Thursday, August 28, 2008

I guess the bar was out of Macallan

Nothing says class like a fine cigar and a... can of beer. Here's the Golden Jet at a golf tournament at the 96-year-old Pine Ridge Golf & Country Club (of which Conrad Black's father and grand-father were past presidents) today.

Photo by Wayne Glowacki at the WFP

You can almost hear that 40-grit sandpaper voice ordering another Bud Light.

Anyway, I hope my hair looks that good when I get to be that age.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It would have made a great satellite campus...

While Winnipeg sits around scratching itself, indifferently going through a list of post-secondary institutions and government departments that haven't yet been cajoled downtown by the City or its public downtown conditioning agencies, along comes someone from the former People's State of Saskatchewan with a plan to invest in the Avenue Building.

Condos slated for Portage Ave. - WFP
The six-storey Avenue Building is a microcosm of both Portage Avenue's past prominence and its present stagnation. When it was built in 1910, purely in response to the sky-rocketing demand for commercial space in the vicinity, British investment was pouring into the city. (The Great War obviously halted this stream, while the General Strike ensured it did not return.) Saskatchewan is no Edwardian Britain, but we'll will take what we should get.

And with such a crucial property that stood for years as a vacant eyesore finally poised to be brought to life with private investment, the locals who have toiled in downtown renewal for years would certainly be ecstatic to have a young new player with apparently deep pockets hit the scene with an upscale condo/office conversion:

"I think as long as he doesn't have too many of them (condos), it will work," said Hart Mallin.

"I think that with the executive thing, you've got to be careful with that," offered Bill Thiessen. "That's not a slam dunk anywhere in Winnipeg except maybe Wellington Crescent."

While I hesitate to question the self-proclaimed "urban realtor", this is exactly the type of thing that was said when the first four Waterfront Drive projects were announced (where even if people are rarely seen living there, the units have clearly sold).

Besides, when a seller is most likely to get his half-million dollar asking price for this charming little bungalow in Windsor Park, I think its a safe assumption the spending habits of people in the higher-end housing market are wholly unpredictable.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

From the archives

Looking through old pictures of mine, I found a couple of interesting items I found a couple of years ago sifting through the third floor of the Library, and the City Archives.

From a January 1946 edition of the Tribune:

"Two-bit Derby Hat Craze Sweeps Daniel Mac School

Throwback to the elegant 80's, a bowler hat craze is sweeping Daniel McIntyre high school in the city. Some 40 students who want to look like James Cagney looking like George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy have already taken it up.

Edward Bayack, 117 Dagmar st., 11th grade student and mentor of the new movement, said there was really no particular significance to the wearing of the round-crowned head-gear, and modestly, "It was just a brilliant idea, that's all."

"Mabye we're wearing them because Kelvin High isn't."

Principal Ewart Morgan who himself wears a derby on occasion, said, "It's one of those unaccountable things, but good for the esprit de corps."

Students buy their derbies for 25 cents apiece at Goodwill Industries, which, through the past few years, has managed to get quite a collection of bowlers through salvage drives.

"The hats we are wearing," said one, "once belonged to the upper crust of Winnipeg.""


Did city planners unwittingly dream up the modern shopping mall? From the Metropolitan Planning Commission's 1947 report city appearance:

"Design and Treatment of Commercial and Industrial Buildings and Sites

Developments should be such as to fit in with neighborhood uses. For instance, commercial establishments located in small commercial islands in residential areas should be set back from the property line in suitable relationship with residential buildings. Such a requirement appears in the proposed zoning by-law.

In larger commercial districts and the Central Business District buildings can be grouped to advantage. The result of such integration is much more pleasing than rows of individual shops. Shops may be grouped around an open area in which children can play safely while their mothers shop. Such developments offer off-street parking space, easy access for pedestrians, safe and convenient shopping and opportunities for attractive landscaping..."

In any case, they sure fixated on transforming cities for nothing but automobile use.

Monday, August 18, 2008


I get into work on Saturday and find a heavily-tattooed co-worker of mine coming up to me holding up his phone. "Check it out: Nikki Sixx! I met him at Portage and Main today." The image on his phone showed the two of them, standing beside the Bank of Montreal. As it turns out the Motley Crüe bass player, who was staying at the Fairmont, and his bodyguard were hurdling over the concrete barriers in attempts to cross Main Street just as my co-worker pulled up to the traffic light.

(The '80s hair metal legend is not the first rock star to defy local regulations. Last summer, The White Stripes performed music without the sanction of The Forks. This stunt can be viewed on Youtube.)

It seems to be with increased regularity that I see people walking across what was Canada's most famous intersection. They are almost always either bewildered middle class people too well-dressed to be from this city, or local bar-stars, drunkenly disregarding their life-long submission to city planning's ultimate tribute to misanthropic authoritarianism--a barricaded Portage and Main.

It is embarrassing to watch out-of-towners tepidly cross Portage and Main, knowing that you live in the city that has allowed this peculiar affront to urban existence for the past 30 years (yet has spent all that time stupidly wondering why people go downtown less and less). It is not easy to cross Portage and Main; it takes some degree of physical prowess, and is a hostile and degrading experience. I applaud anyone who does not take "no" or "use the concourse, weirdo" for an answer. Even this guy:

Friday, August 15, 2008

"...and there is no health in us"

Move over, grain. Take a hike, railways. Manufacturing and wholesale, you still here? There's a new chief industry rising in Winnipeg: sick people. In recent years, the expansion of health facilities and bureaucracies to serve them are spreading through the inner city like a cancer.

Health Sciences Centre, a juggernaut that will soon consume Weston Bakery and residents of Elgin Avenue, is a continual hive of construction activity.

On North Main from the tracks to St. John's Park, there are today probably more medical clinics than there were stalls at the Stella Ave. farmer's market forty years ago.

Outside HSC, two of the three most significant buildings rising out of the ground in central Winnipeg right now are offices for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. (The third is the Sky Loft Condos, which after a few years of delay is taking shape on Waterfront and Pacific Ave.)

There is of course Centre Venture's folly on Main and Logan, and also what appears to be a similarly-sized building on the corner of Portage and Toronto St.

And it doesn't end there. One local architect says that the WRHA's future projects include "a new centrally located 100,000 sq. ft. bldg [bigger than the Electric Railway Chambers]."

Don't expect any more effort into presenting a building that compliments rather than detracts from the physical space from WRHA than they are putting into the mystery block on Main. "That's what you get when you go Design-Build and lease the building. The WRHA will continue to do this for all future projects..."

Like a massive public works project like the floodway, the hydro-electric monopoly's office consolidation on Portage Ave., a government-led automobile suburb in southwest Winnipeg (named after a police shooting range--hmm, topical), all this health construction helps keeps our provincial economy looking "red-hot" on paper. It gives something to proclaim proudly from the business page, governments and their servants to pat themselves on the back for, and maybe even a chance for Gary Doer to ride that "endangered downtown construction crane" joke for another nine years. But to look any deeper is to find out how depressingly hollow all this activity is. Never mind economic sickness and dysfunction, it is coming from a city and province that is literally becoming more physically and mentally (and spiritually...) unhealthy and dysfunctional.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The mysterious monstrosity

While the steel skeleton of the new Winnipeg Regional Health Authority office building rises on Main Street, no drawing of the building has been released to the public. Let's hope the construction supervisors, at least, know what they're building.

One thing that has changed from the "purely conceptual" plan happily released to the media some months ago, is that there will now be no street-front commercial spaces at the sidewalk level of the parade. Instead, Main will be transformed by a blank wall.

Not that it matters, since the great tragedy of 45 years of failed megaprojects in Winnipeg has been the undying wish that design, context, and use do not matter, but only the fact that the development--any kind of development--is happening. Once completed, it is hoped that private developers and businesspeople will pass by a project and think: "Wow, lots of money was used to build that concert hall/convention centre/shopping mall/arena/health bureaucracy office/football stadium. I can even remember construction cranes and workers on it last year. It has in some way made the street look different than it did before. These facts alone have made the neighborhood a better place to willingly spend my own money and expect to earn a profit. Sign me up! (And will I get a $500,000 kickback from the City, like the WRHA did?)"

For such a quantitatively significant development on such a development-hungry strip (that Holly McNally described to the National Post last weekend as "still a skid row") as the WRHA offices on Main, one would think that all involved would be taking any chance to show it off. If the City--with such a plebian disregard for aesthetics and basic principles of dense and complex (vibrant) urbanism--is too embarrassed to show the design to the public, one can only imagine just how positively banal it is going to end up being.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Thanks for coming out

The plan to build a stadium has all but officially left Point Douglas--and anywhere else in the core--but that did not stop Gary Doer from playing politics by meeting with a few concerned local artists.

Point Douglas artists blast stadium plan - WFP

Some weeks ago, my friends and I ran into Wanda Koop and her family, biking down Waterfront Drive. Obviously upset by the idea of a stadium looming in the shadows of her Henry Avenue studio, she told us then that she was going to be getting into contact with her connections high up the political totem pole. It would seem she did.

Interesting to note, however, that David Asper--that evil big businessman who looks out only for his own selfish interests--took a couple of hours out of his weekend to face a group uninformed Point Douglas residents a full week before the public was aware of his plans. The Premier--social democratic leader of The People that he is--showed up some six weeks later, when the Point Douglas stadium was pretty much dead in the water anyway, and only before an audience of a few citizens who are not only prominent Manitoba artists, but more or less his ideological allies. Now that's what I call public servitude!

Anyway, I wonder if Mr. Doer mentioned his nine-year-old government's "commitment" to South Point Douglas. Of some of the Province's suburban development "profits", I am sure some dollars are bound to trickle down to the south Point.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Escaping the slums

On Sunday I was walking up to my house when a middle-aged couple standing on the sidewalk nearby stopped me to talk. They were Vietnamese, and have lived on Selkirk Ave. E., a few blocks away from me, since 1989. Now, after 25 years in the neighborhood, they are selling their house and moving to a brand new house in East Kildonan near Concordia Hospital. They were out on this afternoon killing time while their house is shown at an open house.

The man exited our conversation to knock on the door of some friends of theirs, but the woman stayed to talk with me. The house they have lived in is listed at $102,900, she said. A year ago I was bowled over when a house sold for $80,000. Now its nearly impossible to find any house in Point Douglas for less than $100k.

The woman recalled my street 15 years ago as a place very bad, dangerous and run-down. The large house where Premier Norquay resided in the 1880s--restored by its owner-occupant who rents out parts of the massive house to newly-arrived Ukrainians--was a decrepit rooming house that hosted many loud and violent parties. The house next to mine--where its new owner, an established local artist could be heard renovating the place as we spoke--was also a seedy slum house. When my neighbor on the corner and her son, immigrants from Romania, waved to me from down the street, the woman told me that was another house that was trouble. "So many owners now."

Asking my background, she was a little surprised to learn that the son of second and fourth generation Canadians would be living in Point Douglas. "I thought you'd live around McPhillips," she remarked, rather oddly given the neighborhoods around McPhillips' marked cosmopolitanism.

This is a neighborhood where one's life in Canada begins, and for Aboriginal Canadians, the place where life in urban Canada begins. And more than seeing people move in and give the neighborhood extra hipster points, it has been exciting to see people escaping the bonds of tribalism--from Burundi to Northern Manitoba--around the world, and thrive in a neighborhood they feel safe and proud to live in.

For the couple moving from Selkirk E., it was clear it wasn't a matter of fleeing--she told me they liked it here--but seemed to be more about pursuing what for most people is the Canadian Dream. It was the increase in local real estate values that has made this move 'up' possible for these people, and for the many other old-timers who in recent years have been selling. A move to a new house in the suburbs would have been impossible ten, or even five years ago, but thanks to the so-called "gentrification" the poverty racket decries, house-owners have newfound leverage and an actual chance to find a buyer for their property. There is increasingly more Canadians--new immigrants, native-born, or Aboriginal--who are happy to move here with dreams of their own.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Fun with Facebook

On the "Save the Marx mural" Facebook group, the first on the list of related groups is the charming "Street party when Thatcher dies" group, which has over 6,300 members who await the death of a former British PM who has been out of office for 18 years. They (jokingly?) warn that "Tory trolls will be... shot." Hmm.