Winnipeg is a divided city, a fact that most everyone who lives here knows already, in their gut if not in a way they’re prepared to explain or even say out loud.

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This article was published 21/5/2015 (2176 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Winnipeg is a divided city, a fact that most everyone who lives here knows already, in their gut if not in a way they’re prepared to explain or even say out loud.

We are divided, and data (or a thoughtful look around) bears it out. Split by the railyard that slices through the city, by the facts of income and ethnicity, and perhaps by urban design that does little to encourage people from divergent neighbourhoods to mingle, we have grown (and are slowly growing) apart.

To see that is easy, to understand it more difficult, and to wrestle up the public motivation to push for solutions, well, that may be the hardest thing of all.

Still, we need to at least try. One way or another, when divisions become crystallized, the ensuing problems become everyone’s fight: for instance, because high-income families, fleeing farther from a core they don’t trust, stretch infrastructure at the whole city’s cost. Because poor families, trapped en masse in decaying neighbourhoods, are made more vulnerable by being out of sight of the city’s powers, and largely out of mind.

This week, we have something new to help us wrap our minds around what our divisions look like. On Wednesday, the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies released a book on Winnipeg’s stagnated divide. Called — what else? — The Divided Prairie City: Income Inequality Among Winnipeg’s Neighbourhoods, 1970-2010, the book features a collection of research on the stats, spaces and history that shine a light on the uglier facts of our city.

(Full disclosure: my partner, Greg Gallinger, provided a number of photos for the book, for which he was paid an honorarium. I do not think this affected my interest in the subject matter, though it is how I first learned about it.)

There are many aspects in the book that stand out, some of which were ably covered earlier this week by my colleague Mary Agnes Welch, one of the most diligent reporters I know on the subject of urban inequality. Central among them is, although we are far from the most unequal city in Canada — we lack Toronto or Vancouver’s sheer number of wealthy people, the pattern we follow has been consistent: the low-income core struggles, rich neighbourhoods get richer.

Running my fingers over the old Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Free Press archive clippings in the book, I think about history, and about how decisions made about this city before I was born set it on an inevitable course towards what it is now… hollowed out.

So where do we go from here? What do we do now? This much is certain: our public dialogue about city development must get bolder about challenging the status quo.

On Wednesday, at a panel discussion to launch The Divided Prairie City, I asked the panelists how they thought media contributed to perceptions of division between Winnipeg’s neighbourhoods, and how that might be addressed. Richard Milgrom, University of Manitoba city planning professor, struck an interesting note.

"It’s very difficult for (the media) to capture complex problems," Milgrom said. "The problem of complexity: you’ll see reporting about problems in downtown Winnipeg. You won’t see anyone saying that maybe the problems with downtown Winnipeg are Waverley West."

That rings true, which isn’t necessarily a failure of reporting, but a fact of the daily news medium, especially in a media landscape that each year becomes more threadbare, in terms of basic resources and reporting capacity.

There is something else I wonder. Something that wrestles with a divide between media and public that is more difficult to quantify, something I thought about once when I spoke at a workshop for North End folks about how the media handles reporting on racism.

I’ve been working in the media in Winnipeg my entire adult life. I know most of the reporters around town, and I believe without a doubt that most journalists are honest and open-minded people, who care about the stories they’re telling, who care about respecting the places they visit and getting the story right.

Still, it has always occurred to me that most reporters in Winnipeg are an awful lot like me — raised in the suburbs, growing up in conditions of comparative privilege, coming into our careers largely without the social barriers posed by disability, poverty or race.

I admit the first time I ever set foot in the North End — one of Canada’s most concentrated sites of poverty — was about six years ago, when I went there on a news assignment, most likely something to do with a crime. Before that, I’d simply never had reason to go — and I know I’m not the only reporter in Winnipeg who tells a similar story.

And I’d like for us to think about what it means, when the first contact that those of us tasked with mediating a story for the public have with the North End is stepping out of a news van, putting a microphone or a tape recorder in a resident’s face, and asking, "Can you tell me what happened?"

This has nothing to do with good intentions, but it is about understanding and framing. So often in Winnipeg, those of us who tell stories about the human costs of income inequality don’t fully grasp the culture, language or values of the folks surviving in it, or the true and more nuanced character of core neighbourhoods.

Over time, while I was still a news reporter, I went back to the North End again and again. One day, I spent hours trailing an aspiring politician as she trekked up and down the streets, knocking on doors and laughing with everyone she met. People opened their homes to us, peppered us with jokes, played with their kids.

On that day, I suddenly understood something about the North End that nothing I had read before had explained, something beautiful and human and so often unnamed.

Pushing back against spatial stagnation of inequality will take policy and innovation. It will also need communication, a chance to tell the stories that make central the values that connect our neighbourhoods and lives — not just the numbers that fracture and divide.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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