Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Under Winnipeg's bridges

Winnipeg's strength is so often found in quirky places

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It was November 28, 2011, and I was not supposed to be there.

I looked down at the pool of water below my feet. It was sealed with a fragile blanket of ice, glossy bits floating, reflecting back the earth and sky like little mirrors.

It was hauntingly still.

Such a peculiar space: layers of colourful, edgy text covering every surface; shards of tiny glass glinting in the sunlight; abandoned shopping carts splaying over the bristly grass -- static remnants of stories left behind.

Then I heard it.

To the outside world, it was barely a whisper, droned out by the endless bustle of traffic. Underneath, a shrill shriek pierced the air. I froze. A low, unsettling rumble forced the pillars to tremble in reply, and I felt my body do the same.

Thousands of tons rushed overhead. I gazed at the scars in my concrete shelter, the deep gashes revealing rusty steel rebar. It seemed that at any instant it might have collapsed, but it was the only protected place.

I was trapped. The only escape was climbing back up the steep slope and over the tracks.

In that moment, I was untouchable. It was surreal, terrifyingly safe and serene.

I clung to the side of the bank. All I could do was wait for the train to pass, for the chance to crawl out of my hiding place and be exposed to the world.

The consequence of exploring the shallow waters of Omand's Creek beneath the BNSF railway bridge is awareness; beyond that of my physical self, I am conscious of time, place, materiality and fragility... of a whole other lifestyle and culture that dwells within Winnipeg's ruins and how forgotten, or perhaps ignored, these people and spaces are.

The tracks, running parallel to Empress St., mark the division between Winnipeg's West End and the St. James area, beside Denson Riddle Park. This "little bridge" is a place of retreat and refuge, a place where friends can speak freely about their deepest burdens and curiosities, a comfortable shelter hidden from the incessant activity and harsh realities of the world. Albeit crumbling, it is an urban escape. I see beauty in its vulnerability. To me, it represents a microcosm of the greater milieu of our Winnipeg.

Winnipeg's strength, as opposed to lustrous thriving cities such as New York, Montreal and Chicago, is found in its quirky intimate spaces and experiences. For me, Winnipeg is this bridge. It is the courtyard within 100 Osborne St. South at River Ave. It is visiting Bodegoes in the Exchange District for chicken fingers and a cold glass of Original 16 on a hot summer evening. It is street festivals, ice-skating on the river and staging photo shoots against dilapidated warehouses. Winnipeg is going to a hockey game or local band performance and recognizing a third of the faces in the crowd. It is the smiles that are exchanged between people in cars at a red light. It is the little moments and places we know like the back of our hands, but that still surprise us. It is home.

The "little bridge" that so largely impacted me is the catalyst for these conclusions.

There is life in our city that we are not aware of. The smallest, crummiest spaces show the promise of innovation, of seeking potential in something weak or forgotten. Beneath the railway bridge as the train rushed overhead, I realized how close the structure was to failing, but also the sheer strength that fought to hold it together.

Please do not climb under a rickety structure in hopes for some form of enlightenment. I share this story only with the hopes of encouraging my fellow Winnipeggers to challenge the negative perceptions of our city with acknowledgements of the small, personal, fantastic interactions. What do you value in Winnipeg? How can we promote the growth of these values? I believe Winnipeg is at a critical tipping point on the fence of debate: To crumble or to stay strong?

What role will you play in supporting and rejuvenating our Winnipeg?


Breanna Mulhall is a graduate of the Faculty of Architecture's environmental design program at the University of Manitoba. She aspires to use her creativity as a catalyst for positive change, employing her design mindset as a means of educating the public and critically evaluating social conditions.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2013 A1

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