Here’s a preview of a long read on the current sociopolitical/socioeconomic situation in Greece that I’ve been working on for an embarrassingly long time. The first draft is just about complete, then comes the editing for the sake of currency. This part shouldn’t take too long because, regrettably, little has change in the time since I started writing. However, the introduction has been finished for just as long, so I’ve decided to share it here.
Anti-austerity demonstrators occupy the base of the White Tower in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki (July, 2011)
“This is the National Bank,” says my guide as she points across the street to a large, white marble encased building with a band of colourful tile accents encircling its centre. “Some people mistake it for a church, so they stop to make the sign of the cross as they go by.”
“Money, that is the one true religion,” I attempt to say in a half-mocking tone. After decrypting my rusty Greek, my guide isn’t the slightest bit amused by this quip.
“That’s the problem,” she mutters as she advances down a side street towards a row of taverns and gyros shops.
My guide used to work for the government, from what I gather, in a mostly paper-shuffling capacity. Having been downsized as a result of the government’s sweeping austerity measures, she now leads the occasional private walking tour for a few Euros. There isn’t much to see in the small Northern city of Florina, so much of the tour consists of her pointing to things and telling me what they used to be like before the austerity measures, either directly or indirectly, quickly eradicated them.
Along the way, we’re greeted by her many acquaintances, most of whom are not bashful in expressing their pecuniary anxieties. A question that’s often asked of me by these strangers, and many others throughout my time in Greece, is, “what do they say in your country about the situation in Greece?” I quickly realize that the breadth of my Greek vocabulary, or that contained in my tiny dictionary, doesn’t encompass the words I need to describe the North American assessment.
The mainstream media worldwide has reported on the situation in Greece almost exclusively in terms of how the country’s staggering sovereign debt threatens to upset an already precarious post-crisis Eurozone economy. Such reportage has been largely limited to the business press, with the central actors being EU political heavyweights, economists from right-leaning to extreme-right think-tanks and the other public relations men for foreign investors, with the problems being conveyed exclusively in convoluted economic terms. The rare appearance of Greek citizens in these stories has been limited to flashes of B-roll or single sentence mention of general strikes and violent street battles between the police and demonstrators opposed to the course of action set by, or forced upon, as the case maybe, elected officials and their various advisors and paymasters. As far as the news media is considered, the Greek citizenry does not exist and their input is inconsequential to the situation and best relegated to the periphery.
This epistemological bias towards conceiving of problems, much less the entire world, in terms of finance and economics is known as economism. To the adherents of economism, society and all life within it is nothing more than the direct product of economic conditions. There can be no symbiosis between markets and societies, much less “economic actors” and people. To this end, life itself doesn’t matter, just as long as “the prices are right” or, at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, that “workers control the means of production.” Even when reified, such abstractions don’t reflect light, because they exist only as immaterial conceptions, and the light that bounces off the surfaces of the material world is ill perceived by the myopic eye of economism. In other words, what the adherents of economism really see is the glare of their own blinding ideology.
This past June, I traveled to Greece to critically observe the political and economic situation as it exists, rather than in the minds of a cabal of German bankers and misanthropic economists and finance ministers. This was a particularly vibrant time to be in the country, not only because the summer months underscore the country’s breathtaking landscapes and allow one to best enjoy the deliberate pace of the Greek lifestyle, but also because the federal parliament was debating the passing of a second round of austerity measures. Unlike in Canada, where most leave politics entirely to elected officials, the most voracious debates over the future of Greece took place in taverns, parks and in open-air markets. Unless one made a point of avoiding it, it was hard not to be a political tourist through the country.
What follows is an analysis derived from nearly two months of traveling through the Northern end of the country, a region that foreign journalists have largely ignore in favour of reporting from the political epicentre that is Athens. While I arrived intent on documenting the lived reality of life in what dissidents have dubbed “IMF-occupied Greece,” one cannot arrive there without first knowing something of the formation and functionally of the modern Greek state.
Pilgrimages often take people to the most unlikely of destinations. From Mecca and Jerusalem, to the graves and birthplaces of notable public figures with a devout following, such locales would hardly be cited when most people think of vacation spots. After all, vacations are pseudonymous with leisure and the near polar flight from the hard reality of ones usual material conditions. On vacation, the inflexible rationality of the workplace secedes to freeform pleasure and impulse, all in the name of regenerating the physical and mental capacities expended through labour. For those who can afford such luxuries, taking time off from ones everyday life to do anything other than gorge on buffet food, lay in the sun and “let it all hang out” seems wasteful and absurd. Yet most pilgrims do not seemed bothered by this, as they seek an entirely different sort of recreation.
One thing is common amongst all pilgrims, and that is the desire to get closer to abstract concepts which are immensely meaningful to them by attempting to achieve physically proximity tosuch immaterial things. To do this, many are willing to travel to a heavily contested and militarized zone or risk being placed under lifelong scrutiny by intelligence agencies, simply to worship at a holy site. Others have even tempted boredom simply to pose for a photograph or take a memento from an otherwise unremarkable site which has been anointed with some measure of historical or cultural significance. Ultimately, these treks are not so much about the destination itself, or rather its dead significance, as much as they are about actualizing a part of the self upon reaching them. It is within this context that my recent trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba must be understood.
When I told my friends and co-workers that I was going to spend my one week ration of summer vacation in Winnipeg, Manitoba, most all gave me some variation of the same muted glare of disbelief, coupled with an insincere laudatory remark and an ill-informed warning about the city’s reputation for criminality. “Oh… good for you,” was a common, neutral, response. What they meant to say was; there is no compelling nor rational reason for a tourist to travel to Winnipeg. Perhaps such sentiments are correct, because my primary reasons for heading there were personal.
My friend Kristel had invited me to DJ at the opening of her first solo show at an art gallery that she and her boyfriend, Mark, had just opened a few months prior. I was also anxious to get out of southern Ontario for awhile, and I couldn’t resist the adventure of free billeting in an art gallery and the chance to see an old friend in the hometown which she maintains a complex fondness for. However, the real reason I chose Winnipeg over, say, the temptation of a much cheaper $475 all-inclusive two weeks in Cuba, was my itching desire to experience a city that I feel so close to, if only through song.
Very few artists have produced works that have become so meaningful to many of my peers and I than Winnipeg’s the Weakerthans. From my introduction to the band by a former lover, who pressed the group’s debut album Fallow upon me in the winter of 2001, their music has steadily weaved its way into the fabric of my being. “You’ll like the music,” she insisted over beer at a York University dive, “but listen to the lyrics, they’re like nothing you’ve ever heard before – they’re thoroughly poetic.” Indeed, front person John K Samson’s lyrics are the most evocative and illustrative lyrics that I’ve ever heard. With few exceptions, Samson masterfully works emotion, sentimentally, nostalgia, longing and political commentary into intelligent lyrics, without every becoming trite or obscure for the sake of poetic affectation. However, most of Samson’s lyrics can be understood as vivid tributes to his beloved city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba.
Even on a humid summer’s eve, listening to Fallow transports me to a bitterly cold prairie expanse and a lonesome Winnipeg cityscape, rendered vacant by anxiety and the elements. My mind’s eye runs rampant and my heart still sinks every time I hear the titular cut from Left and Leaving, in which an impassioned Samsonconcurrentlypersonifies and serenades a city that seems determined to harm itself. The Winnipeg that Samson conjures in Left and Leaving receives a sardonic, yet fraternal, treatment in the lyrics of One Great City!. Using lyricism as a form of cartography, Samson maps the city in short vignettes, from the chaotic march of investment bankers beneath Portage Avenue to aggressive urban renewal effort in the city’s North end, all the while declaring “I hate Winnipeg.”
Scattered across the Weakerthans lyrical corpus are other references to landmarks throughout Winnipeg. Assuming that I possessed an intimate knowledge of city, if only its lyrical representation, I made it my goal to visit as many of them as I could find in a week and set upon the city by foot without so much as a map. On this adventure, my only sources of direction were the Winnipeg skyline and the vague itinerary presented to me by Weakerthans lyrics.
“… the airport [is] always, almost empty this time of the year, so let’s go play on a baggage carousel …” Aside
Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport (YGW) 200 Wellington Ave.
Arriving from Toronto’s Pierson International Airport, it’s only by default that my first official stop would be the baggage carousel mentioned in Aside. My suitcase was one of the first to come out the shoot and onto the carousel, but I hung back and let it cycle while a throng of person wrestled for the few square feet of space at its curve. Evidently August isn’t the time of year that Samson wrote about.
I grabbed my suitcase and paced about the airport’s front corridor, looking for Kristel before realizing that I could just send her a text message. As it turns out, YWG has twin baggage carousels, each at opposite ends of the airport, and tha tshe had been waiting patiently at the other one. The lyric “a baggage carousel” should have been my first clue that YWG has more than one. From here we boarded a bus destined for downtown Winnipeg, eventually getting off at Portage and Main.
It would seem that John K Samson either limited his travels within the city, perhaps because of Winnipeg’s notoriously trying winters, or that he has a certain fondness for an area of the city known as the Exchange District, as the preponderance of his lyrics make reference to this area. This would also be the area of the city that I would spend the most time in. That is, when I wasn’t busy exploring the rest of Winnipeg.
“… a specter [is] haunting Albert street …” Pamphleteer.
Albert Street, and the Royal Albert Arms 48 Albert Street
As you will see below, as transparent as Samson’s lyrics may seem, they’re still subject to the debate than often arises out of textual interpretation. This line from Pamphleteer is one such instance of contention. Some believe that Samson, in turning the first sentence of the Communist Manifesto, pays tribute to Winnipeg’s enduring tradition of leftist radicalism, specifically the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, while others consider the infamy of a Albert Street landmark and interpret the lyric literally.
The Canadian history that I was taught in junior and senior high school had a conservative cast, so the textbooks characterized the Strike as a benign demonstration, tantamount to a sit-in, mounted entirely by jobless veterans of the first World War. To describe this account as reductionist would be an understatement.
Organized by industrial unions, the Strike lasted in excess of a month and mobilized over 30,000 of the city’s underclass, with many returning soldiers joining partway through the struggle, and practically crippled the city until its culmination in a violent confrontation with state forces and elite-sponsored militias known as Bloody Saturday. The activists capitulated soon thereafter, but the Strike left governments and industry all over North America fearful of further, more radical, direct actions. The Royal Commission convened to report on the strike went as far as to openly suggest that, “if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence … then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital.” A rare admission, especially in its historical context of the embarrassing defeat of Canada’s counter-revolutionary adventure in the Russian Civil War.
Perhaps as an historical consequence of the Strike, Winnipeg remains the centre of Anglo-Canadian left-wing politics. The social democratic New Democratic Party has regularly formed governments in the province since the party’s creation, with the present government having held power since 1999. From the 1950s to 1970s, the province was considered to be the Canadian heartland of communism. And in nary the last decade or so, Winnipeg’s radical tradition has spawned an overt anarchist tendency, which has declared part of Albert street to be an “autonomous zone”. Albert street is a part of this long and still evolving history. So in this sense, a spectre is haunting Albert Street – the spectre of working class radicalism.
If a specter — as in a ghost, spook or poltergeist — does rise to haunt this short jog of a side street, I would wager that he or she met their fate somewhere in the notorious Royal Albert Arms Hotel. Any Canadian band worth their salt, particularly those belonging to the punk genre or some outgrowth thereof, has a story about staying in the Royal Albert Arms Hotel. The preponderance the ones that I’ve heard or read have involved the discovery of freshly spilled blood, but there’s more to the Albert than grisly lore.
This was the first proper stop on my tour. After dumping my suitcase at Freud’s Bathhouse and Diner, Kristel and Mark took me to the neighbouring Royal Albert Arms for lunch at the actual diner that occupies a glass enclosure at the front of the imposing brick and block building. The Albert Diner is a hip eatery, touting both an accessible menu and an inviting atmosphere, that eschews even a modicum of pretension. The food is delectable, the portions are generous and the plates are always garnished with fresh fruit, the wait staff is attractive and genuinely eager to please, and best of all the prices are fair. Coming from Ontario, where a fifty dollar bill is considered a great value, I’m more willing to believe in the existence of ghosts than that of such a restaurant.
I ate at the Albert Diner several times during my stay and not once did I experience any paranormal activity. Perhaps I had a subconscious yearning to see a ghost there, because on more than one late evening, while stepping out of Freud’s and onto to the sidewalk, I mistook a dimly illuminated plant on a ledge in Albert Diner for a small, hooded figure with a round face and sunken eyes.
While a ghost probably does not haunt Albert Street, I have it on good authority that the Albert Diner has been the scene of a few recorded John K Samson sightings. Yet this does not preclude the Royal Albert from being any less spooky.
Aside from using words such as “sketchy” and “scary” to describe the activity within the hotel, no one I met was willing to cite specifics. A bit of Google searching managed to uncover some articles about a horrific dismemberment that took place inside of the hotel in 2004, but nothing else. Articles on the history of the Albert written by both city sanctioned and amateur historians exhibit an identical omission of fact, spanning from the 1920s to the recent past. As an outsider looking in, it became apparent to me that the Royal Albert Arms is a sore spot for most Winnipeggers. This embarrassment is unfortunate, considering that the bar at the back of the house is regarded by punk rock historians and performers as one of the few remaining authentic punk venues in North America.
At night, crust punks congregate in the alleyway between Freud’s and the Albert, spilling over into a neighbouring parking lot, to smoke cigarettes and imbibe in whatever contraband may be on hand, their studded clothing sparkling in the tungsten glow of the streetlights nearby. On most nights of the week, the frenetic screech of hardcore punk carries as far West as the Burton Cummings Theatre. However, on the afternoon that I strolled through the venue (the bar and the Albert Diner share the same restrooms and beer taps), an ensemble of baby-boomers had taken to the stage to slog out a few boozy blues-rock covers to a tiny working-class, middle-aged audience seated at the bar, most still in their shop uniforms and work boots. This scene could have been lovingly illustrated in a Weakerthans song. However, Samson saved that honour for a bar located just a short stagger to the end of Albert Street.
the St. Charles Hotel 235 Notre Dam Avenue
Wellington’s is, or perhaps was, a bar located in the basement of the St. Charles Hotel, at Notre Dam and Albert Street. Hence the lyrics “stumble down the stairs again.” Whether or not the bar remains in operation is open for debate. Not once did I see any activity on the street to suggest the sort of raucousness described in Samson’s tribute. However, the sign above the front entrance, which once led to a long defunct deli, indicates that bands perform there on Friday night, with a wet t-shirt contest every Thursday. I landed in Winnipeg on Wednesday morning and my evening was spent fighting off sleep and helping to set-up the gallery, so I never thought to venture out to the corner to investigate what a Wednesday at Wellington’s looks like today. If the venue is still closed, I am going to hazard a guess and say that it looks like a few men in sweatpants, drinking hard liquor and urinating in the narrow alley leading to the entrance of Wellington’s. Which is the same thing that happens every other night of week.
Like the Royal Albert Arms, the St. Charles is also a cheap hotel with its own reputation for catering to the housing needs of the itinerant and the city’s underclass and undesired. The lyrics “curtains never open, faces never show” hit upon this. However, elder statespersons of the Winnipeg music scene know that, during the 1980s, Wellington’s was the prairie capitol of goth, punk and new wave. The definitive evidence being that the Cure performed there in August of 1981, the second of only two Canadian dates on that tour. Whether or not New Order performed at Wellington’s is unknown to me.
The side of the building is adorned with a mural advertising the sale of Pepsi at Wellington’s. While on your walking tour, be sure not to miss the other vintage advertising and signage that still remains on many buildings throughout the city. Few cities in Canada can claim such a varied and enjoyable collection of murals that display the forgotten craft of large-scale sign-painting. Despite legislation against their removal, as Winnipeg continues to grow and renew, it seems almost certain that these murals, or the structures that serve as their canvas, will go “missing, like teeth.”
“Let’s plant a bomb at city hall” Confessions of a Futon Revolutionary
Winnipeg City Hall, at the Winnipeg Civic Centre 510 Main Street
Would-be futon revolutionaries take warning – Winnipeg’s city hall is located directly across from its police headquarters. This and the fact that it’s in Winnipeg makes it a less than ideal target for revolutionary direct action. That’s not to say that the unambitious and intimidating building wouldn’t benefit from being razed.
City hall is divided into two separate buildings. One serves as legislative chambers, while the other is administrative. Between the two buildings is an uncomfortable and but nicely landscaped square. When taking my morning coffee for a walk down Albert Street, on to King, I often ended up at city hall where I would sit at a picnic table amidst the poured concrete pads, make some phone calls, read the newspaper and watch the activity on Main and King streets. Winnipeg isn’t alone in having built the edifices of government as a tribute to bureaucracy, as most Canadian towns and cities have kept with this unnerving tradition, but few did it with the zeal displayed in the architecture and conception of space evident in Winnipeg’s contribution. The juxtaposition of its proximity to the ominous concrete fortification that is the police station only consolidates city hall’s meaning as a tribute to the technocratic state.
While writing my impressions about the space into my notebook, I come to the realization that the table I’m sitting at wasn’t meant for me, but rather for bureaucrats on break. No sooner did I reach this epiphany that I heard one bureaucrat say to other, “what’s that guy doing at our tables?” At this point I packed up my notebook and moved on.
“Now that the furniture [is] returning to its Goodwill home” Sun in an Empty Room
Goodwill Industries 70 Princess Street
I stumbled upon this location while criss-crossing downtown Winnipeg in search of what I thought to be a very common sort of halogen light bulb. I didn’t return until some days later but it was well worth the trip.
The Goodwill occupies two neighbouring locations. A larger one, with two levels and a wider selection of merchandise, including clothing, obsolete consumer electronics and a book section that one can easily become lost in, and a smaller location, which has all the endearing charm and contents of a suburban crawlspace, circa 1988. The former is where you’ll find the home of the furniture mentioned in the lyrics of Sun in an Empty Room.
I spent the better part of an hour rummaging through the books and electronics, cursing myself for not bringing a larger suitcase and contemplating whether or not I should buy some items and then mail them back to Ontario. Unlike most thrift stores in Ontario, the prices in Winnipeg are fair. Perhaps this is because its thirft stores serve an entirely different client base. Instead of spendthrift hipsters gleefully pawing through the clothing and LPs in search of fashion and cultural detritus, I saw people with vacant expressions for whom the thrift store is one means of obtaining the necessities and comforts that others cast off, as well as gaunt students comparing lists of assigned textbooks to the stacks.
Consistent with Manitoba’s reputation for being a province where young people earn post-secondary accreditation and then leave for more prosperous parts of the federation, the book section is teeming with cases of old textbooks. The largest sub-section is dedicated to finance. I thumbed through a few business and economics textbooks, hoping to add some good theoretical texts to my library, at which point it becomes evident to me that the only ones who actually became wealthy during the dot-com bubble were those who wrote books advising people to invest their life savings in companies with silly names and no revenue model to speak of.
Just beyond a rack of “dead man’s neckties” near the entrance is a staircase leading to the upper level. Ascending them is difficult, as one needs to patiently share them with young women carefully inching strollers across each step and elderly patrons struggling to pass. This was the scene on all three of my trips to the Goodwill. Once you do reach the second-level you find racks of electronics from the centre to the right and half-organized racks of LPs, video cassetes and CDs to the left. This is where you’ll find the hipsters. The furniture lives just beyond these racks.
The showroom looks beautiful and cozy in the natural light coming from the tall windows, despite the dated and mismatched offerings. As Samson suggests in the lyrics of Sun in an Empty Room, one gets the sense that the furniture acquired from here is only temporary and will eventually return. I spied on a young couple, conspicuously new to both Winnipeg and Canada, as they sat together in each chesterfield and critiqued it for comfort before measuring its length and comparing this information against a diagram. It’s plain to see that they are excited more about their shared future than their new furniture.
“A thousand sharpened elbows in the underground” One Great City!
Underground concourse Vicinity of Notre Dam & Main Street
If one visits the city during the summer and has the good fortune of enjoying mostly sunny weather, as I did, it’s easy to lose sight of just how unforgiving the winter months are. Remaining conscious of this fact, evidence can be found in the enclosed footbridges that interconnect buildings to one another, as well as the bus shelters which are amongst hermetically sealed with heavy glass doors and few breaches for blustery winds to enter through. Still, the most telling evidence is the underground concourse which begins just on the edge of the Exchange and connects many of the downtown office towers and hotels, mostly for the benefit of those who work within them.
Because of the wonderful weather that the city was enjoying, the corporate workers opted to eat their Starbucks or hot dog cart lunches in the granite courtyard at the foot of the hulking Canwest tower or to travel by foot to actual restaurants. Thus the air conditioned underground didn’t reflect the frenzied scene described in One Great City. By five o’clock most days, it was completely empty. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to imagine the cramped marble quarters being filled with agitated people in business attire, making their way to lunch or waiting chauffeured cars, which is another means by which, mostly reluctant, Winnipeggers attempt to gain mastery over the elements.
Spend enough time in the Exchange District and the neighbourhoods immediately surrounding it and the new urban dialectic becomes palpable. The Exchange of Samson’s lyrics still exists, but it is steadily being altered by the processes of gentrification and urbanization foretold in the lyrics of My Favourite Chords, Sounds Familiar and One Great City. Winnipeg is likely the first Canadian city to have done right by the dictates of business guru Richard Florida’s Creative City model of urban development. As the province’s outgoing finance minister said during a recent interview with CBC Radio’s the House, investment in education and efforts to lure high technology firms to the city are beginning to pay returns, mostly by shoring up economic growth and attracting young educated professionals. Despite its welcomed benefits, the contradictions of the Creative City theory are evident as you criss-cross the Exchange. Old industrial space is being converted into swank loft-style apartments, while renters elsewhere gripe about their landlords being reluctant to fix leaky roofs, faulty electrical work and non-functioning furnaces, in hopes that their inaction will expedite their windfall in an imminent rush to snap up old properties for conversion into lofts and parking lots. Gentrification has brought the neighbourhood plenty of stores where one can purchase $50 t-shirts and lovingly framed vinyl records, yet laundering ones clothes for a reasonable price means having to take a bus to the neighbourhood of Wolsley or sneaking into one of the loft-condos. “The whole place will probably be horribly gentrified in five years,” Kristel told me as she gave me a brief introduction to the neighbourhood, “but we’re planning to be out before then.” The rest of the wandering tour takes us far from the Exchange
“All-night restaurant North Kildona” None of the Above
Salisbury House 759 Pembina Highway
I could never precisely define what I found so revolting about the taste of Tim Horton’s coffee until I heard Samson describe the coffee in None of the Above as tasting like soap. I haven’t touched the stuff ever since I made the connection, so this song has an odd significance to me. Some years ago I decided that, if I ever found myself in Manitoba, I would make a point of eating at the all-night restaurant mentioned in the song. In the end, this plan was only partially met.
The precise location of the restaurant, much less whether or not it still exists, or ever did, is another controversy. The consensus on-line and amongst those I pressed for information is that, given the suburban lay of the neighbourhood of North Kildona and the rumoured historic taste of its coffee, the lyrics probably describe the scene inside of a Salisbury House restaurant. Salisbury House, or simply Sal’s to the locals, is a regional chain that could best be described to outsiders by likening it to the Denny’s chain of diners. By that I mean a chain of not dissimilar restaurants on main thoroughfares that offer the same menu of quick and greasy breakfast and faux-home cooked fare, around the clock. Sal’s signature dish is the Nip, a hamburger which is topped with grilled onions and Sal’s Sauce.
After a Saturday night performance at Freud’s by Alpha Couple and the family noise band Death Squab, the party wasn’t quite over but the dozen or so stragglers needed to eat something. At 2:30am on a Saturday night/Sunday morning, finding food means leaving downtown Winnipeg and heading to the suburbs for either late-night Chinese or “Sal’s.” With eight all-night locations scattered across the city, it’s just a matter of selecting one.
“Let’s go to the one in North Kildona, it’s just up off of Main,” said one of the stragglers to no one in particular.
“Yeah,” I interjected with the excitement of a scheming grade schooler, “let’s go to that one!” Those within earshot who knew me as the traveler from Ontario turned to me with quizzical expressions. I shrunk back against the wall directly behind me, almost hoping to disappear.
“No, their pancakes are like rubber and the service is really slow,” retorted another. Between this review and that contained in None of The Above, perhaps the location cited in the lyrics isn’t worth visiting after all. We ended up a nondescript plaza at the side of the Pembina Highway, which my hosts assured me was more or less identical to the one in North Kildona.
The atmosphere is exactly as I had envisioned it. As one enters the harshly lit restaurant, they are met with a roughly twenty-five foot long, L-shaped lunch counter, a few vending machines along the front wall, two larger seating areas of tables and booths at either end of the restaurant and light rock playing at a faint level over loudspeakers. This late on a Saturday night, the restaurant is nowhere near capacity, with only one cook in the kitchen, one server in the front of the house and a few groups of male twenty-something club-goers, quiet with hastily styled hair and stone faces. Our party draws attention to itself by being the largest, most boisterous and the only one with attractive women in it.
I had to be up early that morning, so I resisted ordering a cup of coffee. Instead I ordered and made quick work of two mini Nips. Although everyone else seemed to enjoy their coffee. I was tempted to steal my cutlery or a coffee cup from a neighbouring table, as in the lyrics of Everything Must Go, but I didn’t succumb to the temptation.
“Out under the Disraeli, with rusty traintrack tires” Fallow
9 Rover Avenue
“The Disraeli” refers to the Disraeli Freeway and by extension the Disraeli Bridge. While Samson’s performance of this lyric never ceases to move me, I was not able to experience this site for myself. Despite warnings from locals that the area wasn’t entirely safe, even during the workday, I studied the vague and incomplete bus route map that I had grabbed from the airport information desk and made my way towards the Disraeli Freeway.
In what would reveal itself as the most ill conceived turn of my trip, I decided to act on the last minute realization that taking the freeway would mean that I would end up atop the bridge, rather than beneath it. To end up where I wanted to be, I thought, I would have to take the side streets that intersect with the freeway. I studied the transit map further, despite the fact that it contained only blank space where there are otherwise roads, and walked past the freeway and into uncertainty. Before this, I looked back upon the downtown skyline, knowing that as long as I could see it I would be able to find my way back to the Exchange.
Parts of Winnipeg remind me of living in Mel Lastman’s Toronto, a now forgotten city within which inviting and populated streets seemed to abruptly turn desolate and confrontational. The area North of Winnipeg’s downtown is similar. Even at about two in the afternoon, the streets were more or less vacant, save for the occasional car which decelerated to examine my presence, throw empty cigarette packs in my direction or shout homophobic slurs. The street that I was walking on abruptly transitioned from an industrial strip of auto repair shops to a small neighbourhood of older homes.
On the strip, guys in coveralls came out to ask me for the time before begging me for the cigarettes that I’ve never smoked. So I wasn’t at all alarmed when a teenage girl started walking alongside me to make small talk and ask for things like cigarettes, a lighter and bus fare.
While street-smart isn’t a term that I would ever use to describe myself, I made sure not to let the women distract me or to invade my physical comfort zone. As far as she was concerned, my name was Steve, I was a local and I was walking to a friend’s place to retrieve what was left of my stolen bike, the remnants of which someone had found across the bridge. I work in sales, so I pride myself on the persuasiveness of my bullshit. Out of nowhere, in a frank tone, she solicited herself to me.
The purpose of the jarring “STOP SEX WITH KIDS” advertisements on the city’s buses became apparent by the most heart wrenching of means. One of the social and criminal struggles that Manitoba wrests with is the sexual abuse of children, mostly resulting from the prostitution of children by adults. This advertisements made me feel uncomfortable, as was their intention, but they couldn’t have prepared me for this.
“No, no, I’m good,” I insisted as I turned around and started walking briskly back in the direction from which I had came. “You know what,” she said loudly in a slightly quivering voice, “fuck you!” It was apparent that neither of us were comfortable with the interaction that we had found ourselves in.
Judging by the images that I looked up on Google Street View once I got back to Ontario, the Disraeli Bridge isn’t much to look at. It’s a hulking, rusty and dark green structure that’s completely utilitarian in form. Yet there is still something charming about it. “It’s the best place in all of Winnipeg to watch the sunset” insists a former co-worker. If you’re more daring than myself, you can watch the sunset and then use the cover of night to head South to the train yard that Samson references. Just don’t go alone.
“Let’s kill an MLA” Confessions of a Futon Revolutionary
Legislative Building of Manitoba 450 Broadway
Prior to heading to the next destination, you might wish to stop by the Manitoba provincial legislature. This site is given only brief mention in Confessions of a Futon Revolutionary, and I would have omitted it from our tour, were it not on the way to another point of interest.
If you are of the sort with an interest in esoteric religion or conspiracy theories, and have deep pockets, many of the locals recommend partaking a tour of the legislature guided by the University of Manitoba’s Frank Albo. The legislative building is rife with religious symbolism, yet much of it is hidden in plain sight through subtleties integrated into its design and adornment. Albo has painstaking researched their meaning and origins, presenting them his illustrated book the Hermetic Code. While some interesting and imponderable features can be viewed from the lawn, such as a Sphinx gargoyle, the most fascinating of aspects of the legislature are inside. If any of this piques your interest, a detailed photographic tour can be viewed online.
Personally, I think that your average futon revolutionary would dismiss conspiracy theories as just an imaginative means to obfuscate and provide simple explanations to very complex problems. Nevertheless, visiting revolutionaries might want to skip the assassination and instead pay a visit to the recently unveiled statute playing tribute to Canadian suffragette and proto-feminist Nellie McClung and the rest of the Famous Five. This is just one of the two monuments to the early women’s movement that I happened upon while in Winnipeg. The other can be found at the Burton Cumming’s Theatre, on Notre Dam just West of Albert Street. In keeping with the tour, this is also the venue where the Weakerthans recorded their recently released live album and DVD.
“Clock stopped at the corner of Albert will show, your last bus left an hour ago” Wellington’s Wednesdays
Corner of Osbourne Boulevard and River Street
Considering that most of my time in Winnipeg was spent on Albert Street, I became a little impatient in my fruitless search for the clock at the corner of Albert, as referenced in the lyrics of Wellington’s Wednesday. With each walk up the street, I’d scope around in search of a clock or anything to suggest the prior existence of one. And like the specter of Albert street, I had even convinced myself that I had seen it, on the a facade of a turn-of-the-century building, only to return with my camera to find that it wasn’t actually there and that I was on the wrong street. I was about to dismiss the clock as a figment of lyrical fancy until a patron at Freud’s asked if my tour had taken me to the borough of Osbourne Village, if only to check out the neighbourhood record shop. The trek there prompted me to make a very open interpretation of the song’s cartography.
I have a hunch that the clock mentioned by Samson is actually in Osbourne Village. Because unlike bus stop #10772, at the corner of Notre Dam and Albert, there is clock clearly visible at stop #10172, on the corner of Osbourne and River. This clock is also within staggering distance of a storied, but now defunct, punk rock venue. I’ll admit that it’s a tenuous theory, but until someone can discredit it by bringing me evidence of a clock as a fixture at the corner of Albert, I’m sticking with it.
For wont of a proper map and using only my vague recall of the two times I had passed through the neighbourhood by car – one of those times in the dark no less – it took me most of the day to find Osbourne Village. I could only recall crossing a bridge and ending up in a neighbourhood with a Starbucks, a liquor store and a video store, so I ended up crossing the Red River twice just to get there. Unless you enjoy exploring suburban neighbourhoods and strip malls, I would suggest heading North of the provincial legislature on Memorial and then onto Osbourne boulevard, following it until you reach the junction of Osbourne and River Street.
Standing on the Southwest corner of the intersection, one finds themselves situated by a bus stop, with a Starbucks at their back and a Second Cup directly facing them. Atop the Second Cup is a large clock, set into the angular corner of the building. Even on a warm summer afternoon, this setting feels most like the scene described in Wellington’s Wednesdays. I could imagine someone, long ago, leaving a show at Collective Cabaret only to look up at the clock and realize that they’ve just missed their last bus home. Still, this is only a theory.
Even if this postulate is wrong, Osbourne Village offers some leisurely respite from an otherwise gritty itinerary. Considering that my destination of note saw me flanked by two up-market coffee franchises, there is no denying that the gentrification of this enclave is in its latter stages. The aforementioned Collective Cabaret has since been converted into an American Apparel store, entry-level luxury cars pass by with considerable frequency, as do attractive twenty-somethings in stylized prairie dresses riding on cruiser bicycles, and other shops on River Street exist to serve the consumer preferences of suburban teens and the young, mostly white, “yupster,” professional, families who have purchased starter homes in the neighbourhood. If you’re looking for health food, brand name clothing, causal dining and a grocery store that carries more fresh produce than soda and potato chips, close to downtown, Osbourne Village should be your destination of choice.
To be fair, gentrification in the Winnipeg context mustn’t be conflated with the sort experienced in most other cities. Here, gentrification is seen both as a means of keeping and attracting the young professionals who are needed to grow and sustain the city’s creative economy project and of the general revitalization of the city, rather than simply as a means to turn a profit and oust residents through speculation. While sitting down to a bowl of soup on the patio in a grocery store parking lot, I flipped through some rental listing. Rents in Winnipeg range from quite reasonable to downright inexpensive, depending upon how much of the “real” Winnipeg one is willing to endure. A single bedroom apartment, with utilities, in Osbourne Village averages $700 a month. As a point of reference, a similar apartment in Toronto would cost over $1000 a month. Whether or not rents will stay this affordable remains to be seen. If rising resale home prices, the density of the loft conversions downtown and the efforts of the city’s artist community are any indication, rents might increase in a year or two. Yet at the present time, one thing is certain. Unlike their colleagues in Toronto, Winnipeg baristas can actually afford to live somewhere decent on the pittance that they receive as pay.
“Saint Boniface and Saint Vital, preserve me from my past” Hymn of the Medical Oddity
St. Boniface General Hospital 409 Tache Avenue
Those who have studied sex and gender to a considerable depth will have some knowledge of David Reimer and the contentious implications that his tragic life rendered upon the field. Reimer and his twin brother were born in a Winnipeg hospital and eight months later the two were circumcised by means of an unconventional method which cauterized the incision as the foreskin was removed. The procedure left David’s genitals so disfigured and beyond reconstruction that, while in the care of a controversial American psychologist, his parents consented to reassigning his sex and subsequently socialized him as a girl. David’s childhood would become the first recorded practical application of the theoretical axiom that gender identity is the causal product of social nurturing, rather than a natural outcome of ones biological sex. Or as John K Samson so cogently describes it in Hymn of the Medical Oddity, David, or rather Brenda, become a “queer experiment.”
While the doctor who treated Reimer regarded the experiment as a success, David never self-identified as a girl, and by his early teens he had adopted a male gender identity and would undergo a litany of medical procedures in an effort to physically develop his male identification. In spite of such radical efforts to reverse his past, David continued to wrest with depression and feelings of inadequacy well into adulthood. While Reimer would take his own life in 2004, his personal struggle with gender identity has become, equally, a touchstone and a bludgeon for proponents of biologically determined sex roles and their opponents who regard gender as a social construct.
St. Boniface General Hospital, and the neighbourhood where it stands, bears the name of one of the saints that the hymn appellates. The other, St. Vital, is the name of a middle-class suburb several kilometers South of St. Boniface. Thankfully I didn’t have a reason to go inside the hospital, but even from the sidewalk it is easy to appreciate the main building of the sprawling medical arts campus and exactly how many patients it serves. Like most other hospitals that I have visited, this last sight is not an easy one to take in.
The hospital looks its most impressive when viewed from across the Red River. From the vantage of the Queen Elizabeth Way, one can best view the juxtaposition of the high architecture of the newer facilities against the hulking, utilitarian, general hospital. Without this aesthetic perspective, the hospital simply resembles an uninspired Lego creation. With it, the building becomes the chronological beginning of an ambitious social project.
Continuing South on Tache will take one past the St. Boniface Museum, and past a somewhat comical statue of Metis revolutionary Louis Riel, and onto the main boulevard of St.Boniface. The neighbourhood is a picturesque enclave and strolling through it is a pleasure. The bilingual signage, mostly set in clean type, green space and conservative urban design on Boulevard Provancher give the oft-described “Francophone capital of Western Canada” an alien ambiance, in comparison to the rest of the city. The architecture is reminiscent of French settlements in Ontario and a plaque somewhere in neighbourhood alluded to some correlation between them.
“This place is nice,” said my host Mark as we walked from the Exchange to an Italian cafe to pick up pizzas that he had ordered over the Internet, “but it’s not really the gateway to downtown, at least not anymore.”
If the overall “authenticity” of the tour has spoiled your appreciation for charming neighbourhoods, I would suggest heading West on Marion Street in order to imbibe in some authentic Winnipeg fare. While it’s doubtful that city tourism officials would advertise this fact but, no other city in the world consumes more 7-11 Slurpees than Winnipeg. Bear in mind the title is not “most Slurpees consumed per capita,” but the more crowning and dubious distinction of most Slurpees consumed, period. Why a frozen drink would experience such a staggering level of consumption in a relatively colder and less populated city is beyond me. It seems like more of a Slush Puppie town to me. Nevertheless, I decided to do my part in defense of the title and purchased a small watermelon Slurpee and drank it without shame as I attempted to navigate my way through the neighbourhood. Apparently this was an exceptionally hot day in Winnipeg, so I was not the only one imbibing in the sticky concoction. Every few feet, within a one block radius of the 7-11, I passed either someone carrying a Slupee or a discarded Slurpee cup. In my estimation, unless a serious challenger comes along, Winnipeg’s title is safe.
“I love this place, the enormous sky”
The best pilgrimages change something about the pilgrim. My changes where both emotional and physical. All of the walking and my sudden assumption of a largely vegan diet led me to lose just over five pounds. When modeling the souvenir t-shirt that I had purchase at the airport gift shop, my mother commented that she could see my ribs through it. Completing the similitude to a lyric in Aside, all of this wandering wore holes and stressed the seams of a brand new pair of shoes “that I got for free” shortly before leaving for Winnipeg. This weight loss was surely underscored by the fact that billeting in an art gallery made regular bathing unfeasible. My wanton disregard for hygiene, aside from brushing my teeth, the futile ritual of deodorant and applying talcum powder to my hair to give it the illusion of having been washed, led to an unconscious avoidance of mirrors, so I have no concept of just how far my appearance declined. However, while standing at an intersection outside of the Fort Garry Hotel, a heterosexual couple of about thirty-five stopped beside me. The women came within five feet of me, which prompted the man to react, jerking her towards him and shouting “don’t get that close to him, you might react!” Of all the things that I could have felt and thought at that moment, the first thing to come to mind was the realization that I had worked my way into the dialectic of the city’s complex social landscape. This was a welcoming feeling because, in the short time that I had spent in Winnipeg, the city endeared itself to me, worts and all. While I cannot articulate its specifics, after spending this short time in Winnipeg I can appreciate how Samson is able to draw so much inspiration from it.
Since making this pilgrimage, the emotional experience of listening to Weakerthans recordings has been altered. Not only have the visions that were once simply the product of my mind’s eye been replaced by memories of what actually is, listening these albums just feels different. In one sense, I now have a more intimate relationship to some of the raw lyrical material. However, these recordings now feel hollow, almost as if they have been emptied of the emotive contents that, perhaps, I had filled them with. Herein lays the trouble with pilgrimages. In realizing physical communion with that which we hold dear, one hazards dismantling existing emotional connections with no guarantee of establishing new ones, much less fortifying those which remain. Still, Winnipeg and the landmarks discussed above are tantamount to Graceland for Weakerthans fan, and so your experience may by more campy and ironic than my own. Whatever the case may be, just take a companion when heading to the Disraeli.
In less than twenty years since its popular ascendancy, the Internet appears poised to supplant the newspaper as the dominant information medium throughout the developed world. This is something that, despite its technological similarities, television never came close to achieving. While it would appear that the chief advantage that the Internet has enjoyed is its ability to aggregate and deliver most all media content, news or otherwise, across time and space, this quick rise to prominence is best attributed to how the Internet has enabled people to pursue a more active engagement with media. No longer are we simply passive, uncritical consumers of media. The Internet, and its assemblage of related technologies, have furnished us with a venue within which most all are able to produce and disseminate their own media content. This is not simply a petty technological progression, but a total epochal shift. In brief, the lowly producers of Internet content have wrested the production of meaning and significance away from the media industries and redistributed a great deal of this capacity to those who are most affected by this function. This is best observed in how an expanding number of us, as politically, socially and culturally engaged citizens, are accessing “user-produced” blogs with the same confidence that was once accorded exclusively to newspapers. This legitimacy has been so solidified that even the industrial media are now looking towards the “blogosphere” to gather information and to determine what matters in the world. However, like most stories of revolution, this one doesn’t end with stability and peaceful coexistence.
At present, the industrial media, specifically the professional craft of journalism, is struggling through an existential crisis. Having suffered the loss of its cultural centrality, journalism has begun experimenting with reinvention in a feeble attempt to stave off greater losses. Like an adult desperate to recapture their youth or to ingratiate themselves with the youth of today, journalism has adorned itself with emergent technologies and practices. Beneath the on-line supplements, interactive features, space for inflammatory reader input and candid blog posts by correspondents, journalism looks as uncomfortable and ridiculous as an adult in youth dress. The tragedy of this endeavor is that the craft of journalism has lost sight of what journalism has achieved and can still aspire to.
Conversely, having enjoyed an infancy of much attention and promise, the blog genre is in the thick of a difficult adolescence. The blog is tantamount to a pre-teen who insists that they have developed the skills and collected the experiences necessary to be treated as an adult without equivocation, even when their behaviour has demonstrated otherwise. The fact that partisan attack, unvetted screeds and conspiracy theories are regarded as able journalism – albeit “citizen” journalism — by the larger blogosphere is evidence that bloggers have not come anywhere close to replacing journalists as the framers of our societies. This is because the present conventions of the blog genre privilege brevity, expediency, sensationalism and self-promotion. While good journalism is about “getting the story,” good blogging is about getting people to visit your blog in the hopes of quickly landing a book deal or regular bookings as a pundit.
As it stands, the potential for a truly mass media, meaning one that is reflective of the innumerable voices and perspectives of the masses, threatens to be subsumed by a million micro-blog posts about what someone happens to be eating at this very instant or a few hundred paranoid or despondent webcam rants. Vanity, fear and narcissism are not sound conventions from which the blog genre can develop. However, rigidly modeling the conventions of this still maturing genre upon those established by journalism and the rest of the “old media” is equally pernicious, as this would undermine what makes blogging unique, exciting and, indeed, revolutionary. Below, we propose one such way to build upon the past without sacrificing future potential — the development of an amorphous set of genre conventions referred to as personal journalism.
Declaration of Principles and Practices
Set Back, Set Up, or What is personal journalism?
Personal journalism is about stepping back to critically examine and put our lives, experiences and relationships into context, as well as stepping up to define their meaning. Using the various media forms adopted and developed by the blog genre, personal journalism combines the free form creativity and labourious love typically of scrapbooking, with the curiosity of the documentary genre. The purpose of personal journalism is to report and make meaning of individual perspectives and experiences in an engaging manner while framing them within their larger social context. Such perspectives and stories need not be limited to those of others, as the genre embraces and encourages those belonging to the journalist him or herself.
The prevailing conventions of the blog genre do not lend themselves, and are in fact counter, to personal journalism. Ephemeral and narcissistic, blogging is an effective vehicle for self-promotion, the competitive exhibition of taste and the chauvinistic assertion of prejudice. Before posting something ask yourself, “does this post contribute to my or anyone else’s understanding or appreciation of the world or the human condition?” If the answer is anything but yes, you are blogging.
Tell interesting stories, interestingly.
Before anything else, personal journalists are compelled to tell good stories. In doing so, they need not feel any commitment to the written word. The flexibility of most social media and blogging applications allows stories to be told using text, photographs, video, audio, graphics or any combination thereof. The personal journalist should adopt whichever form they feel most comfortable with, but should also consider which one tells a particular story best.
Don’t remove yourself from the story, but never put yourself into it.
While it is an admirable goal, personal journalism is incredulous towards the professional maxim of objectivity. Effective reportage and storytelling requires the journalist to be active in understanding and framing the significance of a particular subject or event. In their professional removal from a story, the traditional journalist may overlook or distort some aspect that someone with an intimate knowledge would otherwise report differently. In spite of their wanton subjectivity, the personal journalist must remain disinterested. This is achieved by asking questions, critical observation and reflection, rather than a near total reliance on emotion and recollection. For instance, if you’re profiling a good friend, don’t tell us how much you love them and how wonderful they are. Instead, use what you know about them to better tell their story.
Examine your own life.
Reflect upon, but never relay, your experiences. Don’t just tell us what you did on the weekend. Instead, tell us how it happened, what lead to it, why you did it, what it was like, who else was there, what they thought about it, what you learned and so on. Your reports don’t necessarily need to be profound or educational. They can be funny or entertaining “slices of life,” perhaps even how-to guides. Be as creative, poetic or inquisitive with your reports as you see fit. Just don’t let them devolve into inane blog posts.
Eschew politics, but never become apolitical.
Personal journalism is unlike citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is a fundamentally activist endeavour which seeks to make known particular views and events that are said to have been suppressed by power, hoping to influence some sort of political change. What detracts from citizen journalism is its disingenuous insistence that it is objective, whilst purporting to know the singular truth of a story. Personal journalists must remain committed to the ideal of plurality, and never lose sight of the fact that they are conveying a story, and not the story, within a larger political, social and cultural context. As such, personal journalism need not shy away from political and social matters. Just take a critical step back and tell us a story.