Two Tales of Winnipeg,
National Post,
August 12, 2004 - by Matt Beam

Each day as I left my hotel lobby on Main St. just south of the famous intersection, Portage & Main, I was confronted with a choice: turn left or turn right. Not exactly a Nietzschean proposal, but more than enough for man to handle on Winnipeg morning without his daily requirement of quality caffeine.

Each time, I turned left, my northern route lead me to the cafes at the frozen-in-time Exchange District. Each time, I turned right I was pulled south toward an espresso joint in the new development, the Forks, at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. As my visits mounted and my mind cleared, I began to notice more than just a caffeine connection between these two spots.

Winnipeg—after all— is about history, and history is about perspective. When I finally got some (perspective and coffee that is) I saw that here were a couple of the most popular spots in town with two totally different takes on Winnipeg’s hottest commodity.

Exchange District: Finding it

My northern jaunts always zigzagged me around the busy T-section of Portage & Main (there’s an somewhat hidden underpass) to the west section of the Exchange District. The District has the feel of an artist community before the money moves in. In turn-of-the –century buildings, antique shops contrast run-down hotels, neo-bohemian cafes run up against greasy spoons with over-the-counter, black-lettered menus that haven’t been changed in decades.

In the heart of the western side, in the Imperial Dry Goods block are two cafés, the Mondragon and the Fyxx. The high-ceilinged Mondragon is also a book-store offering up vegan vidals with hearty dollop of lactose-free socialism while that latter serves up a supped-up sandwich board delights like the curry-flavoured, What’s Gotten India. Both provide quality coffee and a sufficient start to your day.

The Forks: Finding it

My southern trek took me just beyond Union Station, the former CN Rail station that
is still used by VIA Rail, where I turned east below the underpass, and found a whole new Winnipeg. Much like the Gardiner Expressway and the waterfront in Toronto, the raised railway keeps the Forks out of sight. But as soon as one finds the startling new development (an erstwhile railway junk pile), it is hard to keep the Forks out of mind.

Despite its 6000-year-old history, the Forks area has the feel of a modern-day playground. Restaurants, open-air venues, and patio cafes lead you a four-tier amphitheatre with the river as the main act. Coffee here is as abundant as pemmican (a pioneer mixture of meat, berries and fat) once was hundreds of years ago. While the beans at Espresso Junction are superior, it’s hard to avoid a simple cup of brew with the works, the complete experience at Danny’s All Day Breakfast in the steel-and-glass Forks Market building.

Exchange District: History Left Intact

The view from the cafés on Albert St., or from any point in the Exchange District, tells a story of sudden prosperity followed by slow and steady growth. Across the street, the 6-storied “Romanesque”, Gault building was built in 1901, and it now holds over 30 artist organizations from galleries to small presses to film organizations. The building shot up at the turn of the century when Winnipeg was getting record grain prices and gaining epithets such as The Gateway to the West and the Chicago of the North. When the Panama Canal was dug in 1914, business went south. Since then, Winnipeg’s growth has been euphemistically “slow and steady” with little major reconstruction. The Exchange is a gift to the future for so little happening in the meantime.

The Forks: History Today

The Forks is about history unearthed and given a new veneer. The project began in the late 1980s around the time that archeologists found 6, 000 year old catfish bones and stone-tool flakes of an old hearth. Near the confluence of the rivers is an idyllic grassed bowl area, Oodena (Cree for “Centre of the City”) which is surrounded by limestone monoliths and pays homage to the 6,000 years of Aboriginal peoples in the area. At the centre of the bowl, one can find a sundial, a ceremonial fire or a gathering depending on the day. To help you imagine the long history, Parks Canada provides “From Meeting place to Metropolis”, a humourous theatrical walking tour throughout the grounds, taking you through centuries of floods, fights and forts.

The Exchange: Passing the time

While the growth in today’s Exchange District remains slow and steady, much culture goes on inside (and outside) the century-old walls. Day-time action is focused on antique shopping, historical tours and gallery hopping while the nights are reserved for dining—from shish kebab to sushi. During the summer lunch hours, Music in the Market has local performers playing at Old Market Square, a triangle of land which was once the fire hall (and was ironically lost to a fire) and both the Fringe and Jazz Festivals utilize the same space in the evenings.

The Forks Family: Passing the time

For those stuck in the present, the Forks is a contemporary meeting spot, providing shopping, cuisine, and lazy river boat rides. There are also great entertainment possibilities for the family. Hands-on activities can be found at The Manitoba Children's Museum. Manitoba’s Theatre for Young People is the only professional theatre in the province dedicated to young audiences. Depending on the season, you might catch a Gold Eye game, Winnipeg’s AAA baseball team at CanWest Stadium, just north of the Forks, where Winnipeg fans put big-market slouches to shame.

© Copyright 2004 National Post