Saturday, March 08, 2008

Romancing the Peg

"Winnipeg. Winnipeg. Winnipeg.
Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg.
My home for my entire life.
My entire life.
I must leave it.
I must leave it.
I must leave it now."

So begins Guy Maddin's latest release, My Winnipeg, which premiered to much acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2007. In it, Maddin captures a version of Winnipeg that is equal parts pride and bile, which seems like a common enough sentiment for locals and ex-pats alike, and is possibly the result of knowing you live in a city whose time has come and gone. All that talk today about the booming prairies fails to mention that Winnipeg's boom happened a hundred years ago, just before the General Strike of 1919. The Chicago of the North, as it was then called, Winnipeg was set to be the major railway hub for the transportation of goods across the continent, given its geographic location at the longitudinal and latitudinal centre of North America. Then the Panama Canal opened, favouring trade via waterways over railways, thereby greatly affecting the city's economic growth.

You can marvel and revel in the impact this had by visiting one of many huge furniture warehouses in the Exchange District, just off Portage and Main, where floor after floor is packed to the rafters with antique furniture, frozen in time since the 1930s, where it was stored waiting to be shipped via rail to cities around the continent. In one particular warehouse, each floor has furniture from a different decade, from the 1880's to the 1960's. Much of it shockingly cheap. An entire house can be furnished, vintage style, for beans (well, Toronto or Vancouver beans, anyway).

Here now, as promised in an earlier post ("Wicked!", August 2006) are a few more examples of why dormant states can make a place pretty interesting, if urban history turns your cultural studies crank.

Portage and Main
The city's largest and most infamous intersection. Reviled by most citizens (yet still the instant referent) due to the asinine decision to block access to pedestrians. People have been forbidden to cross Portage and Main, on any corner, for as long as I can remember (early 1970s). If you are, say, at the TD Bank corner and need to get to Lombard Place directly across Main Street, you have to go underground and pass through, in a literally roundabout way, a shopping complex called Winnipeg Square, built expressly for the purpose of tricking pedestrians into purchasing things they don't need, and would never have bought in the first place, had they been allowed to cross the street like normal human beings instead of forcibly impersonating a colony of gophers. Such a detour will lengthen your journey by at least 5 minutes. It's maddening. It's only 8 lanes of traffic! They do it in all the other big cities! Ugh. Maybe some day this decision will be reversed and people will once again be free to cross, like the big adults that they are, in all safety and comfort.
And now I have just discovered that our own humble little Portage and Main has made New York City's Project for Public Spaces website's Hall of Shame. Way to go.

The Bay
Like in many Canadian cities, The Bay's flagship store is the Grande Dame of the downtown. And like any grande dame, the bloom is off the rose, and that's partly why I love it so. It pretty much hasn't changed a bit for the last couple decades, so going back is a wicked trip down memory lane. First stop, The Paddlwheel Restaurant. I remember coming here with my mom after my monthly visits to the orthodontist. Nothing soothes the throbbing pain of forcible dental re-alignment like a cool bowl of cubed Jell-O. They've spruced the place up a bit, in that kind of misguided, half-conscious way old businesses do when they feel they have to keep up with the times. Take the sign, for instance. It was probably made in China 'cause it's got nothing to do with the character of the place. Sigh. The dining room is brighter than I remember, but they've mercifully left the paddlewheel a-churnin' (although the water is long gone).

I treated myself to the roast beef dinner, complete with Yorkshire puddin', horseradish, over-cooked vegetable medley, mashed potatoes, gravy, tea and good old Jell-O, and took my seat amongst the afternoon crowd having their afternoon glucose/fructose snack, and taking a break from returning or exchanging the Christmas presents they didn't like.

Speaking of fading beauties, the bathrooms on the 5th floor are rife with pathos. Fake pink flowers nicely offsetting the grey and beige colour scheme, rows of half-lit vanities, a well-worn door handle... It's pretty clean, but it's also pretty sad.

I love how they readily admit their elevators are slower than frozen molasses. Those seniors haven't got all day you know, especially on Bay Days.

Winnipeg's first Salisbury House Restaurant opened on Fort Street in 1931. It's trademark red roof (legendarily painted with leftover barn paint) made them easy to spot, and soon Sal's could be seen sprouting all over the city. Sal's is famous for its 'Nip' burger, and to my delight, they even offer a kielbassa and perogy platter. Fans of the Guess Who will know that Burton Cummings wrote many songs while sitting at his local Sal's (worthy of another one of those 'Heritage Minute' commercials). When they redesigned the Provencher bridge (complete with that bizarro 'what is it?' giant spire) spanning between downtown and St. Boniface, Winnipeg's French quarter, the idea came about that a restaurant should be built at the half-way point on the pedestrian walkway. The choice to make it a Sal's, and not a classier, French-themed crêperie or four-star resto, put many of St. B's elite in a snit, given the general perception of Sal's as a bit of a low-brow diner. It is. But on opening weekend, people lined up for hours to get in, and business has been brisk since.

Rae & Jerry's
Oh boy - here it is - my all-time favourite lounge in the whole world, with its flashing neon arrow, calling me, beckoning. ENTER.

Yes, it's that red. And the lighting is low, so unfortunately, my pictures are blurry (this was before the martini, too). But suffice to say, the place is bathed in red and black. The lounge is pure '70s glam, with floor to ceiling black velvet curtains, red carpet, red vinyl chairs, a roaring fireplace, and mirrored ceiling. The drinks are cheap as borscht, ya. The Vodka Martini with a twist is $6.50. And, the place is completely void of obnoxious hipsters. Unreal!

Mitchell Fabrics
For the crafty sewing crowd, a visit to Mitchell Fabrics is a must. As I am rather fond of unusual (some might say horribly kitsch) prints, I scored myself a meter and a half of classic 'dogs playing poker' which I will soon turn into a skirt. I'm happy to see they've hired themselves a good web designer. Their on-line face is pretty slick, but first time visitors to the actual store may be surprised (or pleased) that it's a rather dusty, old-school kinda joint. Heavy users include the province's Hutterite community. Oh, and you may notice it's in the so-called 'bad' part of town. Free parking at the rear. Multiple public transit options. Walking distance from the Exchange (if you like to walk).

Hotel Fort Garry
Part of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway nation-wide hotel empire, the Fort Garry is a triple threat. In addition to being a beauty to behold on its own, it also houses the Palm Room (also known as the Palm Lounge or Oval Room, but not the Oval Palm), and the adjacent Royal Crown Revolving Restaurant and Lounge. On Sunday mornings, the hotel hosts the most orgiastic buffet I have ever seen. For $35, you can ingest all the crêpes, fruit, omelets, pig, salmon, toast and lobster you can eat. You can even pass your entire plate under the endless stream of the three-tiered chocolate fountain. It's obscene. I've only been to it once, the morning after my brother's wedding, but I'd go again. If your motto is I ain't leavin' til I'm heavin', this is the brunch for you, my friend.

The Palm Room
Well the martinis are definitely not $6.50, but the décor will make you feel like a million bucks. And for the love of God, please, dress up a little. There's nothing worse than having your 1920s fantasy come alive rudely killed by a dude in yellow Crocs and a baseball cap. Have a little class!

The Royal Crown Revolving Restaurant and Lounge
The Hotel Fort Garry may be synonymous with upper-class elegance, but its neighbour Royal Crown is for the bargain lover. If the fringy valance and chintz doesn't distract you from the view, and your stomach can handle the combination of booze, rich food, and the not-at-all-subtle turning motion, then add this to your list. The amenities are a little worse for wear, but so would you be if you'd been spinning on your axis for 25 years. I'd like to point out the questionable women's restroom sign below. Very odd. Highlights include the $4.50 vodka martini. Combined with the view and the added bonus spinning effect, it's a cheap drunk's ideal night out.

More on the Fort Garry Hotel here

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