The city of Winnipeg has more than 3,300 hectares of green space, made up of parks, gardens, trails, grasslands, forests, ponds and streams. Assiniboine Park, modelled after New York City's Central Park and home of the multimillion-dollar Journey to Churchill exhibit, gets most of the attention. But there are dozens of lesser-known parks throughout the city. In this summer series, Free Press reporters shine a light on some of these under-the-radar ecological gems.
For the better part of 10 years, Phil Clark has made a little piece of St. John's Park a huge part of his summer life.
The transplanted Australian, a competitive lawn bowler, makes no secret of this love affair. As president of the 60-member St. John's Lawn Bowling Club, Clark is one of a handful of people who keep the club up and running, ensuring this highlight of St. John's Park, tucked away in a corner of the underappreciated North End green space, continues to roll along.
"The club is a draw to the park, no doubt about it," said Clark. "And I love it. That people come from a fair bit away says a lot about the park, I think.
"I've spoken to native Winnipeggers, people who have lived here their entire lives, about St. John's Park and the first question from them: 'Where's that?' People have no idea this exists. It's one of the most beautiful parks in the city, and it's relatively unknown."
Officially recognized as a park in 1893, St. John's Park, where Mountain Avenue and Main Street meet, is a 6.8-hectare plot of land that edges up to the Red River on the eastern side. It holds many of the characteristics -- large trees, deep flower beds, trails, a children's pool and play structure, a basketball court -- a city park should keep, but with one added feature: the lawn bowling club.
The St. John's Lawn Bowling Club dates back to 1904, when the club originally sat at the corner of Machray Avenue and Aikins Street. Some 50 years later, Winnipeg's oldest lawn-bowling club relocated to its current location, where seven city-maintained grass-bowling rinks are shaded from the traffic noise by a quaint, unassuming clubhouse.
Janice Cardigan lives a couple of blocks away from the park. Throughout the years, she's seen both positive and negative changes to the area. She's watched the overall esthetic improve -- thanks to the tireless work of city park caretaker Cathy Reeve and her dedicated crew -- and seen disappointment in the deteriorating riverbank on the eastern edge.
Decades ago, Cardigan promised herself she'd join the lawn-bowling club when she had the time.
Now four years into her membership, Cardigan sums up the park and the importance of the club thusly:
"It brings people here who might not come out to the park; it's a meeting place," she said prior to a game last week. "Isn't that what a park like this is supposed to be?"
Sitting next to Cardigan, Terry Horsman nods in agreement. He used to live on Inkster Boulevard and for 25 years he worked at the Centennial Concert Hall, driving past the park twice daily. On the urging of a friend, Horsman, who now lives outside the city, took up lawn bowling this summer.
He had no idea the park had lawn bowling.
"Total surprise this facility was here. I'm not sure what I was looking at every day," he laughed. "Truth is, when I lived in the area we just never bothered coming here. We'd always go to Kildonan Park. Looking back, St. John's just was never on our radar... "
Like the neighbourhoods it borders, the underlying issue with St. John's is one of perception, but the reputation of the area being rough around the edges is softened when actual time is spent in the park. Lower-income realities occasionally peer out from the shadows onto the benches in the light of day, that's true, but negative experiences of note are typically singular in nature and usually built on prior biases.
"When I started here, it used to be pretty bad," said Reeve, who's helped look after the park for 13 years and has formed relationships with all its regulars. "Over time, though, I've seen it change to the point where there's a certain pride established in recent years.
"And the bowling club is an important piece of that. You couldn't say otherwise."