Once more into the downtown From ‘limitless possibilities’ in the 1920s to ‘where the action is’ in the 1970s, Winnipeg’s downtown is now a chaotic mix of hope and concrete-grey despair. How do we revive the heart of our inner city?
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In the opening decades of the 20th century, optimism for the bustling Portage strip, and the blocks lined up neatly around it, was overflowing. The City of Winnipeg was growing, booming with new European settlers and new business, signs of the wealth being extracted from the land in a young colonial country, and the promises of more wealth to come.
Newspaper reporters and ad copy writers described each new downtown development with breathless excitement: a 1920s article about a new Eatons addition spoke of the “unbounded faith in the future of this Western country with its practically limitless possibilities,” and of a “greater era of prosperity looming on the horizon.”
Retail ruled along Portage. On the streets that stretched south, a busy neighbourhood rose. It had two public schools packed with students, a growing number of competitively grandiose churches, and blocks filled with new homes. Back then much of downtown south of Portage looked like the West End does today, tree-lined and served by small businesses.
Over the years, local historian Christian Cassidy took stock of the remnants of that downtown. He noted the locations of old houses which still stood, looking ever more anachronistic, between Portage and Broadway, such as the humble 1896 duplex he called the Lonely House, that lingered on a thin sliver of Donald Street until it was razed in 2015.
“Every couple of years, one or two went down the drain,” he says.
But the ghosts of old downtown are still there, if you take a moment to see them.
South of Portage, there are a sprinkling of turn-of-the-century buildings that survived downtown’s long decline and slow arc to revival. There are the old churches, stubbornly rooted, their once-dominating brick and stone edifices now dwarfed by the boxy concrete and glass buildings that replaced houses long since torn down.
There’s the pointed roof of an old three-storey house at the corner of Kennedy and Graham, discreetly hiding inside the sleek modern storefront that long ago swallowed it up. Even downtown’s surface parking lots, many razed in the mid-2oth century to make way for towers that never materialized, sit as phantasms of the downtown that was.
Today, that downtown is long gone. Office space sits vacant, a shift in how we work accelerated by the pandemic. Retail space too took a hit, and hasn’t yet fully recovered. Surface parking lots still dot what, in more centralized cities, would be prime blocks, diminishing the pedestrian experience, and there is little affordable housing to go around.
And downtown also bears the suffering of the city at large, much of which roots back to that same colonial consolidation that once sparked so much optimism in newspaper pages: intergenerational trauma that spins off into homelessness, poverty and addiction. Many city leaders have called it a humanitarian crisis, and it can be most visible downtown.
In an interview with the Free Press in mid-December, freshly minted Mayor Scott Gillingham pledged to develop a co-ordinated plan to tackle homelessness and addiction: while the most-needed services on that end usually fall under a provincial jurisdiction, he said, “I can’t wait any longer” to take a more drastic civic effort on addressing the problems.
The goal, Gillingham explained, would be to find ways to close the gaps through which people still fall. A way to bring together the city, the province, social service agencies, faith groups, shelters, and faith groups — in other words, everyone working to ensure people can get the material and health supports they need — into a more seamless whole.
“Right now, we have some co-ordination across the city but in too many instances you’ve got individuals rowing in their own boat, and sometimes there’s overlap and sometimes there’s gaps,” Gillingham said. “There is a significant amount of money in the overall social services system and yet we still have too many individuals struggling on our streets.”
“There is a significant amount of money in the overall social services system and yet we still have too many individuals struggling on our streets.”–Mayor Scott Gillingham
So that could be one part of the road forward, for downtown. What else could shape what it becomes?
Over the next week, the Free Press will be checking in on the state of downtown and exploring ideas for its future. Together, our journalists will delve into how the neighbourhood is adapting to changes in where we work and do business; how sports events are succeeding, or struggling, to connect with visitors; and how to get more folks living downtown.
We looked at how downtown can still serve as home for the arts, and for artists. We explored how another Canadian city has met the challenge posed by addiction. We asked what students on the neighbourhood’s campuses need from downtown; and we went to Sunday services at one historic church, to see where downtown community grows from the ground up.
Those stories focus on downtown’s present, and its future. So maybe we ought to start with a brief reflection on the past. There are reasons Winnipeg’s downtown evolved the way it did, choices made and economic and social forces that acted upon it. Some of those are not unique to the city; some are more specific. But they all hold their lessons.
For instance, how did that old downtown, the one that is mostly no longer standing, transform to what we have now?
Partly, it was planned that way. In 1969, three years before 12 separate municipalities would formally amalgamate into the sprawling City of Winnipeg, the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg, the body overseeing the region, released a sweeping downtown development plan, one that was approved by the province to guide the area’s direction.
At that time, the downtown was already showing the impacts of the city’s growing economic and social divisions. The flight out to the suburbs was in full swing, urban sprawl was increasing, and retail, long the anchor of downtown, was showing its signs of decline. Planners hoped to stop that process in its tracks.
The plan was ambitious. Artist renditions predicted a futuristic city, one of soaring towers, geodesic domes and clean, broad concrete plazas. Much of the new high-density residential blocks were to be built with public funds; the goal was to swell the downtown population from 10,000 to 75,000, enough to sustain the envisioned business and entertainment districts.
In the years that followed, some of those ideas did come to pass. Old houses and shops were razed to make way for the new vision. A handful of new apartment towers rose up, such as Place Louis Riel, which promoted itself in 1970s advertisements as “where the action is” for a “young, on-the-go executive family in a bustling air-conditioned ‘now’ community.”
But overall, that futuristic city never came. Those who’d moved out to the suburbs weren’t inclined to come back, and very few people were arriving in Winnipeg to replace them. The city’s population, which had grown at a steady clip of roughly 3 per cent each year through the 1950s, had started to become stagnant at around 1 per cent growth, or less.
What that left was a downtown that had a major problem: it was geographically large, and increasingly empty. The appetite for big real-estate investments plunged amidst a struggling economy, but the south of Portage was now tied to a scale nearly requiring it: more full-block developments, fewer properties that could easily adapt to the changing conditions.
“Sadly that is what really helped shape the downtown that we have, was this dream,” Cassidy says. “When you’re walking anywhere downtown, you’re going to cross at least a block of empty parking lot. The people they were trying to get to move in there… they were urban professionals, the ones that would move into midtown Manhattan.
“They weren’t building them for the people who lived there before. The people who were there, after everybody left for the suburbs and the value of the housing crashed. So it was the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg that really helped shape a lot of what we think of as the downtown.”
“When you’re walking anywhere downtown, you’re going to cross at least a block of empty parking lot… They weren’t building them for the people who lived there before. The people who were there, after everybody left for the suburbs and the value of the housing crashed.”–Christian Cassidy
This would kick off a cycle that, for the next several decades, would become familiar. Developers squeezed dollars from governments for flashy investments, some of which never materialized or were only half-finished; the ones that did rise never quite lived up to the hope either civic leaders or residents had placed in them.
Maybe one of the problems, in those years, is that those looking to improve downtown hadn’t yet let go of its past.
For years, University of Winnipeg Prof. Jino Distasio points out, much discussion about downtown revival still hinged on bringing the region back as a major retail hub. Eaton Place — now Cityplace — opened in 1979 to much hopeful fanfare; five years later, the major new Portage Place development was announced as a fortune-shifting investment.
“They didn’t see the writing on the wall that retail wasn’t the way to go,” Distasio says. “They should have just let retail go, and found something else to reimagine there… The mall was already done. Eatons was dying. The Bay was barely hanging on, yet we kept trying to do CPR. Somebody needed to call it.”
In Distasio’s mind, he thinks of downtown’s modern arc in broad eras. The 1970s were the lead-up to the “really difficult period” between 1980 and about 2005, he says. But around that time a shift seemed to happen: the downtown started to grow again, with more residents moving in and new investment sprucing up long-neglected blocks.
“We began to see that population growth, we began to see the real emerging diversity of this city reflected in waves and waves of newcomers,” he says. “Something happened in the downtown, and we just started to grow.’”
“They should have just let retail go, and found something else to reimagine there… The mall was already done. Eatons was dying. The Bay was barely hanging on, yet we kept trying to do CPR. Somebody needed to call it.”–Prof. Jino Distasio
But in some ways, the damage of the back half of the 20th century had been done. One of the biggest challenges facing the downtown today is perception, one that set in over long years of decline. Over the last 15 years, Distasio points out, there’s been more momentum in the region than in decades before; the pandemic knocked it back, but it isn’t gone.
Still, the perception of downtown as hopeless persists. Shifting that in a divided city, one in which many Winnipeggers have never seen downtown as part of their mental map of their community, could be one of the biggest challenges it has faced.
“It’s not necessarily based on fact, as it is on this sense of doom in the downtown,” Distasio says. “That occurred for a long period of time, even during the renaissance of 2010 to 2020. There was always this fight with perception… Is there some kind of elixir to combat what we’ve seen? That’s the million-dollar question.”
— with files from Joyanne Pursaga
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.