Tuesday, March 18, 2008

One cannot care for streets they've never walked on

Today, a new design for WRHA's new office and parkade at Main and Logan was unveiled that has done what was thought to be impossible: be more visually deficient than the original conceptual drawing. The architect, Stantec, appeared to have drawn inspiration from their surroundings on south Waverley Street. The construction firm is, unsurprisingly, the go-to doofuses for all public megaprojects, ManShield Construction.

Word is, one or more of the proposals submitted to Centre Venture would have incorporated the facades of the Starland and Regent Theatre into their designs.

Instead we will suffer this hulking mass, a Stalinist-inspired Noah's Ark, coming to land upon Winnipeg's most fabled street.


“In the imagination Main Street is invincible...”
-Jack Ludwig, ‘You Always Go Home Again’

In a publication from 1892, the length of Main Street that ran from City Hall to the Canadian Pacific Railway mainline was described as “Winnipeg's Bowery," a nod to that lower Manhattan street, which for more than century was notorious for it’s flophouses, bars, and cheap movie houses.

At the dawn of Winnipeg’s history as an incorporated city, it could have been reasonably assumed that Main Street would continue to be city’s pre-eminent thoroughfare. But with the development of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast land reserves south of Notre Dame in the 1880s, and the opening of Eaton’s department store at Portage and Donald in 1904, the pattern of growth took a decidedly different direction--south and westward.

New tree-lined neighborhoods built along Broadway and across the Assiniboine River began to draw the moneyed classes. The building boom that saw gleaming banks and office towers sprout up around Portage and Main, never extended north of City Hall, and North Main became home to thousands of newly-arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe: Jews, Scandinavians, Chinese, Ukrainians.

And while promise of prominence on North Main disappeared, the six short blocks between City Hall and the mainline--flanked by Market Square and Chinatown on the west, the sagging rooming houses that were once the proud homes of Jewish merchant princes on the east--developed into Winnipeg’s acme of cosmopolitanism and urbanity, the most colorful and fascinating neighborhood in the city.

In his memoirs Joseph Wilder recalled the Main Street of the 1900s and ‘10s: a worldly and exciting place of penny peep shows, drunks, haggling grocers, hustling young dandies. An organ grinder with a dancing monkey; a panhandler at Higgins and Main with a cup in his hand and a parrot on his shoulder.

By the 1940s, crime, gangs and homelessness were present on an ageing North Main, but the sidewalks bustled among chop suey houses, Jewish delis, clothing stores, watch repairs, and fortune tellers. Hundreds of residents lived in mixed-use buildings--apartments above stores--on Main and the streets of Chinatown. At night, the neon signs of cafes and bars lit up the street, setting the dirty snowy sidewalks aglow.

Market Square--behind City Hall where the Public Safety Building stands today--became known more as a venue of socialist rallies and soapbox preachers than for its selection of farmer’s produce. At the head of the district, looking down upon Main Street from the corner of Higgins, the grand old Royal Alexandra continued to serve as a centre of the city's social establishment.

In his novel ‘Above Ground’, Winnipeg author Jack Ludwig told of the lasting impression the vulgar, subversive, and brutal side of Market Square left on a young North End boy:

“There I saw a husband swear at his wife.
There I saw a communist blame the Depression on the bosses...
There I saw a drunk try to stop an oncoming police van with an arc of urine. A policeman swung his night-stick.”

Today, of course, that colorful North Main has disappeared. The streetscape of North Main became a gap-toothed collection of fading vestiges. Many buildings were lost to what has recently been termed demolition by neglect, but scores of other perfectly good buildings were demolished for megaprojects: the Civic Centre and Disraeli Freeway of the 1960s, the Neeginan development of the 1990s.

Modernist planning, looming over the city after World War II, sought an end to the messy, dense, and human-scaled nature of North Main. In its aftermath, poverty came to dominate the neighborhood, and commerce left almost entirely. A residential population barely exists in what was once a densely-populated quarter.

In the last couple of years, however, North Main has probably experienced more positive developments than it has in more than half a century. New property owners are refurbishing faded buildings, and a few small businesses have moved in. The Occidental Hotel, a 124 year-old hostelry at Main and Logan, which not long ago was the most notorious hotel on Main Street, has transformed into a well-kept SRO hotel, with a multi-use venue, bike repair shop, and a newly-opened restaurant downstairs.

Jane Jacobs famously wrote, "cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them." This is true on North Main, where the small size, relative plainness, and rock-bottom rents are precisely what now makes North Main perhaps better suited as an incubator of small-scale commercial enterprises than the tonier Exchange District to the south.

North Main could become new by looking to its past. Change is occurring not in its cheap “greenspaces” or at a megalithic Civic Centre, but in small, old commercial buildings where a bank has become an architecture firm; a greasy spoon has become a sushi bar; a butcher shop has become an art gallery; upstairs, affordable apartments are affordable apartments once again.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home