It’s a sunny afternoon and I’m strolling down Winnipeg’s Waterfront Drive with radio personality Margaux Watt.
“How does your family feel about you living here in the Exchange District?’ she asks.
“My young adult sons think it’s cool we have a condo in the Exchange,” I tell her, “but until she passed away my mother worried about me all the time, and some of my relatives are still sure we’ll eventually buy a place in a newer development in the suburbs.”
Marguax is recording interviews for an upcoming feature on the CBC morning show. It will examine the myth that it’s dangerous to live in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. Marguax has seen articles on my blog praising the public art and historic buildings in the Exchange District. Other posts describe the pleasure I take in the cultural events and varied cuisine available near the doorstep of our condo. I tell friends how living so close to the Children’s Museum, the Heritage Adventure Park at the Forks and the Manitoba Theatre for Young People is the ideal location for a grandmother. I obviously enjoy my neighbourhood, but Margaux wonders if that also means I feel secure living there.
I say that after two years in the Exchange District we’ve had no troubling incidents. Evenings the blocks around our building bustle with patrons of the adjacent Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Centennial Concert Hall and the five restaurants and two nightclubs on our street. There are so many people around, that we feel safe. At 6 am when I leave for my walk to the gym there are already garbage trucks, early commuters and other exercise aficionados biking or jogging on the streets. Our area is popular as a movie location and it’s not uncommon to see crews setting up for a film shoot early in the morning.
I grew up in the town of Steinbach, Manitoba and spent most of my working life as a teacher there. Some people were surprised when my husband and I decided to sell our house in Steinbach and retire to the big city of Winnipeg where we bought a condo in a hundred year old warehouse right in the heart of the city. “But will you feel safe there?’ we were asked over and over again.
This is a common reaction Exchange residents get from people. At a meeting called by developers to ask condo owners what improvements the neighbourhood needed, we were asked us to voice our safety concerns. The room was quiet for a long time till one woman raised her hand and said, “My only safety concern is that my friends and family think it’s not safe for me to live here.” Many of us nodded in agreement.
During my radio interview I told Margaux Watt that we do have our share of panhandlers in the Exchange District and I’ve noticed that sometimes our visitors find them disconcerting. It’s been my experience however that almost all panhandlers are polite and friendly. Even if I don’t give them money they wish me a good day. I’ve read studies about Winnipeg panhandlers and know they are a timely reminder of some of the problems our city needs to address like unemployment, homelessness, inadequate social assistance, unequal education opportunities and addictions. The panhandlers in the Exchange drift in from further north on Main Street and they were one of the reasons I chose to work in schools in that area, volunteer at a Thrift Shop on Selkirk Avenue and offer to give tours to inner city groups at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
When I lived in Steinbach I knew all my neighbors. You might think that in a downtown metro community that wouldn’t be the case but I tell Margaux Watt we have an active, Residents of the Exchange Association, with an online newsletter that’s regularly updated, a committee that plans social events and improvement projects like an annual cleanup of our neighbourhood’s Stephen Juba Park. When there are issues to address like the withdrawal of resident parking privileges on Exchange District streets or the mayor’s 2012 plan to build a water park hotel complex in our area we get together and present our point of view to city officials.
These community initiatives are important because although our area is diligently patrolled by teams of cadets, police officers, private security guards and Down Town Watch Ambassadors, our member of the legislature Kevin Chief reminded us during his last election campaign that just increasing policing won’t make the downtown safe. The best way to do that is to create a sense of community where people know each other and look out for one another.
After my interview with Margaux Watt was aired a fellow resident wrote to me. “ I heard you on the radio this morning. Friends and family express their fear of me living downtown too. Thanks for being an advocate for the city and challenging people’s irrational fear of our neighbourhood.”
MaryLou Driedger lives in the Ashdown Warehouse on Bannatyne Avenue in Winnipeg’s Exchange District and invites you to come over for coffee anytime and a guided tour of her neighbourhood. She writes about living in the city on her blog Destination Winnipeg and about everything else on her blog What Next?