Crane City

The world dropped off the southwest edge of town when I was growing up. From View
Street, beyond Ravine, Lavoie and Mary streets there was open sky and a sparsely wooded scree. We enjoyed playing in a crescent-shaped, dry sandy cliff, the perfect place for the fertile imagination of young boys. We were not allowed to venture there, but unless we came home scratched up and broken, it was far enough away no one would know where we’d been. Of course, a boy doesn’t have to be playing near a cliff to come home scratched up and broken.

There were a couple of ways down, none of them a trail; mostly, it was a pants-tearing,
dust-creating slide down the side as one attempted to create a zigzagging goat trail, grasping for small branches, the larger of the rocks or the occasional tuft of grass. It has been so long since I have seen it, I’m not sure how true I am being to my memory (or vice versa). What I remember quite clearly, however, perhaps because the amount of disgust and shame that is attached to it, is watching Steve F. pick up a cat and drop it over the side of the cliff after it had scratched him. It must not have gone far for within moments it had
clawed its way to the top. It was white with black patches, a large one around the left eye. Steve kicked it in the head and it was gone.

I am pretty sure this particular cliff no longer exists, although the town still does end  rather abruptly where the sun sets. The construction in the 1980s of the I-391 bypass
between Holyoke and Springfield changed the landscape of Aldenville forever.

View Street is at the end of Olea. Here was a bar with ceiling-to-floor windows out of which one could see the lights of Willimansett, Holyoke and the Holyoke Range beyond that. Below was the Connecticut River, a ribbon of darkness emigrating south toward Long Island Sound from Canada.

In my early teens we used to run a trail we called the Kangaroo Trail. We accessed it from
behind the Aldenville  Park, which sat between the immense Ste. Rose de Lima cemetery, where my youngest sister now lies, and the lands of the American Legion. One by one we would race down the steep, winding trail where, at the bottom, someone with a watch timed us. Billy Belle-Isle, blond, tall and reckless, was fastest. I was next.

The American Legion was where the Ste. Rose de Lima parish picnic was held yearly in
September. As Boy Scouts we were in charge of parking, directing traffic off the road into the fields in rows and columns after the surfaced lot had filled. One year, I remember horsing around with other scouts after we’d finished for the day. We were pretending to pass a joint around. (Yes, even Boy Scouts.) I took my pretend marijuana cigarette, inhaled and held the smoke in. I woke up on the ground. I had apparently held my breath too long and fainted. I’d collapsed into a stroller a woman was pushing behind us. Let that be a lesson: Don’t smoke pretend pot.

Kangaroo Trail is gone now, another victim of the I-391 eraser. The Legion and – more
importantly, its land – were sold to a condominium developer. The bar, which has changed names so often over the years it was impossible to keep up and now I’ve just plain forgotten, is still there, though. I saw it on Google Maps.

As we drove west along the Corniche Road in Abu Dhabi, I noticed a large backhoe moving sand. My new acquaintance Christian Debray, a Quebecer like me, informed me that the city was building a new public beach here. This is a good thing. Abu Dhabi is an island and though there are a number of beaches, and obviously a lot of waterfront, not much of it is open to the public. The soft, white-sand beaches are owned by private clubs and hotels. Most of the expats here are labourers from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. You don’t see these people at private clubs and fancy-dancy hotels.

By the look of it, the beach will be quite long, close to a mile stretching from the western
point of the Corniche pedestrian walkway to the point where the road turns north near the Emirates Palace Hotel and the marina. The walkway itself is long and goes from the Khalidiyah district east for at least ten kilometres toward the old port where the dhows are. The Corniche has undergone complete reconstruction in the past couple of years. It is now a favourite for walkers, joggers, cyclists and picnickers. The path is clean; there are fountains and lots of green spaces; miniature palm trees flourish. To get from the Corniche
back into the city without crossing the eight-land boulevard, there are underground pedestrian walkways, with mosaic tiled walls and steps, more fountains and waterfalls, and tunnels painted with scenes of Emirati life.

Christian and his wife, Amy, and I went to the Marina  Mall at the northwestern tip of the island. This is the biggest of Abu  Dhabi’s malls and caters to the more well-to-do Emiratis,
tourists who might be staying at the nearby Emirates Palace Hotel, and middle-class expatriates who think they can afford to dream. On our tour of one wing of the building – we had about an hour before the start of our movie, so one wing was all we could cover – we stopped in front of a window and looked out.

I quoted a colleague from work who’d said that at the pace of construction in Abu Dhabi now, in five or ten years we would not recognize the place.

“Five years?” Christian mocked. “This is all new since I come here.” We were looking at a
rotary with three points of entry and exit, one of which turned toward the future. Across the road were two buildings under construction, one a high-rise and one a long, four-story building that looked residential. Christian said the high-rise has doubled in height in only the past couple of months.

I live in a hotel apartment in the north-central part of the island. From my living-room
window I see “Cannon Square” so named for the giant white statue of a … cannon. There are also statues of a traditional Emirati coffee pot and a reproduction of a fortress tower and other figurative statues though I don’t know what they represent. Beyond that, toward
the Corniche, is Etihad Square. Etihad means “nation.” (Our Arabic sister newspaper is called Jiderat Etihad.)

Outside my bedroom window, however, come the sights, sounds and smells of construction of the Central Market. This was the main souk. It covered an area two city
blocks long by one wide. Aldar Corp., the main Abu Dhabi construction company and a
corporate parent of our newspaper (ultimately it is all owned by one family, of course) is the main contractor. Work starts with the rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers about half-past six in the morning and continues until about midnight. It might continue after that, but my ears are asleep. The tall plywood signs keeping pedestrians from seeing the work-in-progress promise that the new Central Market will change our lives. There are photographs of well-off Western and Middle Eastern women, a Gulf family, lots of gold, riches. No one looks happy. I’m not sure how much they’re lives would be changed.

The artist’s rendition of the new souk pictures three spikes, beautiful towers with wave-like vertical ribs and lots of sea-blue windows. It had been my impression that souks were horizontal affairs, like open-air strip malls, where one meandered from one kiosk to the next, testing the ripeness of fruit and vegetables, haggling with a vendor over the cost of a rug, fending off the thin man hustling fake Rolexes. Between the rendition of the new construction and the advertisement photos, I have a feeling Aldar, responsible for much of the new look of this once-Baniya Bedouin tent city, intends to change the definition of souk in Abu Dhabi.

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