Everyday Tourist 2017 Retrospective: Fun Flaneur Finds

For most people the new year, is a time to reflect on what has happen over the past year and what they would like to happen over the next.  For me it is a time to edit the 20,000+ photos I have taken this year and decide which ones to keep. 

  Flaneuring Footsteps, Calgary

Flaneuring Footsteps, Calgary

It is also time to ponder what were my best experiences, adventures and discoveries? What was the best art gallery, art exhibition, artwork or architecture I experienced? Should I create albums of the best pieces of public art, best street art, buildings or street photos?

After much reflection, I decided the life of an everyday flaneur isn’t about the “best of” it is about surprises, chance encounters and the thrill of the unexpected. 

As a result this photo essay while in chronological oder is a hodgepodge of fun flaneur finds discovered over the past year wandering with my eyes and mind wide open. I hope you enjoy....

  Yoga bound, Calgary

Yoga bound, Calgary

  Strawberry Dancers / Watermelon Mountains, Calgary

Strawberry Dancers / Watermelon Mountains, Calgary

  Keys, Calgary

Keys, Calgary

  Night Rider, Calgary

Night Rider, Calgary

  Tree of Life, Berlin

Tree of Life, Berlin

  Shopping Vortex, Berlin

Shopping Vortex, Berlin

  Circus architecture, Berlin

Circus architecture, Berlin

  Giant Red Tops, Berlin

Giant Red Tops, Berlin

  Bitte Please, Berlin

Bitte Please, Berlin

  Pedestrian, Berlin

Pedestrian, Berlin

 Mannie, Berlin

Mannie, Berlin

  Street Furniture, Berlin

Street Furniture, Berlin

  Recycling Igloos, Berlin

Recycling Igloos, Berlin

  Notes, Berlin  (Discovered these poems taped to a pedestrian bridge in Kreuzberg, Berlin late one afternoon.)

Notes, Berlin (Discovered these poems taped to a pedestrian bridge in Kreuzberg, Berlin late one afternoon.)

 Magritte Lives, Berlin

Magritte Lives, Berlin

  No Entrance/No Exit, Berlin

No Entrance/No Exit, Berlin

  11 disciples, Berlin

11 disciples, Berlin

  Molecules, Berlin

Molecules, Berlin

  Treasure Hunters' Paradise, Berlin

Treasure Hunters' Paradise, Berlin

  KaDeWe Smile, Berlin

KaDeWe Smile, Berlin

  Green Eye, Berlin

Green Eye, Berlin

  Confession, Berlin

Confession, Berlin

 Word Search, Berlin

Word Search, Berlin

 Fun School, Berlin

Fun School, Berlin

  Mystery Box, Berlin

Mystery Box, Berlin

  Stripes & Checks, Berlin

Stripes & Checks, Berlin

  Eye Candy, Berlin

Eye Candy, Berlin

  Hommage to Don Cherry, Berlin

Hommage to Don Cherry, Berlin

 Hungry, Berlin

Hungry, Berlin

  Living Room, Berlin

Living Room, Berlin

 Escher & Alexa, Berlin

Escher & Alexa, Berlin

   Happy Bunnies, Leipzig

 Happy Bunnies, Leipzig

  Red River, Leipzig

Red River, Leipzig

  Snail's Pace, Leipzig  (Backstory: The snail on the handle of the historic Leipzig City Hall was placed there by a local craftsman to represents how slowly things move at City Hall )

Snail's Pace, Leipzig (Backstory: The snail on the handle of the historic Leipzig City Hall was placed there by a local craftsman to represents how slowly things move at City Hall)

  Three Sisters, Leipzig

Three Sisters, Leipzig

  Not armed and not dangerous, Leipzig

Not armed and not dangerous, Leipzig

  Dare To Be Different, Leipzig

Dare To Be Different, Leipzig

  Street Talk, Leipzig

Street Talk, Leipzig

  Couple, Leipzig

Couple, Leipzig

  Inside! Leipzig

Inside! Leipzig

  Special, Leipzig

Special, Leipzig

  Peaceful Revolution, Leipzig

Peaceful Revolution, Leipzig

  Follow Through, Leipzig

Follow Through, Leipzig

  Partners, Leipzig

Partners, Leipzig

  Door Handle as Art, Leipzig

Door Handle as Art, Leipzig

  No parking, Leipzig

No parking, Leipzig

  Strings Attached, Leipzig

Strings Attached, Leipzig

  Brutal Beauty, London, ON

Brutal Beauty, London, ON

  Dressing Up!, London, ON

Dressing Up!, London, ON

  Playful, Hamilton

Playful, Hamilton

  Perspective, Calgary

Perspective, Calgary

  Windows, Calgary

Windows, Calgary

  Street Party, Calgary

Street Party, Calgary

  Dance with me! Calgary

Dance with me! Calgary

  My old backyard, Gleichen

My old backyard, Gleichen

  Remnants, Sisika

Remnants, Sisika

  Waiting, Calgary

Waiting, Calgary

  Edge, Head Smash-in Buffalo Jump

Edge, Head Smash-in Buffalo Jump

  Hooped, Canmore

Hooped, Canmore

 Really, Olds

Really, Olds

 Blast From The Past, Olds

Blast From The Past, Olds

 Statement, Calgary 

Statement, Calgary 

  Upsized, Calgary

Upsized, Calgary

  Too Much Information, Calgary

Too Much Information, Calgary

  Musical Stairs, Calgary

Musical Stairs, Calgary

  Legs & Pillars, Calgary

Legs & Pillars, Calgary

 Dataport, Medicine Hat

Dataport, Medicine Hat

  Love, Calgary

Love, Calgary

  Rainbow, Calgary

Rainbow, Calgary

  Buried, Canmore

Buried, Canmore

  Happy Hour, Calgary

Happy Hour, Calgary

 Elizabeth, Calgary

Elizabeth, Calgary

  Failure, Calgary

Failure, Calgary

  Stanley Guitar, Nashville

Stanley Guitar, Nashville

 Oxymoron, Nashville

Oxymoron, Nashville

  Euphony, Nashville

Euphony, Nashville

  Pick-up Sticks, Nashville

Pick-up Sticks, Nashville

  Bus Rider, Nashville

Bus Rider, Nashville

  Wisedom, Mesa

Wisedom, Mesa

  Trophies, Calgary

Trophies, Calgary

  Alone, Calgary

Alone, Calgary

  Outer Space, Palm Springs

Outer Space, Palm Springs

 Creative Space, Palm Springs

Creative Space, Palm Springs

  Yard Art, Palm Springs

Yard Art, Palm Springs

  Hippy Mask, Palm Springs

Hippy Mask, Palm Springs

 Whimsical, Palm Springs

Whimsical, Palm Springs

 Corner, Palm Springs

Corner, Palm Springs

  Blue Bird, Calgary

Blue Bird, Calgary

  Juxtaposition, Calgary

Juxtaposition, Calgary

 Twisted, Calgary

Twisted, Calgary

  Fire, Calgary

Fire, Calgary

 Pathways, Calgary

Pathways, Calgary

Thanks for scrolling to the end. 

All the best in 2018. 

Vancouver: Mural Festival Fun & Fantasy

I love it when Everyday Tourist readers send me information and photos of places they think would interest me while travelling in other cities.  Recently Harry Hiller, an urban sociologist professor at the University of Calgary, send me some photos he took while exploring a mural festival that took place in the back alley along four blocks of Vancouver's inner city community of Mt. Pleasant.  

Hiller loved the fact the murals are permanent so you can enjoy them even when there is no festival.  

He was impressed by the thousands of people over the course of the day walking the back alley with food trucks, music, and even skate board performances.  

He loved the creative use of back alleys which are often perceived as ugly and unsafe places.

He liked how parking stalls, garbage bins and containers all became canvases for artworks. 

 

No Angst!

One thing I noticed is that all of the murals are bold and colourful -  more decorative than provocative. There didn't seem to be any political or social angst that is often associated with street art - just good clean fun.

Nobody is going to confuse these works with the great muralists of Mexico City - Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro. However, they do have lots in common with the Psychedelic and Op Art movements of the '60s.  

Link: All You Need To Know About The Mexican Muralist 

VMF

In fact, what Hiller experienced was the second year of the Vancouver Mural Festival, which involved numerous sites in the city's east side communities.  A total of 50 new murals were created from August 7 to 12th, attracting an estimated audience of 100,000 people. It was billed as Vancouver's biggest free art event.   

In fact, they looked a lot like the back alley artworks I saw in Montreal's in December which were left over from their annual mural festival. This year's festival happened in June and more than a dozen new murals were left behind for everyone to enjoy.  I was told that in Montreal, murals have become so popular many festivals include creating a mural as part of the legacy of the event.  As a result, Montreal's inner city has become one giant outdoor art gallery.  A fun and free tourist attraction with mass appeal. Just what Hiller was talking about. 

Hmmm...I am thinking this could be a great new weekend event for the Calgary Downtown Association and the Alberta College of Art to collaborate on.   For that matter mural festivals would be a great annual event for many of Canada's downtowns - Hamilton, Winnipeg, London or Edmonton - adding a sense of play and colour would make them more attractive places to hang out for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

As I wrote, I received a tweet that Calgary's Beltline Community is indeed going to host something called BUMP (Beltline Urban Murals Project) this fall. This reminded me that Calgary's 17th Avenue had a mural program in the '80s and '90s, however due to maintenance cost they are all gone.  

  Wouldn't it be great if Calgary could get a mural like this one as part of BUMP?

Wouldn't it be great if Calgary could get a mural like this one as part of BUMP?

Last Word

I also couldn't help but wonder if there isn't a link between the fact Vancouver, like Montreal and Berlin have fostered a strong street culture (murals, street art, graffiti, outdoor festivals, food trucks) and the fact they have also become three of the most attractive cities in the the world for young entrepreneurs and creatives who are roaming the planet looking for interesting places to live, work and play.   

More and more, I am thinking cities like Calgary should be fostering a free, improv street art culture, rather than a formal, expensive, controversial public art program as a means of making their city centre more attractive to the next generation of innovators who will create the economic engines of the early 21st century.  

Perhaps a policy of "No Blank Walls!" should be park of Calgary's urban design policy. 

Harry's Postcards From VMF 2017

Transit Oriented Living: Berlin vs Calgary

I have a new appreciation for both transit-oriented living and Google Maps after spending a month in Berlin where everywhere we wanted to go was EASILY accessible by transit.  I was amazed how easily we could get to hundreds of museums, tourist attractions, parks, shopping and even IKEA by transit in a totally unfamiliar city.

  One key to transit oriented living is a transit system that offers 5 minute or less service.  It can be buses, subways, trams or LRT as long as it is frequent. 

One key to transit oriented living is a transit system that offers 5 minute or less service.  It can be buses, subways, trams or LRT as long as it is frequent. 

Google Maps Is Great!

I simply typed in where I wanted to go in Google Maps and it told me the route and how long it would take to drive, cycle, walk or take transit. In almost every case, transit was the best option.  The station (or bus stop) was always less than a pleasant five-minute walk and when we arrived, transit was there in minutes. 

Though, Google Maps tells you when the next bus, train or tram will arrive at a particular stop, I just ignored that information, as transit was so frequent, it didn’t matter.  It also didn’t seem to matter if we needed to take couple of trains or a train and bus, as connections were seamless. 

  Note the differences in time between driving, cycling and transit. When you add in time to get to your car and find a place to park driving becomes even less attractive. 

Note the differences in time between driving, cycling and transit. When you add in time to get to your car and find a place to park driving becomes even less attractive. 

Lessons Learned

Berlin transit offers a number of different payment options – single fare, daily fare, weekly and monthly passes (with even a non-prime time option for those travelling after 10 am weekly or monthly passes).  How good is that!

Another great thing about Berlin’s transit system is that the trains seem to drop you off in the middle of the action, not at the edge as they do in Calgary – take Stampede, University, Chinook, Anderson and even Bridgeland stations for example.

A great transit system benefits drivers too.  I was shocked when, taking the bus at rush hour, it never had to wait for more than one traffic light.  More people using transit means more road capacity for those who have to drive, which in turn means less rush hour traffic jams.

  Good transit systems have good connections and attractive places to wait. 

Good transit systems have good connections and attractive places to wait. 

Too Downtown-Centric

In Berlin, transit is decentralized, to best serve the mini-downtowns scattered throughout the city.  In contrast, Calgary’s transit is downtown-centric i.e. almost all transit is oriented to get people downtown. However, only 25% of the people work in the greater downtown area and 5% live there.

The City of Calgary’s Go-Plan back in the mid-90s, actually did call for the development of mini-downtowns at the edge of our city next to new LRT Stations. Somehow they instead became big box power centres. I often wonder how different urban living would be in Calgary if late 20th and early 21st century suburban power centres were designed as walkable mini downtowns, each with a mix of multi-storey retail, restaurants, residential and recreational buildings, rather than so car-oriented retail centres.

Imagine…Crowfoot Crossing and Shawnessy power centers could each have been a mini-downtown with grid-patterned tree-lined streets, residential and office development above big box retail and a regional transit hub station.  I expect with time they will evolve more into mini downtowns but we missed the opportunity to do so from the“get go.”

It is ironic that today, Currie Barracks and University District are both being developed as mini-downtowns yet neither has or will have a LRT Station.

  This map of the Berlin's Transit system illustrates not only how extensive the system is, but also how decentralized it is.  

This map of the Berlin's Transit system illustrates not only how extensive the system is, but also how decentralized it is.  

  To be fair, Calgary has plans to develop its LRT and BRT service with more crosstown routes in the future. Today only the Blue and Red lines exist. 

To be fair, Calgary has plans to develop its LRT and BRT service with more crosstown routes in the future. Today only the Blue and Red lines exist. 

Transit-Oriented Living (TOL) Gurus

While Calgary is in its infancy when it comes to creating mixed-use communities next to LRT Stations, Berlin is arguably the guru of TOL.  Instead of surrounding transit stations with massive residential highrises that block the sun, create wind tunnels and dwarf pedestrians, Berlin’s transit stations are usually in the middle of a platz (plaza) that allows for various programming – usually a farmers’ market and/or flea market – but most of the time just a gathering/meeting place for locals and tourists.

I loved that each platz in Berlin has its own character and charm, its own sense of place.
  Five minute service even at 10 am. 

Five minute service even at 10 am. 

Alexander Platz

A good example is the Alexander Platz.  While the history of the area around this platz dates back to the 13th century, most of the existing buildings are relatively new as the area was destroyed during WWII.  The revitalization of the Alexander Platz began in 1969 with the construction of the Berliner Fernsehturm TV tower. Topping out at 368m tall, it has a viewing platform at 203m and revolving restaurant at 207m, which is very similar to the Calgary Tower.

Today, it is a vibrant pedestrian zone, surrounded by a major subway train station, as well as several, “at grade” LRT lines. It is also home to major department stores Galleria Kaufhof and Primark, the ALEXA shopping centre and several smaller shops all facing onto the huge plaza.

It is a shopping/tourist mecca 7 days a week.
  Alexander Platz is full of people at 10 am on a weekday even when there are no special events. 

Alexander Platz is full of people at 10 am on a weekday even when there are no special events. 

  Alexander Platz is surrounded not only by several transit stops and a major station, but it has a diversity of things to see and do including cinemas, shopping and tourist attractions, not just condos and apartments.   

Alexander Platz is surrounded not only by several transit stops and a major station, but it has a diversity of things to see and do including cinemas, shopping and tourist attractions, not just condos and apartments.  

Calgary’s Platz Attempt

Ironically, Calgary’s downtown urban renewal project also started in the late ‘60s with a tower – Husky Tower, now the Calgary Tower. It also included Palliser Square (retail, cinemas, offices and parkade), as well as the Calgary Convention Centre, Four Seasons Hotel (now the Marriott) and Glenbow Museum complex.

Then 8th Avenue SW became the Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall; 7th Avenue became the downtown transit corridor, which was followed by the opening of the Performing Arts Centre and finally Olympic Plaza, our equivalent of a platz.

Unfortunately, Calgary’s late 20th century urban renewal didn’t include the residential part of the transit oriented living equation that is critical to evening and weekend urban vitality.  As well, Olympic Plaza has never really captured the imagination of Calgarians except when hosting a major festival or event. It is not a place where Calgarians meet and linger.  It is not a place we take visitors to showcase Calgary’s unique sense of place.

It is not a mecca!
  Olympic Plaza is pretty to look at but it doesn't attract people outside of special events and weekday noon hours when office workers enjoy an outdoor lunch. 

Olympic Plaza is pretty to look at but it doesn't attract people outside of special events and weekday noon hours when office workers enjoy an outdoor lunch. 

  Olympic Plaza on a nice Saturday in spring is devoid of any urban vitality as most of the buildings surrounding it are closed or have limited activity. While there is a large apartment building, museum and hotels nearby, it doesn't have the everyday appeal that a public plaza should have.

Olympic Plaza on a nice Saturday in spring is devoid of any urban vitality as most of the buildings surrounding it are closed or have limited activity. While there is a large apartment building, museum and hotels nearby, it doesn't have the everyday appeal that a public plaza should have.

Last Word

Berlin’s platze seem to be busy all the time and without any special programming.  Berlin’s planners, developers and politicians seem to understand how to integrate transit, residential, commercial and public space to create lively and liveable urban places. 

Instead of focusing on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Calgary and other North American cities should be focused on Transit Oriented Living (TOL) i.e. what makes living next to a train station or transit hub a great place to live? Too often the current focus in on creating high-rise and mid-rise condos next to the station, but TOL is more about “diversity of uses” than density.  Density without diversity is sterility.

If you have a chance, visit Berlin and experience transit-oriented living for yourself.

Note: This blog was originally published in the New Condos section of the Calgary Herald on Saturday July 16, 2017.

  Transit Oriented Living allows you extra time to relax and read.  I was amazed at how many people I saw reading books on the trains in Berlin.   

Transit Oriented Living allows you extra time to relax and read.  I was amazed at how many people I saw reading books on the trains in Berlin.  

Flaneuring In Berlin: Everyday street photography

Street photography is most often associated with provocative black and white images of urban streets.  The lack of colour often creates a starkness and dreariness, which I think is unfair to the modern streetscape.  

In this blog I have tried to capture a sense of Berlin's everyday street life I experienced  while wandering the city's streets for the month of March 2017.   This photo essay includes everything from fun garbage trucks to people with boxes on their heads, from reading books to public art. 

I have included a few black and white photos so you can compare with the coloured images. You tell me which ones you like the best.

Berlin: Street Collages

One of my favourite things to do these days is to combine photographs to create fun and sometimes strange collages using the UNION app.

Over the past few weeks I have been playing with photos from streets of Berlin which has resulting what I think are some very visually intense and interesting images / artworks. 

Here are some samples. Love to get some feedback! 

Berlin is definitely quirky!

Every city has its quirks – some more than others. Yes, Austin and Portland have their fair share of quirkiness, but they are small potatoes compared to Berlin. 

To prove it, I’d like to share with you some of the quirky charms we discovered in Berlin.  

  How about Berlin's mailpersons who ride these quirky yellow mail bikes along the sidewalk?

How about Berlin's mailpersons who ride these quirky yellow mail bikes along the sidewalk?

  How about a candy floss transit station?

How about a candy floss transit station?

  Or a banana slide....

Or a banana slide....

Pedestrian Light Icon

What city turns its “walk” and “don’t walk” pedestrian figure into an icon that even has its own stores?  Berlin.  Who knew there was such a thing as a traffic psychologist? Turns out Karl Peglau, a traffic psychologist created the Ampelmannchen (little traffic light man figure) in 1961 for East Berlin’s traffic lights.  The perky, playful cartoon-like character quickly become popular with locals, achieving cult status after unification as a symbol of East Berlin. Today, the red and green figures have become so popular with tourists that they have their own stores devoted only to Ampelmann-branded merchandise. Not only do they sell the usual tee shirts, pens, cups etc., but you can also purchase your own traffic signal.

Hmmmmm….could Calgary turn its +15 character into an icon for tourists?

Link: Ampelmannchen Story

S&Q Flea Markets

I am not sure if Berlin is the flea market capital of Europe, but it must be a contender.  We went to a different one every weekend and each has their own sense of the strange and quirky.  While some are more upscale the ones we like the best had boxes and boxes of items for treasure hunters to explore.  For me each box was like still life, each box had a story to tell if you looked carefully. 

Link: Berlin Flea Market Story

Photo Booths

On our first day we noticed a photo booth in an outdoor bike rack area, thought it was strange, but didn’t give it much more thought.  Until we saw many more. A local told us that photo booths are a big thing in Berlin, especially for millennials.

Turns out The Photoautomat project, founded in Berlin in 2004 and has inspired a world-wide revival of the black and white analog photo booth. Just like 60 years ago, each photo strip is analog-developed, making every piece an original that stays lightfast for 100 years.

Link: Photoautomat Project Story 

Water Pumps

While walking the streets of Berlin, don’t be surprised if you encounter five-foot tall, green cast iron water pumps. There are 2,107 of them to be exact and they are regularly maintained.  Go ahead, pump them; in fact you’re encouraged to do so to help keep the system running well.  You will get cool drinkable water for your water bottle. The water is from independent emergency wells provide a backup in case the regular water supply collapses. 

Link: Berlin Water Fountain Story 

Cemetery Cafés

Berlin has an amazing café culture. They are literally everywhere and come in every size, shape and design. However, to find one Café Strauss in a cemetery was very cool.  The serene and beautiful park-like setting in the midst of the urban environment is simply lovely.  Slow living at its best – so was the coffee and cake.

Link: Cemetery Cafe Story

Pink & Purple Straws

I first encountered these strange straw-like pipes near Check Point Charlie, i.e. best-known Berlin Wall crossing from East to West Berlin during the Cold War.  I was shocked that a city like Berlin would have basic infrastructure above ground.  Later, I learned Berlin is built on a swamp and so construction projects must create these temporary water pipes to remove water from the site while they work until the permanent infrastructure is in place.  Kudos to whoever decided to make them fun with their candy-floss like colours.

Link: Pink Pipes Story

Food Couriers

Mail couriers were a common sight in the downtowns of many cities in the ‘70s and 80s but they have largely disappeared with the advent of email. However, in Berlin food couriers are a common site with their magenta bikes and big warming oven boxes.  They just add to the fun of the sidewalk ballet.  Did I mention that Berlin’s mailpersons also ride big yellow or (green bikes) along the sidewalks?

Link: Hard & Fast Life Food Couriers

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 10.39.47 PM.png

Glass Igloos

The first photo I took in Berlin was of three, large domed structures side by side on the sidewalk. They looked like some old Soviet atomic energy experiment. Turns out they are called “glass igloos” and they always come in 3s. They are for recycling bottles - one for brown glass, one for green glass and clear glass.  They are also highly sought after by graffiti artists and those sticker-happy millennials who still love to play with stickers.

Sidewalk Furniture

Berlin’s sidewalks are also where you toss out anything you don’t want and can’t fit into your dumpster.  It is not uncommon to see an old couch or chair just sitting on the sidewalk in various stages of decay.  The first chair I saw was a lovely art deco one that I would love to own; too bad it didn’t have a cushion. The second piece was a couch that I saw from across the street.  It looked like the carcass of a dead animal ravaged by Berlin street wolves. It was not uncommon to sight one or two chairs/couches per day. One day there was a lovely oriental carpet in great shape. 

Graffiti vs Street Art

Sure, Austin and Portland have their fair share of graffiti and street art. Austin even has a very funky abandoned building site that is an outdoor gallery for graffiti artists.  But neither have entire streets and communities that are literally covered with graffiti.

In Berlin’s Fridedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Neukolin districts, there a ribbon of graffiti and art on every building along almost every street from sidewalk up to the top of the doorway.  

Pretty much any façade is a canvas for art.  You would never know Berlin spends the equivalent of $50M CDN per year to clean up graffiti.  I saw one storeowner clean up the graffiti on his building and the next day it was back. 

  In the Hackescher Market area there is an entire three story building (Haus Schwarzenberg) and alley is completely covered with graffiti.  

In the Hackescher Market area there is an entire three story building (Haus Schwarzenberg) and alley is completely covered with graffiti.  

  Loved this empty subway station space.  It seemed like an abandoned space, with unused advertising boards that have become transformed into works of art with their multiple layers of randomly ripped posters and graffiti. It had the appearance of a contemporary art gallery.

Loved this empty subway station space.  It seemed like an abandoned space, with unused advertising boards that have become transformed into works of art with their multiple layers of randomly ripped posters and graffiti. It had the appearance of a contemporary art gallery.

Red Is Dead

In Berlin the bike paths are usually a dark reddish colour and they are often just part of a wide sidewalk (Berlin has the widest sidewalks I have ever seen).  This makes it easy for a pedestrian to wander inadvertently over into the bike lane.  We were told by a local to remember, “If you are in the red you, could easily be dead.” 

At the same time, bikes also wander onto the sidewalk. It really is a free-for-all as everyone bobs and weaves like a North American football halfback.  Oh, seems kids and families get to ride their bikes on the sidewalks at all times. Flaneuring as I do, I can’t believe I didn’t die.

FYI: Berlin has plans to build 10 super highways for cyclists, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  They have been planning a new airport for many years and it still isn’t open.  So much for German efficiency.

Strange Playgrounds

Another early observation was that although Berlin has many children’s playgrounds, they look like they haven’t been upgraded since the ‘50s - maybe earlier. I did not find one of our Lego-like Crayola-coloured metal playgrounds anywhere in Berlin. Instead I found these strange weathered creatures that looked like something carved by indigenous people hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. I expect some of the animals are quite strange looking and I thought would be scary looking for children, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

  What's with this howling wolf on top of a playground swing?

What's with this howling wolf on top of a playground swing?

Cash is King

Most experienced international travellers are used to just bringing their credit cards and charging most of their expenses.  It is easy and convenient.  You are probably OK to use a credit card if you stay in the touristy areas of Berlin, but venture into the local areas like Kreuzberg and you will find it is cash only culture.

At the Galleries Lafayette (posh department store) there is an ATM that dispenses gold bars weighing up to 250 grams. Berlin is a great reminder of how commerce has evolved, especially over the past 50 years.

Late Night Buses

On weekends the buses and trains provide 24-hour service, but on weekdays night buses and the Metrotram take over to providing 30-minute service. There are 11 special night buses to make sure you can get home even if you are clubbing until 4 am. The night buses combine several daytime routes to make sure that all parts of the city have late night transit service.

Beer 24/7

I think one of the biggest reasons Berlin is so popular with millennials to day is that they have over 1,000 Spatis (late night stores). These tiny stores (size of a living room) open 24/7 have about half of their space devoted to beer and wine.  Not only is beer available 24/7, but it is cheap, about $1.50 CDN for .5 litres and you can drink it on the street as you wander home or to your favourite park.  We even encountered many young people enjoying a beer on the trains in the evening – not sure that was legal, but nobody seems to mind.

Many of the Spatis have bench out front that allows you to just sit enjoy your beer, chat with friends or watch the sidewalk ballet.  How civilized?

FYI: Berlin is also home to the world’s longest beer garden; it runs 2.2 kilometers during the annual International Beer Festival.

And There Is More

  How about an abandoned airport that has been turned into a huge park not by design but by locals taking ownership? This is a part of the miniature golf course that has been created out of found objects including old plane parts.

How about an abandoned airport that has been turned into a huge park not by design but by locals taking ownership? This is a part of the miniature golf course that has been created out of found objects including old plane parts.

  These drums at the cashiers of a Berlin grocery store are cigarette dispensers. 

These drums at the cashiers of a Berlin grocery store are cigarette dispensers. 

  What about a former ballroom dance hall, that became a night club and now is a very quirky salvage warehouse store. 

What about a former ballroom dance hall, that became a night club and now is a very quirky salvage warehouse store. 

  Very futuristic entrance to an office building. 

Very futuristic entrance to an office building. 

  This has to be the quirkiest retail store signage I have seen in awhile. 

This has to be the quirkiest retail store signage I have seen in awhile. 

  Public Poetry? Found 10+ poems taped to posts along a pedestrian bridge one evening. People stopped to read them, discuss them and some even took them.  What a lovely urban surprise? 

Public Poetry? Found 10+ poems taped to posts along a pedestrian bridge one evening. People stopped to read them, discuss them and some even took them.  What a lovely urban surprise? 

Last Word

I love quirky cities!

If you haven't visited Berlin (or haven't been there for a long time) you should move it to the top of your list of "places to go!" 

If you like this blog, you will like:

Freakn Fun in Boise's Freak Alley

Fun, Funky Quirky Colorado Springs

Mexico City: Fun Urban Surprises

Is Calgary ready for REAL urban living?

Calgary has a long, long, long way to go before it can say it has created its first real urban community. 

After spending a month living like a local in Berlin’s hip Kreuzberg community I have a much better appreciation for what urban living is all about.  While some Calgarians might think the Beltline, Bridgeland, Downtown West End, East Village, Eau Claire, Inglewood and Kensington are urban communities in many ways they are just modified suburbs. 

  It is hard to believe that this streetscape is in the Beltline, Calgary's densest residential community. It has a very suburban aesthetics with its front lawns and porches.  

It is hard to believe that this streetscape is in the Beltline, Calgary's densest residential community. It has a very suburban aesthetics with its front lawns and porches.  

  In Sunnyside/Hillhurst most of the streets have a very attractive but suburban character. 

In Sunnyside/Hillhurst most of the streets have a very attractive but suburban character. 

  The General Hospital site in Bridgeland has been redeveloped with condos that increase the density but still have a suburban character with townhomes that include front yards and porches. 

The General Hospital site in Bridgeland has been redeveloped with condos that increase the density but still have a suburban character with townhomes that include front yards and porches. 

  The same is true of the Princeton in Eau Claire.  In urban streetscapes the ground level spaces would be offices, daycares, shops, restaurants, bakeries etc. 

The same is true of the Princeton in Eau Claire.  In urban streetscapes the ground level spaces would be offices, daycares, shops, restaurants, bakeries etc. 

 Not everyone gets a balcony in urban neighbourhoods.

Not everyone gets a balcony in urban neighbourhoods.

  There are no gaps between buildings in urban communities. 

There are no gaps between buildings in urban communities. 

 When and if Calgary's City Centre becomes truly urban, this is what streets like 10th, 11th, 12th and 17th Avenues will look like with retail at ground level and 5+ storeys of residential above. The same for 10th and 14th Streets and Kensington Road in the northwest.  Atlantic Avenue or 9th Avenue in Inglewood will also have this kind of look, as will 1st Street NE in Bridgeland and 4th and 5th Streets in Mission. 

When and if Calgary's City Centre becomes truly urban, this is what streets like 10th, 11th, 12th and 17th Avenues will look like with retail at ground level and 5+ storeys of residential above. The same for 10th and 14th Streets and Kensington Road in the northwest.  Atlantic Avenue or 9th Avenue in Inglewood will also have this kind of look, as will 1st Street NE in Bridgeland and 4th and 5th Streets in Mission. 

Chaos in the streets

The first thing you notice about living in Kreuzberg is the chaos in the streets, as pedestrians, cyclists, cars, strider bikes and strollers, bob and weave around each other. While there are bike lanes, cyclists often ride on the wide sidewalks, especially parents with young children. 

Cyclists never use bells to warn you they are about to fly by you at full speed and drivers do not stop for pedestrians.

Yet in the 300+ hours we spent on the streets we never saw one collision of any kind. Somehow it just works.

 While not all of the streets in urban neighbourhoods are animated like this one, the sidewalks and parks often full of people of all ages hanging out.  There is not much grass in the public spaces as they are so heavily used. 

While not all of the streets in urban neighbourhoods are animated like this one, the sidewalks and parks often full of people of all ages hanging out.  There is not much grass in the public spaces as they are so heavily used. 

  Calgary's City Centre streets are too often devoid of people, too decorative, too pristine.

Calgary's City Centre streets are too often devoid of people, too decorative, too pristine.

Families & Urban Living

Good urban communities are full of families - we couldn’t walk a half a block in Kreuzberg without encountering a stroller or two.  There were daycares on almost every block, tucked away in buildings you would never imagine suitable for a daycare. 

There were also playgrounds on every other block, which included not only equipment for younger children, but often a multi-purpose fenced in area for soccer, basketball and skateboarding. 

  We saw these hipsters carry the bench out of the shop (located in the basement) to the sidewalk so they could enjoy their morning coffee. 

We saw these hipsters carry the bench out of the shop (located in the basement) to the sidewalk so they could enjoy their morning coffee. 

  In Kreuzberg, even side streets will have at least one cafe, a few restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalk. 

In Kreuzberg, even side streets will have at least one cafe, a few restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalk. 

  Instead of backyard, kids play in the local playground which is surrounded by mid-rise residential blocks. 

Instead of backyard, kids play in the local playground which is surrounded by mid-rise residential blocks. 

Goodbye Single Family Homes 

There were no single-family homes, most of the buildings opened right onto the street.  There were also no skyscrapers, rather density was horizontal, so there was no feeling of being dwarfed by tall buildings and less wind tunneling. It was like taking a 40-story tower and laying it on its side.

  You have to go a long way from the City Centre before you find a single family home in cities like Berlin or Montreal. 

You have to go a long way from the City Centre before you find a single family home in cities like Berlin or Montreal. 

Smaller is better

There was a plethora of grocery stores to choose from.  Not the mega 40,000+ square foot stores we have but  five to 10,000 square foot neighbourhood grocery stores that fit seamlessly into the community.  There were one or two grocery stores near every train station.  Even though they were much smaller than our grocery stores, they seemed to have everything we needed. 

Goodbye Car 

I also learned Transit Oriented Development doesn’t mean building tall residential towers at transit stations. In Berlin transit stations are often located in he middle of large open urban spaces called platzs. The platzs are great places to hang-out or meet up, and are often used for local markets.

Urban living also means you are never far from a transit station or bus stop that offers 5-minute or less service all day, not just rush hour. Urban living means a car is optional.

I also learned there is no correlation between how clean a community is and how safe it is.  Kreuzberg is very gritty with a ribbon of graffiti covering most of the buildings from the sidewalk to above the doorways.  The sidewalks are like huge ashtrays, as it seems like the majority of locals smoke. There are also beer bottle caps and broken glass everywhere as it is legal to drink on the street and in the parks.  As well the sidewalks are often full of garbage waiting to be collected.  

Yet at no time did we feel unsafe.  One night after clubbing in one of the seedier looking areas of the city we walked 2 km at 2:30 am (even though transit was available) home and never once felt unsafe. 

  While fewer people own cars, the streets are still lined with cars as their is little to no underground parking for residents, retail or restaurants. There are no fancy curbs, bike lanes, crosswalks, speed bumps - they just make it work.   

While fewer people own cars, the streets are still lined with cars as their is little to no underground parking for residents, retail or restaurants. There are no fancy curbs, bike lanes, crosswalks, speed bumps - they just make it work.   

Last Word

Living in Kreuzberg I learned creating vibrant urban communities isn’t about banners, planters, fancy street furniture, new sidewalks and public art, nor is it about keeping the area graffiti and litter free. In fact, in Berlin it seemed the more graffiti and litter the more vibrant the streets and public areas. I had the same observations in Mexico City, Austin and Montreal. 

I wonder if Calgarians are ready for urban living? I know that I'm not.  I love my front porch and garden, love my own garage and our backyard where the neighbour kids love to play. 

Note: This an edited version of this blog was originally published in the May edition of Condo Living Magazine. 

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What is urban living and does anybody care? 

 

 

 

Is Calgary too pristine?

Is Calgary too pristine? Should we be fostering messy urbanism? Are we doing it all wrong when it comes to city building?

These are few of the many questions I am pondering after two weeks in Montreal (December 2016) and especially after a month in Berlin (March 2017).  

While Calgary is struggling to adapt to the new realities of the 21st century, Montreal and Berlin are firing on all cylinders when it comes to attracting young creative professionals and capitalizing on the economy of new technology

  Marheinekeplatz is a popular plaza in Kreuzberg next to a two storey farmer's market. It is also home to a children's playground and weekend outdoor flea market.  East Village's Simmons Building/Riverwalk plaza  's urban vitality pales in comparison. The garbage can was always full and the public art vessels were covered in graffiti. 

Marheinekeplatz is a popular plaza in Kreuzberg next to a two storey farmer's market. It is also home to a children's playground and weekend outdoor flea market.  East Village's Simmons Building/Riverwalk plaza's urban vitality pales in comparison. The garbage can was always full and the public art vessels were covered in graffiti. 

  No need for special seating along the water in Berlin, just sit anywhere. The river edge is not well groomed.

No need for special seating along the water in Berlin, just sit anywhere. The river edge is not well groomed.

  Yes, grab a beer and just sit anywhere, no need for a fancy Riverwalk with imported rocks to sit along the river.  The river bank is half grass, half dirt, from over use.

Yes, grab a beer and just sit anywhere, no need for a fancy Riverwalk with imported rocks to sit along the river.  The river bank is half grass, half dirt, from over use.

  Community playgrounds are packed. No need for fancy equipment, bike racks, special seating...just come and play.

Community playgrounds are packed. No need for fancy equipment, bike racks, special seating...just come and play.

Kreuzber Grafitti Capital of Europe

While Calgary is still keeping up the good fight against graffiti, Montreal and Berlin have seemingly given up.  Throughout Berlin’s Kreuzberg community (ranked one of the world’s top 10 hipster communities) there is a literally a ribbon of graffiti (from sidewalk to above the doorways) on the buildings along most sidewalks.

It seems like their motto is “why bother cleaning it up when someone will just paint over it.” 

In fact, in one case I saw someone clean up the graffiti on their building and it was back the next day. Montreal is much the same, with the difference being they have embraced street art and murals, which are more refined and decorative than graffiti.

  Just one example of the ribbon of graffiti that exists along many of the streets of Kreuzberg. 

Just one example of the ribbon of graffiti that exists along many of the streets of Kreuzberg. 

  Typical Kreuzberg streetscape.

Typical Kreuzberg streetscape.

  A Kreuzberg elementary school streetscape a block from the subway station and luxury apartments. There is an interior courtyard big playground where kids play like any other elementary school. 

A Kreuzberg elementary school streetscape a block from the subway station and luxury apartments. There is an interior courtyard big playground where kids play like any other elementary school. 

  It is not uncommon to find the streets littered with garbage. 

It is not uncommon to find the streets littered with garbage. 

  Stickers and posters are plastered everywhere, creating a unique urban patina in Kreuzberg. 

Stickers and posters are plastered everywhere, creating a unique urban patina in Kreuzberg. 

  Recycling bins like these are common in Kreuzberg. 

Recycling bins like these are common in Kreuzberg. 

 Every wall is plastered with either graffiti or posters; this wall was around a park. 

Every wall is plastered with either graffiti or posters; this wall was around a park. 

Pick your battles!

When it comes to repairing sidewalks, it seems like Montreal and Berlin have also given up the fight against nature and just let them crack, heave and crumble.  While Calgary is busy spending millions on sidewalk and streetscape improvements in Kensington and 17th Avenue SW, Montreal and Kreuzberg’s pedestrian streets are just left to age gracefully and in some cases, not so gracefully. 

And don’t get me started on litter and garbage. Kreuzberg’s streets are filthy and Montreal’s are not great either.

FYI: If you just hang out in Berlin’s tourist hot spots (and there are many), you don’t get to see the “real” Berlin. That is the case in most cities.

In Kreuzberg many of the streets are like one long flop house with cigarette butts, beer and liquor bottles, bottle caps and pizza boxes everywhere. Many locals love that they can just buy a beer in the corner store, drink it while they walk along the sidewalk or hanging at the park and then just leave it wherever.  And garbage cans there are too few and too small in my opinion so they are often overflowing with garbage.  But it doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

 Sidewalks are for sharing. It is very common to see cyclist on the sidewalk, especially families, nobody seems to mind.

Sidewalks are for sharing. It is very common to see cyclist on the sidewalk, especially families, nobody seems to mind.

  No need for fancy bike racks, just park your bike, scooter wherever. 

No need for fancy bike racks, just park your bike, scooter wherever. 

  Bergmannstrabe is a just one of several pedestrian streets in Kreuzberg. There are no banners, hanging baskets, no designer street furniture or lighting.  No need for patio fences just lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. 

Bergmannstrabe is a just one of several pedestrian streets in Kreuzberg. There are no banners, hanging baskets, no designer street furniture or lighting.  No need for patio fences just lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. 

  What looks like a shanty town by Calgary urban aesthetics, is in reality a popular restaurant/bar district along one of Berlin's canals.  Berlin's bohemian grass-roots creative-class culture is the opposite of Calgary's conservative, corporate culture.  

What looks like a shanty town by Calgary urban aesthetics, is in reality a popular restaurant/bar district along one of Berlin's canals.  Berlin's bohemian grass-roots creative-class culture is the opposite of Calgary's conservative, corporate culture.  

  It is not uncommon to see benches and garbage cans like this along Kreuzberg's pathways and in their parks and playgrounds. 

It is not uncommon to see benches and garbage cans like this along Kreuzberg's pathways and in their parks and playgrounds. 

Embracing Messy Living

Though both Montreal and Berlin are big cycling cities, I didn’t see any multi-million dollar bike lanes requiring their own traffic lights. Especially in Berlin, they just adapted the existing sidewalks and roads to create bike lanes that are often very difficult to distinguish from the sidewalk. It was chaos - people were walking in the bike lanes and cyclists riding along the sidewalk, but somehow they make it work.  We did not see a crash or even a near crash.  

As well in Berlin, I saw no fancy new multi-million dollar pedestrian bridges over their river and canals, nor did I see much in the way of public art.  Rather than investing millions in public art, they have free public art from local graffiti and street artists. 

Forget investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in creative colourful new playgrounds to attract young families. In Berlin, their sand (yes they are all sand) playgrounds, with unpainted or extremely fainted wood equipment from the ‘50s are just as busy as any Calgary community playground.  Some of the riding animals on springs looked surprisingly like something from an ancient Haida totem pole.  The schoolyard playgrounds were often also old and tired looking, Calling them vintage is being kind, most of them have no grass, it is asphalt or mud.  But the kids were just as active and happy as any playground I have seen in Calgary.

I did see a couple of dog parks in Berlin; they were disgusting as they were just all dirt, or should I say “mud” as it rains a lot in Berlin.  With the use of doggie poop bags seemingly optional along the streets, I was afraid to venture into the dog parks. There was nothing like Calgary’s new Connaught dog park with its lovely wrought iron gate, grass and seating areas.

I also didn’t see any lamppost banners, evidence of hanging baskets or fancy street furniture either.  In Berlin, one enterprising restaurateur made outdoor lounge furniture from wooden pallets - A sharp contrast to the expensive lounge chairs along East Village’s Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island.

I saw nothing either to match the designer community gardens that are popping up all over Calgary.  Certainly, nothing to match East Village’s community gardens, which is probably one of the most elaborate and expensive in the world.  What I did see though were Kleingartens that date back to the mid-19th century in Leipzig, Germany when municipalities sold or leased small plots of land to apartment dwellers to grow food. Today, some look more like shantytowns, with an array of old cabins (before tiny homes became trendy), sheds and overgrown gardens.

  A small pedestrian bridge becomes an impromptu evening and weekend beer garden - no permit, no tables, sit anywhere, bring your guitar and just hang out. 

A small pedestrian bridge becomes an impromptu evening and weekend beer garden - no permit, no tables, sit anywhere, bring your guitar and just hang out. 

  Make shift bench.

Make shift bench.

  Berlin dog park.

Berlin dog park.

  Berlin playground, soccer field. 

Berlin playground, soccer field. 

Let’s take the plastic off?

So while Calgary is spending multi-millions trying to keep our city pristine, people in Montreal and Berlin are embracing messy urbanism.  While Calgary is struggling, they are thriving.  

The thinking in urban planning and placemaking these days is that streets, plazas and parks should be the community’s living room, i.e. a community meeting place where locals hang out and chat.  Metaphorically, Calgary is still in the ‘60s, maybe '50s when mothers would keep the plastic slipcovers on the living room furniture to maintain its pristine look, the result being nobody used them. 

So, “are we doing our city building all wrong? Perhaps it is time we stopped trying to create a pristine city, stop lusting for the new and just “live a little.” 

Perhaps part of Calgary’s new future is adopting a new urban aesthetic?  But maybe not to the extent of Kreuzberg!

  Even Calgary's back alley's next to the Mustard Seed are pristine.

Even Calgary's back alley's next to the Mustard Seed are pristine.

Berlin Wall Artifact: Best Flaneur Find Ever?

We were heading to the East Side Gallery where there is 1.5 km of the Berlin Wall still intact. It has been a canvas for street artists since 1989 when the Wall was torn down, but that is another story. 

As we were flaneuring our way to the Gallery, we saw a magnificent red brick church and noticed a sandwich board outside the front doors and thought it might be open so headed over to check it out. It was and so we decided to step inside.

Hidden Gem

Once I stopped looking up, I noticed some display cabinets with small artifact looking objects inside.  Indeed, they were small fragments of the Berlin Wall with some of the tagging graffiti on them, accompanied by photos of the wall where they were from. 

Then I noticed a Euro sign. Could they be for sale?  There were a few guys hanging around the vestibule, but they couldn't speak English. Fortunately, they were keen to find someone to help us and yes indeed they were for sale. 

The wall fragments came in three sizes - small medium and large. Just like t-shirts. 

We debated the logic of buying a piece of Berlin Wall, thinking the small pieces were too small and the larger pieces too heavy to haul back. But in the end, we became a proud owner of a piece of the Berlin Wall complete with a photo of where it came from on the wall and letter of authenticity or at least that is what they told us it was. 

From then on we looked at other slabs and pieces of the Berlin Wall that are scattered throughout the city to see how the concrete composition of our artifact compared.  They all looked exactly like the piece we have.  

Guess we will just have to be believers. 

St. Thomas Kirche Church 101

The church was built between 1865 and 1869 by architect Friedrich Alder.  At the time of its completion, it was the biggest church in Berlin with 3,000 seats.  It is designed in the form of a Latin Cross, with a 56 m dome and two 48 m towers facing the Mariannenplatz. 

The eastern half of the church was destroyed in an air raid on November 22, 1942, and all of the interior furnishings were completely lost.  The façade has been restored to the original state but the interior has not. 

The Berlin Wall had a significant impact on the church as it divided the congregation.

Last Word

I carried my piece of the Berlin Wall home in my carry-on luggage, but I almost lost it in Dublin. Security wanted to check my bag and had to double check if it was OK to have it in my carry on luggage.  Germany security had no issues.

The Berlin Wall will add a new dimension to my collection of flaneur finds.

Berlin: The Playground Capital of the World?

I use to think Calgary had a lot of playgrounds, but not anymore. Berlin seems to have playgrounds on almost every block, sometimes two and three, especially in the Kreuzberg district.  Then I learned there are over 2,000 public playgrounds in the city, but that doesn’t include all the school and daycare playgrounds, which also seemed to on every block. 

Staying in Kreuzberg for a month was a unique urban experience given the multitude of children of all ages everywhere, every day.  One day kept track and I couldn't go a half a block without encountering a stroller.  But what made the experience most unique were the vintage playgrounds. 

  Found this primitive crocodile bench early and thought it might be a bit strange and scary for toddlers. This was only the beginning. 

Found this primitive crocodile bench early and thought it might be a bit strange and scary for toddlers. This was only the beginning. 

  Soon we encountered another playground with more mythical creatures.    

Soon we encountered another playground with more mythical creatures.   

  Almost all of the swings in Berlin have some sort of character at the top. In this case, it was a well-weathered cartoon figure, but in most cases it was an animal.  

Almost all of the swings in Berlin have some sort of character at the top. In this case, it was a well-weathered cartoon figure, but in most cases it was an animal. 

  These sculpture-like pieces of wood, reminded my of spinning tops. Note in the background is a small hard surface for soccer, roller blading or other activities. 

These sculpture-like pieces of wood, reminded my of spinning tops. Note in the background is a small hard surface for soccer, roller blading or other activities. 

  Liked the use of natural trees in this playground, with roots still attached to create a swing.  

Liked the use of natural trees in this playground, with roots still attached to create a swing.  

  Included this photo as it illustrates how the tree limbs of the playground mirror those in the trees behind.   

Included this photo as it illustrates how the tree limbs of the playground mirror those in the trees behind.  

Busy Busy Busy 

Not only are there a lot of playgrounds but also they are very busy. I initially thought it was because most people live in apartments with no backyards. However, the more I explored I discovered many of the apartment blocks actually have their own playgrounds and courtyards, although they didn’t seem to get as much use as the local playground.  I even encountered several places where there were sandboxes and/or a play area in the tiny front yards of ground level apartments.

And when I say busy, I am not talking about two or three families I am talking dozens.  It is like a mini festival with all of the shrieks of fun especially on weekends and after work on the weekdays.

  This was our local playground on the weekends and from about 3 pm to about 7 pm weekday depending on weathe.  It is also busy during the day as there are probably 6 or more daycares in the immediate area. 

This was our local playground on the weekends and from about 3 pm to about 7 pm weekday depending on weathe.  It is also busy during the day as there are probably 6 or more daycares in the immediate area. 

  This playground was busy even on a cool day in early March. It was part of a large complex with skatepark across the street, dog park and hard surface playing cages .

This playground was busy even on a cool day in early March. It was part of a large complex with skatepark across the street, dog park and hard surface playing cages.

  I don't think I have ever seen more strollers and young kids on striders, bikes and scooters than as I saw in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on an everyday basis.

I don't think I have ever seen more strollers and young kids on striders, bikes and scooters than as I saw in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on an everyday basis.

  It was probably two weeks before I saw a new playground which had the same elements as the old ones just more colour.  There is a strong sense of craftsmanship and being hand-made to these enchanting playgrounds. They look like something magical, out of a children's storybook. 

It was probably two weeks before I saw a new playground which had the same elements as the old ones just more colour.  There is a strong sense of craftsmanship and being hand-made to these enchanting playgrounds. They look like something magical, out of a children's storybook. 

  This playground had fun theme, including a snake on a spring for rocking back and forth and other exotic shapes and characters.   

This playground had fun theme, including a snake on a spring for rocking back and forth and other exotic shapes and characters.  

  This new playground had stumps and logs to walk along around the entire playground. It also served as seating.

This new playground had stumps and logs to walk along around the entire playground. It also served as seating.

  Hammocks are often included in Berlin playgrounds. 

Hammocks are often included in Berlin playgrounds. 

  There is a small playground behind the hill in the background, along with these three red sculpture like pieces that could be used to sit on or to climb over or jump off of.  Ping pong tables are also common in Berlin playground public spaces and yes they do get used. 

There is a small playground behind the hill in the background, along with these three red sculpture like pieces that could be used to sit on or to climb over or jump off of.  Ping pong tables are also common in Berlin playground public spaces and yes they do get used. 

Vintage Fun

Berlin’s playgrounds are also very different from North America’s as there is none of the Crayola meets Fisher Price, Ikea-looking playgrounds. Most of the playgrounds are pretty much void of any colour, which is totally the opposite of other elements of the city’s urban fabric, which is full of colour. 

In fact most of the playgrounds have vintage look, as the equipment and benches are all still made of wood, with twisted tree limb shapes as if they just cut off a few limbs and stuck them in the ground.  And while there are still some traces of the original paint, they haven’t been painted in decades, creating a grey weathered look.

Berlin’s playgrounds are like one mega sand box (no pea gravel or rubberized surfaces here), with strange looking forts, ships and other structures (by North American standards) that families are invited to climb, jump, bounce and play on. The most intriguing element are the mysterious carved animal heads on springs to rock back and forth on.  

They look like they belong in an anthropology museum – there are probably thousands of them.
 Soon the thrill of the hunt for me was to find old playgrounds and photograph their primitive creatures and characters.  Here are a few samples.

Soon the thrill of the hunt for me was to find old playgrounds and photograph their primitive creatures and characters.  Here are a few samples.

  Found this new hand carved creature which is very cute and charming today, would be interesting to document how it changes over the years. 

Found this new hand carved creature which is very cute and charming today, would be interesting to document how it changes over the years. 

  These family-sized rockers were very popular.  Mom, Dad and several kids could rock on them, or a bunch of kids could hop on and have fun. 

These family-sized rockers were very popular.  Mom, Dad and several kids could rock on them, or a bunch of kids could hop on and have fun. 

Caged in?

All playgrounds have a low fence that keeps the kids and balls in the area encloses all the playgrounds.  As well, many playgrounds will also have a high fenced-in hard surface nearby that can be used as both a place to play dodge ball, soccer and basketball.  The high fence that encloses the courts gives them a strange cage-fighting ring look, at least to this North American. These multi-use courts were well used by older children and adults.

  An example of a caged court for playing soccer with a basketball court next to it. 

An example of a caged court for playing soccer with a basketball court next to it. 

  Another example of caged arena-like play area.  Note it is typical for there to be lots of graffiti in and around the playgrounds, nobody seems to mind.

Another example of caged arena-like play area.  Note it is typical for there to be lots of graffiti in and around the playgrounds, nobody seems to mind.

Shade, Sit & Skate

Berlin’s urban trees are amazing. Huge six story trees line many of the streets and dominate the parks, creating lovely shade in the summer but letting in the sun in during late fall to early spring.  I was also impressed by the abundant places to just sit, and how Berliners have mastered the art of sitting. 

And we are not talking about fancy benches and seats; again they are usually old wooden benches that you would rarely see in North American cities.

The number of small neighborhood skate parks was also impressive. Sometimes I wonder if Calgary made a mistake building a mega skate park at downtown’s Millennium Park instead of creating several smaller neighborhood skate parks. 

  Loved this vintage curved bench with its weathered patina. It adds a lovely sense of character, charm and time that is Berlin. New is not always better?

Loved this vintage curved bench with its weathered patina. It adds a lovely sense of character, charm and time that is Berlin. New is not always better?

Last Word 

While Berlin’s playgrounds and parks are not pristine by any standards, they are well used. There is little to no grass in most of the parks, that is either because it is hard to grow grass in the sandy soil, or the parks and playgrounds are so heavily used the grass just gets worn out.  I believe it is the latter.

And while many of the playgrounds look old and dreary by North American standards, the kids don’t mind and the little ones love playing in the sand. 

It is a reminder to me we don’t necessarily need to always have the newest, brightest, cleanest public spaces to make them successful.

Note: Most of my time was spent in the hipster, bohemian areas of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Mitte, Neukolin districts of Berlin, so these observations may not be indicative of all of Berlin.  It should also be noted these communities seem to be home to a disproportionate number of young adults who have young children. Berlin’s sidewalk ballet is a kaleidoscope of pedestrians, buggies, striders, scooters and bikes of all shapes and sizes weaving in and out trying to avoid each other.  It is chaos but it seems to work, we didn't see a single collision. 

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Berlin: Colourful & Playful

One of the biggest criticism I have of cities today is they are too conservative when it comes to incorporating colour into its architecture, streetscapes, plazas, parks, signage and billboards (if they even allow billboards).

One of the first things I noticed about Berlin was how colour is integrated into the everyday life of its streets in both bold and subtle ways, especially in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Neukolln districts.

Unfortunately, Berlin falls into the same colourless trap as other cities when it comes to many of its new buildings and streetscapes, however I did find some exceptions.

Who knew March 21st is International Colour Day? When “what are you doing for International Colour Day?” came up on my twitter feed I thought this must be a signal to start my blog about the use of colour in Berlin and the cheerful and playful impact it has in a city that can very dreary (cloudy and rainy) in the winter months. I am surprised at how much Berlin's weather is like Vancouver's.

Link: International Colour Day 

So here are some colourful Berlin postcard shots that I hope will illustrate to you what I am talking about.  Make sure you scroll to the end of the essay for a postcard that is sure to make you smile....hope you enjoy!

The floor of the Alexa shopping centre is a wonderful and colourful work of art that you get to walk on and see from above.  How fun is this?

  This is the futuristic entrance to a modern office building, unfortunately once you get inside there is no colour.  

This is the futuristic entrance to a modern office building, unfortunately once you get inside there is no colour.  

  Dussmann bookstore at Friedrichstrabe 90 was where I began to realize Berliners love the use of colour. The entire multi-floor space is a rich red, it creates a passionate sense of place which seemed appropriate for a bookstore.  

Dussmann bookstore at Friedrichstrabe 90 was where I began to realize Berliners love the use of colour. The entire multi-floor space is a rich red, it creates a passionate sense of place which seemed appropriate for a bookstore. 

  Loved this yellow plaza and apartment block next to the Berlinische Galerie, which is a must see in our minds. 

Loved this yellow plaza and apartment block next to the Berlinische Galerie, which is a must see in our minds. 

  These red sculptures/benches are part of the playground for this residential complex.

These red sculptures/benches are part of the playground for this residential complex.

  This retail store signage is on the side of a parkade.

This retail store signage is on the side of a parkade.

Berlin's new concert hall has a gold facade as does the library across the street.

  Not sure how this orange elephant in front of a German state government building fits into the local culture but it certainly was colourful and cheerful.

Not sure how this orange elephant in front of a German state government building fits into the local culture but it certainly was colourful and cheerful.

 The streets in Berlin's Kreuzberg district were filled with brightly coloured tables, chairs and other ornamentation. 

The streets in Berlin's Kreuzberg district were filled with brightly coloured tables, chairs and other ornamentation. 

  Japanese retailer UNIQLO's flagship store in Berlin has wonderful stairs, which have the names of cities in neon red streaming across them like a stock market quotation board.  

Japanese retailer UNIQLO's flagship store in Berlin has wonderful stairs, which have the names of cities in neon red streaming across them like a stock market quotation board.  

  Many of Berlin's subway and transit station employ bold colours like these candy floss stairs at the Prinzenstrabe Station.

Many of Berlin's subway and transit station employ bold colours like these candy floss stairs at the Prinzenstrabe Station.

  Older residential buildings have also added colour to their facades to make them standout. 

Older residential buildings have also added colour to their facades to make them standout. 

  The orange blinds in this hospital change everyday, creating subtle differences.

The orange blinds in this hospital change everyday, creating subtle differences.

  Found this collage when I wandered into a courtyard.

Found this collage when I wandered into a courtyard.

  Subtle use of colour in a school yard.

Subtle use of colour in a school yard.

  Bold use of colour and art in a public playground. Berlin is home to hundreds of colourful murals.

Bold use of colour and art in a public playground. Berlin is home to hundreds of colourful murals.

  A school.

A school.

  Another school.

Another school.

  Even the garbage containers are colourful.

Even the garbage containers are colourful.

 The orange "Oh happy way!" street sweepers say it all.... 

The orange "Oh happy way!" street sweepers say it all.... 

Berlin Cemetery: Etchings & Cafe

It is the classic example of how as a tourist you do things you never do at home.  In Calgary we have often said we should take an afternoon and explore one of our inner city cemeteries.  We have even threatened to meet up with friends and do one of the guided tours. But alas, we have never done it. 

Luisenstadtischer Friedhof

Early on in our wandering of the streets of Berlin's Kreuzberg district, we discovered what looked like a lovely cemetery.  We quickly agreed it would be a great place to flaneur on a nice day when we wanted some solitude from the animated streets and plazas. We also noted there was a charming cafe where we could have a coffee and cake - something that would become a become a daily ritual.  

Sure enough, 10 days later on a nice sunny morning, we headed back to the what we eventually figured out was not only a failed vineyard but four cemeteries. 

We pretty much had the place to ourselves except for the chirping birds and the occasional cute red squirrel.

The Etchings

The light was amazing as the huge trees had not yet leafed out. It created a heavenly glow on the graves, some of which have been etched by the elements for over 100 years.  Others had a lovely green patina from the moist Berlin winters.

I immediately switched the camera to black & white mode to create what I hoped would be some very intense and dramatic images.    

The Shadows

RRP...

Cafe Strauss is a lovely spot to relax, reflect and ponder. I couldn't help but ponder what it must have been like for artists living in Berlin 50 or 100 years ago.  I wondered about how cities shape artists and artists shape cities and why are some cities more attractive to artists than others.  What makes Berlin so attractive to young artists today?  Is it in the city's DNA? Why is Berlin a haven for artist and not Winnipeg, Edmonton or Hamilton?

More Cafe Strauss Info: I Ate My Cake In A German Cemetery 

Last Word

I remember going (being dragged) to cemeteries when I was young to visit the graves of grandparents, but I wonder if anyone does that anymore.

Do cemeteries have any relevance in contemporary life? Compared to previous generations, are we more focused on the future, rather than the past? Are we too focused on the future?  What role have cemeteries played in fostering a sense of family, a sense of continuity and a respect for the past?

Berlin makes you think!

While some love to explore the museums and art galleries of Berlin (there are 175 of them) after 18 days I am still fascinated by the everyday life of the streets of Berlin.  To me the street seem more authentic less contrived than museums. 

And, yes I am definitely going to flaneur Calgary's cemeteries this spring or summer or fall. 

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Berlin: City of Hats!

Berlin: Humana Thrift Store Gone Wild?

One of the best ways to find off-the-beaten path gems in a new city is to visit thrift stores, as they are often located in up-and-coming communities.  When we heard Berlin has a five floor thrift department store we had to go. 

I wasn't disappointed. Brenda was!

Upon walking in you immediately encountered a wonderful hat display, yes Berlin is the "City of Hats." But what was even more impressive was the circular staircase with artwork along the wall.  

A bit Guggenheimish!

Also on the main floor were some huge vintage ceiling light fixtures, like nothing I have ever seen. A very elegant use of fluorescent tubes. Those Germans are so clever when it comes to simple designs.

More Mannequins

The first impression was this is definitely like a department store as the racks were well organized and there were fun vignettes every where, as well as some exquisite miniature mannequins. Boy once this guy gets on a theme it is hard for him to let go.

There were also some fun vintage posters - too bad they weren't for sale.

However, the piece de la resistance was the vintage clothing floor at the top. It was a definitely a walk back in time.  Maybe not a walk everyone wants to take. Some of us might want to forget the tacky, wacky clothing we use to wear. The mannequin displays were very strange indeed. 

Brenda Struck Out

After being all excited to visit the mega thrift department store, Brenda went home empty handed.  While the store was clean, well stocked and well organized, the prices were much the same, or higher than at home. There were no bargains to be had. 

I did manage to find some fun wooden children's toys that I will add to my collection - all for 1 Euro. 

Oh yes, the thrift store is called Humana, and is at the Frankfurter Tor station. It is part of the Oxfam charity shops and there are several outlets in Berlin.  

Stalin Architecture

Across the street are twin mega horizontal office blocks built in the Stalinist style according to the plans of Hermann Henselmann, in 1953 and 1956. On one level, they evoke a sense of intimidation, power, and authority, while on another level they serve as a gateway into the city. The two sentinel-like domed towers looking down on the street further add to sense of intimidation and being watched. 

Who Knew?

Just down the street from Humana we lucked out to find the Cafe Tasso bookstore. I loved the outside book bins that enhance the pedestrian experience and frame the patio.  Inside is a charming cafe with more books.  As we had our lunch we couldn't believe the number of people coming and going buying books.  

We decided to checked out the small room of books next to the cafe and while everything was well organized there were no prices. Strange?  When we asked we were told all books were 1.5 Euros.  Then when I went to the washroom I discovered the bookstore continued in the back and downstairs.  It was wonderful rabbit warren of treasures.  Who knew? I wish I could read German as there were some good bargains.  

Oh how I miss McNally Robinson Bookstore and Bistro on Stephen Avenue. Every pedestrian district needs a good bookstore cafe. 

Last Word

If you are into vintage, especially vintage clothing you have to go to Berlin, it is the "vintage capital of the world."

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Berlin: City of Hats?

Upon arriving in Berlin one of the first things I noticed was there seemed to be a lot of hat boutiques, more than I recall seeing in other cities. I saw them not only along the main pedestrian streets, but also on off-the-beaten-path ones and at flea markets.  

They seemed to be everywhere.

Even though I don't wear hats, unless you include a golf visor, I do love them.  Especially the vintage ones that my grandmother use to wear that are like precious works of art designed to sit on a woman's head.

Then I hit the motherlode of hat shops - Fiona Bennett.  We were just aimlessly flaneuring back to the Kurfustten Train Station along Potsdamer Str. when I was stopped in my tracks by the amazing windows of the Fiona -  a hand-made hat store.

I had my camera out faster than you can say "so many hats and only one head." FYI. I borrowed that line from her website.

The windows were like mini-exhibitions with the hats as the works of art. As I moved from window to window I discovered that one of the windows allowed you to look into the studio where they make the hats.  I also loved the dozens of hat forms all piled up along the window - like wooden skulls.

Fiona's was a great ending to a fun day of flaneuring.  For background information on Bennett click here: Fiona Bennett: A Hat Is The Icing On The Cake

I hope you like this photo essay: Flaneuring at Fiona's

Fiona, Berlin

Last Word

And if this isn't enough to convince you that Berlin is truly the city of hats, how about the fact that their walk and don't walk traffic figures have hats. And not only that, the figures have a name Ampelmann and have become such a hit with the tourists there are three Ampelmann boutique stores. 

Postdamer Gallery District 

Fiona is part of the Postdamer Gallery District (see map below).  We visited several galleries during the day but Fiona was far and away the best. 

If you find yourself in Berlin, be sure to drop by Fiona's and perhaps order yourself a custom hat - Postdamer Str. 181-83, open Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 7 pm.  More information at: Fiona

Berlin: Boxhagener Flea Market Fashion Show

I was shocked when I learned Berlin's motto is "we are poor, but sexy!" But after a few days flaneuring the city, it is starting to make sense to me. It is a city of grit and glitz.  While there is lots of upscale shopping we love the fact the city is full of flea markets on the weekends, making it very attractive to those of us who love the "thrill of the hunt."  

 You never know who you might meet at a flea market.

You never know who you might meet at a flea market.

One Weekend Four Markets

On our first weekend in Berlin, we hit four flea markets and each was very different. The Marheineke Platz Flea Market on Saturday was great, the RAW flohmarket in an abandon railway repair yard was more interesting because of the site, which looked like it had been bombed and the Hallen flohmarket is a huge warehouse packed with junk from floor to ceiling.  

However, the market with the best "poor to sexy" cultural statement was the Boxhagener Platz Flea Market.  After only a few minutes I quickly realized this wasn't your typical flea market as many of the shoppers were dressed very fashionably - no wonder the New York Times recommended it a few years back. 

  Yes there was also some fun artifacts to be found at the market. 

Yes there was also some fun artifacts to be found at the market. 

Hommage to Bill

I have long toyed with the idea of doing a blog in the style of the famous New York Times street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham who died at the age of 87, in 2016 (Link: NYT Remembering Bill Cunningham).  

Each week Cunningham would produce a full page collage of curated photos of the fashions he saw New Yorkers wearing on the street. He was often credited with identifying new fashion trends before anyone else.  I will not pretend I am a fashionista, but I do love the flair they add to street life.

So her is my Cunningham inspired curated collages and some stills of Berlin's Boxhagener Platz fashionistas. 

 And yes Brenda did find a buried treasure, this 1940s made in Germany scale to add to her collection of scales.  She has also found two others so far.

And yes Brenda did find a buried treasure, this 1940s made in Germany scale to add to her collection of scales.  She has also found two others so far.

Last Word

Now that you have scanned the images go back and have another look not just at the fashions but also at the narratives. As they say, "every picture tells a story." Or as they said in the 1950s Naked City TV show "There are eight million stories in this naked city; this has been one of them."

In the case of Berlin that would be 3.5 million stories; these are just a few.

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