Friday, 31 October 2008

Midafternoon Reflections

There's an interesting post by Galston on his Rise and Sprawl blog today.

I only know him through his writings and from that perspective I have to say that I do respect him and his opinion and like to think that I share his interest in urban spaces, heritage related matters and other aspects of our built environment that make up Winnipeg's somewhat tortured soul.

Reading his conclusion: I decided that I do not really like Winnipeg. The only parts of Winnipeg that I do like are whatever remnants remain of sixty, eighty, a hundred years ago, or whatever comes close to resembling, however modestly, a real and normally functioning city. gave me pause to reflect on my city and my thoughts about it.

When I began this site I had more the typical menu that you'd find on a lot of blogs, forums and some media sources: a stream of complaints about the city and certain individuals in it. I started depressing myself joining the legion of folks in the race to put down as many aspects of the city as possible. Over time, I think / hope that it has evolved into more of a balance of celebrating the interesting and unique aspects of Winnipeg without sounding like an "Up, Up With People" number.

I do share Galston's frustration with the city, though, and our seeming inability to get things moving in the right direction. I put the blame not on "the city" as much as I do Winnipeggers.

I've often said that Winnipeg is a great city if it weren't for the Winnipeggers. There is large and vocal segment, egged on by the numerous segments of the media that earn their living off of the angry and crotchety in society and perpetuating the put-down mentality. Complaints about everything from the cold to traffic to crime - complaints that will never, ever be answered because every urban area in the world is going to have weather, traffic and crime to deal with. People who haven't been downtown in years but will go on in great detail about how bad downtown is. People who never take the bus that have the most complaints about Winnipeg Transit.

That leaves, though, a sizable group of people that DO want more from the city and people who run it. That DO want more walkable and cyclable streets. That DO want to see more interesting spots from pubs to all night diners. That DO want to preserve what's left of our heritage resources that makes our urban landscape comparable to some other great cities in North America. That DO want better, more interesting housing choices.

I think that this group is bigger than most people realize but is so completely fractured for a number of reasons that many don't realize it's there in any great strength:

1. Our self image issues, or however you want to put it, gets in the way. It's Winnipeg, it's supposed to suck and it's really uncool to say anything to the contrary. If the Weakerthan's song was called 'I Like Winnipeg' nobody would have ever heard it beyond those who owned the CD. If it was called "I Love Winnipeg" they would likely have lost any hip factor that they had in the local music scene and be all waiting tables today.

2. We have been disappointed in the past. Take, for instance, Portage Avenue. You would get two steps forward on filling the storefronts and then go two steps back because an existing retailer would go bankrupt and another would decide to close it's retail wing. The ball unfortunately doesn't roll too quickly or smoothly in a city as flat as this !

3. It's not organized. There is no organization, publication, personality, (politician, media or otherwise), that captures or speaks to this group.

4. People who stick their neck out get shot down. Take Glen Murray for instance. Though I didn't agree with all of his projects and ideas, he loved cities and urban places and wanted to do something about them. Problem is, if you step to the plate and take a swing you sometimes hit the ball but you also sometimes miss. Winnipeg, I think, prefers people who'll play it safe and go for the 'walk'. Those being too vocal or dreamy about things will be in for a hard ride.

So what's the conclusion to my little rant ? I'm not really sure.....

I guess it's that I feel that same frustration as Galston and just wished that Winnipeggers pulled in the same direction when it came to the city.

- That there was some way that entrepreneurs, landowners, politicians, some aspects of the media as well as the 'average joe Winnipegger', (let's call him Taras the rye bread baker !), could somehow make a 5 year pledge to stop complaining and say something nice about the place - it just night catch on !

- That more people could see the great areas of the city that we do have and realize that we can build on them and not accept second or third best options simply for the reason that "we suck". Many cities do neat things with less than what we have - they just learned to get on with it.

- That the problems we have as a city, from infrastructure to panhandlers to crime, are the same issues that 1,000 other NA cities have and that we'd just stop using them as excuses.

- That people would stop complaining about the bloody cold.


cancelbot said...

I read Galston's posting and I concede it would suck to have liquored up hooligans hit you with a paintball. Why does the blame rest on Winnipeg's shoulders, though?

People here have a tendency to scapegoat Winnipeg for every little thing that goes wrong in their day-to-day lives (can't get french fries at 12:30? Damn Winnipeg. Can't get parking downtown for under $100 a month? Lousy excuse for a town. Can't get a lofty, six-figure executive job? I hate this town and I'm moving to Calgary, etc., ad infinitum). That's what I gather the Weakerthans song I Hate Winnipeg is about - that very mentality.

I've been to, and lived in other places where I've encountered boors, and couldn't get what I was craving late at night. I didn't turn around say the place was a two-bit rundown outpost. I don't say the same thing about Winnipeg. I guess I never really felt that Winnipeg owed me something.

Bryan Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Scott said...

Why are there very few truly walkable urban neighborhoods in the city? And why are there no places to eat after midnight?

Because the people who make these things happen moved to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. The more adventurous ones moved to New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

They gave up on Winnipeg (Ralston seems to have, well). And, yes, the reason they left is because there very few truly walkable urban neighborhoods in the city, and there no places to eat after midnight.

Anonymous said...

I, too, usually appreciate Rise and Sprawl's well informed, well articulated perspective on urban matters, which is why it was so disappointing to read such a bitter rant from him.

Thank you, mrchristian, for keeping such a positive attitude, and for finding things to celebrate, even while you urge Winnipeggers to aspire to something better.

KM said...

Re: Getting Winnipeggers to pull together

One barrier to that is in terms of how we elect city councillors.

What you reward people for doing is what you'll get, and what you penalize them for is what you won't get.

The ward system rewards councillors for putting their neighbourhood first, and the city second. Why not wipe it out and have all councillors elected at large?

Some other suggestions for changing the culture in the city:

- Getting aggressive about education. Though educational attainment levels are improving, they're still lacklustre compared to Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, etc.

- Turning the city's universities into research institutions, not just learning institutions. Research and development is a powerful wealth creator.

- Giving city councillors and administrators easier access to impartial research and analysis so as to moderate the influence of think tanks, lobbyists, media commentators, etc.

Anonymous said...

Again, you forget one important factor.

Winnipeg isn't a "downtown" kinda city.

Its a family oriented City where people go home for the night and possibly support their neighborhood establishments rather then get in the car and trudge downtown for a brewski. ( and don't even mention transit )

Much ado about nothing really. And people should really stop trying to compare the peg to

Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. The more adventurous ones moved to New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

you gotta be kidding

Bryan Scott said...

Defeatist attitudes and small thinking are another huge part of the problem.

If you read my comment again (in which I misspelled Galston's name--my apologies), you'd see that I was not "trying to compare" Winnipeg to those other cities. Rather, I was stating the more than obvious fact that the sort of Winnipeggers who choose to live in dense urban areas instead of the suburbs do so in those other cities.

Winnipeg will never, and could never be Toronto or Vancouver. But between Downtown, The Exchange, West Broadway and The West End, the framework is already in place for the kind of vibrant and livable inner city that Galston's talking about.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Bryan, I am hardly defeatist.

I accept what this City is. And I also know what it can become. Walkways and bike routes including BRT and Condo's aren't high on the list of what will fix this City.

But thats another issue.

If RG wants an experience, he should sell his abode and make a beeline to the Osborne Village /Corydon area. There he will find a lifestyle that he is looking for. I know, its going to cost him. But thats the point, his lifestyle choice, his pocket.

There are alot of Winnipeggers who have made a choice to live an urban lifestyle, tons of them, you just won't find them where you think they should be.

The Rise and Sprawl said...

For me, it's not just the negative aspects of the city that I find disdainful (misanthropic streets, et cetera), but the fact that the usual "quirky" things that people like about Winnipeg are mythological or have not existed in decades.

The Rise and Sprawl said...

I think what I meant to say when I said "I don't really like Winnipeg" is that it has a terrible quality of life--even in Fort Rouge, a completely dysfunctional economy, and continues to be in a state of general decline. I get excited when a new cafe opens opens up on Main whenever I ignore that the City willingly demolished a block of other potential revitalization stories.

mrchristian said...

thanks everyone for posting...

@ KM - I've always debated with myself over at-large vs a ward system and think I come down more on the ward system. I know it can lead to parochialism, though. What would you say about a layered system like we had in the Metro days ?

@ Bryan and Anon - yes, many have moved on but I think there is a lot of interest in this amongst those who stay but we stifle it. Ask someone who has tried to open a little cafe or make a small patio outside of their business and you'll see how tut-tutted that sort of thing is through 1001 regulations, zoning etc.

@ R&S - as for "quirky", yeah, we have a sort of prairie utilitarianism built into us that has won out over time and has permeated the way the city does things. The message of the 'dink bridge' hubub was next time give us just a concrete slab, please.

KM said...

@ MrChristian: I suppose a layered system would allow for a combination of local autonomy and city-wide vision, but it would also be an almost impossible sell. It doesn't pass the K.I.S.S. test

@ Rise and Sprawl: Quality of life depends on perspective. As someone who once seriously considered leaving (but was later glad not to have acted hastily), the frustration is understandable. But every city has its frustrations: Londoners live in one of the great cities of the world, but can equal or outdo Winnipeggers in their ability to be self-critical. And as someone who lives in River Heights with the ability to walk to supermarkets, cafes in Crescentwood, etc., I came to realize that Winnipeg does offer some areas with a very high standard of living indeed. We just need to extend that across more of the city.

Allan L. said...

"- That people would stop complaining about the bloody cold."
I'm totally with you on this last point. It gets old REALLY fast.