Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Changing dynamics

Vibrancy and excitement in city brought about by small, sophisticated enterprises

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The Paddlewheel restaurant, which took up a large portion of the sixth floor of the Bay department store, first opened in 1954. This was a time when streetcars still rounded the corner of Portage and Main and people from across the region would dress up to shop downtown on Saturday afternoons.

Like the rest of the old Portage Avenue department store, the Paddlewheel had become only a shadow of its former self in recent years. Service was usually slow and the food was always mediocre. Still, the place was patronized by seniors living nearby and the occasional group of students from the University of Winnipeg who were eager to experience the cafeteria's kitsch: the landscape murals, the glass cups of Jell-O, and, of course, the life-size paddlewheel near the tills.

In the end, the loyalties of the old and the curiosities of the young weren't enough to stop the Paddlewheel's demise, and the old place served its last meal on Jan. 24.

On that same day, quite a different kind of culinary establishment opened. If the Paddlewheel was a faded relic of the city's past, RAW: Almond represented its future. The brainchild of the director of RAW Gallery, an architecture and design gallery in the Exchange District, and the chef from Deer + Almond, a popular restaurant across the street, RAW: Almond was a pop-up restaurant that operated in a tent on the frozen Assiniboine River for three weeks.

The place served as a striking example of an emerging way of thinking in Winnipeg that is increasingly cosmopolitan, yet deeply rooted in the landscape, climate and traditions of the Prairies. Guests were seated at one long wooden table that stood on the sheer ice, creating an experience that was sophisticated and hip, but also harkened back to the city's primitive origins.

Even in the depths of a particularly brutal winter deep-freeze, RAW: Almond was sold out every night.

While digital communication and cheaper airfare have allowed younger Winnipeggers to become more keenly aware of things going on in the world beyond our city, it has also given them a greater sense of awareness and pride in the city's best qualities, quirks and unmet potential.

The river-skating trail system, which extended some seven kilometres this year, was more popular than ever, and incorporated warming huts and installations crafted by a number of local and international design firms. On the main streets of some of the city's coolest neighbourhoods, a small handful of new artisanal coffee shops have opened up over the past year. Culinary options grow and mature, and a cluster of tech firms continue to emerge in the Exchange District.

As modestas these things may seem, it is these kinds of small, organic and sophisticated changes that add an urban texture and excitement to the city that the larger, physically-transformative and celebrated developments cannot.

Winnipeg is in many ways a city well-suited to new ideas. There are low start-up costs, and a supportive and co-operative environment exists here when someone ventures out and does something. However, there remains some aversion to risk, particularly when it comes to doing things downtown, which many people think of as the sole responsibility of governments and True North Sports & Entertainment.

There are also many regulatory functions that add undue barriers to enterprise. City hall is taking an important step toward reducing this by reforming the inspection and permit process for temporary food vendors. This will positively impact the viability of anything from the $85-a-plate pop-up restaurants on the Assiniboine River to food trucks slinging cheap falafel on summer nights on Osborne or Broadway.

More can still be done. The process of gaining occupancy permits for commercial spaces should be sped up and some woefully outdated zoning regulations should be reformed. When it comes to rehabilitating and re-purposing old buildings, such as century-old warehouses in and around the Exchange District, city planners should be quick to develop building code equivalencies for the renovated structures.

For many Winnipeggers, the official version of progress in these past few years may be defined by the return of the Jets, the new IKEA and megaprojects like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, but this should also be seen as the time when a pop-up restaurant on the frozen Assiniboine represented and inspired a more dynamic entrepreneurial climate and urban landscape.

 

Robert Galston is a writer on urban issues and a student at the University

of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2013 A6

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