I have come to expect that the people I invite over to my house may feel uncomfortable doing so.  This is not surprising as even until recently my street in particular has made it into the news as the site of criminally violent acts.  While there may be some notion of ‘at least its not the North End’, the Spence Neighbourhood still evokes some unease in many people that I encounter.  I often feel a little apologetic about that reality and sometimes even act preemptively to minimize possible feelings of unease.  Now I get this unease.  While there remains misunderstanding with respect to the reality of ‘violence’ in my neighbourhood the truth remains that my neighbourhood has a higher rate of ‘public’ or violent crime (though I wonder at the level in which ‘good’ neighbourhoods are defined by there ability to cover their violence or mobilize it in other areas, such as mine).  Regardless, this remains an ongoing topic of conversation when having people over.

What I have not given due respect and attention to is the fact that I experience significant unease when I visit people in other neighbourhoods.  I experience a general malaise or melancholy even a feeling of slight circumstantial depression when driving into particular neighbourhoods.  Sometimes I even feel threatened or small bursts of anger can even bubble up.  What is going on here?  First, I admit that I fully own this experience.  This is my issue to deal with.  But what is the issue?

It would be disingenuous to deny that part of the unease comes from feelings of envy.  I simply cannot afford the lifestyle that is offered by many of the neighbourhoods that I am thinking of.  I heard it once said that when people promote equality they really just don’t want anyone else to enjoy life more than they do.  I think there is some truth to this.  I need to get over the fact that some people will always have access to more material resources than I do.  In the same vein I can in no way complain about my own standard of living.  So envy is wholly on me.  I also find some these areas terminally boring it is no wonder in Ontario they are often called ‘bedroom communities’, people go there to fall asleep.  Now that I have a young child I see a little more appeal to a quiet neighbourhood with a big yard . . . but not much more appeal.  But envy and boredom are vices and preferences.  And they are no one’s fault but my own.  No one else to blame.  But is that all?

I think what is emerging in my sense of unease is the nature and logic that underlies many neighbourhoods.  Winnipeg continues to sprawl in its form of expansion.  This is not really surprising given our access to the vast amount space that has existed within our parameter highway.  But the logic of this expansion remains in keeping with some of the worst tendencies of contemporary capitalism.  Residential development continues rely on the monopolies of mega-retailers, the automobile, and large detached homes.  The development of these neighbourhoods continues to privilege those with a minimum economic base that is above average, never-mind below average incomes.  It also privileges those expressions which are taking few steps towards more sustainable environmental and social practices (again, over-sized homes, additional vehicles, the perpetuation of arguably damaging corporations).  These neighbourhoods are developed on the ability to cater to wealth as opposed to having an eye towards what might be most healthy for Winnipeg as a whole.

Another feeling of sadness that emerges when I enter some neighbourhoods is the sense that a house is still someone’s castle.  While I am all for the appropriate protection of spaces and the maintenance of healthy boundaries I do not think that creating a small embassy out of our homes will contribute towards addressing some of the illnesses of our society.  And that is sort of the point.  These neighbourhoods by design are meant to ‘resolve’ social ills by the means of exclusion.  These neighbourhoods maintain their ‘value’ to the extent that they can displace visible ‘wounds’.  I think the real and abiding unease I have in these neighbourhoods is the reality that so many of the poor, the refugees, the less abled, and more vulnerable of our society are pooled into concentrated areas which at times feels like sheep led to the slaughter of gangs, despair, and violence.  I have no interest in creating a link between poverty and violence.  Rather I create a link between wealth and access to security.  So when those who are impoverished are concentrated in particular areas then what you have a greater temptation and opportunity for those who will take advantage of the vulnerable.

I need to be clear again that many people I love live in the neighbourhoods I am describing and I may one day as well.  But it would be an uneasy move.  And I don’t think that I have given my unease the respect it deserves.  I feel bad that people feel uneasy coming to my neighbourhoods but the point is that I am also the one feeling bad for feeling uneasy in other people’s neighbourhoods  So I will own my issues and try as I am able to respond to the issues of my neighbourhood but I think it is high time the effects of other neighbourhoods become clear for that they are, not to shame or disgrace anyone but to get on with a better conversation about being a city and being a neighbour.

If I had more time I would love to begin a series entitled ‘Five minute walk’.  The name comes from my high school days and refers to a small record label specializing in marginal Christian rock (we all have a past don’t we?).  The reason it keeps coming to mind is because of how consistently impressed I am by what I encounter around my home in as little as a 5 minute walk.

This past Friday my wife and I were without child and set out for a walk in the seasonally acceptable but still crisp Fall air.  Our original destination was the new coffehouse and gallery Pop Soda’s at Portage and Furby.  On the way we noticed that the restaurant Elements in the new UofW science building was open.  The restaurant occupies a glassed corner of the building and expands into the larger science complex.

(Unfortunately we did not take our camera so all the pictures to follow were snagged from the web)

The space that Elements opens into

The building was a warm and inspiring stop on out walk.  But we pressed on to what we thought was our destination.  Pop Soda’s is a large eclectic space in contrast to the clean, intentional and modern lines of the science building.

Pop Sodas

The first time I was at Pop Sodas the place was packed, standing room only as some local artist put on a great folk-pop show.  This night things were more low key.  Patrons were scattered about engaged in relaxed conversation listening to canned music.

For whatever reason, perhaps we were still a little restless, we decided to walk on and headed up Portage towards Stella’s located in the new Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art.


As we got closer we saw a buzz of people around the entrance and inside the near completely glassed street level.  We were fortunate enough to have stumbled on the reception for a new art installation by Lani Maestro entitled, “her rain”.  The installation is what I would call a ‘highly conceptual’ work.  This means that most of us will be scratching our heads, questioning the entire project of ‘art’ when we first walk through the installation.

one of the pieces

And indeed that is part of the experience.  The installation is meant to question the manner in which our ‘subjectivities’ are constructed.  We are meant to be a part of the work.  None of Maestro’s pieces are traditionally ‘framed’.  There are not meant to be clear boundaries from which we can objectively evaluate a piece.  And to reject Maestro’s approach may well be to reject our willingness to be change, to be ‘touched’.  Well, anyway.

We walked over into Stella’s shared a couple of glasses of wine over a waffle, talked about beauty and other such mundane topics.  Once finished we stepped and passing through the UofW pedestrian corridor it took us about five minutes to get home.

I visited Occupy Winnipeg today.  With nights already dipping below freezing I had one initial question on my mind.  The answer is yes.  They are preparing for winter.  I only spent about hour at the site chatting with a few individuals.  After biking away, alone now with my impressions, I came to the confession that it is and would be quite easy to mock this local expression.  My conversations were peppered with grasping sentiments about being connected to something larger, vague allusions to support from people with power, comments about getting good press, politically correct placating, bitching against the Man, and some straight-up bullshit.

I would not be surprised if the greatest immediate need this expression fulfills is to have egos rubbed both for people who are valiantly braving the cold in support of justice and also for others who can bring a pot of hot chili and bag of sweaters to feel good about supporting the cause.  Why do I say this?  Do I say this to discredit them or the expression?  I call this a confession simply because it is being honest with my perception and experience. I do not want to create from nothing hopes and notions that do not relate to reality.

And this initial step of confession is important, for myself in any event.  It is important because of the presence of another element I encountered.  What troubled me reflecting on the ‘spirit’ of the people there were the resources  being drawn upon for hope.  One person talked about being connected to something epic another sensed the significance of what was happening, others appealed to the power of vague traditions.  Some dropped ambiguous allusions to the ‘lawyers and doctors’ connected to their cause.  One even said the provincial government ‘supported them’.  In fairness, there was also clear acknowledgement that this is, at the local level, starting from scratch.  They are not even beginning.  They are trying to figure out how to begin.  At this point they are gathering.  And it is a diverse and motivated gathering.  And this I support.

I have struggled with the banner of ‘We are the 99%’.  Perhaps it really is the best possible rallying cry to bring these diverse groups together.  But I struggle with it because of those who do not even factor into the equation.  I am thinking of two experiences I had in the last two days.  One was witnessing a person steal three boxes of diapers (no small accomplishment and no doubt accompanied by no small amount of nerve or desperation).  The other was seeing a neighbourhood kid I have gotten to know riding around on the sidewalk with a bike that had a flat tire and no seat.  Both events stirred that experience of not knowing whether I would laugh or cry if I were to express my emotions.  It is almost comedic in its tragedy and definitely tragic in its comedy.  It is the refuse and rejection of our society.  For me it was encountering the ones that do not have a place holder in the calculation of percentages.  In both instances the people involved were First Nations females.

If there was to be some hope that I took from visiting Occupy Winnipeg it was that there were a number a First Nations women present (a relatively high proportion in a small overall number).  As I stood there not really instigating any conversation one of them simply poured out her life dramatic fashion.  I have experienced enough to call this a dramatic telling not to question whether or not it is factual but to recognize that tragedy  has become one of a limited number of modes of communicating that some people seem capable of engaging in.  But it appears at this site the unrepresented and uncounted are finding some sort of representation.  And that is a good thing.

A couple of days ago I caught the tale end of a program on KICK FM (the Red River College radio station).  They were addressing the topic of violence downtown.  If I would have been in the position I would have liked to call in and discuss it further.  Now I am working from memory and want to be careful that I do not misrepresent what was happening on air.  So instead I will work from the impression I felt from that conversation.  One of the only lines I remember verbatim was something to the effect of, “the shooting downtown gives Winnipeggers another excuse, I should say another reason not to come downtown.”  I want to address the position from which such a comment can be made.  The commentators on this program have the option of coming downtown or not.  What I want to ask is what allows some to have that option.  And conversely then to make the observation that some do not have this option.

By way of introduction I want to say that it is possible to talk about (at least) two different kinds of violence.  The first form of violence—let’s call it Type-A—is what will come most clearly, and probably viscerally, to our minds. At the question of violence, we will likely be drawn to an image or story from memory that created a sort of traumatic break with what we consider a normal or “peaceful” life.  A couple of months ago I encountered a man who had been jumped on my street by several other individuals. The man escaped the altercation and continued down the street, where I met him. As I looked up, having not seen the fight itself, I saw the strange and striking appearance of bright red blood flowing from his head. This experience created a clear break with the rhythms of an average day, at least for me. This is one very clear and also accurate understanding of violence.  This was the violence being discussed on Kick FM.

The second understanding of violence—Type-B—is a sort of inverse of the first. Rather than encountering an expression that creates a break with the rhythms of life, these expressions of violence form part of the very structure of normal or “peaceful life.” For example, I grew up a small conservative town where the repression of certain lifestyles was so embedded in the culture that most could not recognize its expression.  The same could be said of racist cultures.  The point being that a particular form of violence actually constitutes the fabric of everyday life.  It this Type-B violence that allows some of us to have the option of coming downtown or not.

A superficial look at the online resource, Winnipeg Crimestat, will show that I live in one of the most Type-A violent areas of the city. I don’t deny this fact and understand there is much work to be done in response to this reality. I want to create a space, however, to consider the structure that undergirds the normalcy or apparent “peacefulness” of other neighbourhoods in Winnipeg.  One of the most effective means of creating control over Type-A violence is to erect ways of excluding groups and individuals deemed threatening. After all our culture teaches us that violence begins with what is perceived as threatening, doesn’t it?

And what is the basic gauge of how much Type-A violence a community experiences?  I would argue that property values create one prime indicator in how residents perceive the presence—or absence—of Type-A violence.  So how does one go about protecting and growing property values? In Winnipeg’s past, one example was the active discrimination against First Nation homeowners, as their presence was considered a threat to other property owners.  There are, of course, simple acts of placing “undesirable” tenancy applications at the bottom of the list for more “desirable” rental properties. When my wife and I were first married, the rental company tried to actively discourage us from renting in our desired location. Apparently, we were actually “too good” to live in a space that was being reserved for another segment of the population.

What is the result of these measures and procedures? It means a limited opportunity for anyone who cannot afford to live in a “peaceful” neighbourhood. Who are those who cannot afford such neighbourhoods? It is those who already have limited resources in other areas of life: mental illness, long-term disabilities, addictions, unstable home-life or new immigrants without language skill or education. Who are the ones most prone to be victims and perpetrators of Type-A violence? The same people I just listed.

Winnipeg cannot fully address Type-A violence until it considers what it would be mean to created more textured communities that take responsibility for the most vulnerable among us.  That we can speak of the option of coming downtown betrays the segregation that is already embedded in our society.

Counter tagging

In an earlier post reflecting on my experience trying to learn the language of tagging in my back lane I made the passing comment about wanting to create my own tags that might, at least for an instant, give some fence-sitting kid pause.  Well it looks like someone beat me to the punch.  A couple of tags have shown up down my back lane that look to be from the same individual.

I have to say that I actually quite like these tags.  When I thought of doing one I considered creating some expression of care; some sort of ‘I love you’ sentiment.  It seemed so ridiculous to me.  Why would such a sentiment scrawled on a dumpster mean anything?  In thinking about a tag I was always assuming myself as the subject.  In these tags, however, symbols prominent in First Nations culture create the orientation for the text.  I do not assume to know what some First Nations youth might associate these images with but so far as spreading constructive images I thought these were not half bad.

I have wanted to post on a few outings this summer that have really affirmed my love for living in that border space between downtown and the West End.  First was Canada Day.  I did not have any plans for Canada Day and only heard events promoted for the Forks and Assiniboine Park.  I decided to take a chance and walk to Central Park with my son and see if anything was happening.  The sound of music and the noise of boisterous activity greeted me before I could see anything going on.  As I approached the park a panorama unfolded that continues to affirm my love for this neighbourhood.  Perhaps it is cliche but I was welcome into the festivities of a global village.

I can’t say the music was great or the program particularly well organized but I don’t think anyone really cared or was paying too much attention.  People were there because it is great to gather in a beautiful, open, public space to celebrate the opportunities and lives that can be led in our neighbourhood.  I unleashed Salem into the open field and watched as he interacted and mingled with children.  It was simply a wonderful time and space to have been able to participate in.

I also wanted to take time and mention John M King school’s park located around Ellice and Agnes (just over the 7-11).  This has been one of my favourite places to take Salem and let him run off some endless two year old energy.  I find that many play structures have pebbled stones under them.  I suspect the reason for this is a combination of cost effectiveness, maintenance, and technical safety (pebbled stones being a softer fall than, say, concrete?).  JMK school, however, has a firm but cushioning matting under its play structure that I find much more forgiving.

There always seems to be a wonderful vibe there as one group is often playing a pick up game of volleyball on the grass and a scattered assortment of children run around from one activity to another. If I remember correctly over 10 years ago just before I first moved into the neighbourhood the school ground was actually all gravel and it took a significant community push to have grass put it in.

I went one morning when a mother and her three children were playing on the structure.  The little girl ran up to Salem having never met him before and gave him a big hug.  We played together for about a half hour and then as though this were not enough exercise Salem took an imagery baby for a walk in the park.

I am continually impressed by the opportunities and experiences afforded to me in this neighbourhood.  While I can still understand certain reactions people give me when I tell them where I live more and more I really can’t think of a much better place to call home.

Don’t even get me started on how excited I am to have a Stella’s Cafe and Bakery open up within walking distance!

Heading into Canada Day tomorrow I am about half finished Geoffery York’s The Dispossessed: Life and Death in Native Canada. I have known about this book for probably about 15 years and the cover alone has haunted me for almost that whole time. While I have known about most of the areas covered in Canada’s relationship with the First Nations people what I was not prepared for was to realize the layering and interrelatedness of injustice and abuse this people has faced at the hands of the nation of Canada. At nearly every intersection of contact First Nations were ploughed over.

Take the basic orientation of the relationship.

You are a damned people in need of our salvation.

You are in the way of us establishing ourselves and appropriating these rich and virgin resources.

What did these two motives result in? The attempted reform and actual fracturing of an entire generation in residential schools that wrought profound personal and social devastation. First Nations people are ‘granted’ reservations. I was not aware that many reservations leading up into the 1960s found significant economic models of sustainability (through traditional practices, crime rates were low and substance abuse at a minimum. But then in instances like Manitoba a hydro dam project unfolds in which a reservation receives peanuts for their land and false promises for their future and then their way of life is literally drowned. So in the future band leaders may want to take legal recourse but due to educational, financial, bureaucratic and prejudicial limitations they lack their own resources and cannot afford to hire someone so they are screwed. Some entire reservations were relocated three or four times in the course of a decade due to the government’s growing awareness and desire for particular resources. The shift is always with less opportunities and resources at the next site. And if a reservation is not relocated then mining and extraction companies would descend and kill off traditional sources of food and contaminate water supplies. If an individual or group wants to start a small business they would be unable to mortgage any property (reservation land is not their property) as an operating loan and they must jump through extensive bureaucratic hoops in order to receive funding that should rightly be theirs in the first place. And if they did get permission they often lived in a place with inadequate electricity to power an significant machines. I did not realize the web that this created or more accurately how thorough, how systematic, a beating this group of people has received. And the blows keep coming.

It is hard to imagine this sort of abuse and then we expect them to find their proverbial ‘boot-straps’. Really? Would I want to bend-over in the midst of a dominant culture that has expressed such consistent deception and hatred?

This book was published in 1990 and I do not know how many things have changed at the level of government support and bureaucracy but many of the same stories still surface in the daily newspaper. Insanitary conditions, displacement, land-claim stalling, death by housing fires, suicide, violence and the list goes on. To enter into this situation is at the very least to be overwhelmed as an entire culture has been continually overwhelmed at the hands of a political force that has never made a sustained expression of support and faithfulness to a people.

In as much as anyone wants to ask them to take responsibility for their lives those of us having received the privilege of this land must ask and express what our responsibility is.