Portage & Main in Winnipeg

Portage Avenue and Main Street, 1921.

I visited Winnipeg over a year ago, in the beginning of June. Canadian Library Association held their annual conference there and I was one of the speakers. After the conference, we had two days left to explore the city. And I loved it, as strange as it might sounds to some (actually, most people roll their eyes at me when they hear me proclaim my love for Winnipeg). How is it possible not to fall in love with streets like Broadway or landmarks like the Union Station?

Regrettably, downtown Winnipeg does not appear to be a source of local pride (one blogging Winnipegger bluntly referred to it as “ghastly”). To me (with few notable exceptions, like the wonderful waterfront or the Forks), it seemed like a place that reached the 1950s and stopped evolving as a city. The postwar suburban landscape that engulfs the downtown is reportedly one of the most extensive in Canada. This photo of the Winnipeg skyline was taken on a Sunday afternoon and it illustrates well the strange quietness of what once was a bustling city.  

In the course of our exploration, we quickly found that Winnipeg is far from being pedestrian-friendly when we reached the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street that had no crosswalks. And there are even concrete barricades (reminiscent of the Cold War era) that prevent people from jaywalking. My understanding was that Portage and Main is one of the most important areas in the city. From a visitor’s point of view, how can Winnipeg’s equivalent of  Toronto’s Yonge and Bloor Streets be so inhospitable? 

The intersection has been closed down to pedestrians since 1979, according to the Winnipeg Free Press, when an underground shopping concourse was built and the barriers redirected the pedestrian traffic there. It appears that the closure of this iconic corner is a combination of political corruption, ill-fated urban renewal efforts, and lack of foresight. Since the lease that closed down Portage and Main will expire in 2019, there seems to be a lively debate in Winnipeg about the future of the intersection. This is a good sign because the beautiful, historic Winnipeg deserves better.