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.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.
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
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 waysBoth these writers make the city sound worth a visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.