They say you can never go back. Except in Winnipeg. This city has experienced modest growth since I left in 1985 but it has also managed to remain remarkably familiar. I like that in a city.
The Manitoba capital has apparently learned a few things about boom and bust over the years. There was a time in the early 1900s when Winnipeg was one of the fastest growing cities in North America. Between 1890 and 1920 the population expanded eight-fold. There was also a period in the 20s and 30s when the city went into steep decline. The stock market crash of 1929 and the dustbowl of the 30s hit The Peg particularly hard.
Visitors are often surprised to learn that something built 3000 miles to the south caused or at least hastened Winnipeg’s decline. In the early days Winnipeg was the “Gateway to the West” and almost all freight that crossed the country passed through here. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914 Canada’s rail freight system went into decline and a few decades later the port city of Vancouver surpassed Winnipeg as Canada’s third-largest city.
Winnipeg is clearly no Vancouver but if you can make do without the Pacific Ocean and views of the North Shore mountains, and you own a parka and a block heater, you can still have a pretty good quality of life in Winnipeg.
I saw an ad for a 1200 square foot Exchange District loft that rents for $800 a month. Luxury condos can be bought for $300 a square foot and new condos and lofts are indeed being built, albeit at a less crazy pace than in Toronto and Vancouver.
When I took the #11 Portage bus from Portage & Main to my old stomping grounds in Westwood I was surprised to see that many of my old haunts are still in business. Some look a little tired – yeah, they’d probably say the same about me – but at least they’re still kicking.
The Marigold (Chinese food) and several locations of Gondola Pizza have seen better days but are still largely as I remember them. At the St. James Hotel the draft still flows by the tanker truck. I stopped in for one at the hotel’s historic Fox and Hound Pub (est. 1928). A little further west, Schmecker’s has gone Greek and is now called The Nook and Cranny but otherwise it looks about the same.
I probably spent more of the 1980s at The Downs Motor Inn than any other establishment. I lived upstairs one entire winter, drank in the beer parlour on days when the track was dark, and partied with horsemen after the races in Ma’s Corral – the basement bar that hosted live country and R&B acts on week-ends. I saw The Fabulous Thunderbirds at The Downs long before they made the soundtracks of Gung Ho and Cocktail
Ma’s Corral has since closed and the whole property has been rebranded as a Howard Johnson Express Inn. At least it’s still there and it’s still as third-rate as ever. The slogan over the door now reads, “Go Happy, Go Ho-Jo”. I’m pretty sure it used to read, “Listen to a hit-n-miss country band, dodge the odd flying beer bottle, get drunk, and sleep it off in a $29 room that last saw a steam cleaner in the 60s.”
On a brighter note, one establishment that Father Time has seemingly overlooked is Rae & Jerry’s Steak House near Polo Park. I dropped in for a drink on Saturday and ended up staying for the Prime Rib sandwich and a long chat with the transplanted Detroiter who now mans the bar. A night at Rae & Jerry’s was a ritual whenever my boss, Rod Donlevy, came to town in the 80s. Rod would take Race Secretary Garry Woods, Judge Craig Macdonald and myself to Rae & Jerry’s for the Prime Rib sandwich and more than a few Caesars. And I’m not referring to salads. Craig would inevitably order the cheesecake with black cherry compote and an Irish coffee while Rod had another Scotch and water. I had yet to develop a taste for either booze and coffee or Scotch and water. I was 20, mind you.
Rae & Jerry’s hasn’t changed since the 1950s (I’m told) and it certainly looks exactly as I remember it from 1982. It’s remarkably well maintained and still attracts Winnipeg’s old money who use the valet service to park their Caddys and Jags. I sat at the bar this Saturday afternoon (#1 of 100) and recalled a similar afternoon in the 80s when I chatted with a very nice middle aged lady only to learn later on that she was June Sifton, widow of newspaper magnate John W. Sifton. Mrs. Sifton could have bought the joint a thousand times over yet she still sat at the bar where her gin and tonics were a buck cheaper than in the dining room.
“You never know when the city’s economy will turn. You might need that buck some day,” she advised.
I can’t say that I took her advice too seriously. Winnipegers, in general, knew better.
WINNIPEG by Tom Russell Band
(Click below to play audio file)