Arts & Life, City & Politics

Why isn’t Manitoba the hipster capital of the planet?

The more I look at publications like Kinfolk magazine, or its masculine blogging counterparts A Continuous Lean, A Restless Transplant, and The Standard Edition, the more I think that hipsters would love it in Manitoba.

While hipsters previously focused on ironically salvaging through the wreckage of pop culture, a more contemporary, “grown-up” form of hipsterdom is all about celebrating the integral and the hand-made instead of the streamlined and composite. There’s beauty in making something of quality by hand, and of getting away from the pace of today’s global touchscreen world (but not too far away!). Nevermind rehashing the 1990s, the sketch comedy show Portlandia says, it’s all about the 1890s.

My childhood in Gimli in the late 1980s and early ‘90s had much of the aesthetic and substantive things these publications (to say nothing of the characters from Portlandia) celebrate.

My family lived in a well-kept house built in 1914, and heated the place with a wooden stove fueled by the cordwood my brother and I would help chop and stack at the start of every winter. Dad worked as an airplane mechanic, wore a beard and flannel shirts, and rode a Japanese motorcycle. Mom home-schooled us, made much of what we ate from scratch, and stringently limited our TV-watching. Every few weeks, she would load us up in the family station wagon, and we would drive to a farm to buy glass jugs of milk. (This went on until the provincial government outlawed consumers buying milk directly from the farmer).

For a while there, dad even owned a rusted-out 1962 Chevy pickup with an 8-track player that never worked. In winter, mom took us cross-country skiing. In summer, dad took us fishing off the Gimli pier. I learned to use a telephone on a rotary dial from the 1940s (only the last four digits were needed in those days), and learned to type on an electric typewriter.

All that we were missing was an iPhone to make this life look more glamorous than it actually was: an aerial view of the sun-lit dinner table; a close-up my dad’s hands holding an axe.

Anyway, much of this would sound familiar to anyone who’s grown up on farms or in small towns in recent decades. Today, this kind of exposure to the rustic natural environments is still available here. Sailing on Lake Winnipeg, hiking to secluded camping spots in the Whiteshell, and exploring the nice little towns and rolling prairies of the Pembina Valley, can all be had. Meanwhile, Winnipeg offers a number of big city comforts: good restaurants, charming residential neighbourhoods, a few good coffee shops and bars, and a great arts scene.

If the landscape and lifestyle that can be found in Manitoba is seemingly so hip right now, why isn’t everyone moving here?

The reason is because life isn’t one big, nice-looking Tumblr blog. Life in Manitoba can be isolating. There are far few opportunities for younger, talented people wanting something more than a comfortable position in the civil service, or a chance to tough it out in small and isolated creative sectors.

“If you lived here,” I remember a billboard north of Toronto pointed out to drivers on crowded Highway 400, “you’d be at the lake already.” Well, sure, but that’s not enough to stop most talent from continuing to pay a high price to cram into Toronto — even if doing so adds another couple of hours to the drive out to Georgian Bay a few times a year. Toronto is where the opportunities to pursue vocational passions on a daily basis are.

These opportunities exist in formal and informal ways, and economically dynamic cities — the kind of cities thinkers like Richard Florida go crazy about — are places where one’s lifestyle and aesthetic sensibilities are intertwined with their vocational pursuits. A great coffee shop in a hip downtown neighbourhood is more than a place to get coffee and subconsciously feel a little bit cooler; it’s also a place to informally connect with like-minded people: artists, writers, entrepreneurs. Networks of co-operation and competition emerge from this, which leads to even more innovation, specialization, and dynamism.

For talented and enterprising creative types — the same ones that sit at candle-lit dinner parties wearing bowties or floral-print dresses in Kinfolk photo spreads — the ability to own a beautiful Edwardian-era house on a tree-lined street in Winnipeg and get out to the lake quickly comes with a relatively low price tag. However, there is often a high opportunity cost: living here can mean limiting one’s career.

The low costs and lifestyle opportunities in Winnipeg and surrounding hinterland are great things, and do help to make life enjoyable here. They should be celebrated. But affordable and quick access to pretty lakes and historical architecture are not enough to attract and keep talent. Without that ability, the wonderful things about life here will be, to many, like a vintage mason jar with no home-made jam to put in it.


Robert Galston likes to write about Winnipeg, urbanism, and other very, very exciting topics. Follow him on Twitter @riseandsprawl

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