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Archive for July, 2010

Have I got a story for you. Earlier this month I paid a visit to two cities on the German/Polish border: Frankfurt on der Oder [German] and Slubice [Polish], separated by the River Oder. They used to be two sides of one German city, but Poland ended up with everything east of the river after WWII. The people who live in these cities don’t have much personal history there: Frankfurt was evacuated during WWII and very few of the residents ever returned; meanwhile Poles were brought in from elsewhere to resettle Slubice when it became Polish territory. There is one bridge across the river between the two cities (see above). From the end of WWII until 2007 it was at times a controlled border crossing and at other times closed completely. But now that Poland has joined the European Union’s border-free Schengen Zone, anyone can walk over the bridge without so much as a Simon says. The result: people who spent many years having nothing to do with one another (save perhaps a black market cigarette sale) are suddenly close neighbors. And although the two cities are starting to connect in small ways, traveling across the bridge is rarely a part of daily life. You can’t take public transportation from one to the other, for example.

Enter Michael Kurzwelly. An artist who speaks both German and Polish, he moved to the area in 1998 and began staging public “interventions” to explore issues of identity along the border. Most of these interventions center around his vision of a united city, called Slubfurt, and with help from other residents he has set about convincing people that it really exists. At the invitation of Florence Maher, a fellow Fulbrighter studying border politics at Viadrina European University in Frankfurt, I took a tour of Slubfurt and talked to Kurzwelly about his work. (more…)

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I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept put forward by the Project for Public Spaces in New York. It’s called the Power of 10. The idea is that to make a really great public place that is used regularly and cherished by many people, it needs to have at least 10 different amenities working in concert, not just one or two. And then a neighborhood needs 10 different great public places–not just one or two–to be a great neighborhood. And a city needs 10 different great neighborhoods, and so on.

I spent the better part of a sweltering summer afternoon in Parc de Bercy in Paris last week and I watched the Power of 10 in practice. There were the usual park amenities–benches to sit on, ample shade, flowers and trees to soothe the eyes. But there were also many other special treats that kept my small group–ranging in age from 3 to 50–occupied for hours. There was a water feature–a river cascading down a steep flight of steps–that drew children like a magnet (see above). (more…)

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Courtesy Andre Bandim/Flickr

We hit Barcelona last week. It was a culture shock after Helsinki–loud, huge, hot, a little disordered, and out all night. It smelled differently too: on the streets there was always a faint whiff of frying food, garbage, urine, hot dirt. A few months ago I posted that it took time for me to get adjusted to the smell of Helsinki when I arrived there in March–my nose was off-kilter for the first few weeks. In Barcelona I realized that, having grown up in a warm climate, it was the underlying smell of things baking in the heat–slightly off-putting but nonetheless familiar–that I was missing in Helsinki.

The Barcelona city museum is in the old city, in a complex of buildings that includes a medieval palace and church. The lower level has been excavated to reveal the remains of dyeing, fish processing, and wine-making businesses. You can walk around on platforms just above the excavations. I have seen this technique at two other museums: Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal and Aboa Vetus in Turku, Finland.

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Courtesy thbl/Flickr

I finally made it to St. Petersburg. It was enormous and beautiful, albeit with a patina of decay. Everything I had read about St. Petersburg’s relationship with Helsinki fell into place while I was there, just as it had when I was in Stockholm. These two much more powerful cities took turns ruling Helsinki–indeed all of Finland–until the early 20th century. It’s funny how you can read about such things for pages and pages but not actually get it until you’re there, standing in Palace Square, taking in the architecture of empire. St. Petersburg and Stockholm look like cities that have ruled other places, same as London and Paris.

I was born in North Carolina, in the American South. North Carolina is sometimes described as the “vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” (more…)

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