Having come home from vacation, I was bemused to notice a sudden interest in Selkirk Avenue in the columns of the Free Press. This interest struck home, as I am more than close to the subject matter.
I was born at 716 Selkirk Ave. and lived there for 23 years until my second year in law school. At the time, I didn't think of the area as a particularly exotic place. It was simply home. Now, with the newly generated interest in the area, I agree that outsiders find much more to regard as noteworthy about the area than those who live there and take its unique atmosphere for granted.
Selkirk Avenue did have a unique atmosphere. It was a separate downtown for the largely European immigrant community of north Winnipeg. Although other parts of the city had and have their commercial areas, none is quite like Selkirk.
The three long blocks from Salter to McGregor streets were crammed with commercial establishments, with Oretzki's Department Store, where I worked for two years, being the most prominent. Everybody shopped at Ortetzki's, noted for its low prices.
Selkirk Avenue during the 1930s and 1940s was quite different from the street we see today. But some of the fundamentals of the area have continued by inertia. In many respects, similar things are happening to different people. In the Depression years, it was European immigrants. Today, there is a large contingent of aboriginals. Both groups were wending there way through what was then and is now a dominant society.
I lived in a six-room house (now demolished) near Selkirk and Parr, where my father had his wood yard. The wood yard ultimately gave way to Zowidowski's Funeral Home and now to an aboriginal funeral home. I walked every day to King Edward School past Soloways and Dowhauniks grocery stores and the Empire Drugstore at Arlington. On my block between Parr and McKenzie there were at least four grocery stores, a synagogue and Kuzma's pool room, where I played my first snooker game.
Across from my home was the ritual shochhet (chicken slayer), where I often watched chickens running around without their heads. The pool room is now Eddy's, an excellent deli. They have retained the pool tables but, regrettably, replaced the antique standup ceramic urinals. Within three blocks were four kosher butcher shops. Numerous synagogues were within easy walking distance between McGregor and Main streets.
The left-leaning Ukrainian Labour Temple at Pritchard and McGregor was balanced by the Nationalist Ukrainian Prosvita Hall at Pritchard and Arlington.
There was a Polish gymnastic club on McKenzie and the Russian Federation Building near Main. There was, and remains, the magnificent Roman Catholic Holy Ghost School and Church between Charles and Aikins, and the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Basilica at McGregor and Stella.
It was a truly multi-ethnic atmosphere that, as far as I know and believe, did not receive a penny of public financial support
Many Jewish weddings took place at the Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall next door to Gunn's Bakery, which remains a Selkirk Avenue landmark to this day.
The White House Restaurant was famous for its spare ribs. It was also the place where Damon Runyonesque gamblers gathered to be taken to the location of the night's two-way crap game. Chicago Joe, Speedy Fogel, Satchmo Myers and Booze Rusen were some of the legendary characters you could meet by simply dropping in at the restaurant at the right time.
There were several chip stands. It was normal to see young and old people walking down Selkirk in the evening with bags of chips well-sprinkled with vinegar. The first Kelekis was on Main adjacent to Selkirk. You bought your meal at an window open to the sidewalk.
The Northern Baseball League was administered from Mickeys Bowling Alley and pool room at Selkirk and Salter. The games were played one block away at Aberdeen School. On a given day, they would attract more than 1,000 spectators.
There were numerous banks on Selkirk. The one at the corner of Salter Street was known as the only Winnipeg bank to have a Jewish manager. The location is no longer a bank but continues as a financial institution -- Chochy's Pawn shop. Incidentally, it still has a Jewish manager.
Having just finished a motor trip to the United States, I noticed that almost every city, no matter how small, brings attention to its "historic area."
Selkirk Avenue could have been an historic area had we put our mind to it. We could have retained or restored one streetcar trolley line where tourists could hop on or off and visit some of the places on the street that could have been of interest.
The streetcar tracks are still in the ground. Is there still a possibility? I doubt it. The area has been left to deteriorate. My own block between Parr and McKenzie is in a sorry state -- only Eddy's redeems it.
I am afraid that Selkirk Avenue will have more of a past than a future unless somebody makes a monumental effort to restore its wonders.
Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer
and former NDP cabinet minister.