basic geography of the place.

In Canada, you if you built a beautiful stone church in the 1800's, chances are it would still be around today. Sure the doors may have been replaced, and maybe a few windows, but the building itself is still there. What's more, these buildings are remarkably clean and nice looking, considering their age. They look especially clean compared to buildings that are only twenty years old in Dubai. Which begs the question, why is that?

In the temperate zone, where all the G8 nations reside, buildings are buffeted by wind, rain, and snow, and maybe the odd bit of car exhaust. Little else. In Dubai, any building, no matter how shiny and new, looks like a complete wreck in ten years. Not because the owners destroy it, but because the unending barrage of extreme heat, humidity, and constant surface abrasion caused by the sand wears down buildings very quickly. Old stone churches would never have lasted two hundred years in this environment. The mortar would long ago have been chipped away by windblown sand, and the stones would have fallen one by one until the entire edifice lay on the ground, in a heap of rubble.

When you think about it a bit, it all makes sense. Places where humans could successfully settle permanently, absent technology, are also places where permanent structures can be built, and were built. In places where permanence was a death sentence, humans took up a nomadic existence, and permanent structures were not built. It's basic geography, the effect of which on humans themselves seems to have been long forgotten by so many commentators today. Technology and the globalized world have lulled is all into forgetting what once was the most salient point of life - survival depends on adapting to your environment.

On to the Question at Hand

All the above said, still doesn't answer the question at hand. Do I miss those old buildings?

I do, a little, but mostly I don't. The old buildings were nice to look at, sure, but I never lived in any. I walked by many, walked into a few, and thought about walking into more, but their absence is not something that pains me that greatly.

What I do miss is that sense of permanence, of solidity. The buildings back where I am from, with all their niggling building codes, R-2000 ratings, and more, are all quite dependable. In Canada, at least, you can be sure that if you live in the city, in a building, it will have adequate water, power, elevators, parking, air conditioning, heating, lighting, and more. You know the building won't fall over, and that if an issue occurs, you have legal recourse to force the developers or building managers to attend to that issue. In the US this is mostly the case, but according to NPR, in many of the new "luxury" accommodations that sprang up, new tenants are finding themselves trapped in buildings without proper power, water, improperly built foundations, and no owner at all. The "owner" or developer, having long fled the country. But other than those few examples, you can trust in the soundness of structures, that they will last.

The same has yet to be proven in Dubai. It is a bit disconcerting to see so very many skyscrapers built, essentially, on sand. During the record rains earlier this year, there was some speculation amongst a number of my colleagues about how these new buildings would hold up. Would the water erode the foundations? Would the buildings themselves flood due to improper drainage? We didn't know, and if it had happened, we still wouldn't know because news like that just would not get reported at all. So for all new structures, potential renter or purchaser follow the same code - caveat emptor.

The building I live in is 19 years old now. Built in 1990, and completed, actually, during the first Gulf War. It's a good building, solid as a rock. My wife's parents worked hard to get a flat in this building, and held on to the lease ever since. Whenever the topic of moving comes up, the question is quickly sent to die on the floor, unanswered and uncared for. Why move when where we are is a sure thing? What's more, all the newer developments here adhere to the North American nonsense of strictly separated commercial and residential zones. In those new suburbs and developments, there is nowhere to walk to, no way to go anywhere if not by car. But where I live now is in the middle of a very dynamic, urban area. Which brings us to what I do like about where I live.

Jane Jacobs would smile at a place like this, with it's mixing of residential and commercial. The first floor of my building has over twenty jewelry shops, a host of textile shops, a "department store" called Cha-Choos that once got a shout out on the show 30 Rock, a nice restaurant, and a small, very dirty cafeteria (a mini restaurant). Step outside and there are buildings old and new, countless little restaurants and take aways, small grocery stores and large, and just about any amenity you can think of. I can sit down and eat a $1 shawarma with a Pakistani laborer, sipping a $0.25 cup of tea, or walk five minutes down the road, and bump into jet-setting douchebags at Saks Fifth Avenue, and unload $20,000 on a gold plated Vertu phone.

In Karama, where I live, there are buildings that inner city slum dwellers in Detroit would sniff at, yet parked out front there are no shortage of Porsche Cayennes, Toyota Land Cruisers, and every imaginable class of Mercedes. It is the most insane juxtaposition of high and low, rich and poor, that I have ever encountered. In Toronto, if you want rich, you go to Yorkville or Younge St., south of St. Clair, roundabout the Rosedale Subway Station. For low, you have quite a hike over to Jane and Finch, Rexdale, or the Kensington Market. But in all of those places, there is a strict separation of economic class. That's not the case here.

While I might miss the sight of a few buildings in downtown Toronto, like the flatiron off of Yonge St. near Front St., those areas with charm are also areas that I would never have been able to live in or near. Those old, charming buildings filled with wonderful lofts are actually only converted factories, gentrified by overpaid artists and downtown professionals. Walking in and among those neighborhoods, I never had the sense that I could strike up a conversation with anyone I saw or met outside of a Tim Hortons. And even thought Toronto is supposedly the most diverse city in the world (47% are recent immigrants!), where I live, over 90% of the population is from elsewhere. In this community I am an extreme minority, since pretty much every other white (For South Asians, little distinction is made between Canadian, American, or European - They're all known as "whites") long ago demonstrated their discomfort with anybody of a darker shade, and sequestered themselves in far off gated communities.

In Toronto, the different nationalities sequester themselves in small communities, to the extent that not only will you find the traditional Chinatown, but you can also go to Little Italy, Little India, Greek Town, Korea Town, and New Guangdong (Otherwise known as Markham). In those small communities, you will see English alongside other languages, but outside of those little enclaves, that diversity quickly evaporates. Where I live, the Chinese restaurant is next to the Arabic joint, which itself is next to a kill-your-tongue Keralite curry house. Here, wherever you look, there is an explosion of language - Sanskrit, Arabic, Malyalam, Telugu, English, Chinese, Urdu, Russian, Serbian, you name it. On signs, on billboards, in stores, spoken on the street and on the television.

Back home I'd see lots of nice old buildings, and I'd also see the people who lived in them or around them - who would almost always resemble me. In Japan, where only 1% - 2% of the population was foreign born, I knew what it was to be in the minority, forever excluded from the majority. But in Dubai, I live the life of a minority in a profusion of minorities, not isolated from the mix, but warmly welcomed in. And while this experience will one day end, and the call of the two car garage on a quiet street draws me back to Canada, I will continue to learn and grow here.

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