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).