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This article was published 29/7/2016 (1881 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On the day the crews came to tear up Selkirk Avenue, two North End organizers rushed outside to soak in the moment.
There, standing in the spring light, Andrew Sannie and Jenna Leskiw locked eyes. The chewed-up pavement, they knew, would soon give rise to a project almost a decade in the making. Sannie, who serves as recreation liaison for the North End Community Renewal Corp., snapped a photo to remember that exact minute: It was 1:59 p.m. on May 11.
This was the day a long-awaited dream began to take form. It had been conceived more than eight years earlier when dozens of North Enders gathered to address a blighted spot on Selkirk Avenue near the bell tower. At that 2008 meeting, youth and adults imagined a new park to bring the community together; they sketched their vision with Sharpie markers.
The project didn’t come together easily. For years, it bounced around North End advocates’ thinking. It lurched forward in meetings, then sat idle in hopes of funding. As the years passed, the youth who shaped the park’s conception grew up. Some moved away from the area and lost touch with the project. Its champions never forgot it.
So as the first bulldozers rumbled down the road in May, Leskiw strolled out of the office she keeps as co-ordinator of Aboriginal Vision for the North End, and started weeping. "I just wanted to go into the park and cry," she said. "Because it was actually happening. The kids that were a part of it actually get to finish something really, really big that they wanted."
In the end, it took almost a decade, a determined group of residents, non-profits and city departments, and a little bit of luck. So in a way, the birth of the revamped Powers Plaza — its first two phases are expected to be finished this year, the third by next summer — is also a resounding statement about resilience and evolution.
By 2008, when Leskiw helped organize that first consultation at the Ndinawe centre, the need for change was evident. At the time, the plaza and amphitheatre at Selkirk Avenue and Powers Street — built as part of a massive 1985 civic improvement effort — wore the scars of the North End’s struggles. Homeless youth took refuge there, gangs stalked the checkerboard tables.
Many residents ached for better. In early meetings, they envisioned a rejuvenated community space, where children could play and neighbours could gather. They built a wish-list of features, including climbing structures and seating areas; for youth, a basketball hoop was central. Then they waited, as the plan took a long route through the planning stage.
As the years passed, the momentum in the North End shifted. The amphitheatre was torn down in 2011; around the same time, a young activist named Michael Champagne launched the first of the now-thriving weekly Meet Me at the Bell Tower events. And Jenna Wirch, who once slept in the amphitheatre as a homeless teen, could feel a new energy emerging.
"It’s totally changing from negative to positive," said Wirch, now 25 and a co-ordinator with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities. "People started taking pride in the neighbourhood, and seeing that other people from outside the neighbourhood are wanting to help. Other people are caring about us now, and not just painting us all with the same paintbrush."
Still, the future of a Powers Plaza redevelopment was far from certain. It got a boost in 2010, when organizers turned to a service called Spark Winnipeg to connect them with pro bono professional assistance. They were matched with planning and design firm HTFC, which has a long track record of working with community and indigenous-led projects.
At HTFC, Heather Cram was immediately taken with the concept for Powers Plaza. A veteran planner, she had vivid childhood memories of strolling down Selkirk Avenue, where her grandparents once lived. It was an "incredible location," she thought; she also knew it would take a village effort to move it from the planning stages onto the real-life street.
"It’s always touch and go whether you’re going to get the funding," Cram said. "(In) the last 20 years when we work on a project, there’s always a real need to help out with finding funding for it to come to reality. So you have to be involved with the community in order for that to happen."
Still, it seemed a long way off. When Sannie joined the renewal corporation in 2014, the park became part of his portfolio. "I was pulling together what I thought was the first consultation on it," he said. "Then I got the rude awakening. Jenna (Leskiw) told me, ‘No we’re eight years in. You’re just joining the party.’ Deep down, if I’m honest, I thought I might be gone before this park is done."
The biggest early barrier was a heavy price tag for construction, with some estimates surpassing $600,000. That fell suddenly late last year, as the city prepared to overhaul the crumbling avenue. Together with Coun. Ross Eadie, organizers saw an opportunity to piggyback: if the street and sidewalks were already being repaved, why not extend it to the Powers Plaza?
The city agreed, and that bit of synergy shaved about $250,000 from park organizers’ fundraising needs. To Sannie and Leskiw, it felt as if the whole project had suddenly become possible. The final cost — including that paid by the city — will be about $500,000; organizers still have to locate another $100,000 to complete the park’s three phases.
The new plaza, split between the north and south sides of Selkirk Avenue, will include a long community table to host feasts. Some current features, including planters filled with sweetgrass that are maintained by young people, will stay. Additions include rubberized turf for a play area and climbing structures made of foam.
Of course, few big changes happen without critique. A small tempest erupted this week over one of the park’s key elements, a basketball hoop situated near the wall of the Indigenous Family Centre. Some observers worry bouncing balls might damage a mural on that wall, which was designed by iconic Anishinaabe artist Jackson Beardy.
However, a temporary hoop stood on the plaza for several years without serious problems. Residents noticed even those who spray graffiti tags on nearby walls tend to leave the mural alone. On Facebook, the Indigenous Family Centre stated it believes the new hoop can be installed with backing that ensures the mural will not be harmed.
Wirch, who helps repaint the mural every few years due to normal wear and tear, isn’t concerned.
"It’s not a big thing (to touch it up)," she said. "We do it because we want to keep that memory alive. I remember being five years old, walking down Selkirk Avenue, and wondering what those murals mean. I started learning about my culture, and being a pipe-carrier, and I started noticing: ‘Oh, it’s a pipe, to bring peace and harmony to the neighbourhood.’"
Now, organizers hope those values will be the legacy of the new Powers Plaza. There is still the matter of securing final funding, but at least the finish line is in view. It’s been a long time coming — not just for this one project, but also for a long and tenacious history of North End organizing.
"There have been a long few decades of people working really hard," Leskiw said. "Maybe not as much visible change to people coming in from the outside, but now there are a lot of big projects that are really getting off the ground."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.