If you are not a Winnipegger, some of the local references in this post might make it harder for you to understand what I am talking about, or indeed care. It might help if, when I say “Portage Place,” you substitute the name of whatever white elephant your town built in the 1980’s to try to revitalize the downtown. And when I say “Portage and Main,” simply think of a landmark in your city that people in other places have heard of, without really understanding why it is famous. Like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, or the Sewers of Paris.
I think it’s safe to say it now. Portage Place is not working out. Yes, it’s fun to pretend that it’s actually Stephen Hawking who provides the voice of the parking kiosks, though you’d think with his resume he could get a better job. But unless you want to make a drug deal, or watch someone else make a drug deal, or see people have sex in a stairwell, what do you need at Portage Place that you couldn’t get somewhere where it’s easier to park your car? Prairie Theatre Exchange, sure, but otherwise…
I’d like to say Portage Place seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t. I was here then, and most people I knew could see it was a bad idea, or at least a pretty shaky one. No hockey arena or “shopping mecca” is going to revitalize downtown. Only a time machine can do that. Now, I’m not suggesting we pour the snow-clearing budget into Time Machine Futures. We simply have to accept that Eaton’s is over, and that our downtown, like downtowns everywhere, is never again going to be what it once was. But if we could build a time machine, what we could do is go back in time and show up at the City Council meeting when they decided that the priority in all of our plans would henceforth cease to be people, and start to be cars.
When we finally figure out the time machine, I predict it’s going to turn out to be simpler than we thought it would be. We are always making things complicated. We could get Stephen Hawking out of the Portage Place Parkade to help with this. The time machine will turn out to be something easy like walking backwards blindfolded with exactly the right music playing. It will take us a while to find the right music, that’s all. There is quite a bit of music.
What’s done is done and the question is: where do we go from here? Don’t tear Portage Place down. That would be a waste of bricks and mortar and 80’s pastels. No. Just let it be what it has become, and what it will continue to be no matter what anyone does: a community centre. A few years ago some benevolent organizations helped the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ put a piano at the bottom of the escalators. It is never, never silent, and far more nourishing than anything to be found in that benighted food court, where all you can think as you wait for your Pad Thai is “please don’t let me be here when the shots ring out.” The piano is the best thing in the whole building. Everyone who goes there knows it, and still the politicians say art isn’t important.
With a little work Portage Place could be a decent community centre. We’ll leave the second floor for the office people to walk through on their lunch hours. On the main floor we could put a play structure by the piano, and bring the art studio they have on the skywalk right down to where HMV is now. We won’t decide any of this for anyone or impose it or “allow” it, we’ll just invite anyone who cares to sit around in the food court and talk to each other until we come up with something good. Okay? If you don’t want to go there, don’t. You don’t need Starbucks and Ricki’s half as much as all those folks in the food court need a community centre. You don’t. People, all people, need a good place to go. This project might cost us some money, but don’t worry. We won’t make it as nice as the community centres in the south end of town. That would be wrong.
Everyone downtown also needs more quality grocery stores, but I won’t bother to suggest it, because a curse was put on Winnipeg by an evil wizard that makes this impossible.
Meanwhile there’s another civic planning problem going on in Winnipeg that to me is not very pressing, but it is getting a lot of press: what oh what are we going to do about Portage and Main?
(For people who live elsewhere: Portage and Main is the intersection of our two main thoroughfares, and is, not surprisingly, right smack dab in the middle of the city that grew up around it. Once upon a time, Winnipeg was a big famous boom town and we just can’t get over it. So Portage and Main is iconic basically because it used to be iconic.)
They closed Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic in 1979. Did no-one notice that what they were doing was making it easier for cars to speed right past our iconic intersection and get the fuck out of downtown? Oops. But I don’t think simply re-opening the whole works tomorrow is the answer either. We have to think about this carefully, figure out if the benefits outweigh the costs and the risks. You know, plan. Our cities should be better for pedestrians, yes, absolutely. I don’t recall that crossing Portage and Main on foot was all that big a thrill. Is it just me? I don’t think it’s fun to run screaming across eight lanes of traffic in fear for my life while staring at dull architecture. Let’s also consider, before we do anything rash, that all those vehicles will be idling longer, which means a significant increase in pollution. Furthermore, there isn’t anything really excellent to cross the street for, and if you’re thinking “Starbucks,” you’re dead to me.
The real reason people want to open Portage and Main to foot traffic is because the alternative is so ghastly. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Concourse.
It is simply awful. The only good thing about this creepy circular tunnel/mall was when there was a horologist down there. A horologist is a person who builds and repairs watches and clocks. But the horologist moved out to the ‘burbs to build a time machine, and now all there is down in the Concourse is a sushi counter and a block-long lineup at a Tim Horton’s. I’m only going to say this once: Tim’s coffee is just not that good.
The Concourse makes no sense and it smells like a wet ashtray. The brutalist concrete aesthetic makes it feel like you are in a parking lot, which is nice if you feel you haven’t been spending enough time in parking lots lately. What confuses me most about the Concourse are the signs that say “Portage and Main Circus.” I presume they mean circus in the British sense, as in “roundabout,” because I have been down there a hundred times or more and I have never seen so much as one goddamn clown.
I know lots of people are scared of clowns, now more than ever. We don’t have to have clowns at the Portage and Main Circus. The last thing I want is to cause people to have anxiety attacks while they buy sushi and search in vain for a good horologist. So we don’t have to have clowns. But why not a juggler once in a while, a fire-eater, a dog dressed up as an elephant? Would that be so wrong? The big round wall in the middle? We could make it a merry-go-round so you could ride a wooden horse all the way from the TD Tower to the Richardson Centre.
We could at least paint some part of it a colour.
There are lots of things we need to do to make Winnipeg a better city, sure. We could try to fix the block-long line-ups at the missions, or the children living in hotel rooms, or the transit system or what have you. But we could also spend a couple of bucks on our iconic intersection and make it justifiably famous once again. We could do all kinds of fun things and not get run over by a car once. Let’s think Large and Long Term. Here are some ideas, and if they seem absurd I’d like to remind you that the Floodway seemed absurd at first too. Someone please see that this reaches the Mayor:
- Human cannons. Right? RIGHT?!?
- Oh, calm down, we’ll have nets.
- Swinging bridges like in a Tarzan movie. And zip lines!
- Calm down, we still have the nets from the failed human cannon experiment. That was unfortunate. Seemed like a good idea at the time though.
- A gigantic suspended trampoline. Now we’re talking. When we meet each other downtown, instead of saying “meet me at one of the Starbucks” or “meet me where the drug deals go down” we can say “meet me on the trampoline!”
- A gigantic suspended year-round skating rink. Now that’s iconic.
- It actually might be kind of cool to build a (fully accessible) pedestrian bridge. That’s got to make more sense, and cost less over time, than the idea I heard where we would just open the whole intersection up and hire cadets to help us cross the street, 24-7.
- And here’s another idea that might not be stupid: put the pedestrians back at street-level and put the goddamn cars underground. TUNNELS. I am serious. Then Portage and Main would be magical. Then we’d have a reason for the chickens to cross the road. A garden. Big trees. More sculptures. A merry-go-round and a skating rink and jugglers and cotton candy. We will still do a pedestrian overpass – for staying warm in winter and for the view, of course. It will be about ten stories up and have a restaurant on it, owned and operated by me. It will be called Pie in the Sky, and I will serve coffee, just decent regular coffee with no grande frappe double double anything, and whatever kind of pie I feel like making that day. Come on down but please, take the bus. Parking downtown is a nightmare.
©2016 by Ellen Peterson.