Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Discount everything"

"Chinatown was mobbed Wednesday night by youngsters wanting to see a Victoria Day fireworks display. More people converged on King st. and Pacific ave. at 10 p.m. than you'll find any noon at Portage and Main.

Extra police handled the swarming humanity. But they weren't very effective. When a boy shouted: "Lookit, sky rockets!" the mob burst it borders and heaved like a wave across the narrow streets.


Then the rain came. And humanity disappeared like butter into hot toast. You couldn't time it. At one moment, hundreds of people milled on the streets. At the next, the streets were bare, the pavement was glistening beneath the yellow lights, the gutters were gurgling and lonely, spent firecrackers swam with the current into the sewers."

- Ted Schrader [a journalist of the old school] Winnipeg Tribune, May 25, 1944

Winnipeg-raised artist Alison Fleming's succinct letter to the editor today defends the Shanghai Restaurant (the subject of one of her paintings) against the standard set of arguments that arise from the Winnipeg yokelsphere and its representatives on Council.

Meanwhile, the city's most keenly observant urban flaneur, Walter Krawec, writes at One Man Committee that maybe it's simply too late for Winnipeg's Chinatown.
"If the local Chinese-Canadian community generally isn't interested in revitalizing the Chinatown district (which is somewhat evident by the lack of private investment in the area), perhaps it's time to give up the ghost, rebrand the area as the "North Exchange District" or some such thing, and stop trying to replace the heritage buildings in the area with seniors homes and parking lots."

Unfortunately, while Winnipeg generally experienced a paradigm shift regarding the Exchange District in the 1970s (from top-down, le Corbusier-inspired "Urban Renewal District No. 3" to the market-driven, Gastown-inspired "Historic Warehouse Area") the same never occurred in Chinatown. There continues to be absolutely no official respect for the existing urban fabric of Chinatown--its small blocks, its uniquely small-scale and relatively ancient architecture--and a will to see new developments emerge from the ground up and work within this fabric. With history proving otherwise, business carries on as if Gustavo da Roza's 1974 vision of demolishing the entire neighborhood for a shopping mall was still sound urban planning.

The same conditions of supply and demand that create neighborhood improvement have not been allowed to emerge in Chinatown, where protectionism and land speculation on the part of local development corporations keeps property off the market and old buildings rotting. This sustained decline, and both the parking lots and garish suburban-style architecture it engenders, further repels people from the district.

The Kuo Ming Tang Building on Pacific Ave. is one last exception to this trend. At once a throwback to the old Chinatown (framed photos of Chiang Kai-shek hang in the building's upstairs office), and the local art scene's quiet, slow northern migration (Guy Maddin apparently shot scenes in the basement of the legendary Golden City store), the building functions like it was a normal old building in a normal old neighborhood. But even this anomaly has felt the pressure around it.

However maligned and gap-toothed its streetscapes, there is still hope for Chinatown to become more than a dull wasteland (it's like suburbia, but with homeless people!), but only after it begins to be seen as a neighborhood whose improvement depends on the same conditions other city neighborhoods do.