It’s Thursday morning and I’ve climbed to the top of Winnipeg’s highest peak. That may be no miracle of athleticism, but I’ve come to Garbage Hill because, to me, there’s no place that better encompasses what Winnipeg is all about.
For the uninitiated, Garbage Hill gets it’s nickname from the fact that it started out as the Saskatchewan Avenue Dump. In the city’s early days, residents piled their trash here, at that time just beyond the edge of town. By 1960 the city had outgrown its limits, so city planners unrolled some sod, planted some trees and called it Westview Park.
I made many tobogganing trips here as a kid, a Krazy Karpet in my garbage-mitted hand. There was a bank with a chain-link fence at the bottom of the hill to keep overzealous sledders out of the parking lot. My friend’s dad often recalled how, when he was young, he slid right under the fence and needed stitches. As the story goes, that’s why tires line the fence today.
Apparently during my tobogganing years there were punk shows here; it was a locus of Winnipeg’s thriving music scene. Whenever there were concerts at Canad Inns Stadium, you could show up and expect to see the hill dappled with those fans who couldn’t get tickets.
Now it’s home to the runners and cyclists of Winnipeg, who train here because there aren’t too many other options. On clear nights with a full moon you’ll find stargazers and the occasional steamy-windowed car.
Today there are four other humans, three dogs and a bicycle here. As I look out to the east, the plentiful trees of the West End have begun their shift to the yellows and browns of fall. In the distance, downtown buildings jut up out of the foliage. The land is remarkably flat, but the view is pretty, one you’d expect to find on a Tourism Winnipeg postcard alongside a snapshot of the human rights museum.
What the tourism folks won’t tell you is that if you turn around on Garbage Hill, you’ll be confronted by a rather dystopian view of suburban decay.
To the north and west, factories chug clouds of unhealthy looking gas into the air. Behind them, planes land in the distance and hundreds of little cars swarm around the box stores near Polo Park. There’s a low-pitched hum in the air, and I can hear that sound shopping carts make when you push them together to get your loonie back.
This disconnect between the east and west views, between garbage dump and dog park, gets at the contradiction that is Winnipeg. This is a city of self-deprecation and self-defence. It’s a city aware of its shortfalls but determined to look out on the prettier view regardless.
There’s something ironic and beautiful about standing atop the refuse of the past, looking out on where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Maybe it’s places like this that can help us learn from our mistakes, or at least make the best of them.
Tim Runtz is the comments editor at The Uniter. He also works at Geez magazine and moonlights as a bicycle mechanic.