Years ago, Mary Burton's children gave her the scare of her life when they sneaked into the Canadian Pacific rail yards, fiddled with some switches and caused a minor derailment. With a rueful chuckle, that's the first thing she thinks of when asked whether the tracks should be moved to make way for a new neighbourhood.
"First of all, that eyesore would be gone," said Burton, a lifelong North Ender. "Second of all, it would be a lot safer for the youth and the children and the community. Thirdly, there's prime land right there for housing and, with a zero per cent vacancy rate in this city right now, we need more housing."
The Social Planning Council of Winnipeg has made a quiet pitch to all levels of government to fund a $1.5-million feasibility study into the cost and logistics of moving CP's 130-year-old marshalling yards that separate the North End from the southern part of the city. It's an idea people such as Rob Neufeld, executive director of the North End Community Renewal Corp., have long kept tucked in a file as a great idea that needs a good place to start.
Michael Champagne, the North End's well-known young activist, agreed, saying the yards create a psychological divide between his neighbourhood and the rest of the city, with only two bridges and an underpass to connect them.
"With that barrier, I think a lot of people write off the North End as 'Oh, it's over there. It's that dark, shadowy place,' " he said.
Removing the yards could help foster the new sense of entrepreneurship in the North End, he said, and it could also create space for much-needed safe, affordable housing.
Some have argued smaller, targeted, community projects such as more daycare spaces, training programs and the redevelopment of Selkirk Avenue's troubled Merchants Hotel that's now underway would do more to improve the core than a megaproject on hundreds of acres of industrial land.
Burton said it's possible to do a bit of both.
"There's got to be happy medium where the tracks can be moved and there can be more daycares, and there can be smaller housing projects and there can be a larger, more expensive housing project set up here behind me," she said while standing in the shade on McGregor Street.
Champagne agreed, saying moving the yards is likely a long-term project, but one he'd love to see. In the meantime, there are many other things that could be done to help the North End, such as dealing with transportation issues and fostering small businesses so residents don't have to go downtown for everything.
"I would love for there to be some type of a connecting plan," he said. "Immediately on the other side of the tracks is Central, another inner-city, isolated neighbourhood even though they are physically connected to the rest of the city. The North End and Central really need to connect and work together as two inner-city neighbourhoods that are very different but have a lot of similarities."
Nearly every North Ender who spoke with the Winnipeg Free Press one afternoon recently said housing would top their wish list if the rail yards were moved and the area redeveloped.
"That would be good," said Molly Genaille, who said she rarely ventures across the tracks because everything she needs is in the North End. "Turn it into a big park for kids, and housing, housing, housing. We need more places for low-income people."
Other North Enders suggested part of the land be used for community gardens while some said another medium-sized grocery store would be a boon to the North End.
But Levette Demchuk, a longtime William Whyte volunteer and activist, greeted the idea of moving the yards with skepticism. "I've lived here all my life -- my parents bought the house on Pritchard in 1949 -- and they've never bothered me," she said.
Canadian Pacific has told the Free Press it has no intention of moving or selling its Winnipeg yard. Activists suggest that line may be a bargaining tactic.
RETHINKING THE RAIL YARDS
It's a huge parcel of land -- 195 hectares, including the Weston Shops -- and redeveloping them could transform the city.
What would you like to see built there? Housing? Shops? Community gardens? A water park?
Come to the Free Press News Café and get creative. You'll have a chance to discuss the issue, hear from some experts and even sketch the outline of a new neighbourhood. You can start now by downloading a map of the area posted on our website.
When: Tuesday, July 31, 6 p.m.
Where: Free Press News Café, 237 McDermot Ave. in the Exchange District.
Who: Everyone. University of Manitoba city planning Prof. Richard Milgrom and Social Planning Council of Winnipeg executive director Dennis Lewycky will kick off the discussion.
Check out our Facebook event listing to RSVP.