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Opinion

A city's identity is found in its dive bars, not its shiny new hotels

The Commercial Block / McDonald Hotel (1883) and the Fortune Block (1882) housing Times Change(d).

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Commercial Block / McDonald Hotel (1883) and the Fortune Block (1882) housing Times Change(d).

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/1/2016 (1669 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Culture not condos.

So reads the sign outside of Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club, the beloved little honky-tonk that sits at the corner of Main Street and St. Mary Avenue. That sign has been up for a while — at least as long as the fate of the joint has been uncertain. A three-word reminder that some places are worth saving.

And on Tuesday, Times Change(d) was saved. Councillors on the property and development committee voted in favour of imposing heritage designations on the Winnipeg Hotel (214 Main), the Fortune Block (232 Main, home to Times Change(d)), and the MacDonald block (226 Main), despite the owners’ protests.

See, the owners want to sell it to a Toronto developer, who would tear down the buildings to build a $35-million hotel — a scenario, quite literally, out of a Weakerthans song (no prizes if you can name that tune, just my respect, and the answer is at the bottom). But local businessman John Pollard, co-CEO of Pollard Banknote, has other ideas. He says he’s developed a plan for the Fortune and MacDonald blocks and is considering throwing the Winnipeg Hotel into the mix as well.

How does Times Change(d) owner John Scoles feel about Tuesday’s events?

"Well, I bought a round for the bar last night and I haven’t done that before, so that’s probably a good representation of how I feel," he tells me Wednesday with a laugh.

"I’m excited that I’ve got an opportunity to do something more with this business and this building after 15 years of pretty much just holding down the fort and making it work in spite of the limitations we’ve had to work with," he says. "I’m impressed with council. I don’t want to say for sure, but if this happened 10 years ago I don’t think it would have happened the same way. I think there’s been a great progression under the new mayor."

That moment on Tuesday, when the committee decided to say "this matters," is one Scoles won’t soon forget. He’s worked hard to build something at that corner — not just a club, but an institution. He recognized the potential that existed there. "I still keep the sacred butter knife here that I used to peel off various bits of the walls because we wanted to do it for, like, no cost," he says. He was thinking of that butter knife this week.

Scoles says he’s grateful to council, CentreVenture and the Pollards. Like Scoles before him, Pollard recognizes the potential of these buildings. It’s not going to be a high-yield investment, no. But, as Scoles says, Pollard is investing in the community.

The debate over the heritage designation of these three Main Street buildings has raised an interesting question: what do we mean when we talk about heritage? So often, that discussion is centred on architecture and the dollar value of the buildings themselves. But heritage is also about culture and community. It’s about what goes on inside of those buildings.

A city’s DNA is in its dive bars and flea-bag hotels and holes-in-the-wall. When people talk about the cities they’ve visited, their impressions aren’t shaped by surface lots or shiny new hotels. No, they breathlessly describe the "great little spot" they "found." Everyone wants to feel like they’ve stumbled upon something great. Places like the Times Change(d) give you that feeling.

And overwhelmingly, it seems as though the "great little spots" that get lost to gentrification and "progress" are small and mid-level music venues. "They’re always on the edge of something. On the edge of collapse, or on the edge of downtown," Scoles says. "And they’re the ones the developers spot." Which makes sense: they are often large spaces in cheap, derelict buildings in areas that, ironically, the venues themselves made desirable. When landlords are made an offer by a developer that’s tough to refuse, well, the venues get killed for condos.

This is happening everywhere. Edmonton is losing hardcore/punk venues at an alarming rate. Last year, a report prepared by the Mayor’s Music Venues Taskforce in London, England, said that since 2007, London has lost 35 per cent of its grassroots music venues. That’s roughly 50 venues shuttered. And yes, that’s right: the mayor actually established a task force to combat this problem.

A lack of venues certainly harms musicians, but it also weakens the cultural fabric of a city. Think of the sad, sorry state that two of Winnipeg’s greatest musical institutions — the Royal Albert Arms and Wellington’s, the basement bar of the St. Charles Hotel — are in today. Left to decay while their owners are caught up in years-long tax and permit dramas.

What happened with Times Change(d) on Tuesday is encouraging. After all, as Scoles says, "99 times out of 100, this story doesn’t work out this way."

This time, the city picked culture.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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History

Updated on Thursday, January 14, 2016 at 1:25 PM CST: Corrects reference to St. Mary Avenue

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