Arts & Life, Music, Travel

What everyone is searching for

I’m in Brooklyn today writing on my laptop at Verb Cafe. The Bedford Street staple has every box checked. Tape deck slowly churning out the tunes above the wall of casually displayed tape cases, 19th century bronzed ornate ceiling, open wood beams supporting the exposed brick, and good shoes abound.

With the sign limiting itself to hiding on the door in well-spaced Helvetica, my cardigan and glowing apple orb is in good company with the other professionals, as the barista carting in a shipment of coffee states “this is my favourite Cure song.”

We’re playing the Knitting Factory tonight as the start of our Eastern tour. I have been in a van now for the better part of this year, visiting a different city every day and it’s sort of like being at an art exhibit of those comics they used to run in the Free Press where it asks you to find 13 different things in the two photos. At first glance you find all the same things, the cool part of town, the place to go get hipster coffee, the one thing you should really try: Chicago deep dish or Texas crawfish or Yellowknife giant growlers of IPA.

But when you look closer you start to notice the differences, and start to really value certain things over others. You learn a lot, and while you may never stay in any place long enough to earn the right to call bullshit on their stacks of tapes, one thing is certain: you learn that Winnipeg is pretty great.

Cities are like celebrities. They are rich with notable history, have art made with or about them, and their relevance is judged by where they are at in their budding or fading career. New York is Woody Allen, with that specific thing to offer, that thing that never gets old, from Annie Hall to Midnight in Paris.

San Francisco is Allen Ginsberg, young and full of life in the ’60s but grew old doing university tours, a fading poster child for a dying movement. Portland is Justin Bieber, the grassroots beginnings of a talented young singer making videos on his computer. Now you have to pay $15,000 to be his opening band.

Just as fickle as these careers are these cities’ rollercoaster lives, dipping in and out of relevancy in the time it takes your web browser to refresh. The life cycle of a cool city is as follows: first something real must happen there, a movement, where a group of people get really serious about something they believe in. Like Haight-Ashbury’s hippies in the ’60s, or Portland’s haven for artists in the early 2000s.

Then people hear about it.

Word gets around and people flock to see the real thing. First are the true artists, then the less artistic hipsters, then anyone ages 18 to 35 who knows who Arcade Fire is all the way until the invitation is open. This real thing becomes fetishized, and so goes the progression from Harvey Milk to your mom taking a picture of the Amoeba Music sign on Haight by the McDonald’s. Portlandia is my case in point.

So here I am, catching the last vestiges of the caricatured portraits of the past: your Woody Allens, playing bebop jazz at the Carlyly Hotel in Manhattan every Monday. For $135 you can catch a nostalgic glimpse of what at one time might have been a real thing. Or your James Francos playing Ginsberg in major motion pictures, feel that sepia tone Howl from your living room on Netflix.

That said, commodifying real shit is nothing new, and perhaps more than lament its existence it better serves of just how important “real” is to us. Anything real, or even almost real, like Jay-Z taking the subway to his Brooklyn show which was on repeat on the news. He didn’t have to pay the fare, and traveled with many plainclothes police officers, but we’ll take it. It’s close enough.

I feel like that’s where we’re at, content with anything that looks real enough to get by, collectively knowing that the Instagram filter has been applied, but all pretending we took the time in the dark room to get that rounded white border.

Which leads me to why Winnipeg is so great: it’s what everyone is searching for. A bunch of people holed up in their basements during godforsaken cold-as-hell winter making art no-one will ever see or hear. Throwing little art gallery parties that will never be immortalized in film, or have a $135 ticket. Spending your summer biking around with Ben Jones or listening to Smoky Tiger’s incoherent hobby genius.

This is the real shit. It’s a resource you are completely unaware of until you go somewhere else and get a bit of perspective. What’s so great is Winnipeg is too much of a shithole for it to ever be discovered or ironically enjoyed, and it’s all ours.

So go ahead and call bullshit, you have the right — we’ll meet at Cousins to discuss.


Matt Schellenberg plays in Royal Canoe and has Spiderman bedsheets.

  • Great column. You have put eloquent words to many of the same thoughts I have had on this subject for years, but never could manage to articulate.

  • Robert Galston

    I really, really like this article, and I think it’s important for Winnipeggers to discover and celebrate what we have here.

    But it’s worth pointing out that while the West Village, Lower East Side, and (arguably) even Williamsburg are simply cartoons of their hipster past, NYC (and SanFran, Portland, etc.) have many neighbourhoods that are undiscovered, gritty, Winnipeg-esque, and “honest” enough for authenticity-seeking hipsters. We just don’t see them because they’re far from subway lines and the coverage of cool blogs and magazines.

    Also, Winnipeg may be seem like “ours,” but most of the buildings are not. Without discovery by some smart capital, and entrepreneurs to take risks, old buildings eventually disappear. Winnipeg’s Chinatown/North Exchange, for example, might be cool and “ours” because it’s not filled with lame Osborne Village hipster-bros, and has three or four good venues for shows and parties. But, the reality is that much of the neighbourhood is being demolished by short-sighted development corporations, to become more parking lots and bland, suburban-looking buildings. Frankly, I’d rather have an goofy, over-exposed neighbourhoods trying to mimic hipster authenticity instead. At least you can get a cup of coffee in a place like that.

    And I’d love to talk this over at Cousins. Seriously.

  • Matt. What isn’t real? When does something transition from reality to…unreality? How do you define reality? Your rhetoric doesn’t add up. You seem to think poor and old constitute reality because it is familiar (Winnipeg). You are saying you like Winnipeg because it is familiar.

    • Matt Schellenberg

      I suppose the word real has meant a lot of things in the last while, with “get real” and “reality” shows and what not. When I used the word real in the article I was referring to Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls is real. It is this beautiful work of nature and undisputedly awe inspiring. What we have done with that, if you’ve been by the ripely’s believe it or not and what have you, is what I think the article explores. It’s not simply the familiarity I love about Winnipeg, while its great, its that our Niagara Fall’s are still just out in the woods. Not saying that discovering something makes it irrelevant or that MGMT isn’t good anymore just cause they got big. But I appreciate that about our city.

  • mobelda

    Well done, Mr. Schellenberg. I am a Winnipegger who recently moved back after living out of town for three years, and I spend lots of time on the road, so I relate to a lot of what you’ve written. Some of the comments below discuss this concept of “real”, and I think I know what you mean. Winnipeg is “real” because many aspects of what makes it a charming place to live have not been commodified. How do you explain to a tourist that some of the best things to do in our city are to drink a tall boy under the Maryland bridge, or ride your bike to where the Seine meets the Red, or the familiarity and beauty of the summer canopy of trees over the streets of Winnipeg’s older neighbourhoods? You can’t sell those things to the public; you can only live with them.

  • Chris H

    I think maybe it feels more authentic to be a hipster/artist in Winnipeg because there are (relatively) so few others. In Montreal and Brooklyn, there are entire neighbourhoods full of arty cafes and galleries, but in Winnipeg even the guy who just likes Arcade Fire (or at least drinks at Cousins) is a bit of an insider.

  • Sandy Boyko

    You gonna play Thunder Bay? I’d love to come out! I miss Winnipeg.

  • Based on a philosophy of subjective idealism, metaphysical winnipegists maintain that winnipeg is The only existing city and that all other cities, excepting saskatoon, are representations of winnipeg and have no independant existance.

    • Jordan Tendai Justice


  • Adrian Stoness

    basically what i have been touting on the world wide web since 2005 minus the hipster stuff didn’t think of that one…


    from its north ends to the southern edges hiden away behind winters bikes to coffees in parlor we go out in ires of cold to see to do we go. drinking in our square to trousts fests parties to parties in nights stagering home to drunken rides we go highfiving bums as we go huging as we go behind our glasses to plad shirts we wonder in our days to make poetic crazy’s run round and round we be crazy prarie folk singing dancing humming way with our pens our brushes out minds our cameras shuviling 1 feet at a time

    i gues i became a hipster
    rambings of a dyslexic

  • Also to be noted, burtons, remy shands, marcel dzamas winnipeg basement masterpeices reached intergalactic recognition.

  • It’s understandable why this article is resonating with readers, as it panders to the particular insecurities common among us Winnipeggers.

    Also, “Cities are like celebrities”? Really? Is New York like Woody Allen, or is Woody Allen like New York?

  • Matthew Wise


  • Matthew Wise

    I lost my previous comment in the process of registering apparently..
    It’s a bit silly to be bringing in notions of “realness”, especially when it comes to people, because what you’re doing essentially is making a call on someone, which is divisive. Matt, are you one of the “true artists”, or one of the “less artistic hipsters”? You seem to be equating “authenticity” with “exclusivity”, and are completely ignoring the subjectivity of the words “hipster” and “real”. Your scene is no more or less important than any other for it’s lack of outside investment or exclusion of people that you choose to other, (hipsters, moms, bros…) and to assume so is judgmental and naive.

    • Matt Schellenberg

      Hey man, if I’m lucky I might make the “less artistic hipsters” category, but really I’m just some guy who knows about the Arcade Fire. In response I totally agree that the words “hipster” and “real” are perhaps some of the most subjective words out there, both relatively meaningless outside of people’s perception of the fairly huge spectrum of what they might suggest. I supposed I used them in such a objective way to poke fun at the endless debate that seems to render them almost useless as adjectives. That doesn’t make them meaningless though. Everyone knows what hipster coffee is, I suppose you might make people uncomfortable calling it that, and no one is opening up a coffee shop called “Hipster Coffee.” Although that would be genius because the ironic tongue-in-cheek reclaiming of the term would probably be deemed super hip and I bet it would do pretty well. Let’s just hope coffee doesn’t go the way of hipster beer and suddenly we all have to embrace Folgers as the Pabst of the next generation of cool kids.

      As for exclusivity being equated with authenticity, that was certainly not my intention. I agree no action or work of art is more “real” than another, and the number of people that know about something is not a barometer of its value. I don’t think that things that get “big” lose their relevance, as a big fan of Arcade Fire I would be a hypocrite to imply that. I just meant to explore how important authenticity is to us, how it moves us, groups us together, calls to us so strongly and in doing so often brings upon itself so much attention that tends to erode parts of the authentic movement’s original value. The authentic thing, or movement or scene starts to become self aware, and in comes the Portlandia impression, and the caricature. So you right, my scene is no less important for its lack of outside investment, it is however an authentic thing at no risk of being caricatured or ironically enjoyed, and I cherish that.

  • Gareth du Plooy

    Great article Matt. I spent all of last year living in East Village. When our 2nd child was born there, it somewhat forced our hand to move back to Winnipeg, but after being back for a year I concur with pretty much everything written above. We wandered the flea markets of Red Hook (Williamsburg? Please.) and saw what the unquenchable thirst for authenticity does to people after a few years. Everyone seemed to be either in the process of discovering themselves on the verge of moving back home.

    Childless urban playgrounds like Manhattan, Brooklyn, San Fran, etc. are what they are. Which is usually awesome. High earning gentrifiers with at least a bit of sensible taste to support the low earning artistic community. Risk-taking restaurateurs. Lower wage hard working immigrants to make it all work. And it appears genuine, for a while, until you realize you’re just the same dude, in another city.

    That being said, my issue with Winnipeg isn’t that we’re not Brooklyn. It’s that we’re so far from being St. Paul MN it’s not even funny. Our arts scene is grant-written to death, our entrepreneural class is non-existant or called Centre Venture, and our bands are pretty great, but our venues shut down every 3 years unless they’re revamped by a government revitalization project and become the new lobby of the WECC. Which makes me feeling like I’m voting in gymnasium.

    What concerns me the most is that we’re at a point where the city seems to be almost un-discoverable. That sense you get that, if you just walked or biked far enough you’d come across a cool spot. As it stands, once you’ve sat in a window at Parlour and had your name called by that weird old guy that runs kareoke at the legion on Osborne, that’s pretty much it. That means we’re not doing it right.

  • blustery

    I like this. Innovate or die in the cold.