Still breathing but barely

When I turned 18 I did the typical tour of Winnipeg’s cool places. The places I knew I should like, that came with high recommendations from older friends. Where you could see the best bands, get cheap beers, and finally see for yourself the places whose mythologies had become part of our city’s collective consciousness (“Did you hear they found a dead body in the walls at the Collective?”).

I came to recognise faces. These were people who weren’t my friends, but that I knew from seeing around. They went to all the best shows, wore the right clothes, and exuded hipness and creativity. I was 18 and thought these were the only people that mattered, and I set the lofty goal of one day joining their ranks, and maybe even ousting them as one of Winnipeg’s ambassadors of cool.

Of course, to me the coolest thing they could do was leave. There was a certain pleasure in guessing who would leave and when, for Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. I equated moving to bigger cities as a sign of status, a social success. There were those who were too good for Winnipeg, and when they left, I would take their place. Until the day I’d leave, too.

In my early 20s I stopped going out as much. My favourite haunts closed down, one by one, and I became more comfortable staying in and embracing my true character – the premature grandma. Yet when I did go out and rejoin the old scene, I saw the same people. The ones I’d expected to leave. Did they never go? Had they left and come back? I was disappointed, in a way. They weren’t as cool as I thought. They weren’t better than Winnipeg after all.

I’ve realised recently that there are plenty reasons to go, but (cheesy revelation alert) there’s even more to stay.

My favourite places – the ones where I saw shows and had too much to drink and touched the walls where the dead body was found – they’ve all left. Some of the people have, too. But I don’t see their departures as failures, for themselves or the city as a whole. The Albert, Lo Pub, Collective – they’ve gone, victims to stasis, misfortune and American Apparel. But they’ll always remain a part of our unique history. And while we mourn their losses we find new places and create new mythologies. And it’s cool to stay in Winnipeg and be a part of this evolution.

While these places have left, their transformation indicates another step for Winnipeg. Yes, a beloved bar has been replaced by a place that sells shiny tights. Does that mean we’re a step closer to being a “real city”? Does that mean we’re getting better, a worthy place for the cool kids to stay? I can’t say. But I do know that you can have just as much fun at the Windsor, or Union, or the next great place that has yet to open.

Winnipeg is not simple. Yes, the winters are brutal and can reasonably compel any sane person to move away, but they also bring great things. You can walk down the river path and feel like you’re not in Winnipeg at all. Sometimes a new perspective is all we need to appreciate our home.

Laina Hughes is a writer from Winnipeg. Pick up a copy of her book Wolseley Stories at McNally Robinson.

Published in Volume 68, Number 21 of The Uniter (February 19, 2014)

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