Here’s an excerpt from my new book Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. Photos by Bryan Scott (hey, that’s me), text by Bartley Kives, and a foreword by John K. Samson. Now available in stores and online.
For the sake of an exercise, pretend you’re a god. You can go anywhere you want, by any mode of transportation you desire. What you’re most likely to desire is to travel as far away as possible from the coastlines of the continents, where the vast majority of humanity resides. This is a logical desire, as all gods consider homo sapiens a nuisance, if not a pest species.
In geographic terms, they call such a place a pole of inaccessibility — the farthest location you can travel from any coast. In Eurasia, discriminating deities will wind up in the Gurbantºnggºt Desert, an arid patch of western China’s Xinjiang province, a few kilometres from the Kazakh border. In South America, misanthropic multi-dimensional beings may escape to the savannahs of the Mato Grosso plateau to enjoy the quiet company of Brazilian cattle. In Africa, the ultimate escape will place you among the pigeons and parrots of the Bengangai Game Reserve, near the tri-border confluence of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In North America, however, the farthest place from anywhere is already occupied — by Winnipeg, home to more than 700,000 people and zero gods. More than any other city on the continent, Winnipeg is stuck in the middle.
Head east from Winnipeg in a car, and it’s a 2,700-kilometre drive to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean in the general vicinity of Rivière-du-Loup. This coastal Quebec town is the birthplace of Alexandre-Antonin Taché, the first Archbishop of St. Boniface, a Cassandra figure who tried and failed to prevent the 1870 Métis unrest that established Manitoba and paved the way for Winnipeg to be a provincial capital.
Drive west from Winnipeg, and it’s 2,300 kilometres to the Pacific coast city of Vancouver, a railway terminus whose early growth originally mirrored that of the Manitoba capital, once Canada’s biggest railway hub. But after the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, the Port of Vancouver became a more profitable shipping route, and Gastown assumed Winnipeg’s role as Western Canada’s most important city.
Drive south from Winnipeg, and it is 2,750 kilometres to Corpus Christi, a Texas city on the Gulf of Mexico. Visit the suburb of Flour Bluff, and you may find yourself at the corner of Winnipeg Drive and Manitoba Drive, where a series of nondescript bungalows pays homage to hopelessly bored Prairie-dwellers who actually did get in their cars and drive until they could not go any farther.
You cannot travel by car directly from Winnipeg to the Arctic Ocean. But it’s only a 1,700-kilometre train ride to Churchill, Manitoba’s seaport on Hudson Bay. The Scottish settlers who helped found the Red River Settlement that would eventually spawn Winnipeg had to travel through the vast emptiness of Hudson Bay, whose shores are patrolled by polar bears. Open up a Lonely Planet guide to Canada, and you will find as many pages devoted to Churchill as there are to Winnipeg. In the eyes of international tourists, the permafrozen tundra is more attractive than a city that simply has the reputation of being among the coldest in the world.
If you insist on technicality, the North American pole of inaccessibility actually is embedded in the South Dakota badlands. But Winnipeg has more than just geographic reasons to claim the continent’s extreme centre.
As a city of 700,000, Winnipeg is too small to be cosmopolitan but too large to be folksy. Big-city complaints about violent crime compete with small-town gripes about the absence of privacy and if you’re single, a terribly shallow gene pool. Major amenities such as NHL hockey are balanced off by a minor-league transportation network saddled with only a rudimentary rump of a rapid-transit system.
Far from the moderating influence of the seas, Winnipeg is subject to a highly variable, mid-continental climate, where winters are frigid, summers are steamy and both spring and fall can involve either extreme. The annual mean temperature of 2.6 C belies the 86-degree spread between the city’s hottest and coldest recorded temperatures.
Winnipeg also falls smack in the middle when it comes to economic growth, chugging along at a modest pace during the entire postwar period while almost everywhere else underwent rapid expansions and precipitous declines. Winnipeg’s eggs are divided among many economic baskets — transportation, manufacturing, insurance, food processing — as if the gods designed a living embodiment of a balanced stock portfolio.
But none of this speaks to the real manner in which Winnipeg is stuck in the middle: It is a city that inspires a profound sense of ambivalence among its residents.
This has nothing to do with apathy, as there’s no such thing as a Winnipegger without a strong opinion about the city. They either despise it or adore it, depending on the nanosecond and whether or not the bus came on time, the street happened to get plowed or the Blue Bombers won the previous night. While ambivalence of this sort is present in any city, only in Winnipeg does it serve as the defining character of the populace.
In many ways, Winnipeg is a fascinating place. It was born of an act of violent resistance, a unique occurrence in this country. It was the fastest-growing city in North America for a time. It was the site of one of the largest workers’ revolts in the Western World. It was threatened with destruction by floodwaters twice in half a century. It is the second-smallest city on the continent to boast a major-league professional sports team. It boasts a selection of architectural wonders that ranges from surviving railway-boom warehouses to 20th-century modernist buildings to a handful of hyper-modernist structures.
Yet Winnipeg is also the very vision of homogeneity and inefficiency. It’s a low-density city that can barely afford to maintain its sprawling, aging infrastructure. It is not overly walkable or pedestrian-friendly. It makes artistic decisions based on politics and political decisions that appear to be inspired by Dadaism more than any political philosophy. It has a disturbing tendency to allow property owners to neglect and eventually demolish heritage structures.
Winnipeg tends to infuriate Winnipeggers, who sometimes question why they live in the city. But when they consider the alternative, they dare not dream of living anywhere else. Even Winnipeggers who do depart for Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver never assimilate or fully lose their regional identity. They remain stuck on their birthplace, in the middle of the flat, snowy, bug-ridden, flood-prone and isolated prairie, where everyone seems to know everyone despite the impossibility of the arithmetic involved.
To add another onion layer to this already-tired analogy, Winnipeg is also stuck in the middle of two possible destinies. One involves maturation into a medium-sized city that learns to live within its means by choosing to reinvigorate its inner core, increase the density of its older neighbourhoods and build new residential areas that make financial and environmental sense.
The other is a slide back to mediocrity by conducting postwar development business as usual: the endless construction of new single-family homes, sprawling out into a distance where the roads and sewers and water pipes will never be as good as the day they are laid, because no future government will be able to maintain them.
Winnipeg is a city on the precipice of a momentous decision, one that really amounts to the cumulative result of a series of smaller decisions. For now, it stands between two futures and potentially many more. Pray to whatever deity you like to ensure the right choices get made.