Recently at work I was involved in a heated argument about the dangers of being downtown. My colleague vehemently insisted that Downtown Winnipeg is far too dangerous to walk alone, and after dark so full of knife-wielding maniacs that even groups of people should beware. I disagreed.
I have been walking around downtown since 1994, when I moved to Winnipeg. Back then the Exchange was full of prostitutes and down-and-outers asking for change. I frequented the bars and movie theatres (Towne, Garrick) and spent significant amounts of time wandering both downtown and the Exchange because I didn’t have a car and I was often too cheap to get on the bus. Why pay 75 cents when you can walk 15 blocks? In all that time, I can only think of one incident where I felt afraid.
I had just gone to see “Pret-a-Porter” with a good friend at the Garrick theatre. As we were walking towards Portage we noticed a very drunk aboriginal couple weaving their way towards us. My friend grabbed onto my arm and tensed up as we got closer. Our body language must have screamed out fear, because as we passed these two terrifying spectres of Winnipegs downtown, one of them shouted “Boo!” We jumped out of our skins. Then all four of us paused, looked at each other, and began to laugh hysterically. Danger! Drunk people having a good time! Look out!
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What I learned about myself in that one instance was profound: I was a closet racist – or at least subscribed to a cultural perception of aboriginal people as dangerous and unpredictable. The thing is, the more I thought about that moment the more I realized that I myself had spent (and would continue to spend) significant amounts of time on the same streets as drunk or drunker than the proverbial skunk. I had vomited and urinated in the alleyways and streets of our fair downtown, and not once had anyone tensed up and projected fear towards me. My preconception of what was and was not dangerous in Winnipeg was completely exploded.
My point is this: Winnipeg’s downtown is not only safe, and the suburban idea that it is dangerous is driven not by facts, but by racism. Who frequents Portage Place and asks for money? Primarily aboriginal peoples. Why is this? To me the answer is quite simple. Aboriginal peoples make up a huge portion of the marginalized and poverty stricken in our city. They live in the core and adjacent North End. They recreate by heading downtown, to Portage Place. Bus access is easy, they can hang out relatively undisturbed, and it is much safer on the street on Portage Avenue than on say, Selkirk, Flora, Euclid, or any of the North End/North Point Douglas streets.
All this is not to say that violent incidents do not occur downtown – they do. When you look at any statistical analysis of this issue it is easy to see that the highest density of violent crime occurs downtown. But what do the stats mean? By and large crime density is determined per capita, and Winnipeg’s downtown has a lower population density than most other areas of the city. Who lives downtown? Almost no one. But downtown is flooded with people every day to recreate and work. Human contact increases dramatically downtown because there are large portions of human beings moving around and interacting. And humanity being what it is (comprised, in my opinion, largely of assholes), shit goes down. An offhand remark gets blown out of proportion, adrenaline surges, and all of a sudden violence ensues. It is important to remember that most of these incidents are between people who know each other. Muggings do happen, but they are far less frequent than Winnipeg Sun’s Brodbeck would have you believe. You see, Brodbeck is a special kind of journalist – one who trades on human fear to put food on the table; a type of social anxiety vampire, if you will. And Winnipeggers lap it up.
Bottom line is that as long as our fair city’s citizens believe that downtown is too dangerous to frequent, no one will go down there. And no new businesses will open up. And it will remain an urban embarrassment. The Jets will have to play in a ghost town, and we can continue to moan about urban renewal without taking responsibility for it ourselves. Get downtown. Break the cycle of lies and misdirection that our local media outlets propagate. See for yourself what is going on. And remember, just because someone is brown doesn’t mean that they are going to gut you.
Brett Geisel is a writer and burgeoning columnist for Spectator Tribune.
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