3.05.2006

winnipeg

I see a lot of negative things about Winnipeg in the media here. I understand the weather is abominable, the landscape is flat, and it has the worst urban decay in Canada. This has only made me want to go to Winnipeg and see for myself.

I like to visit cities that have bad reputations. When we went to Mexico, people told me to skip Mexico City, that it's over-crowded and polluted and noisy. It was all of those things. It was also vibrant and colourful and overflowing with life. There is music and art everywhere, good food, friendly people, great architecture. I wouldn't have missed it.

On our baseball trips, we've visited many cities that aren't tourist destinations, and had terrific experiences - Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and hopefully many others to come. While I lived in New York, I explored what Manhattanites snobbishly refer to as "the outer boroughs" - Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx - along with every neighbourhood of Manhattan, as much as I could. (There's one borough not on the list. I never cared about Staten Island.)

In that spirit, whenever we make our great Canadian cross-country trip I want to see Winnipeg.

Last week, the Globe And Mail ran a feature about Winnipeg that doesn't appear to be available online. It prompted several letters along these lines:
The battle to turn Winnipeg's fortunes around may already be lost? Nonsense! People have been taking potshots at Winnipeg ever since the first settlers arrived at Point Douglas and got stuck in gumbo, but your article 'Urban Decay Is Not A Negative' (Focus, Feb. 25) certainly did the city a disservice.

Julius Strauss reports that he saw "little in the way of obvious natural beauty." There is nothing to equal the majestic sweep of Winnipeg's main thoroughfares or the beauty of blue sky meeting horizon that can be seen between the city's gracious old and modern buildings. There is nothing to equal the autumn colours at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers or the great elms' cathedral arches throughout the city, nothing to equal the clean lines of bright wooden houses in the west end and the amazingly abundant gardens in the north end.

Yes, there are a thousand jokes about Winnipeg's harsh climate, but its biting cold and clean fresh air produce strong Canadians, great artists and superb athletes. There may be mosquitoes and hot days in July, but there is nothing more satisfying anywhere than the scented cool air of Winnipeg's summer evenings.

It is too easy to see shops that are boarded up and streets that are littered with debris and panhandlers, and it's too naive to think that a few modern condos and a new arena complex will redefine a city. There is a strength and cohesion, generosity and resolve, that Mr. Strauss missed. Winnipeg does not reveal its steel to the casual observer. -- Corinne Langston
Reading about the building of the trans-Canadian railroad, I heard of those wide avenues, built to accommodate two Red River carts, and that crazy mud that was impossible to clean off.

Yesterday the G & M ran responses from two Winnipeg writers. One of them is Miriam Toews, whose book A Complicated Kindness is on my to-read list.
The city that cuts two ways

Does Canada undersell Winnipeg? Last week, a Globe feature ignited a fierce debate about the city's virtues and drawbacks. We asked writers Robert Enright and Miriam Toews to weigh in with their sense of the place.

Robert Enright:

Winnipeg is a city that sits where two rivers meet -- the Red and the Assiniboine -- and it's a city that cuts two ways; you love it most of the time and you're infuriated by it some of the time. But it breeds a fierce loyalty and once it's had you, you're had for good, whether you stay or not.

It has myriad charms. Here are just some:

1. Arguably it has the most vital arts community, especially in the visual arts, of any city in the country. Winnipeg is a hothouse in cold storage and the artists just keep coming out of the cold. The list is as long as a lineup for a sellout play at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival: Don Reichert, Wanda Koop, David McMillan, Eleanor Bond, William Eakin, The Royal Art Lodge, Two-Six, Karel Funk, Paul Butler and the Other Gallery, Sarah Anne Johnson. I could go on . . . and on.

2. The sense of community. Unlike in other cities, the art world here is relatively benign in the way it treats people. This feeling accounts for the large number of successful artist collectives, for Art City, and for the city's penchant for festivals in all artistic disciplines. There is a story (it might be apocryphal, but I doubt it) that when the members of the Royal Art Lodge were drawing up a list of the people they hated, they had to stop after 30 minutes of trying because they couldn't think of anyone to put on it.

3. The Exchange District. An area of architectural solidity and quiet elegance, populated by buildings in the Chicago and New York styles from the turn of the century that are perfect for studio spaces and loft living. The warehouse district is my favourite area of the city, a dream for anyone who has ever considered the idea of urban romanticism.

4. Summer. There are glorious, limitless blue skies and a sun so high that you tip over watching its brilliant passage. You never want to be anywhere else in the good, hot months, and when the wind blows, which it blessedly does much of the time, the mosquitoes lay low.

5. Gimli. From our door to arrive at this amazing lake town, with the largest Icelandic population outside Reykjavik, takes only an hour. It is home, either by birth or spirit, to some of our best artists, including David Arnason, Meeka Walsh and Guy Maddin. They go there to be made whole again. Gimli means "heavenly abode." And so it is.

Here are three challenges facing Winnipeg:

1. Developing an art market that supports local art-making. Is there some connection between the quantity and quality of the superb artists Winnipeg produces and the fact that no one buys their work in their own home city? This is an almost sinful omission.

2. The inner-city problem. The inner city has a large number of citizens who have been disenfranchised. The attendant violence and alcohol abuse are unacceptable and shameful. The fact that so many of the people caught in this demeaning and damaging situation are aboriginal is sinful.

3. Finding a way to encourage downtown living. The health of the inner city depends on a mixed population, and the city and province have to find ways to make it easier and affordable to live downtown. When gentrification has happened in the warehouse area, it has been too quick and unearned.

We have to slow down and pay attention.

Robert Enright has lived in Winnipeg since 1972. He is the senior contributing editor for Border Crossings magazine and the university research professor in art criticism at the University of Guelph.

Miriam Toews:

Here are five things I love about Winnipeg:

1. Its vibrant alternative arts scene. It has an energy and edginess and, most importantly, an accessibility that isn't available to emerging artists in larger centres. The DIY philosophy works better here than anywhere else.

2. The turn-of-the-century buildings in the Exchange District, where it's still possible to rent a beautiful studio for less than $100 a month.

3. Its isolation. It gives Winnipeg its unmistakable character and contributes to the city's prodigious output of original work and creative ideas.

4. The University of Winnipeg and its many interesting initiatives to revitalize its downtown campus, and its recognition of the specific needs of its inner-city neighbourhood.

5. I love the way summer explodes out of nowhere and people come out of their houses to party in their backyards or on the streets late into the night, every night, until October.

Three challenges:

1. The marginalization of aboriginal people, particularly their poor treatment by the police force. It's impossible to fully appreciate a city knowing that some of its most vulnerable citizens are not being adequately served and protected.

2. The shortsightedness of politicians in recognizing the importance of arts to our city's self-worth. Our mayor should be standing up and leading the fight for arts council increases instead of questioning them.

3. Our tendency to go for the "big box" urban-planning approach as opposed to development that's more pedestrian-friendly.

Miriam Toews is also a long-time resident and the author of the Governor-General's Award-winning A Complicated Kindness.
Both these writers make the city sound worth a visit.

6 comments:

andrea said...

I'm so glad you posted the feedback from two noteworthies, especially about the arts scene as I was going to shout and wave my arms about that. It puts Vancouevr to shame in many ways. I have a desire to visit Wpg now that's almost as strong as the desire to visit NYC, especially as my great grandfather settled there and designed some of those great turn-of-the-century buildings (e.g. The Electric Railway Chambers). It took me a long time to sift the crap from the gold though, about Wpg's reputation/charms, as my father was born there and I was raised on anti-Winnipegism. (My mother was born and raised in Mexico City and I had some of that, too.) There's something about the strong bond between the people I know there and their community that keeps them there. What could be better?

I have read A Complicated Kindness -- it's a fun, thoughtful, alternative sort of read.

Genet said...

I'm also curious about Winnipeg... There seems to be something about the place that breeds genuinely unique artists. Two examples are the director Guy Maddin (his films look like they were filmed in 1924 but the plots are totally surreal- he's a personal fave) and the artists of the "Royal Art Lodge" (the best know member being Marcel Dzama).

NateDawg said...

As a born and bread Winnipeger, I'll pass on a secret. It's a great place to visit, but it's a terrible place to call home. Especially this time of year.

Summers here are awesome, but it's this time of year that I curse this city and vow to be gone by the end of summer.

Ferdzy said...

I passed through Winnipeg very briefly in October a couple years back, and thought it was quite pretty. It has a lot of trees.

My Dad went to university there, and loved-loved-loved the people he met there. He thought it was an incredibly friendly place. He hated the winters with a passion, though. They don't call it "Winterpeg" for nothing.

I haven't read A Complicated Kindness, although I keep meaning to because I understand it is set in Steinbach, MB. We went through Steinbach on that same trip, and it is my considered opinion that Steinbach is THE ugliest community of any size whatsoever in Canada. Which, in a funny sort of way, gives it a certain cachet.

James said...

It's been decades since I've been to Winnipeg, though I do have a number of relatives there. My memories of it amount to flat terrain, 50s-style suburbs, and a train line running through my grandmother's backyard.

On the other hand, Richard Condie lives there. If you don't know who Richard Condie is, you're in for a treat when you finally get to see his stuff.

G said...

Winnipeg is a great city, whose problems stem more from its remote location and subsequent limitations on economic expansion and development than anything else. The nightlife is terrific, and the city is quite beautiful. My own Winnipeg memories are nothing but positive - it is definitely worth a visit, and as a vacation will not disappoint.