The year was 1960. My mother worked part time in the women’s lingerie department at the Hudson’s Bay Company store in downtown Winnipeg.
Every Friday night, my father, brother, and I would climb into the car and meet her for supper at the Paddlewheel Restaurant. Being Catholic meant meatless Fridays back then, so every Friday we ordered the same entrée — fish and chips. I would anxiously await the dessert — cheesecake topped with a gooey cherry concoction.
After supper, my father would give my brother and me a handful of pennies to throw into the Paddlewheel while he shared some quiet dialogue with my mother.
Friday evenings at the Bay Downtown were magical in 1960.
As a university student in the ’70s, I worked part time at Eaton’s. Winnipeg’s downtown was bustling back then and often, during my Saturday lunch break, I would join the crowds walking and window shopping down Portage Avenue. Downtown was always crowded with shoppers and friends meeting up for lunch or a movie. Saturday afternoons in downtown Winnipeg were alive in the ’70s.
Isn’t it interesting how life sometimes comes full circle? Now retired and in my 50s, I work part-time at The Bay Downtown. I doubt that my mother world recognize the store these days. It has shrunk from six to only three working floors. Inside, the building is falling into disrepair.
The second floor women’s bathroom used to be a showcase in the ’60s. Now, it is a barely functional, sad place. The Paddlewheel Restaurant recently closed, as did the Zellers store located in the Bay basement. The escalators seem to be under constant repair and the ceiling fans are covered in black soot. Gone are the crowds of shoppers. Today The Bay seems cavernous most evenings, as downtown empties after 5 p.m.
However, there is a whisper of hope for Winnipeg’s downtown. A new apartment complex has opened on Portage Avenue, and construction is underway on the ALT Hotel and luxury condos across from the MTS Centre. Of course, the MTS Centre draws people downtown from all areas of the city for hockey games, concerts, and special events. The Met has been refurbished to its former glory, and now offers another entertainment venue.
The University of Winnipeg is continuously increasing its presence downtown. There are also a few new restaurants.
These are laudable ventures, but what needs to change is people’s perception of the downtown as a safe place to work, live, shop, and visit. This is the greater challenge.
There has been much conversation about the future of The Bay Downtown, including new tenants for the boarded-up floors. I continue to dream about a vibrant, magical downtown — a renaissance of the area I so fondly remember. Let’s hope that dream becomes a reality.
Joanne O’Leary is a community correspondent for Riverbend.