Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Our Village is as good as it gets

Funky Osborne strip voted best neighbourhood in the country

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We don't have Toronto's bright lights or Vancouver's blue glass, but our town has something else to boast about -- the best neighbourhood in Canada.

The Canadian Institute of Planners announced Thursday Osborne Village had been voted the Best Neighbourhood in Canada in its annual Great Places contest. More than 200,000 online votes were cast during the four-month voting process, overseen by judges with the 7,000-strong organization, and Winnipeg's cosy hippest strip rose straight to the top.

Not that anyone can figure out exactly how it happened -- even the Village's biggest boosters.

"I came in this morning and thought, 'Oh my, why so many phone messages?' " said Susan McCaine, executive director of the Osborne Village Business Improvement Zone. "When I found out, I thought... places like (Vancouver's) Gastown? We beat out all of these places? I couldn't believe it."

Maybe not, but she'll accept the accolades. So will the owners of the area's 170 businesses, who were happy to welcome armies of television cameras Thursday.

Come to think of it, there are a lot of businesses that cropped up in the last couple of years: saucy nightclub Greenroom, sizzling tapas restaurant Segovia, hip hangout Tea Story, and so on. The businesses come because it's the place to be, and it's the place to be because the businesses come -- the fresh ones with new ideas.

And the entrepreneurs with those ideas? They, too, were surprised to learn about the laurels -- but not by the buzz.

"We knew right from the start that we wanted to open in Osborne Village," said Kyle Matheson, who opened gourmet burger joint Unburger in a repurposed Stradbrook Avenue house last summer.

"It was obvious because of its life. It's the life of the city. We know we're getting people from all across the city, but we have huge local support, and it's because of the residents in the area. They've embraced us. The success we've been able to have has been 100 per cent reliant on this neighbourhood."

The city gave Osborne Village its own neighbourhood development plan and a set of bylaws governing how the area can grow while maintaining its character. But it's the businesses and residents that are the neighbourhood's most diligent guardians.

There is, after all, nowhere else in Winnipeg where you can buy a shrimp burrito, a spray tan, a jug of milk and a therapy session without once hopping in a car or even leaving the same one-block strip. The Village is a place where life's little errands blend into a colourful pastiche: You can get a nipple-piercing while waiting for the guy to finish your taxes, rent an obscure Korean horror movie after sweating at the gym, or buy a pair of high-waisted spandex leggings on the way to pick up cat food.

This is the secret of the Village: It has a little something for everyone. For the neighbourhood's significant senior population, it's one of the few places in the city that offers complete services without transportation hassle. And for the 20-somethings who have snapped up the area's character condos, it's a playground of patios, pubs, dancing and karaoke.

"If we're going to go out, we come here," said Laura Tapley, 22, toting an armful of shopping bags from some of the Village's eclectic clothing stores. "We have a lot of friends who live here now, because we're at that stage. The proximity of the restaurants and pubs, that's nice. It makes it easy to walk around and have a whole night out."

To be sure, the Village is not without its warts. Several of the aged buildings on the south end of the strip have received welcome facelifts in recent years, but on the north end, the generic one-storey strip mall that replaced a burned-out brick edifice gnaws at that block's historic charm.

And there was the debate that raged when plans were unveiled for the Village's crowded Shoppers Drug Mart to expand south, pushing out Movie Village and Vi-Ann restaurant.

Of course, there are the panhandlers, street kids and the packs of rapscallions who crack open king cans in the Village's back lanes. The Village has long worked to clean up that part of its image, and with some success -- the bicycle-riding drug dealers that once milled about the corner of River and Osborne, for instance, vanished years ago.

But there have been muggings, and a man was stabbed to death last summer after a street brawl broke out in front of the Osborne Village Inn.

The debate over the Village's true character is, in some ways, unwinnable. Longtime residents usually grow into the Village's rowdier rhythms and learn to tune out the noise and pass by the panhandlers.

But those accustomed to more sanitary suburbs, or those less comfortable rubbing elbows with the down-and-out, don't see it the same way. To some, the neighbourhood's vintage housing stock and well-loved business blocks are rich with character. To others, it just looks old.

But we can all agree, at least, that the Village isn't boring.

"It's a very photogenic area," mused photographer Callie Morris, 22, lounging in the springtime sun on Stradbrook. "That mural right there, on Basil's Bistro? It's beautiful. Even a lot of the graffiti, people put a lot of time and thought into; it's not just stupid tags."

And though the Best Neighbourhood in Canada award isn't scientific, it's not just a stupid contest either. On Canada Day, McCaine hopes to hold an event to formally accept the award plaque from the Canadian Institute of Planners.

The plaque could be the perfect counterpoint for the new Osborne Village Bridge, which will be adorned with art from local artists. McCaine is urging businesses to brighten up their storefronts for when the new "gateway to Osborne Village" is completed.

But even if the Village doesn't sparkle any more than it does today, and even if no more awards ever come its way, some of us are already happy to say, "Yeah, it's the best."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2012 B1

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