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Without designated historic sites, Winnipeg city heritage crumbles

Winnipeg has a lot of arsons-in-waiting.

“We’re going to tour Europe this summer, I hear the buildings there are mostly new construction, making very economical use of four-by-eight sheeting material.”

Said no one ever.

World-class cities across the globe have one important thing in common — a dedication to preserving and showcasing history through architecture. New Orleans has the French Quarter, Mexico City has its Historic Centre, Shanghai has Huangpu and Paris has, well, Paris.

Winnipeg has a lot of arsons-in-waiting.

Vacant Victorians, four-squares, bungalows and even apartment blocks dot the city’s main thoroughfares, plaguing Osborne Village, the North End and the West End, inviting neglect’s slow, steady demolition, so developers can slap together chipboard condos or infill in their stead.

The scorn heaped on Winnipeg’s architectural history is palpable and it often comes right from the top. A long line of civic leaders have, without foresight, doomed a great many remarkable structures in our city.

There was the old city hall building, opened in 1886 and demolished in 1962. The Empire Hotel, built in 1883 for Lieutenant-Governor Joseph-Edouard Cauchon and torn down in 1982. The Eaton’s building was destroyed to make way for the MTS Centre in 2002, and of course Winnipeg’s covered market didn’t survive the 1960s. Not to mention the dozens of buildings razed to make way for the very embodiment of poor urban planning — Portage Place Shopping Centre.

I only have to look one block from my home to find a muddy skid of surface parking that used to be two century homes.

And now Mayor Brian Bowman wants to demolish the soon-to-be vacant Public Safety Building, a perfect example of brutalist modernism if there ever was one. It’s not pretty in a conventional sense, but it’s intriguing, it’s evocative and it represents a significant turning point — not just in esthetics, but in the postwar psyche.

Predictably, Bowman is claiming that the building is “beyond repair” and must be torn down. Of course the self-appointed transparency enthusiast hasn’t backed this statement up with any actual documentation or specifics.
It all sounds remarkably similar to the arguments made in favour of building a new football stadium several years ago, when the public was told it would take millions and millions to repair the cracked, water-damaged structure.
Oh wait, it’s actually the new Investors Group Field stadium that has cracks and needs millions of dollars in repairs.
Sometimes Winnipeg has gotten it right — the Forks Market for example, or Red River College’s careful integration of historic buildings into its downtown campus.

But if our urban planners and civic leaders can’t come up with anything more creative than tearing things down and starting over every few decades, our urban heritage sits on a foundation that is indeed cracked and crumbling.

Shannon VanRaes is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photojournalist who spends her days contributing to the Manitoba Co-operator and her nights covering urban affairs. She can be reached on Twitter @ShannonVanRaes.

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