Friday, August 31, 2007

The Winnipeg Neighborhood

There were parts of the old neighborhood that had changed significantly. An elementary school that had been located around the corner from my family's house was razed and its enormous yard rezoned for further suburban development. That added a few new streets, and a few dozen houses.

Commercially speaking, it was a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. The mall where I first bought pizza by the slice and hung out with my mates was gone; in its place was a "Power Center" -- a parking lot hemmed in by the usual franchises and outlets. The automotive parts shop that kept my motorbike running was now a very flashy fitness center. A privately owned family restaurant where a number of my friends got their first job built a larger, swankier-looking restaurant -- right beside the old one, which was empty and looking for a renter. A little further down the main drag we passed a former Pizza Hut that now housed a dentist's office.

The dentist's office caught my wife's imagination. "That's Winnipeg right there," she said. "There's no telling what people will do with the buildings that are available to them. I mean, a dentist's office? The roof is still red, for Pete's sake!"

There is a certain degree of cognitive dissonance at play in commercial Winnipeg. Commercial Winnipeg has precious few neighborhoods, but it stretches through the entire city in very distinct arteries. As a consequence, the commercial life-cycles tend to be short-lived and the storefronts often shabby. Contrast this to Ottawa, a city of similar size, but with distinct commercial neighborhoods where a person can spend a few pleasant hours strolling.

When Carol Shields' Republic of Love received a rave in the NYTBR, Winnipeggers were duly proud. But when the reviewer concluded the piece by saying she wanted to take the next flight to Winnipeg to see these magical locations, even those of us who loved the city had to snicker. Shields consciously made use of existing locales, but if this person ever did catch that flight she was sure to have been shocked by what she saw. Winnipeg has a penchant for malls (due in no small part to the extremes in weather), but frequently struggles to come up with common spaces that are as vibrant and inviting as the tiny pockets portrayed by Ms. Shields.

But enough of my yakking. This is the storefront of my former employer (blogged about here):

The businesses on either side aren't much to look at; the drugstore-grill I mentioned has been re-tooled into a cheque-cashing joint and a Halal meat market, and a used-clothing store has taken residence to the east. I think the National Typewriter building is indicative of the challenge that Winnipeg faces on a massive scale. Here we have a pre-Depression era business building, more solidly constructed with an acute eye toward aesthetics than anything built in the last 50 years -- yet it languishes.

Here is another detail shot of the gables holding up what must now be a very leaky roof.

The stained glass detailing is simple and elegant. Unfortunately, what was once an apartment for a family is now in ruins, holding nothing but trash. There goes the neighborhood.

A little further east is the University of Winnipeg, which government man Lloyd Axworthy has taken under his wing as his next uber-project. The entirety of the U of W's green space is gone, and a massive redevelopment is under way. The university is uniquely located: literally next door to the city's bus depot. Also within easy access: the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the Hudson's Bay and the arena formerly known as Eatons. Just how Axworthy's development scheme will actually contribute to the neighborhood remains to be seen. I certainly wish it success, but can't help being somewhat skeptical. Winnipeg has seen its share of grand developments that missed crucial little details.

The tendency is for Winnipeg politicians to think big and act bigger -- hence big projects like The Forks. But there are also places where attention is being paid to smaller details, and where success has potentially deeper roots. The Old Market is one such, a neighborhood of turn-of-the-century multi-floor warehouses that are now home to studios, theaters, fashion designers, junkies, prostitutes and roll-up-yer-sleeves religious communities. Police headquarters are also right there, and with a little common sense the place can be safely navigated by foot or by car.

The Old Market also houses my new favorite bike shop: Natural Cycle.

The Emma Goldman Society has an office on the second floor, and the entire building is run via collectivist principles. Lay down a loonie and help yourself to a tire:

The bicycles for sale and for rent are chiefly scavenged mods (or, more accurately, vice versa), though NC also sells Dutch monsters, and isn't afraid of constructing its own models from scratch.

Here's a particularly flashy mod:

My last day of our visit, I talked with a friend over breakfast. I said that Winnipeg struck me as being similar to the village I was currently living in: some of our citizens are doing very well for themselves, most are working hard to get by, the mortgage rates are low enough that an artist can afford to starve here, and there is also a significant segment of the populace that is in trouble and is causing trouble. But everyone is used to getting into their cars to get what they want, and this has had its effect on the commercial neighborhood, and I think weakens the overall fabric of the community. If community ethics is the art of compromise, then I think the questions are: how best to counter this gasoline-fueled impulse? And how best to work with it?


DarkoV said...

Great write-up, WP, not that I'd book a flight as some fo Carol Shields' readers may have been tempted to. That link t the A-Zone was interesting. They'd been at it for 12 years now? I would not have bet even one loonie that such an arrangement would make it past a year. The pictures are fabulous, especially those of the bike shop. I can't take my eyes off of the brick and the wood floors.

I'm not sure if I'd agree with your "if community ethics is the art of compromise" statement. I'd love to agree with you on this point, but my limited experience is that compromise is an ever-changing series of events that eventually lead to a few individuals imposing their (hopefully community sanctioned) personalities onto the community so that day-to-day life within the community is not a daily argument with one's neighbours.

Whisky Prajer said...

Twelve years does seem like a miracle, to be sure. And you're probably right: North American communities typically bear the stamp of a few individuals who possess will and resources, while the compromisers get worn down.

Peter said...

A much older co-worker of mine back in the early 1990's had played minor league baseball for several seasons as a young man. Given his age it probably had been some time in the mid- to late-1950's. He had spent time with teams in several cities in the United States and Canada, probably close to ten in all. I recall him saying that Winnipeg was his favorite of all the cities in which he had played.

paul bowman said...

Oh, great stuff, great links — your vacation posts are premium material.

Delighted w/ reminder & re-read of the Typewriter Post.

By the way — archtr. note: 'gable' is misapplied, if I understand what's indicated; cornice is probably your word. (Wouldn't worry about the roof on its account, strictly — though if the ornament's in bad repair, probably a safe guess more essential things are as well.)

Whisky Prajer said...

Peter - Winnipeg remains a great baseball town. We took in a Goldeyes game at the diamond at the Forks, a throwback to a day when people could afford to sit in the bleachers and see who the players were. If your friend is still alive, I think he'd have a hoot.

Paul - cornice is the word I was looking for. I was just too lazy to look it up (thanks!).

Searchie said...

What a wonderful tour! Thank you, WP -- you're a man after my own heart. I love to see a place through the eyes of a tour guide whose soul remains there.

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks Searchie! Given how much I appreciate your tours, your praise means a great deal to me.