City Beautiful

Or, what these four walls say about my city

The Free Press is doing a Saturday feature series on the architectural history of Winnipeg which I find speaks uncannily to its current social state.

After regaling the reader with the ambitious, lofty, exciting plans for this upstart city -- bursting with promise in the days before the Panama Canal killed freight rail traffic and social unrest spawned a defeatist mindset that still hampers efforts at progress today -- the authors come clean about "the real Winnipeg" the "City Beautiful" plans were trying to banish.

There were pawnshops filled with weaponry, and bars and brothels galore. And slums to call home for the hopeful immigrants lured with false promises at the end of the journey. 

"In a book entitled A Social History of Urban Growth, [Alan F.J.] Artibise concluded Winnipeg's shortage of housing, inadequate water and sewage disposal services [in the ever-poor, overcrowded North End] -- combined with the city fathers' thirst for growth (and not coincidentally personal wealth) -- created a paradox," writes FreeP journalist Randy Turner.

In the face of the controversy currently swirling around missing Aboriginal women and especially the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, opening this very weekend, these observations are eerily apt for today. Turner's next quote from Artibise sounds like a warning to the powerful of today's city who have just built a beautiful edifice for ideals  -- built, in the estimation of some, on the backs of human suffering.

"The campaign for immigrants and industry stands as a monument to the failure of Winnipeg's leaders to develop a mature social conscience."

Add "continued" or "enduring" before "failure." No, despite being a stronghold for the NDP, our fair but flawed city continues to strive for the monumental at the expense of the [hu]man. We build a "world-class" museum dedicated to the ideals of human rights -- on the site of traditional burial grounds, feet from the fickle river whose banks at times shelter the unwanted of society but whose depths have buried many of the same, silently borne out of sight.

When will we realize that building our trophies on the backs of others will never guarantee prosperity?

Local historian Randy Rostecki's blunt observation about the ravages of 1960s Brutalist architecture on the elegant structures of the past speak to more than building styles. "To me, a lot of progress stinks. A lot of it is based on greed. I'm not anti-progress, but the way it's practised in many cases leave a lot to be desired."


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