City & Politics

Routing out seedy hotel bars shows disdain for Winnipeg (and all cities)

It’s been written elsewhere on this site that grabbing beer at the Woodbine Hotel—that infamous dive near the corner of McDermot Avenue and Main Street—is a Winnipeg right of passage worth celebrating.

I agree.

In an oft-misguided attempt to “keep the party going” past the 2:00 am cut-off, I have been to the Woodbine vendor countless times. The vendor is built into a raucous lounge with typically raucous live music blaring, and I generally stumble in and out quickly, a six-pack in hand.

But the Woodbine, with a patronage comprised almost entirely of poor Aboriginals, has a woeful reputation in Winnipeg. The bar, which at times resembles a saloon out of an OK Corral movie set, is often gripped by violence and has become the brunt of ill-informed jokes among service industry employees in the neighborhood.

The place possesses a thick, rugged urgency; a sense that some fight or anguished outburst is being temporarily avoided by the fact everyone is having too much of a good time—for now. It is, unabashedly and unpretentiously, a place of sin.

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In reflecting on what happened to her beloved New York City over the course of several interviews in recent years, satirist Fran Lebowitz argues the Big Apple is now the “most densely populated suburb” in the United States. New Yorkers let it become this way, she says, because Americans have never genuinely liked cities.

Cities allow a sense of personal anonymity for which small town America is incapable. And that anonymity, while providing conditions for immense innovation and personal exploration, also allows for sin. Cities, then, are an affront to quaint middle American sensibilities because they are fundamentally places of sin.

The Woodbine, and other seedy motels and lounges, are part of the human fabric of downtown Winnipeg for precisely this reason. And dens of iniquity with poor reputations—places of sin—are an integral part of any urban centre that can reasonable call itself a city.

This is not to say that crime should be tolerated (it shouldn’t), but it is to say that seedy hotels will always exist, if only to provide a small corner where sinful behavior is not only tolerated, but expected.

It is for this reason that actions by publicly funded downtown development firm Centre Venture (a planning organization that uses public funds to spur private investment), and statements made by its CEO Ross McGowan, are a sign that Winnipeg tax money is being funneled into an organization that ultimately possesses an ideological disdain for cities.

After a violent incident in 2009, McGowan called the Woodbine—that wonderfully troubled watering hole—a “sore spot” in downtown Winnipeg and hinted at Centre Venture’s perceived need to buy it out and find someone to re-develop it.

This is indicative of a entrenched mindset that views “public intoxication” as the primary scourge on the downtown, and has resulted in the eradication of  a handful of similar hotels.

According to my fellow Spectator Tribune columnist Robert Galston, ten similarly “shady” hotel bars in or around Winnipeg’s downtown have been shuttered between 1998 and 2013, both due to a lack of business but also due to concerted efforts from firms like Centre Venture to intervene and ultimately close the locations.

What generally replaces the formerly undesirable haunts is some ultra-planned public initiative, or an organization that operates only on the basis of consistent public remuneration.

In the case of the Gordon Downtowner on Ellice Avenue, which later became the beloved Lo Pub/Hi Hostel, funds from the public development firm Forks North Portage Partnership—and a misguided notion that a hostel near the University of Winnipeg was necessary—helped sink an innovative, privately run business on the main floor of the building.

Another example is the New Occidental at 631 Main Street, that infamous prairie bar once described as the site of  “more muggings, knifings, bar brawls and murders” than any other place in Western Canada.

The Occidental was purchased privately in 2002 by Richard Wall, with the express purpose of turning it into a dry, transitional housing facility called the Red Road Lodge. However, when a big chunk of public grant money was relinquished last year, the Lodge was on the verge of closure and is likely still operating within the confines of a severe funding limbo.

In 2007, Centre Venture purchased the Bell Hotel at Main and Henry, which was subsequently closed and renovated in 2008. With the help of an infusion of federal cash, the cramped motel and beverage room was turned into public housing. Whether this bastion of housing on Main Street has helped transform the area into something other than skid row, as it was touted to do, is questionable.

Most recently Centre Venture has taken its bar purchasing binge to a new level, through the outright purchase of the St. Regis Hotel beverage room—the site of several drunken murders over the years—at Smith Street near Portage Avenue.

The purchase, which makes the privately run hotel a dry facility for the duration of its lease, is meant to reduce public intoxication. They also hope to eventually “put something there” that will be conducive to the firm’s infamous Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District (SHED) development plan.

Similarly, Centre Venture is now on the verge of purchasing the Carlton Inn at the corner of Carlton and St. Mary Avenue in order to find a private actor to build a more desirable hotel next to an expanded Winnipeg Convention Centre.

With the disappearance of all these hotel bars—conceived as the breeding grounds for undesirable poor people engaging in unwelcome drunken behavior—it is important to ask whether poverty or any of its corresponding issues, from public intoxication to drunken violence, have actually been reduced.

And, if so, have they been reduced enough to warrant the outright public purchase and closure of otherwise viable private businesses? But public intoxication and urban poverty are at an all-time high, with Siloam Mission and the Main Street Project sadly bursting at the seams.

Additionally, as a policy aside, if you are buying up hotel bars and replacing them with nothing, you are simply publicly flexing your unimpressive planning muscle. Also, in the case of the Downtowner and Occidental, the lack of planning or consistent funding available for these important endeavors is reprehensible.

In short, Centre Venture and the various levels of government who have “invested” in routing out an inordinate number of these beverage rooms, are engaging in shallow, inconsistent and paternalistic public policy.

They reveal a disdain for Winnipeg (and all cities).

  • winnipegimpulse

    This is something to chew on. I think you’re mostly wrong, but there are some nuggets of truth that I’m working through.

    I think you’re right, that we dislike our downtown (though disdain is a colourful spin of a choice of term), and that is why we are seeking to make it a better place. I don’t see why that is something to be ashamed of. What’s your point again?

    The way you speak so sentimentally about murders in the Occidental Hotel, and then criticize the efforts to transform it into affordable housing as a stand alone saviour of skid row is really not fair. Do you expect one housing project will transform an entire neighbourhood? Why are you putting the onus on this one project?

    I get that prohibition doesn’t work; shut a door and someone opens the window. But these properties that are getting bought out seem to be managed by idiots who allow this bologna to go on in their premises. The senseless violence that has marred our city’s reputation is very unlikely to happen at the Fox and Fiddle, or The Met, or the Holiday Inn, because their owners are proud of their reputations and work hard to maintain order. And if someone does act like an asshat, they get thrown out.

    “They reveal a disdain for Winnipeg”? Give me a break.

  • Letsbebetter

    Ethan, what exactly do you suggest be done to make downtown a more desirable place? It sounds like you’re not a regular patron at these bars, you grab your six pack and flee.

  • Layne

    Absurd; should civic entities have a better plan for dealing with poverty and its symptoms? Absolutely. But a voyeuristic, vicarious enthusiasm for the seedy and sad is just as condescending and contemptuous(“Everybody hates a tourist”) as the most cloistered suburbanite’s disdain for the same. They’re the two sides of a patronizing bourgeois coin.

    The rural thing’s pretty silly, too; I’d be surprised if most people from a small town or rural community don’t know where to find their fill of ‘sin’, whether it be the hotel on town over, a party house, or a booze can out in the bush.

  • Jason Tucker

    Ethan, the fact that you took the time to write about the Woodbine is admirable. I wish the WFP had an ongoing section that fought for and against the meaning old Main Street both architecturally and sociologically.

    The old Centennial quarter (Central Ward) or original Winnipeg (Portage and Main to City Hall) is a complex historical/architectural area that has been a lightning rod for “improvement” since the 1880’s.

    It is both revered for its authenticity and demonized for its “vice”. You can look at the Winnipeg/Manitoba Free Press going back to the mid-1870’s and see that the same issues existed then. Winnipeg the Wicked – Toronto the Good.

    I have had an argument over Riel’s legal right to create the Manitoba provisional government in the Woodbine with a john who was more interested in buying a prostitute who happened to be sitting at the table beside me. But I converted him. That would not have happened in Charleswood.

    I have also seen a band at the Woodbine play Jeff Beck songs from the mid-70’s that were executed better than Jeff Beck in the mid-70’s.

    My favourite people there are Oma’s (grandmothers) that ask me for menthol smokes and then chat with me on Main Street about Dene and Cree life growing up in the north while beautifully decked out young women walk by us pretending we don’t exist on their way to Whisky Dix.

    The Woodbine is not about vice. Bad things do happen. They have happened on Main Street for 150 years. Yet I have never felt threatened there (I am quintessential white in appearance), but I have been regualrly threatened suburban dance bars – or Teulon (check out the gun rack at the door on a Friday).

    Any fear of the Woodbine or the fear of the old Hotels on Main Street (existentially or personally) is a deep-seated fear of the backlash whites subconsciously feel is going to happen to them for stealing First Nations/Metis land. It’s not real. This isn’t America. Dispossession happened. But Genocide was not an active policy of Canada/England or the Hudson’s Bay Co. All tribes know this history.

    The Woodbine is one of the last places in North America where you can still touch the first moments where cultures interacted/collided. To lose it, is to lose the last piece of Main Street history that ties Winnipeg to its original roots.

    I expect it will be gone before I die, but I will fight for its legacy and the exuberant/vicey soul of old Winnipeg.