10/28/2010 1:33 PM
There were ugly moments. There was mudslinging, and sniping, and nasty behind-closed-doors machinations. There were broken campaign signs, and traffic circles, and rousing robocalls.
Hey, it was an election. And that seems to be what elections become, now.
But on Wednesday night, there was also something sort of beautiful. I was preparing to zip off to the Mynarski ward -- a tight and open six-candidate race where a coin flip had determined I'd watch results come in at Ross Eadie's campaign office -- when I got an email from candidate Trevor Mueller's campaign.
Mueller, a young guy making his first run at civic office, and candidate Greg Littlejohn, a lawyer and indefatigable community-centre advocate, had decided to team up and watch the election results come in together at a North End club. After all that's been said and done in this election, it was nice to see two competing candidates shake hands and show true respect.
But it wasn't just that they were watching the results together. It was also where they were watching. For their campaign wrap-up, the candidates had chosen Club 13, the bar at the Andrew Mynarski (VC) Legion on Main Street. That's the same place where, in July 2009, 50-year-old Cheryl Robert was shot and killed while attending a wedding reception in the legion's social hall.
Robert was a true innocent victim, a bystander slain when a gunman burst into the social hall's back door and fired into the crowd. Her murder is still unsolved; it is believed the shooter may have been aiming for known gang members who were at the reception.
Since then, there have been more bullets, more bodies, more innocent lives snapped short in the North End. In some cases, there are suspects in custody. In others, such as that of the terrifying and apparently random shootings last Saturday that left two men dead and a teen girl fighting to heal, the killers are still out there, somewhere.
All this is why it struck me that Littlejohn and Mueller chose Club 13 for their last stand. With the votes already cast, neither had a chance at immediate gain from the public-relations aspect; they didn't even plan to widely release the location. They just decided to go there, whether the media came or not, whether anyone noticed or not.
In other words, when countless others in the city were watching the candidates and when many candidates were watching out for themselves, Littlejohn and Mueller were looking back to the community.
When they finally did tell media about their party, they explained themselves simply. "(Club 13 is) a symbol of the North End's courage to overcome the stigma of crime," Mueller said in a last-minute announcement. "The candidates want to assure the community of their ongoing commitment to work together to deal with the most pressing issues in our neighbourhoods."
At first, the mood was lightly festive. A little exhausted, a little eager. Mayoral candidate Rav Gill showed up. Soft-spoken Littlejohn sipped a drink and waited to break open the plates of kolbassa and perogies. Going to Club 13 with Mueller was "part of bringing back the neighbourhood," he said. "This place suffered terribly last year, and we wanted to make a show of support for it again."
In the end, neither Littlejohn or Mueller won the city council seat in Mynarski. That victory went to Ross Eadie, a veteran NDP-backed candidate who soared past the whip-smart, Katz-aligned Jenny Motkaluk. Littlejohn came in third, with 20 per cent of the vote; Mueller, who earned the praise of many for a positive and community-focused campaign, was squeezed out with 3 per cent.
After nailing down a story for Thursday's paper from Eadie's victory party, I went back to Club 13. Why? Because they had a pickle plate. Because it was on the way home. But mostly because I wanted to pay respect to a pair of candidates who, in the dying minutes of a hard-fought campaign, looked to each other, and to the people who are fighting to make it work every single day.
The North End has been through a lot. It still goes through a lot. Violence there is "the new normal," blogger Rob Galston wrote in a stunning recent post. But the North End also has some of the best people in the city. It has more than its fair share of incredibly talented, active, and vocal advocates for communities, for people, for children, against poverty. The North End is full of life and, despite all odds, hope.
And so, in the final campaign act of Littlejohn and Mueller, maybe we see the hint at another "new normal." And maybe it's one where who goes to City Hall doesn't matter so much as who stays behind, shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbours and saying, simply "we are here."
09/8/2010 2:41 PM
In this job, you learn to expect the unexpected.
And the unexpected is exactly what I got yesterday, when my editor asked me to head out to a media preview of Assiniboine Park’s new Children’s Nature & Adventure Playground.
I’m not sure if my story on page B1 of the Free Press today really did the place justice, even with the benefit of Ruth Bonneville’s delightful photos.
I’ll say this: the place is only about half-done, and my jaw quite literally dropped as soon as I walked in. I hadn’t heard of the nature playground project before I went to the preview, so I was completely taken by surprise by how beautiful, whimsical, and well-designed it was.
I wanted to run through the willow tunnels. I wanted to skip around the oak-branch snake sculpture that twisted through the flowerbeds. I wanted to roll down the hummock hills… but I was wearing high heels.
Mark my words: next spring, when all of the play features are installed (and there are many) and the site is finished, this place is going to be a summer wonderland for kids and families. And it’s going to be totally free to attend.
Here’s what struck me the most: the entire two-acre playground and garden site, plus the significantly expanded duck pond, cost about $6.2 million, thanks primarily to a $3.6 million investment from the city, with the feds and private donors picking up the rest of the tab.
Now, I’m not an estimator. But I will say that to my amateur eye, $6 million for the exuberant and intricately designed and landscaped site I saw yesterday afternoon seemed like an absolute bargain.
When I mentioned this to Park officials, they humbly explained that because there’s not a lot of engineering needed on this mostly-landscaping project – because they’re not building big buildings or putting in pipes -- the cost comes in pretty low.
Fair enough. But it’s not the pipes or the steel frames people care about; it’s the use that they get out of a government-funded project. And in this case, even with the site only half-finished, I knew in a heartbeat that this place is going to be a very, very big hit.
So, note to government funders. Give us more of these, please: smartly planned, creatively executed and budget-friendly projects that pack an entertainment punch, put Winnipeggers to work and offer a wallet-friendly boost to the average family’s enjoyment and happiness in their city.
Sometimes, in Winnipeg, we get our sights set on huge projects. And they too have their place and time. But the standard the Children’s Nature & Adventure Playground is going to set next year will prove, once and for all, that making a major, world-class investment in Winnipeg and Winnipeggers doesn’t have to break the government bank.
07/15/2010 2:46 PM
In this gig, there are days when you cover breaking news. And there are days when you cover features.
But sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are other days: in particular, days when you feel like you’re stuck in an issue from The Onion and can’t escape.
That was the case for this humble reporter yesterday, when I was asked to cover the official demise of the Beer Cup Snake. Apologies in advance if I offend anyone who takes this plastic monstrosity’s life or death with the utmost gravity, but I’ll be blunt: while Blue Bombers president Jim Bell was holding a brief press conference to announce the snake’s ban, I couldn’t stop smothering laughter.
It started, for me, when Bell so firmly intoned that any "beer snakes gaining momentum" will be axed. It continued when he explained that stadium staff needed to "find a way to discontinue the beer snake," that some fans had been hit in the ear (I kept hearing Tyler Durden in my head) and that despite the buzz over the snake this week, the "beer snake initiative" is new to Bomber brass.
Beer. Snake. Initiative.
If this isn’t the funniest thing you’ve heard a mature man in a suit say since the original rumours on the Internets, then I guess we just come from different funny planets. This should have been satire, but appeared – for all intents and purposes – serious.
Why did Bomber brass call a press conference about this? Why not just quietly crack down on it under whichever of their existing security policies they feel it breaches?
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were playing with us. But if so, nary a twitch of Jim Bell’s moustache gave it away.
No matter. I predict that at the next home game, we shall see a Protest Snake rising from the ashes. Perhaps the folks over at Save The Beer Cup Snake shall hold a rally, and encircle the Blue Bombers administration office with a beer cup snake so long and firm that it shall block all entry or exit.
Now that would be inspiring.
In the mean time, let’s all enjoy basking in the glow of what has to be one of the most ridiculous headline-news stories to come out of Winnipeg in at least a month.
Let me put it this way: never mind crime or cold, we are at least a little bit lucky to live somewhere where life is good enough that a beer cup snake makes headlines on every major media outlet two days in a row.
Cheers to all who were entertained by the saga.
06/9/2010 10:38 AM
Landing in the middle of downtown Portland, Ore., you notice the mural first: carefully painted 15-ft. letters blaring on a well-worn brick wall.
Then you see your first bumper sticker, and a pin tacked to a ratty backpack, and a cut-off t-shirt, all bearing the same famous missive: "Keep Portland weird."
Keep Portland weird. It's both a motto and a mission, a sort of rallying cry for a hippie-chic city that guards its oddities with a cultish fervour. But the thing is, they're not entirely wrong: Portland is weird. But not necessarily for the reason its residents think it is... and it's the ways that the Rose City is truly weird that Winnipeg could stand to learn from.
Ask most Portland residents what makes Portland weird, and the answer will generally involve one of the following: the city's glut of men in skirts; a donut joint-slash-wedding chapel that sells phallic pastries; roughly four brewpubs for every resident; well-attended nude bike rides; and Chuck Palahniuk.
I'll give them that Palahniuk is a really, really weird dude. But the other things -- well, they're weird, but they're not what make Portland itself weird.
No, what makes that Pacific Northwest jewel weird is this: it was built and tended by folks who actually want it to be a nice place to live.
This is shocking, I know. And Winnipeg policymakers should start taking notes from a city that regular tops the list of the U.S.'s most liveable.
First, to be fair: Portland has some amenities to which Winnipeg simply cannot aspire. One is a romantic city, draped over the emerald ankles of low-lying mountains and watched o'er by the precious peaks of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens; the other is a slapped-together by-product of unchecked urban expansion, rising between a blue flatness and a grain one. One has a climate that supports its status as the most environmentally-friendly city in the U.S.; Portlanders can count their snow days on a single hand. As for us, well, let's not go there.
But scratch beneath that surface, and Winnipeg and Portland remind me a whole lot of each other.
Both have an embarrassment of handsome, turn-of-the-century architecture. Both are renowned as hotbeds for music and arts. Both sit at the confluence of two important rivers; both are close enough to real, live nature that camping, fishing and boating are a prominent escape.
And, though these things are impossible to quantify, the very pace of life in Portland reminds me of nowhere so much as my beloved hometown: keep your eyes off the scenery and replace perogy houses with Mexican taquerias, and you could almost forget you weren't at home.
But Portland has one benefit that Winnipeg, to my young memory, has never really had: leaders with a vision of what life in their city could and should be. Leaders who will fight to bring that vision to life and who would rather stand for that vision than pander to the masses.
In Portland, that battle hasn't always been smooth. But its benefits are obvious.
In 1979, the city established a revolutionary growth boundary that contained development within a relatively tiny 22-mile-square area, pushing development inwards, prioritizing infill and spearheading the rise of attractive, lively mixed-use buildings. To make life easier in this suddenly hemmed-in city, Portland put in a slick light rail system. The trains are free throughout the city's core; they clack past every 15 minutes.
The urban growth boundary isn't static; it has added acreage over the years to meet its mandate of maintaining a 20-year supply of development-ready space. But reading about it on the Oregon Metro website (Metro is the government which oversees the cities of the greater Portland area), which you can do here, is a lesson in civic vision.
And by this single, stubborn decision, Portland artfully counteracted the hollowed-out, empty downtowns that have struck countless similar cities. Instead of rushing to increasingly far-flung suburbs, Portland's residents stayed living and working relatively close the city centre... and in so doing, built what is perhaps the most people-friendly city in North America.
I'm oversimplifying somewhat, of course. Portland is not a utopia. Whole city blocks near the city's famous bridges are crowded with homeless. (Though I did see far fewer this month than on my last month-long visit, in 2007; perhaps some successful program?) Since the recession and the crash in the lumber market which sustains the state, Oregon has posted a whopping 13 per cent unemployment rate. And the very urban development boundary many credit with the city's livability has been tussled over for years.
But if it does have faults, one can't argue that Portland's vision for itself hasn't pushed it to be the city that it is today.
To walk in Portland is to experience urban life the way it should be: diverse, exciting, accessible and safe. The development boundaries mean that little space is wasted; one can walk virtually anywhere important in the city in 20 minutes. And it's an interesting walk: instead of big-box wastelands plopped on unused space, Portland has a wealth of adorable boutiques, artfully hidden malls, quaint low-budget shopping and grassroots cafes.
For a Winnipegger strolling through Portland's tony Pearl District, it's impossible to ignore the hints of what the Exchange District could be (and in fact, seems to be becoming): the two districts have the same magnificent architecture, the same crooked old streets. But in the Pearl, the infill pressure has produced a living and lived-in neighbourhood, rejuvenated since the controversial urban development laws passed. Every month, the Pearl's many art galleries throw open their doors for free open-houses: the neighbourhood's residents, surrounded by culture, flock to attend.
The cozy familiarity of a city mandated to hang together breeds real culture, and not just in the Pearl. And it's a great place for families.
Consider that among Portland's biggest tourist attractions isn't an artfully groomed tourist trap, but a bookstore. It's the world's biggest independent new-and-used bookstore in fact: Powell's Books, a lovingly-worn 68,000-sq. ft. megalith whose rambling, mazelike interior commands an entire city block in downtown Portland. (It's adding another 10,000-sq. ft. soon.)
Portlanders' favourite weekend attraction is the Saturday Market, the largest open-air market in the United States, a freewheeling tent city that pops up each weekend to hawk locally-made food, art, clothing and goods. Some is corny, some is classy, and some is just plain wacky (I was moments away from buying a life-sized dog sculpture made out of recycled bike chains, a very apropos material for a city with bike lanes on the freeways).
That Portland's elected officials regularly tip their hats to the city's good-natured bizarro-culture only adds to the allure. Remember that phallic-pastry donut shop? Yeah, in 2008 Portland city council named VooDoo Doughnut's creepy, sugar-eyeballed Portland Creme pastry the city's official city donut, and expressed "deepest (municipal) gratitude" to the VDD owners for their contribution to the city's culture.
Oh, if only.
If only, like Portland, Winnipeg had turned away from the path in front of it, pushed back against the rampant abuse of open space and crafted a vision for what kind of city it wanted itself to be.
Look, this is not Winnipeg bashing. I don't go in for that. And it's not supposed to be a cold, hard answer. I am no city planner. I'm just a woman, living in a city, noticing how other cities have handled the same problems and thinking, "well, we here could have handled things better."
I love Winnipeg. I love Winnipeg with the kind of love that a daughter has for an aging, cantankerous parent: it hurts me to see it so languid. It hurts me to see it rise and fall in fits and starts, sometimes remembering it has promise, other times retreating to its lonely armchair to sit in silence, alone. It hurts me to see it sprawl outwards, as good space in the urban heart sits rotting.
But Portland, a city where I have spent months now altogether, gives me hope. There, I walked the streets and thought: how beautiful could Winnipeg have been -- and might Winnipeg yet be -- if someone in power put their foot down and said, "our city can do better, if only we have the courage to make it so."
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