Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.35.8: ON BACCALA STREET

Beetle snacks, crucified lizards, and dried shark fins   ©2000 UrbisMedia

Beetle snacks, crucified lizards, and dried shark fins ©2000 UrbisMedia

There is a street near where I lived in Hong Kong a few years ago that I stumbled onto one day. I called it “Baccala Street” (Italian for salted, dried codfish) because it was almost exclusively shops, stalls and small warehouses that sold dried fish and other dried foods. The whole area around Baccala Street was one of desiccation.   There were all sorts of dried foods, many sorts of vegetables, and animals, most of which I couldn’t identify, but among those that I could were dried beetles, shark fins and something that looked either like a sea cucumber (or where someone didn’t pick up after their dog). A proprietor told me the beetles were good to eat if you broke a bone (have a cicada, they’re high in calcium). Even more curious were the lizards that were gutted and “crucified” on sticks, complete with heads, legs and tails.   There were huge piles of them, all staring out at me, mouths agape.   These are streets where the moisture is sucked out of most everything—roots, herbs, tubers, insects, flowers, twigs, giant mushrooms, you name it, they’re dried it.   Just looking at this stuff is to risk dehydration.

 

There still must be many Chinese homes without refrigeration, which is the likely reason for drying out food, because the area also has large warehouses of this stuff, and Chinese trucks, the sort with cloth sides painted with Chinese characters, are being unloaded in the streets every day.   There is an almost constant clattering of little push carts in the narrow lanes, maneuvered like racers by bare-torsoed, tautly-muscled youths in shorts and cheap knock-off running shoes.   They are tough-looking, tattooed guys, often with spikey or bleached hair, and with cigarettes dangling from their mouths.   There are also a few women doing this work, some even tougher-looking than the men. They are stout and sturdy, ethnically swarthy women who look at me as they push their carts past me as though they would shove a majong tile up my nose if I got in their way.

 

I love listening to the constant patter of Cantonese these workers shout to one another.   I can’t understand more than a couple of words, but I know it must be the same taunting and ball-breaking that I remember while working on construction sites back in New York, and it is probably characteristic of people who do hard, sweaty work everywhere.

 

There is another aspect of Baccala Street that appeals to me.   It is a reminder of an economic concept that I used to discuss in my classes in urban planning and urban theory.   For many years I used to enjoy explaining and illustrating what are called by urban economistsagglomeration economies.   A more colloquial name for these economies might be “districts,” but that term doesn’t quite tell their story.   Agglomeration economies are those parts ofn cities where land uses that compete with one another juxtapose themselves because by doing so they collectively enjoy an economic advantage over similar land uses that do not join together.   Sometimes called the “Macy/Gimbel’s effect” for the competing New York department stores that were located next to one another, the effect is to create in economic geography terms “gravity.”   This is gravity, in a metaphorical sense, is the extra added attraction that multiple similar land uses create.   More customers are attracted to an area where there are several car dealers, art galleries, theaters, outlet stores, even “adult” oriented land uses.   Of the latter, I wrote in a French journal several years ago, that what I called “X-rated” land uses in American cities tend to locate with proximity to one another because they profit (literally) from the attractiveness they create for the same customer. [1]   Thus someone who goes to adult district of a city to buy a book or magazine from an adult bookstore, is also likely to patronize the adult movie theater nearby and maybe, upon leaving that establishment, purchases the services of a massage parlor or a lady of the night. Everybody gets a piece of the economic action, so to speak.

 

Such districts are nothing new to cities.   They probably extend to the very beginnings of urbanization, when people realized that some degree of order needed to be applied to the organization of urban land (hence the profession of urban planning).   Certainly planners learned that some land uses did not get along well with one another (the residential area and theabbatoir, for example) and others tended to cluster together (the residential and the school).   Later, with the emergence of guilds, different parts of cities specialized in the occupations of the people who both lived and worked in different districts.   Indeed, such districts were often populated mostly by people of a specific ethnicity, and/or religion as well.   Though the guilds are long gone, the residue if their past can still be glimpsed in the names of the areas, or streets called the Street of the Tinsmiths, etc., or in the religious buildings that were built by the guilds.   These “social” agglomeration economies extended well beyond simple occupational association into almost every aspect of urban life.   The concept was picked up and imitated by Chinese communists in the form of the dan wei, or work place, which combined the workers job with housing, social facilities, schools, and clinics, all contained within an urban geographical context.

          

In many cities around the world—before Wal Mart plants their ugly boxes everywhere—the “department store,” that emporium of everything you need in one building (and at discount prices), exists in the form of districts, souks and bazaars.   Here one can still find areas where manufacturer/vendors still exist, side by side, in usually friendly competition.   These areas are usually a microcosm of the larger city.   But gradually, this form of urbanism is giving way to outsourcing, modern merchandising, the internet, and, of course Wal Mart. That’s why it is such a pleasurable experience for an urbanist to wander through Baccala Street, a rich and varied agglomeration economy of the senses.

But what are they? ©2000 UrbisMedia

But what are they? ©2000 UrbisMedia

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©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.29.2006)

[1] ‘X’ Marks the Spot: The Problem of the Erogenous Zone of the American City,”  Revue Francaise d’Etudes Americaines, Vol. 13, No. 36, April 1988, Pp. 225-34

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