Monday, June 25, 2007

What's been lost, in color - part four

Just about everyone sees the world in color, and thus we are able to relate to color photos, since they usually portray our visual reality more closer to what we see with our owns eyes than black and white photos do. That's why rare color photos of World War II, or the urban photography of Charles Cushman is so fascinating to me, because it brings to life past eras that seem distant and different than the present reality. That's why I'm presenting some color photos of lost Winnipeg architecture, because it makes it easier to imagine it still being there today, and for people too young to have seen these places ourselves, it hopefully provides a greater connection to them.

Few however would be too young to remember Winnipeg's most recent experiment in bulldozer-driven urban renewal: The destruction at Main and Higgins leading up to, and proceeding the 1999 Pan-Am Games. (I've written on this event here.)

Political correctness is to urban destruction today what "modernization" was to it in the 1960s (while "being green" is probably tomorrow's excuse), and no better example of this exists than in the levelling of North Main in the 1990s. In the '60s, politicians and developers were at least honest that their plans were a top-down enforcement on a neighborhood they did not live, shop or do anything in, save for drive through with disdain. In the late '90s, that sort of brazen hostility toward a neighborhood wouldn't have happened so easily, and thus the fluffy posturing of Neeginan.

Once that is cut away, you see most of the development--like all modern renewal plans--was just another triumph of traffic engineers, who could do all the things they wanted to do in their undying quest to turn streets into highways. In North Main's case, fences on the boulevard that discouraged jay-walking was done through "cultural street-scaping"; Closing Henry Avenue at Main was done through "pedestrian walkways"; Building an exit ramp at the NW corner of Higgins and Main was done through demolishing the Savoy Hotel (which, like the demolitions of the Patrcia and Brunswick hotels at the same intersection, displaced scores of people).

This photo shows the east side of Main from Henry avenue, circa 1969. (The large building that dominates the background is the Royal Alexandra Hotel, which stood at the NE corner of Higgins and Main, and was demolished by its owner, CP Rail, in 1971. It would have recently been closed at the time of this photo, but in it's day, it was a preƫminent centre of the city's social establishment.) The smaller buildings on the right are what were demolished in 1997 to make way for the Thunderbird House.

In the shadow of the eight-storey Royal Alex, these buildings don't seem like anything fancy, but their size and relative plainness is precisely what makes them important. As Jane Jacobs so famoulsy said, "cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them..." Look at North Main today. Where is change occuring? Not on pointlessly meandering gravel-and-shrub paths, but in small, old, shabby commercial buildings where butcher shops become art galleries, banks become offices, furniture stores become neon manufacturers, and apartments become apartments again.

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray is sometimes inaccurately portrayed as an urban defender in some circles, but--even when he was still a young Fort Rouge councillor who sat on the Historical Buildings and Planning Committees--he approved and cheered on the destruction of North Main. Clearly, this was before he took to name-dropping Jane Jacobs, because everything about the North Main redevelopment was the opposite of what Jacobs favored.

But that is an attitude in local contemporary urban thinking that unfortunately seems to prevail just as much today as it did a decade ago: that the rules of urbanity don't apply to anywhere north of the Market Avenue. Corydon and Osborne need small, cheap commercial buildings, (some) urban design principles and a dense, mixed residential population, while North Main and the North End needs anti-urban architecture and useless "green space" where a city used to be.


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