Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winter's bones

Perhaps this time, city's 'death' won't be in vain

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The second week of March pulled the mottled shroud back from the corpse, laying bare the city's wet and broken body for all to see.

There is nothing unusual in this bleak unveiling, just the annual collection of unlovely things that cling to Winnipeg's bedraggled streets. Underneath the snowbanks, a winter's worth of waste is congealed into a leering death mask on the city's windbitten face. Now that the snow is making its reluctant temporary retreat, the stage is free for an encore performance of burnt cigarette ends and thawing dog feces.

Then there are the pitted planes of heaving streets and potholes belching shattered concrete where tallgrass used to be. Condolences to your struts.

Oh, we try to take this with our tongues jammed inside our cheeks. They made a parody song about the potholes on Virgin Radio 103, the Free Press slapped a pothole locator on our website, the potholes soaked up their 15 minutes on local TV. If there were such a thing, we'd nominate potholes for Winnipeg's person (people?) of the year. But a hole is not a person, of course. A hole is not even a thing; it is the absence of something.

A hole, in other words, is the chasm between our expectations and the reality we are stuck with.

This spring, those thousands of little chasms have become crucibles for our discontent. We fill them up with the bitter memories of a season that left us so grey and spent, because this was a brutal winter, right? "Worse than usual," we sighed, in the grips of every long and icy night. During the days, we stayed penned inside, breathing stale and clotted air. It wasn't fun, but it was safe.

By February, we all looked so exhausted. We trundled between cars and our houses or apartments, dead feet pawing at the great white dunes that waved a fist toward our homes. There are almost 700,000 of us in Winnipeg, but somehow it always felt as if we froze alone.

It was a brutal winter, one we would have once banished with a bonfire and a feast.

Instead, our spring rhythms now are a little more discreet. We broke our spring boots out of storage this week, we sloshed new windshield wiper fluid down the tube. When the temperature finally crawled up to zero, we threw our windows open in relief. This year, though, it feels sort of bittersweet, as the city's broken muddy body weighs so much on the mind. When so much in Winnipeg has gone wrong, it feels like nothing will ever again go right.

So on Tuesday night, some of us huddled on Twitter and took bets on what Winnipeg infrastructure would fail next. I put $20 on fire hydrants. That was a joke, of course, but after losing so many things to the winter, it seemed logical they'd be next on the list after frozen water lines and blinking traffic lights. The city plans to upgrade up to 80 sets of traffic lights this year, so they can handle the moisture in the nippy Manitoba air.

There's something else in that prairie air, though, and oh, but this is strange -- it smells distinctly like a city cooking up a change.

That's not something we can often say about Winnipeg, a city that has always tended a healthy suspicion of the new. That's part of why I'm still living here, at 32: for the same of it, for the comforting never-change of it, for the way Winnipeg never demands more from me than a willingness to stay. But it is easy to forget that status quo is perched on a thin line between progress and decay. Have we lost our balance, now? Are we reeling backwards, and falling away?

This is an election year. Whatever the sorry state of the city in this unlovely spring, elected officials do not shoulder all the blame. Sometimes bad things happen, and cities just react. On the other hand, perhaps this city's broken body would not weigh on us so heavily if we had the sense that Winnipeg was pointed somewhere. That the frozen pipes and brown water were just a blip in a bigger sort of plan.

Instead, as the snow retreats, the city shivers back to life, restless. Now, we must decide where that should take us.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 D2

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