February 22, 2020

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A hill to wry on

Short-lived Hollywood-esque sign not just a masterpiece, but peak Winnipeg

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/9/2018 (526 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s not always easy to love Winnipeg. It’s a love that comes with a list of stipulations. It’s a love that, among other things, asks us to nurture a defiant pride in lowered expectations: in spite, not because.

That’s what this city is, after all. It’s what it has to be. It’s a place where residents make peace with the knowledge that we’re stuck here together, marinating in a century’s worth of dented civic aspirations.

It’s a place where we still blame the Panama Canal, albeit tongue-in-cheek. A place where a business once put up a sign celebrating a decade of construction at Portage and Maryland, and it made the news.

And it’s a place where we revel in the absurdity of our situation. A city where, when a visitor asks the inevitable question — "does Winnipeg have any hills?" — your heart skips a beat. This is your moment.

"Actually, we do have one," you say, and then you tell the story.

The punchline, of course, is a perfect summation of Winnipeg’s scrappy mundanity: we do have a hill, it was a landfill, it’s called — get this — Garbage Hill, except, technically, not really. Visitors laugh every time.

So when Garbage Hill loomed in the headlines this week, courtesy of its short-lived and mysterious Hollywood-sign-like treatment, it was the perfect Winnipeg story. It sat at an intersection of local peculiarity.

The signmaker remains anonymous. The sign was both ironic and loving, a fitting tribute to a spot with the most humble beginnings. It celebrated how people know it, not the city; who ever talks about Westview Park?

Then, there was the speed at which it was removed by city workers. This is not a city where we are accustomed to gazing upon public works and remarking, "That was fast." Suddenly, we got to do that.

The city said it wouldn’t have survived the winter. Fine. That explanation is perfectly Winnipeg, too.

Above all, there was the enthusiasm with which we received it. After the sign was so swiftly removed, news that it ever existed spurred support so unanimous, even the mayor spoke up to back a do-over.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>The Hollywood-esque sign marking Garbage Hill — which drew unanimous support, including from the mayor — showed Winnipeggers they can agree on some things.</p></p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

The Hollywood-esque sign marking Garbage Hill — which drew unanimous support, including from the mayor — showed Winnipeggers they can agree on some things.

In a city where friendships and, probably, at least a few marriages are currently strained over the matter of crossing Portage and Main, it was a relief. Turns out we can agree on some things.

Now, as we begin the long wait to see whether the Garbage Hill sign will rise again, let us take a moment to reflect on the joy that it gave us.

Let me change tack for a moment. This summer, a 21-year-old Texan named Jevh Maravilla noticed McDonald’s ads lacked Asian representation. Maravilla, who is Filipino, concocted an ingenious prank.

He and a friend created a poster-sized image of themselves, strolling along with McDonald’s food in hand. They designed it to look like a real ad, complete with the golden arches logo.

Then, clad in a McDonald’s uniform he found at a thrift shop, Maravilla went to McDonald’s and installed the poster on the restaurant’s wall. Remarkably, it stayed there for the next 51 days.

Overnight, the story became a global sensation. Since Sept. 2, Maravilla’s tweet of the tale — complete with photos — has been retweeted over 259,000 times. News outlets across the world ran with the story.

It was a brilliant prank, finding the right balance of insightful, harmless and clever. Its success was also revealing: if Maravilla had simply shared a design of the poster, it wouldn’t have been such a sensation.

The joy of the prank, and the reason it captured so many people’s imagination, was in how it subverted expectations of space. Maravilla’s creativity wedged a human spirit into the corporate sameness of it all.

The same thing happens in public spaces. The most memorable delights of city living arrive through myriad small and unprompted acts of creation. Discovering them in unexpected places is what thrills.

A chalk drawing on the sidewalk. A scrap of handwritten poetry, slipped into the crack of a transit bus seat. The moment you’re walking down a too-familiar street, only to realize that something is a little bit different.

In Winnipeg, a group posting on Instagram as @wpg_rocks paints stones with whimsical images, then hides them in neighbourhoods across the city. A treasure hunt, where the valuable prize is a smile.

These are the little things that put city life into colour. Things that snap us out of the drab predictability of the day-to-day. Things that shake up our expectations of familiar space. Things that let creativity reign.

Let’s take it as a reminder of the humble and resilient humour that defines what it means to be a Winnipegger.

In the annals of such localized efforts, let the Garbage Hill sign be remembered as a masterpiece. A legend. We don’t know who made it and maybe never will, but that’s what made its short-lived magic.

Will we see it again? Maybe. Mayor Brian Bowman — no doubt eager to support a civic initiative that doesn’t involve a brawl of public opinion — urged the signmaker to try again, with the proper permits.

It’s a fun idea, for sure: Winnipeggers have gotten so much mileage out of the Garbage Hill name, perhaps the site deserves a more lasting celebration. It’s the least we can do for our only real hill.

Yet if the signmaker jumped through the hoops of city process, it wouldn’t be the same. It captured our attention precisely because it wasn’t officially sanctioned. Creativity shines brightest when it begs no permission.

So let the memory of the Garbage Hill sign live on long after its wood-and-Styrofoam body was yanked from its perch. Let’s take it as a reminder of the humble and resilient humour that defines what it means to be a Winnipegger.

And to whoever made the sign, thank you. In a time when Winnipeg’s civic dialogue is consumed by what divides us, thank you for the reminder that our city can — and should — also be something that delights us.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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