For a number of months early in this century, I found myself out of school and underemployed. The idea seems a little frightening to me now, but for a 19 year-old in a city where $250 a month would get you a decent place close to downtown, it wasn’t much of an issue. I earned enough to cover rent, utilities and Mr. Noodles, with money left over for camera film, used CD’s, and tickets for shows at the Royal Albert. Bliss.
With time on my hands, I spent much of the winter and spring of 2001 wandering the forgotten corners of a seemingly forgotten city. “My city’s still breathing but barely,” the Weakerthan’s John K. Samson lamented on 2000’s Left and Leaving, and this seemed to accurately describe Winnipeg at the moment. Much of the urban core, which had long since crystallized, was now withering away. Even the Portage Avenue that our middle class grandmothers had once shopped on was disappearing. Walking through the vacant aisles of the Eaton’s building after the store closed in 1999, it was hard not to wonder what future this city had.
It was during this time that I came across Golden City.
Nestled between a dentist office and a local film collective’s studio on Pacific Avenue, Golden City occupied a long, dark storefront piled high with books, furniture, paintings and just about anything else imaginable. Part junk shop, part gallery, part salon, proprietor Walter Lewyc regularly held court with a shifting assortment of artists, architects, and neighbourhood weirdos. Bottles of red wine or bottles of Stone Cold would often be served, depending on the day and those assembled.
Walter named the place Golden City after Winnipeg. While so much of Winnipeg was tired and pessimistic, Walter saw it with the same crazy adventurous eyes the first handful of entrepreneurs had when they arrived here by ox cart a century and a half before. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he helped transition the West Exchange from a declining district of garment sweatshops to a magnet for artists and the city’s thin ranks of provincial hipsters. Years later, he began to do the same in Chinatown and North Point Douglas, where he lived in a modest bungalow on Lusted Avenue.
Walter passed away in 2006, and Golden City closed soon after, but not before our many conversations helped me to see the city in a new way.
Overall, Winnipeg’s dark cloud of uncertainty of a decade ago has lifted. The vacant Eaton’s building gave way to what is now home to the city’s long lost NHL team. New buildings rose not just on the suburban fringes, including the new international airport terminal, the Manitoba Hydro headquarters, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Taken together, these signal a modest return to prominence, and have gone some way in restoring an insular city’s fragile psyche.
In the background, beyond the funding agreements, CGI renderings and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, there are other stories. Increased levels of immigration, a slow but steady re-discovery of urbanism, and the double-edged sword of rising property values is making Winnipeg a slightly more complex and enjoyable place to live. Pedestrians walk around the Exchange District on weekends. Food trucks sell things other than hot dogs. Central Park is relatively safe. Infill housing is popping up across Fort Rouge. Sherbrook and South Osborne are becoming cool pedestrian strips. Spence and North Point Douglas are transitioning into hipster ghettos.
All of these things add texture and dynamism to Winnipeg’s great permanent things: the eternal and unforgiving rivers, the trees that soar over residential streets like the naves of cathedrals, the proximity to the country – forests, farmland and beaches, the architecture of the Exchange District, and the deep and contentious mythology of our past.
This is the Winnipeg I get excited about; the Winnipeg that has little to do with the Official Version of progress which measures things in simple, quantitative terms. The organic, gradual and integral will always do more than the engineered, immediate and artificial to make this a better place.
The Tribune is the publication that will uncover and celebrate the many layers of this strange, wonderful, complicated, and often hilarious city. It is also one that will be there to dissect the morass and absurdities of local issues with a new clarity and irreverence. By looking at the small triumphs and big mistakes, providing the best commentary on major news and uncovering things forgotten, this publication will lend itself to a more conscious public life.
Winnipeg remains the city of golden opportunities that Walter Lewyc saw and loved: a city rooted in place and history, but at the same time a new frontier of endless promise. This is the Winnipeg that the Tribune will cover.