October 20, 2020

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One surreal city

Downtown Winnipeg looks familiar on a recent Saturday evening in the middle of a pandemic; but it doesn't take long for a strange feeling to take hold

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The puddles ripple with rainwater.

Light is fading from the sky, but the night has yet to take hold. The Earth rotates, ever so imperceptibly, until the centre of the sun dips six-degrees below the horizon and dusk settles in.

Aside from the occasional vehicle rolling past to someplace else, the neighbourhood is empty. For the most part, the traffic lights — green, amber, red — change for no one.

A man sits in the bus shelter on one corner of the intersection. There is nowhere he needs to be. Rather than waiting for a ride, he’s waiting out the rain that’s been falling most of the day.

He stands, stretches, paces a few steps, then sits down again.

More people are crammed into the bus shelters — side-by-side like sardines in a tin can — than are outside, it seems.

Across the street, a woman struggles to light the cigarette dangling from her lips as she strides down the sidewalk, her head framed by the purple umbrella propped over her right shoulder.

"There haven’t been many people around," says Ron as he prepares his bed for the night.

His jet-black hair is shaggy, and — like his beard — streaked through with a touch of grey. His 55-year-old face is dirtied from life on the streets and the creases in his skin are pronounced and speak to hard living.

On the north side of city hall, just off the sidewalk, Ron rolls out a sleeping bag on a section of steel grating where heat rises from the vents. This is where he sleeps every night.

Ron, 55, is homeless and sleeps every night on these grates right outside City Hall.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ron, 55, is homeless and sleeps every night on these grates right outside City Hall.

For the homeless, it’s prime real estate.

The fewer people out and about, he says, the less likely anyone hassles him during the night. All things considered, Ron doesn’t mind how deserted it’s been.

"It’s better. Nobody bothers me…. You see a little bit of people, more so during the day," he says.

"Otherwise, it’s been a ghost town."

Block after block, only a few people linger on the sidewalks, hanging close to doorways to smoke cigarettes before heading back inside while exhaling the last puff.

On a night like this, people should be at the King’s Head Pub, drinking beers and shooting pool, watching sports and listening to music. Couples should be seated under dim lighting in Cordova, sharing tapas and bottles of wine. Friends should be gathered around tables at Across the Board, sipping on warm beverages and playing tabletop games.

But tonight, no OPEN signs will illuminate the dark. The doors to restaurants are closed, the bars on lockdown. The storefronts sit shuttered, if not boarded up.

This is Saturday night in the Exchange District.

This is downtown Winnipeg during the novel coronavirus pandemic.


It started with a run on toilet paper.

One day you could purchase as much as you needed (and then some), and the next it was gone. But the panic buying didn’t stop there.

Shelves in grocery stores picked clean of select items: sanitary supplies and paper towels, canned and jarred goods, rice and dry pasta.

One day you could purchase as much as you needed (and then some), and the next it was gone.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

One day you could purchase as much as you needed (and then some), and the next it was gone.

For those with the means to stock up, it wasn’t a big deal — a minor inconvenience, nothing more.

But for those unable to afford hundreds of dollars spent on a single shopping trip, a disconcerting question lingered: will there be more stock on the next visit?

Daily COVID-19 briefings by provincial health officials became a routine part of life. People tuned in to hear the latest numbers: how many new cases and tests completed, how many hospitalizations and deaths?

Photos posted to social media offered a glimpse of the new reality outside our front doors.

Lineups of people standing two metres apart, bracing themselves against the wind, waiting to enter stores. Used face masks and dirtied latex gloves littering sidewalks and parking lots. City buses, devoid of passengers, travelling lonely, desolate streets.

An eerie feeling, difficult to describe, descended upon downtown. At times, it felt like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic film. As if the city had been deserted, as if life had been sucked from the streets like blood let loose from a vein.

City buses, devoid of passengers, travel lonely, desolate streets.

JESSE BOILY / FREE PRESS FILES

City buses, devoid of passengers, travel lonely, desolate streets.

For people still going outside every day — whether by choice or not — the changes were stark and strange. In an interview with the public broadcaster, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said the ambience in the city had shifted for front-line officers.

"It certainly feels different out there, particularly at night, because there’s fewer people out and about. There’s less traffic," Smyth said.

"The community certainly has a different feel to it."

But you don’t have to be police to notice that much.

Since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Manitoba March 12, and physical-distancing measures were implemented in the weeks that followed, the changes downtown have been evident to anyone out walking the streets.


At the height of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, which is estimated to have infected one-third of the world’s population and killed between 17 and 50 million people, the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud published an essay entitled The Uncanny.

For the father of psychoanalysis, "the uncanny" was the sensation evoked by something familiar suddenly becoming strange: a doll coming to life in a horror film, or walking through the streets of a metropolis and not seeing another soul.

"The uncanny is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar," Freud wrote.

Download The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud

 

The concept was developed further by the historian Anthony Vidler in his 1992 book The Architectural Uncanny. Vidler argued that cityscapes devoid of human subjects render the familiar unfamiliar.

The uncanny, he wrote, is "sinister, disturbing, suspect, strange: it would be characterized better as ‘dread’ than terror, deriving its force from its very inexplicability, its sense of lurking unease, rather than from any clearly defined source of fear — an uncomfortable sense of haunting rather than a present apparition."

As the COVID-19 pandemic took root around the world, major news outlets — including the New York Times and the Guardian, among others — began publishing photo essays of empty public spaces: the Eiffel Tower with no tourists in sight; the Colosseum standing alone in Rome; the Grand Mosque in Mecca without any worshippers.

Places without people, while people — locked in their homes — stare at pictures of places they used to visit. How different the photos from this crisis will look from the pictures of crises past. There are no bombed-out cities, no fires burning, no flooded streets.

Just empty ones.

The photographs bear witness to our (temporary) erasure from the world, leaving many feeling estranged from their environments, alienated and melancholic.

A man pedals in front of an empty area outside Rome's ancient Colosseum.

ALESSANDRA TARANTINO / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

A man pedals in front of an empty area outside Rome's ancient Colosseum.

This should not come as a surprise, according to Lindsay McCunn, a professor at Vancouver Island University who specializes in environmental psychology, a field of study that analyzes the relationships between people and places.

"We know that human attitudes and behaviours and emotions and thoughts are optimal when people have the choice to spontaneously interact with others, or the choice to have solitude and find privacy. Those two things are very important to us," McCunn says.

"The choice to go in and out of those during our day makes us feel mentally well. But, at the moment, we have no choice but to have far less spontaneous social interaction in person."

"It makes us feel sad. It’s almost a version of homesickness, in a way." – Professor Lindsay McCunn

While downtown Winnipeg may not be as active and populated as the downtowns of larger Canadian cities, such as Toronto or Vancouver, the people who live here have adapted to it as a "vibrant, social sphere," McCunn says.

And when our expectations of a place we’ve come to know well are radically disrupted — such as during widespread social distancing and self-quarantine measures amid a pandemic — it can lead to mental distress.

"That affects us. It makes us feel sad. It’s almost a version of homesickness, in a way. We feel this missingness of a way of life that we had, which was very social, but it’s also linked to the physical spaces those social habits happened in," McCunn says.

"We’re seeing this on a macro level, with whole big swaths of city space empty (and) there’s this sense of eeriness."


On March 9, three days before it was confirmed the pandemic had hit the city, 15,325 people packed into the Bell MTS Place to watch the Winnipeg Jets’ final home game before the NHL season was postponed indefinitely.

Seven weeks later, there is almost no one outside the arena. The pubs that populate the surrounding blocks are closed — no TV screens flashing sports highlights on a loop, no pints poured down the throats of thirsty fans, no elbows propped on wooden bar tops.

The tires of a city bus roll west on Graham Avenue, heading toward the Hudson’s Bay Company building. Seat after seat on the bus is empty, except for two: the driver’s and a single, masked passenger, way at the back.

Graham Avenue and the area surrounding Bell MTS Place is mostly empty.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Graham Avenue and the area surrounding Bell MTS Place is mostly empty.

A man stumbles down the sidewalk talking to himself — agitated, loud, swearing at no one in particular — before disappearing around the corner as his voice trails off into the night with each step south on Carlton Street.

The wind blows and rain trickles lightly from the sky. A beeping from a traffic light counts down the seconds left for pedestrians to cross the street, but there is no one to heed the call.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at The Forks, there’s no shortage of parking spaces, with only a few vehicles studding the lot. The sound of a train braking in the distance mixes with the cries of birds above.

A handful of people stroll through the pathway of the Prairie Garden, keeping distance between themselves, and a family with young children stands on the bridge, looking out over the Red River.

Off to the side, Vee sits quietly on a bench with her hands cupped in her lap. She is wearing blue jeans and white sneakers, a black hat and a pastel-coloured jacket. A thermos rests on the bench next to her, beside a pair of red gloves.

Vee, 72, is blind and walks daily at The Forks.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Vee, 72, is blind and walks daily at The Forks.

Every day, the 72 year old — who was born blind — leaves her home and takes a walk on Waterfront Drive, eventually making her way to The Forks. Pandemic or no pandemic, she says she needs to get outside to "recharge her batteries."

"I can’t stay inside forever," she says. "I’d just get cranky."

There is much Vee wonders about the pandemic — When will Winnipeggers return to work? When will Manitobans be able to visit their cottages again? When will restaurants open their dining rooms? — but she isn’t worried about herself.

There are two kinds of people in the world, she says: those who fret and worry themselves sick, and those who don’t; her parents taught her to be among the latter.

When asked how she manages outside every day without sight, she points to her nose and then to her ears.

“I can’t stay inside forever. I’d just get cranky.” – Vee

"Smell and hearing. I’ve got an extraordinary sense of hearing. It’s very heightened," she says.

"My parents brought me up as if I could see. I went to public school…. There’s been no change for me. I think maybe it would be worse if I’d lost my eyesight 10 years ago, say, in an accident or something, but this is all I’ve known."

Vee says she thinks some Winnipeggers are handling the pandemic better than others. She says she can sense certain people getting worked up and angry while waiting in line outside the grocery store or the Liquor Mart.

But not her.

"I still come down here every day. I like it down here. You can hear the trains better now, and the ducks," she says.

"It’s just different. I like change."


 

More than 60 per cent of business owners who responded to the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ poll have laid off employees.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

More than 60 per cent of business owners who responded to the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ poll have laid off employees.

The impact of the pandemic, and the physical-distancing measures that came with it, have been disastrous for downtown businesses.

Last week, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ polled area businesses on what’s happened to them since the beginning of March: 34 per cent closed because of the provincial directive; 19 per cent closed by choice; and 30 per cent remain partially open.

More than 60 per cent of business owners who responded to the survey have laid off employees. And most concerning of all, 40 per cent say unless something changes, they won’t be able to survive another three months.

"If we look at the progress that’s been made downtown over the last several years, with new buildings going up, new restaurants going in, new retail, to just have a neighbourhood that has gone so quiet, it is heartbreaking," says Kate Fenske, chief executive officer for the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

"The reality is that some businesses may not be able to survive this."

The primary customers for businesses in the area are downtown workers, which means their revenues dried up quickly after people were laid off or told to work from home.

If there’s a silver lining to the current situation, Fenske says, it’s the way some entrepreneurs quickly pivoted their business models, adjusting to the market realities of pandemic-stricken Winnipeg.

For example, by the end of March, roughly two weeks after laying off his staff and closing the doors to the King’s Head Pub, owner Chris Graves announced his bar would go from serving pints to thirsty customers to delivering groceries to hungry ones.

By the end of March, King’s Head Pub owner Chris Graves announced his bar would start delivering groceries to hungry customers.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

By the end of March, King’s Head Pub owner Chris Graves announced his bar would start delivering groceries to hungry customers.

It is that type of ingenuity that gives Fenske hope. She says her agency is already brainstorming ways it can help businesses as the economy begins to reawaken.

"It’s still unknown exactly when workers will be coming back… but it’s really important that the businesses we all know and love are still here when we get to the other side of this, so I think it’s important for all of us to be doing what we can to support local," Fenske says.

David Camfield, a professor of labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba, says one reason things have felt so strange is our economy — normally fast-paced and bustling — ground to a halt overnight.

Eventually, it will open back up, but Camfield says we should all be worried about what’s coming down the pipe: a recession that will likely be the worst the world has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Most of all, he says he’s is worried about who will be expected to pay for the cost of the pandemic.

"Governments are spending a lot of money and businesses have been in crisis. There will be a question about what comes next. I think, most likely, we’ll be facing very severe austerity and an attempt to reduce the growth of deficits and attack public services," he says.

"That is a situation that could potentially be politically explosive."

So far, Premier Brian Pallister and the provincial government have ordered post-secondary institutions to cut costs by 30 per cent, and there is the spectre of layoffs hanging over the civil service unless unions agree to wage reductions.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

So far, Premier Brian Pallister and the provincial government have ordered post-secondary institutions to cut costs by 30 per cent, and there is the spectre of layoffs hanging over the civil service unless unions agree to wage reductions.

There have been hints of the austerity measures to come, with Premier Brian Pallister arguing he has no choice but to slash spending during the pandemic due to lost revenue from taxes and hundreds of millions of dollars in unexpected health-care costs.

So far, the provincial government has ordered post-secondary institutions to cut costs by 30 per cent, and there is the spectre of layoffs hanging over the civil service unless unions agree to wage reductions.

On top of that, Camfield expects there to be a scramble by businesses to boost profits and expand their share of the marketplace. Smaller firms will get eaten up by larger ones, he says, and employers may push new labour practices on employees — whether they like them or not.

While some people will seek a return to normal, Camfield says others will push to create new economic realities, because they recognize "the way things were before wasn’t so good for them."

For those who find themselves with more spare time during the pandemic, he hopes they use it to reflect on what kind of lives they want to lead and how they think society should be organized.

"This has been a giant forced experiment. Moving forward, employers are going to decide what they want to learn from this experiment, and workers are going to have their own feelings on what is good and what they can’t wait to get rid of," Camfield says.

"If we can take advantage of that free time now and think about these things, that will help us down the road."


The dark has fully taken over now.

Red, green and amber traffic lights combine with vehicle headlights and tail lights at once at Confusion Corner in a loud, incandescent symphony.

The no. 18 bus heads north up Osborne Street with three passengers on board. The driver sits behind the wheel with a black mask stretched tight over his face. He hides behind the plexiglass safety shield, fretting about the spread of the virus.

"I’m worried about myself… I’m worried about the other passengers who have to take a bus to get to work. That’s why I’m worried, but there’s nothing I can do. I’ve got my instructions," he says, directing the nose of the vehicle across Stradbrook Avenue.

"I’m just supposed to drive the bus, follow a schedule, make sure people are following social distancing, and that’s it."

On most nights, he says there’s not all that much to worry about, since there aren’t too many people outside. For the time being, that’s the way he likes it.

But as the weather gets nicer, he’s worried more people will start going out again, whether it’s safe to or not.

“I’m worried about myself… I’m worried about the other passengers who have to take a bus to get to work. That’s why I’m worried, but there’s nothing I can do." – Winnipeg Transit driver

"I’m a night guy, so I don’t usually see too many people, but on days, I’m hearing from other drivers who say it’s becoming busier in the daytime," he says.

"Especially if it’s nice weather. It’s like people just want to go out and they’ve forgotten about COVID."

But for right now, that’s not a concern. It’s just him and three riders, driving through the night, rolling right on by most bus stops without hitting the brakes.

The rain has stopped. There’s little traffic. The stores are closed and people are few and far between.

It feels eerie and strange on the streets.

It is still Winnipeg. It is still our home. It is still the city we know and love.

But it feels different, off. The texture isn’t right.

And that’s because the people are gone — locked away, out of sight, shut indoors — and it’s the people, most of all, that make a city what it is.

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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History

Updated on Friday, May 1, 2020 at 5:10 PM CDT: Fixes multiple photo caption typos

7:50 PM: Fixes typo.

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