There is perhaps nothing harder about being a Winnipegger than giving directions to someone from out of town that involve crossing Portage and Main on foot.
It is hard in a practical sense: How does one give directions through the labyrinthian underground concourse? It is also hard because explaining it to someone not from here reveals how silly the barriers are: Yes, it's illegal to cross a downtown street because we worry you'll be cold, but mostly because we don't want you slowing up traffic.
This situation occurs with some frequency when I'm walking through the Exchange District. A group of guys will ask how to get to Earls on Main, or a well-dressed couple will bewilderingly wonder how to get back to the Fort Garry Hotel. In most cases, I tell people to take Fort Street before offering some sort of feeble benediction as they walk away.
How is it that a city that expends millions of dollars in schemes to bring people downtown could not allow them to cross a major intersection? The answer is found not only in Winnipeg's zealous efforts to accommodate automobile traffic, but in city hall's historically floozy relationship with big business. When the underground concourse was built, part of the agreement between the city and involved property owners was that street-level crossing be closed. That agreement does not expire until 2017.
And so Portage and Main, the historical, economic, and symbolic heart of the city, remains a windswept and forbidding place. All for the absurd belief that the concourse's thin ranks of convenience stores and flower shops (which are open only 40 hours a week) would suffer if the barriers were taken down.
Even as the number of cars travelling through Portage and Main increased exponentially in the first half of the twentieth century, motorists knew their place in the complex order of the street. The organized chaos of cars, streetcars, pedestrians, bicycles, and delivery carts slowed traffic enough that a pedestrian could feel comfortable standing in the middle of Portage and Main mere feet from moving traffic.
Efforts to move cars quickly and easily through downtown Winnipeg began in earnest after the Second World War. Roadways were widened, speed limits increased and on-street parking was restricted. Both of the city's daily newspapers embarked on public shaming campaigns against citizens who dared to jaywalk. In 1955, the last of the streetcar lines were discontinued.
Finally, in the late 1970s, Winnipeg erected permanent barriers at its most famous intersection, the final triumph of misanthropic post-war city planning. Not only had crossing Portage and Main become a degrading experience, it was now illegal.
Today, public sentiment toward opening Portage and Main to pedestrians is mixed. Opposition is mainly based on the notions that pedestrian demand does not warrant it, but also that it would cause traffic chaos. How these two contradictory points reconcile themselves and form a coherent argument remains to be seen, but any case, they are fears that many citizens cling to.
At the same time, the centrality and mythology of the intersection lives on in the city's subconscious. In 2011, when it was announced NHL hockey would return to the city, hundreds of Winnipeggers flocked there, even as police and public officials urged citizens urged people to celebrate at The Forks.
It may seem quixotic to want to see Portage and Main open, and downtown streets regain some of the humanity they enjoyed prior to the 1940s. But the principles of good urbanism are timeless, while many of Winnipeg's streets continue to function on outdated beliefs that gas would remain pennies a litre, that more roads solve traffic congestion, and that we'd all be living like The Jetsons by now. Defending the Portage and Main barriers in 2013 is like urging listeners of Bach to stop being old-fashioned and check out The Carpenters. One may be older, but the other is much more out of date.
Portage and Main is a windy intersection, and its built environment is not particularly inviting to pedestrians. But, as urban analyst William H. Whyte once noted, Winnipeggers are a hardy lot. More than that, we are individuals capable of making rational, grown-up decisions about how we get around on foot. The point is not that crossing Portage and Main might be unpleasant, but that pedestrians have the right to cross whatever intersections they choose to in an orderly fashion.
More than that, the intersection is Winnipeg's symbol and heart. With construction of a new Westin hotel next door to the TD Centre slated to begin, now is the time to think about what Portage and Main says about us as a city.
Robert Galston has written on urban issues since 2005. He is entering the Master of City Planning program at the University of Manitoba this September.