Monday, May 31, 2010

There's a Place Called Downtown

The Downtown BIZ is an important and prominent local organization that does great work in the ongoing efforts to promote and improve Winnipeg's perenially troubled downtown core. That's good! It is also a duplicitous little creature, by nature, that blurts out misdirection and falsehoods even when the truth would be a more productive approach. That's bad.

Yes, this is going to be a very long and involved blog post, full of civic discourse and interesting pictures and a couple of outright lies. So before we begin, I think it's only proper that we establish some background to make sure everyone's up to speed.

The Winnipeg Police Service commissioned a survey about the reputation of downtown Winnipeg, way back in ye olden days of 2009, and the survey reported that the public considers the downtown unsafe. (The public also expressed concern about gang violence and increasing concern about sexual assault -- so, even just reading the news this past week, it sounds to me like the public knows what it's talking about.) The Downtown BIZ, understandably considering this an affront to their reputation, subsequently released the results of its own commissioned surveys, and the surveys they'd paid for just happened to insist that people think downtown is completely safe. And clean, as a sidenote.

Well, you can imagine for yourself how the optics of that move went over. Downtown BIZ Executive Director Stefano Grande is a veteran of the Winnipeg public relations scene, but he made a rookie mistake after the survey reports hit the news: he treated the reaction from the comments section of the Winnipeg Free Press as though it came from actual rational humans. The Free Press readership, as expressed through its online comments, is better understood as a bizarre, localized, Collective-Unconscious cesspool of hatred and fear and loathing -- certainly not anything that you would want to try citing in an essay -- but he took their cynicism seriously (or personally) enough that he wrote them a letter to the editor in response.

(You might ask: what makes me so sure that the Free Press audience was his most likely agitant? The answer: I can't find any indication that any of the other news outlets in the city so much as mentioned the Downtown BIZ surveys to begin with. Despite the old proverb, no news is not always good news.)

This was the leadup to the Downtown BIZ's big challenge the Monday before last, daring anybody to try and find graffiti downtown between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM that day. The BIZ would donate $20 to Siloam Mission for each instance reported -- putting, not a lot, but at least a bit of money where their mouth was -- and the Free Press helpfully decorated the article with a picture of a BIZ cleanup worker furiously blasting away at graffiti the Friday beforehand.

(Let me make sure I understood this correctly: you guys started the graffiti cleanup crews on their assignments at the beginning of the weekend, came back on Monday to make a big show of challenging people to find any graffiti -- and acted upset because people occasionally get the impression that you try to manipulate figures in your favour. Well, you showed us, I guess.)

The affiliated Downtown Peggy blog threw down a similar, but differently phrased, gauntlet:

"Go and walk outside and tell me, truthfully, how much litter or graffiti you actually see."

Huh. Welp! If you insist.

If there's one thing I'm good for, by golly, it's going and walking outside; who better to take the Downtown BIZ up on their challenge and investigate the sights of our scenic downtown core that day?

They're usually pretty good about litter, so I wasn't too concerned on that front. I figured I might run into one or two things, sure, but A) the BIZ cleanup crew tends to be pretty admirably thorough about cleaning up physical waste, B) trash can't really build up that quickly anyway unless you've actually got people around to drop it, and C) there ain't nobody offering twenty bucks for each reported piece of litter.

But the catch, of course -- there's always a catch -- the catch was that I had to work that day. Most people did; almost anybody who comes downtown during the day is either there to work or to panhandle, and it isn't unreasonable to suspect that this may have been the whole point when the Downtown BIZ set their challenge hours from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. No, sir, no manipulation or misdirection here! Nobody's calling in during the hours when everybody is inside doing their jobs with no paid time for discretionary phone calls, so there must be no graffiti! Just the lingering difficulty of checking our appearance in the mirror when we can't look ourselves in the eye any more.

To their credit, though, they did go above and beyond on the calls that they did receive; you can view the list here to see the contributions they made that day, and there's certainly no fault to be found in cleaning up and donating for even the instances of graffiti reported outside their boundaries.

(Way outside, in many cases. Special note to whoever called the Downtown BIZ to report graffiti on the Jubilee bridge, or in the 900 block of Henderson Highway: buy a map, you idiot.)

But even when it's providing valuable service -- and with more openness than we get from any of our other civic administrative bodies, including City Hall itself -- the Downtown BIZ just can't shake its innate penchant for falsehoods, as evidenced when its Executive Director added this hilarious whopper of a claim:

"You can walk around downtown for an hour and not see graffiti."

I'm sorry, but what? Well, if you're blindfolded, sure, maybe that might be plausible.

Anyway, like I said, I had work that day -- in fact I was double-shifting to cover our absences attending the Manitoba Libraries Conference -- so I didn't get out and around town until 6:30 that evening.

So don't think of the picture gallery that you are about to view as an indictment of the Downtown BIZ, necessarily; consider it more of an indictment of the downtown itself. The Downtown BIZ aren't the ones actually creating the graffiti, after all, and remember: since the BIZ had the city centre at its absolute cleanest and on its absolute best behaviour until 4:00 PM that day, everything you see here must have spontaneously appeared within the next two and a half hours.

Without further ado -- let's get to my findings! Knowing that I had at least an hour until I encountered any graffiti, I set out from the Exchange District and steeled myself for a long journey before--

--okay this only took like a minute and a half, something's wrong here. Maybe once I go another block south things will--

Who litters an entire chair? Seriously? Seriously.

Okay, so I wasn't off to a great start on my expedition, but I didn't really intend to linger in this area. Partially because I've pointed out graffiti in the Exchange before, but more because -- and this may come as news to you, so I hope you're seated for this revelation -- it turns out that the Exchange District is not actually downtown.

I know, I know, you're surprised; you can literally see Portage and Main from the spots that these pictures were taken, and everybody rightfully considers Portage and Main a historically definitive downtown point. But these particular sections of Main Street are out of the jurisdiction of the Downtown BIZ, and instead fall under the Exchange District BIZ. You didn't make the mistake of thinking that two or three blocks north of Portage and Main is 'downtown', did you? Completely different area!

Let's bust out a couple PDF files here and check the maps: this is the territory covered by the Exchange District BIZ, the dirty separatists who seceded from downtown in 1989 and took this chunk of territory as sovereign domain. So the graffiti challenge posed by the Downtown BIZ was for everything on this map except for that patch of conspicuous white rectangles, which is the domain of the Exchange BIZ and not the Downtown BIZ.

(On this point, Grande is very specific: "The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ is not responsible in any way for the Exchange District--that is the job of the Exchange District BIZ.")

So just to make sure we're all on the same page here: the corner of York and Colony counts as "downtown", and the corner of Main and Bannatyne does not. Princess at Higgins is downtown; Princess at Notre Dame is not. Legislative Building? Downtown. Pantages Theatre? Not downtown. The west side of Main at Rupert is considered a part of downtown, the east side of Main at Rupert is considered a completely different area under a completely different entity, and I assure you this all makes sense if you drink hard enough while you're looking at it.

And I love, love that the Downtown BIZ specifically cut their boundaries right at the edges of Higgins and Main to avoid depicting that intersection as part of their jurisdiction.


Can't blame them for trying it, of course, but it's still pretty entertaining.

So, no, I didn't spend too much time in the Exchange; I made a point of scurrying to the designated zones as soon as possible, so I've marked on this map which areas I ultimately investigated that day.

That's really only a few blocks to and fro, and not too large a chunk of what we're calling the downtown, so there's no way that I could have found too much graffiti, right?

Well... let's break it into smaller chunks, maybe. That might be easiest.


I suspect there must be some gaps in the coverage agreements, here, where neither the Downtown BIZ nor the garbage collection companies consider these receptacles their property (or, more to the point, their problem).

Making sense of the graffiti itself, of course, is always an interesting challenge in itself. Some do their best to be charming--

--and some... I don't even know what's going on here.

But it's a fine mental exercise to keep yourself occupied while you walk, particularly if it means you'll look absorbed enough in thought that folks will stop asking you for change. More on that later, though.

The Avenue Building

You may run into people who claim that they walk down Portage all the time without seeing graffiti. These people are liars, and should be treated as such.

You're familiar, no doubt, with the Avenue Building; it's been sitting there empty for almost two decades, just a-decaying away and setting a bad example for the rest of the area. The City recently sold it to some guys for a dollar just to get rid of it, and then floated them another two million dollars to make sure that something -- anything -- appears to be happening with the place. (This year is an election year? I hadn't noticed.)

The alley right behind the building is an interesting hodgepodge of styles, including a healthy dose of shattered glass and a charmingly bad attempt at drawing a unicorn --

-- but the front of the building, right along Portage Avenue, is not exactly a winner of a display either.

The tone of CentreVenture's giant banner alternates between combative and resigned, which is both entirely telling and entirely demoralizing. Couldn't even add an exclamation point at the end of "So do we", as if to indicate excitement; nope, after almost twenty years of this, the best that we can do is pick a fight about your attitude but grudgingly admit that we need help desperately. Welcome to Downtown Winnipeg!

You'll note that those pictures were all taken from across the street; would it be possible to ignore the graffiti if you walk on the other side, along the building? Well, yes and no. If you're close enough, and using that covered wooden walkway, you won't see the graffiti along the top and middle of the building; instead, you'll see all the graffiti at the bottom of the building, including along the wooden walkway itself.

(Hey, Cliff, this guy's calling you out. You gonna take that from him?)

So I wish the newfound developers of the Avenue Building all the best, and hope for nothing but good things from them. I figure, hey -- it can't get much worse!

The pictures that you just saw also highlight another of the graffitists' strategies, one that seems to be impenetrable so far:

Aiming High

Any time that the Downtown BIZ says they need more funding, I believe it. From the looks of things, they're given so little to work with that their broke asses can't afford to buy a ladder.

I don't know whether the vandals in this city are parkour experts or just really, really tall, but once something gets about six or seven feet up in the air it's apparently accepted as a permanent installation.

And this is no recent development, either. You may run into people who claim that they walk down Portage all the time without seeing graffiti, and these people are liars who should be treated as such; right along Portage, right in front of the landmark new Manitoba Hydro building, is this modern classic of gravity-defying taggery.

Ha ha, what? I mean, what? Silly vandals, get down from there.

And I can't even pretend that this wasn't around during the BIZ's graffiti challenge earlier in the day, because I noticed this sucker and took a picture of it back in December --

-- and it's clearly visible in the Google Street View coverage of the area.

So how was it that nobody ever reported this graffiti to the Downtown BIZ that day? Probably the same reason that you never hear anything else about Portage Place: nobody's brave or foolish enough to go anywhere near it.


Portage Place

Well, credit for trying, cleanup crew. Credit for trying.

I have a little side story at this point, so humour me a brief aside while I take a short break from pictures of squiggly graffiti and shot glasses. Wait, shot glasses?

Huh. Well, the weather is pretty warm, so I guess they migrate this time of year.

With the nice weather, I figured I would grab a drink myself; I followed the sidewalk along Portage Place to its Shoppers Drug Mart, which only opened a few years or so ago. Yes sir, downtown's on its way up! The area has suffered from a severe shortage of storefront business for a long time, so it was a real boon for everybody involved when--

Oh, what the hell. What is this? Open up! Yeah, hey, you! I can see you in there!

Didn't anybody send Shoppers Drug Mart the memo? Downtown is safe! And clean!

So I had to go around, and sure enough they were open no matter how boarded up the place may look from the outside. Nothing else was open, of course, it's Portage Place. But I figured, whatever; as long as I have to come inside the mall, I may as well pop up to the skywalks on the second floor and see if I can take some good pictures from there.

So imagine my surprise when I went up there and found that this exit was locked --

-- and this exit was locked --

-- and this exit was locked too, just to mess with people.

So with everything closed and nobody around, why is this wing of the mall even accessible? So that Shoppers Drug Mart can keep its Portage door closed, forever.

I like downtown because it's safe. And timeless, if this next section is to be believed.

A Date that Will Live in Infamy

They think they're clever, the graffitist and vandals; I suspect that's what motivates a lot of them, the ol' look-what-I-can-do braggadocio of it all. (Hence why so many of them write their names and nothing else.) But there's always the risk of being too clever and giving away the whole trick, as you will see in the following example.

The Norlyn Building is conveniently located at 309 Hargrave and is most beloved as the home of the Wagon Wheel, recently reopened and still legendary for its clubhouse sandwiches. (I'm continually surprised that we as a city don't make more effort to snag the food tourism market; there's certainly no shortage of delicious historic eateries around here. Bring your foodie friends into town for a week or two, they'll love it.)

So it would sure be embarrassing for the Downtown BIZ if their big graffifi challenge missed a spot on this beloved local establishment, right? Especially if they'd missed that spot for, say, a few weeks and counting?

Sure enough, just a few feet into that alley, one finds a barrage of conveniently clustered graffiti:

Classy as always, yes. Glad to hear our no-fail education policy continues to turn out the best and brightest.

Still, a smoking gun, yes? Graffiti dated the 28th of April, left untouched for the world to see? Someone's been asleep at the switch for who knows how long! Apologies and firings to follow!

Except, of course, that these kids got too greedy with the idea. Ain't that always the way? Not much later that evening, what should I find on the side of the Urban Bakery entrance but this:

I'm not known for my expertise in comparing handwriting samples, but this looks to be written in the same script with the same pen as before -- and it just happens to share the same date, which is some really sloppy quality control on their part.

It's a cute gimmick, yes, but if you're going to backdate your entries you have to use it sparingly for best effect. Either that or hammer it into the ground with increasing exaggeration, which I for one think would be pretty funny.

"R.I.P. WPG JETS 08/28/96"
"UNICITY SUCKS!! 1/5/73"

If you're going to be obvious about it, at least have some fun with it.

This gives you some idea of what the cleanup crews are up against, though. No pulled punches here! This ain't croquet, son, this is war!

And it appears to be a war with a scorched-earth policy, because this shot segues directly into:

The Particularly Insulting Surface Parking Lot

Here's what the area between the Urban Bakery and the haircutting school looked like when Google Street View drove past it back in the day.

Here's what it looks like now.

Somebody explain to me how anybody in charge of this city let this happen.

Either the landowner sent in an application to turn a perfectly good little urban park (one the Downtown BIZ used frequently for chess events) into a gravel parking lot, or he didn't and just bulldozed it anyway. If he did apply, somebody in charge somewhere agreed that this was a good move; if he didn't apply, then the city and its related organizations are too toothless to stop anybody in the area from doing the exact same thing.

How was this change a good idea? At all? Anybody?

The Downtown BIZ proudly boasts that there are 32,000 parking spots in the city centre, so I don't understand how the potential demand would have justified this supply at all. And if you decide for some completely implausible reason to park your car in this lot -- thirty-two thousand parking spots downtown and you pick this -- you are not exactly making the safest possible decision, either for yourself or for your vehicle.

Imagine if you were parking here to take your four-year-old daughter to a dentist's appointment, or whatever. You let her out of the car, take your eyes off of her for just a second to lock the vehicle, and when you turn around she isn't there. You'd panic, right? Well, don't worry; all that happened was she just got tired of Winnipeg, and decided that it would be fun to wander into a Spike Lee joint instead.

Or perhaps she wanted to investigate the brightly-coloured, kid-friendly mural a few steps south of that parking lot, which starts at Graham and becomes rapidly less and less kid-friendly as it progresses along the alley.

The "Take Pride Winnipeg!" really does sell the piece, I think. I like downtown because it's safe and clean.

But if this isn't exactly the welcoming atmosphere that you want to leave your car in, or walk your kids through, then maybe next time you should just park directly at the Medical Arts Building for your hypothetical appointment. I mean, you could probably walk an hour in that parking lot without seeing any--

Oh, god dammit. Why do I even bother? This is why we can't have nice things.

One Block South of the Winnipeg Square Entrance

Now, this section is exactly what it says on the label. Let's say you parked your car a block south of Winnipeg Square, or you attend CDI College -- or both, if you're a real downtown enthusiast. Surely you could walk back and forth between your car and your destination for an hour without seeing any graffiti, right?


I know you might react with disbelief and ask "is this all really downtown?", so let me restate the above: this is all just one block of the downtown. Fort to Main, Graham to St. Mary, straight out from the Fort exit of Winnipeg Square. As you can still see in this picture.

One block.

And I've saved the best for last on this block, because I know you were hoping for them: more unicorns!

Yes, another unicorn (similar in appearance to the one way up on the back of the Avenue Building) clomps into our hearts on his cylindrical balloon legs, and then another one appears on the side of another building twenty feet down the alley.

And this one is by far the best because he is a survivor, remaining where he is even after graffiti crews worked long and hard to erase a different, larger design next to him.

This may have all been the unicornist striking within the two or three hours after the Downtown BIZ's challenge expired, but I doubt that very much; unless the kid has some serious vertical leap, there's no way he or she tagged the third floor of the Avenue Building and drew two more unicorns several blocks away in that timeframe. So I like to think that the unicorn survived because its landowners wanted it to survive, ordering the Downtown BIZ cleanup crew to chase away that nasty ol' squiggle design that wanted to hurt the unicorn.

So the next time you speak with somebody from... whose wall is this?

The next time you speak with somebody from the PKBW Group of Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors, give them a hearty handshake and thank them. Thank them for keeping their unicorn; thank them for keeping the literary genre of magical realism alive.

We may talk down about the vandals, occasionally, but they're really just romantics at heart. If you couldn't already tell from the unicorns, I mean. Why, just standing in that block, within visible range of Winnipeg Square, you'll encounter some of the most elegant and profound poetry left behind by these sensitive souls:

Oh! Oh, the expression, the cadence! My heart, she weeps. See, they're not bad guys! They're just... misunderstood!

The War Memorial Mural

Wait, the what? No. No, they wouldn't -- would they? No, that's awful. Come on, man, that's Tommy Prince on there, they wouldn't--


Okay, forget all the nice things I said about you guys earlier. You're all terrible people, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.

The real kicker in this series, the punctuation on the sentence that drives the point home?

Yeeee-ep. Welcome to Downtown Winnipeg.

At Least They Tried

I don't mean to insinuate from any of the above that the Downtown BIZ cleanup crew are lazy or indifferent. If anything, I feel for them; trying to keep pace with the graffiti downtown is an impossible job to begin with, and I'm sure it only got worse when they were all told that the graffiti had to be gone by Monday. All the graffiti. The boss wants to make a point.

So these poor cleanup workers spend who knows how long on each case, each of them now trapped in their own personal Lady Macbeth nightmares where they scrub and they scrub and it won't come off, and nobody finds out until afterwards whether or not the cure is actually worse than the disease.

And my favourite of the bunch:

Define 'Pyrrhic victory'. Give examples.

I feel kind of bad about it, but when I look at some of these pictures I can't help but imagine the voices of those three henchmen pigs that work for Cyril Sneer in The Raccoons. "Awwww. The Boss is gonna be maaaad."

But I did notice that most of the obvious cleanup attempts, the really noticeable outbursts of cleanliness, were made along the storefronts of Graham Avenue. Why? Because that's where most of the buses run. Solid strategy, Downtown BIZ. Well played.

"Social Issues"

Scoff if you must, but this is really the best indication so far that downtown Winnipeg is safe. I mean, if you can fall asleep on a bench in broad daylight and not expect any robbery or physical violence on your person, the place must be pretty secure. You think you could just pass out wherever you like without repercussions in New York, or Detroit, or Tijuana? Naw, son. Those places are dangerous. Our downtown is safe! And clean!

And comfortable, I guess, from the looks of things. All right, come on, up and at 'em. This ain't a hotel.

You could overreact about people sleeping in public places if you want to, but you'd probably be alone on it; dudes taking naps anywhere they like is an everyday occurrence downtown that nobody so much as blinks at any more. Do we still use the phrase 'aboriginal in appearance'? Because two kids who appeared aboriginal, and appeared fourteen or fifteen, were videotaping this fellow the whole time and chortling to each other when the Downtown BIZ patrols woke him up. (That's actually how I noticed this guy was there -- I followed the trajectory of their camera, although it helped that the patrols are specifically dressed in the most noticeable red available.) I know a lot of people are always tempted to draw battle lines along race and colour when it comes to downtown poverty -- sorry, "social issues" -- but Trevor Wowk (who pays more attention to this than anyone) notes from his experiences here that the panhandlers and vagrants come in a wide variety of colours and sizes and income levels. And why not? Nobody's telling them they can't.

You see the guy on the left, who had been sleeping and keeping to himself? The patrols woke him up and moved him along. The guy on the right, holding out his hat, who greeted every single person on the sidewalk that evening by declaring "spare change" instead of forming an actual question around it? He was left alone to his own devices, and was still there when I circled back around an hour or so later. Make what you will of it.

I started walking that evening at 6:30 and was out until it got dark -- so about 8:30-ish, we'll say -- and in that time I was approached for money no fewer than eight different times, with some of the attempts more involved than others. (When I say 'approached', I'm counting only the active verbal solicitations; the silent waves of cups or hats are perfectly within the bylaw guidelines, and very rarely a point of contention anyway. UNLESS YOU A RACIST)

One bedraggled-lookin' dude with a baseball cap and a cross around his neck drew me into this exchange early on:

"Excuse me! Excuse me, sir, what's your name?"
"Oh! Ohhh, that's a good name. You have a very good name, James, d'you know why?"
"It's the best book of the Bible."
". . ."
"Anyway, I was wonderin', I need to raise thirty dollars tonight. Could you--"
"No, sorry."
"Awright, thank you, have a good day."

And then there was one guy that walked up and stopped directly in front of me to ask for money in the intersection of Portage and Smith. Please note that I didn't just say 'at' the intersection. I said 'in'. We were both crossing the street in opposite directions at the time. The arrangement worked out fine for my purposes -- because if there's one really good reason not to stop for somebody, it's because you're halfway across a road with the pedestrian indicator flashing red -- but I definitely had to shake my head once I made it across and considered the scenario. Because, wow, hadn't had that happen before.

But my favourite of the solicitations came from a group of four people, sitting on one of those concrete gardens along Portage. They were parked outside the Money Mart just east of MTS Centre, where a decent crowd was gathered that evening and one guy was desperately trying to hawk tickets for the Doughtry concert.

The dude leaning on the garbage stand, yeah. "Come on, man, big show tonight! Doughtry!" Tough life for that guy.

(Fun fact, one I learned three years ago: you're allowed to scalp tickets on MTS Centre property without security so much as acknowledging your presence, but they have very specific orders to corral and remove anybody with a guitar. No, I'm not kidding. These are their priorities.)

So just east of all that were these four noticeably older panhandlers, two women and two men, all of them looking to be in their forties and fifties. (And yes, damn your eyes, they were aboriginal in appearance.) Their designated spokeswoman initiated the conversation once I was within range:

"D'you got any change?"
"No, sorry."
"Okay, thanks."

And I was about half a dozen steps along before she spoke again after me.

"I like yer butt."

Well, that was nice of her. Say what you will about us Manitobans, but damn if we aren't Friendly!


I've been wondering about this for a while, so maybe someone more familiar with the local regulations can clear this up for me.

Do stickers count as graffiti? Or is that not a material we acknowledge?

Working in the Exchange District for several months meant that I saw a metric assload of stickers during my daily commute, and there's no shortage of them kicking around the rest of the downtown area either. But there's no mention of them made in the news articles, no website list of stickers removed, and a whole lot of them still standing in an area where nobody was supposed to be able to find any graffiti.

I do remember stickers being referred to as vandalism, in this case a year ago -- but it was a member of the Downtown BIZ placing those stickers, and nobody was stepping in to clarify what the rules actually are, so you can see how the whole issue is muddied.

If they don't count as graffiti, that's good to know; we can all start printing off our label sheets ahead of time, for when we've got something to say. And if they do count, well, that would have meant a lot of dough heading Siloam Mission's way, so I wish someone would have told us.

And hey, if it is graffiti, then someone needs to grab a spray bottle and go clean off the signage at Portage and Main.

They're cheeky, these kids. You've gotta watch 'em.

And Etcetera

Because some people are hilariously bad at reading comprehension, allow me to once again note that I don't blame the Downtown BIZ for the current state of the downtown. A lot of far more important organizations have been far worse about dropping the ball for a very long time now, so it wouldn't be fair to dump the entirety of the culpability on the organization representing the businesses that have somehow managed to survive.

Downtown BIZ or no Downtown BIZ, there's a lot of stuff downtown that just flies in the face of any reasonable expectations.

I mean, they can't be everywhere at once, so when I walked past the MTS Centre and nearly stepped on what appears to be a disembodied bird wing? That's just weird, especially when there were no live birds or larger carcasses anywhere in the area. Just a weird one-off.

And an abandoned whiskey bottle? That's... not unexpected, but still not something you'd lay blame about. Some dude drank some whiskey and didn't feel like recycling. Nothing implausible.

More unicorns? Sure, more unicorns! This makes perfect sense.

A shopping cart from Home Outfitters, the closest branch of which is near Polo Park, somehow making it all the way to the Urban Bakery on its own? That's... starting to get a little silly, yeah.

And two shopping carts at the same corner, one of which appears to be from Safeway and one of which looks like it might be from a Superstore? Yeah, that's... how did they do that? Is this a prank? Is somebody holding a shopping cart meetup at the Convention Centre?

Okay, this makes more sense, this I can roll with. Somebody drank a cardboard pallet's worth of Molson, then threw it out with a fifteen-year-old computer monitor they also happened to have nearby? We've all had nights like that, I'm sure. Or... afternoons, in this case.


Again -- who litters a chair? You couldn't roll it the extra fifteen feet?

This thing's just awesome, I tell you what. Even putting aside the graffiti on it, I'm really drawn to the aesthetic appeal of this sprinkler alarm; the customized script wrapping around the lower half of the circle is a really striking design choice, and I'm impressed that somebody put touches like that on a mundane matter-of-fact item like this.

But then I get back to the graffiti and notice, not only does a big pink tag take up the upper half of the item, but then two other people tagged the bottom of it afterwards. Okay, maybe the cleanup crews could have given this one a shot.

Similarly, you could make mention of the graffiti here, but I took a photo of this because holy crap get a load of this phone.

Ha ha ha ha, yeah, that's us, the city of tomorrow. MTS charges you fifty cents a pop to use this old-timer. Amazing.

This area is under video survRFLLMRFLLVV--

I'm starting to suspect from this evidence that video surveillance isn't really a deterrent. But, then, what is? It seems like the hooligans and scofflaws responsible for the graffiti in our fair city are a determined bunch, ruthlessly targetting anything they can get within range of.

They tagged the murals? Yes, they tagged the murals. They tagged the Portage and Main signs? Yes, they tagged the Portage and Main signs.

Some of them were easier to clean than others.

They tagged the phone poles and lampposts? Yes, they tagged the phone poles and lampposts.

They tagged somebody else's graffiti mural? Yes, they tagged somebody else's graffiti mural.

They tagged the artwork on the traffic boxes? Yes, they tagged the artwork on the traffic boxes.

And they tagged a tree? Yes, they tagged a... WHAT





Well, you see now why this post took me so long. I kept getting demoralized and frigging walking away.

Augh, you guys. Just... augh.

I took the Downtown BIZ graffiti challenge that evening, and I don't know if you really can say that anybody actually 'won' in this whole equation, but you can view the full gallery here numbered in chronology of order taken. That's why you may have noticed that the highest-numbered pictures in this post appear blurrier; the daylight was fading on me by that point, having stopped so often to shoot something.

And when I finally did decide to wind down my walk and catch a bus out of the increasingly darkened downtown, would you like to know what I saw at that bus shelter?

They tagged a bus shelter. Someone stood there and shanked it until it read "ARM". Which I can only hope are that kid's initials, because otherwise the vandalism is the least of the parenting problems here.

So, good luck, Downtown BIZ! You all do valuable work, I wish you all the best in your ongoing campaign to make our downtown less stunted, and nobody expects your assigned tasks to be easy work. Just -- be honest with us, will you? Even just a little? It may not sound like much, but it's really all we ask.


John Dobbin said...

I think your article clearly demonstrates the contrast of what is said and what is actually observed.

I really like downtown but honesty is the best policy when it comes to confronting the issues.

In terms of graffiti, it isn't only downtown where the problem occurs. Recent drives down Academy, Corydon and even past the cement plant on Kenaston (look way up) show it migrating out.

No amount of denial will cover up this particlar problem.

Thanks for a good article on how not to undermine yourself with proclamations that are so easily refuted by what is seen.

Anonymous said...

A few things you seem to have overlooked in your post:

#1) Perhaps the reason why the challenge was issued during business hours was so the BIZ staff members could dispatch people to take care of graffiti as calls came in. I don't imagine people would feel particularly vindicated if they left a message on a machine at 8 PM because no one was around when they spotted graffiti that night.

#2) Perhaps the point of the challenge wasn't so much for posterity, but to get people actively interested in downtown and help the BIZ do their insurmountable - as you've shown - job. Kudos to doing what other Winnipeggers couldn't be bothered to do. In fact, if you're so opposed to downtown graffiti, why don't you email Stefano Grande your blog post? I'm sure he'd genuinely appreciate it.

#3) As your other commenter pointed out, this isn't just a downtown Winnipeg problem, it's a problem in every downtown, in every neighbourhood, in every city in Canada (and beyond I'm sure). What's wrong with calling some attention to this problem by getting citizens (like yourself, clearly) riled up about the problems?

You aren't attacking the BIZ, you're right, but I'm not sure how this post is exactly helping things for downtown Winnipeg, other than propagating negative sentiments towards the core.

I don't think it's the BIZ's M.O. to exclude areas of the city or lie about the results of the graffiti challenge to make themselves look better...they're a publicly accountable organization that is just trying to help highlight the positive, or generate action when it comes to the negative.

No downtown is impeccably "Clean! And Safe!", and to suggest it ever will be makes you that much more of an idealist than Stefano Grande.

James Hope Howard said...

If the information I'm looking at is correct, the Downtown BIZ's Downtown Watch operates twenty-four hours a day. Why not just have people phone the reports in to their number, and have a full list of assignments ready for the cleanup crew bright and early the next morning? Or cough up the overtime for two extra shifts to sit at a special challenge hotline that night?

But I am actually surprised, and sort of impressed, that your alternate explanation for their behaviour makes them sound more misleading than my explanations ever could have.

"Good news, everybody! There's no flooding in the basement!"
"Uh, I just checked down there. There's water everywhere."
"Oh, I know. I just blurt stuff out occasionally to draw attention to the area. What a mess, right?"

And perhaps "clean and safe" are unreasonable expectations for any downtown, even one as sparsely occupied as ours, but you can understand how these expectations would just happen to emerge when the people responsible for the area are telling us repeatedly that the area is "clean and safe". If taking people at their word is what passes for idealism these days, then damn, son, I guess you got me. I'm an idealist.

Anonymous said...


Let me get this right

You find graffiti in backlanes, on BFI bins and on walls higher then 7 feet, and a whack of tags that have been obviously erased and your calling the BIZ out?

Dude, did you notice in your graffiti photos’ how clean those lanes and sidewalks were?

Having travelled to many downtowns, across the world, grande’s observations has merit.

Clearly the BIZ is doing a good job keeping on top of it, and asking people to help by raising awareness as to the issue.

I phoned in two and had 40 bucks donated to a good cause. And I kept their number and plans to phone again, every time. And the poster above is right. The BIZ wants the public involved.

Let me guess, you phoned in squat, could not bother to help a good cause.



Anonymous said...

Sorry I forgot to mention one more thing

I recieve thier email every week.

The BIZ has no vision?

So whats this - bullshit propoganda?

I actually kind of like it.

The blogs are issue - soluton based. As opposed to piss on and piss off based, like most blogs.

this is a good one too

Downtown Mike said...

Downtown (most of Winnipeg, really) does have social issues, not just "social issues." Poverty being key, but also a lack of resources for new immigrants, an underfunded social assistance program, ineffective programming for youth, over crowded schools and a lack of resources and aid for the homeless. I also think there is a great deal of casual and outright racism in this city, which to me is a much greater problem than graffiti on dumpsters and in back alleys. But I'm no sociologist.

As for graffiti, I've lived/worked/gone to school downtown for 10 years, and I can say that yes, I've noticed graffiti. But, just like the graffiti on Osborne and Corydon, it doesn't make me feel as though the area is unsafe or unclean.

If the BIZ had asked me in their survey if I felt that downtown was safe and clean, on 99% of the days asked I would have said yes.

Even if Grande took the Freep comments personally, I don't see that being a bad thing. I like the idea of the BIZ's executive director being personally invested and proud of downtown. I am. I get riled up by the constant bashing downtown gets (and I will include a couple recent posts on this blog in that category). So I completely understand Grande issuing this challenge, and doing it for a good cause.

Also, I don't see the BIZ's spin (that downtown is clean and safe) as being different than your spin (that it is a filthy, graffiti infested place).

Graham said...

Hahaha....the best one is from Google Street View. That's really unreal. How the crap did you find it?

Jason 1984 said...

I've seen waaay worse dude. Not so bad....not so bad.

urbandude said...

You missed the BIZ finale.

Handing over a big check to the downtown homeless employment program. Apparently over 1000 people attended, free food !!

One thing for sure, the BIZ got the last laugh with all the press they generated. And why shouldn’t they? They are the only people that give a rats ass about the downtown.

I would have to agree with anom. Those pics are a pathetic attempt. BFI bins in back lanes and old tags that can not be removed? Are you serious?? If that’s the best you found then the BIZ is doing its job, and youv'e proved yourself to be a fake.

I just got back from Montreal. Now that city has litter issues and tagging galore. But its my favorite city! Go figure.

James Hope Howard said...

If you're just joining us, the recap so far: a dude lied to the public, so I posted pictures that showed he was wrong, and now people are mad at me. Yep, it's just another day on the internet!

Anonymous #2:

I would question your reading comprehension, but that would imply you had read anything. Did you happen to notice that there were words, up there, around the pictures?

You bring up clean streets as though I hadn't praised the Downtown BIZ (and rightfully so) for its good work in tackling the litter left behind on the streets each day. And I stated that part at least one page's worth of text before I posted any photos at all, so I'm not really sure how you shot past that one.


"Let me guess, you phoned in squat, could not bother to help a good cause. SHAME ON YOU!"

Did I phone any of the graffiti in? No, I did not. And why not? Because, by the time I got off work and was able to go out there and see it, the challenge -- and, if Anonymous #1 is correct in his or her assumption, the entire BIZ office -- was long closed. My workplace was heavily short-staffed that day, and I worked from 8:00 AM to 6:30 PM; lunch was taken indoors so as to remain on call in case of an emergency, and my employment is not such that they pay me to alternate between wandering around outside and making work-unrelated phone calls.

(If you can find me a job like that, though, please let me know.)

If the set hours of the challenge had been longer, I could have made use of them; they weren't, so I couldn't. I started the walk at 6:30, as it clearly states -- more than once! -- in the original article above.

But sure, shame on me, obviously. This is my fault somehow.

Downtown Mike:

Oh, no, you've seen through my spin! You've dissipated my smokescreen and wounded me to the core of my sneaky, vengeful, sinister agenda!

Now all of my plans are ruined, and I face being turfed out by my shadowy colleagues -- the fearsome band of villains and rogues known as the Downtown Anti-BIZ, who seek to destroy all that stands in the area and replace everything there with heritage parks!

Pffff--nah, I'm kidding. Good times! Seriously, though, you're overthinking my approach a bit.

Remember, we the public were told as follows:

"Go and walk outside and tell me, truthfully, how much litter or graffiti you actually see."

So I went and walked outside and then I told, truthfully, how much litter and graffiti I actually saw. That's really the long and the short of it. There wasn't too much of the former, but there was plenty of the latter -- and certainly more than the none-per-hour we are told we can expect to find.

Seriously, am I the only person who questioned that statement? Is it just me? Am I alone on this one?

Anyway, yeah, as far as this post was concerned, those were the twin pillars of my agenda: I did what somebody asked, and I dislike being lied to. I'm not that complicated a guy, as it turns out.


That was actually some of the simplest work for this post, believe it or not. Went to the Google Street View entry for "Manitoba Hydro Portage Avenue", and then pointed the camera east. Sure enough, there she be.

I don't know about walking downtown, but I'm willing to give even odds that somebody could Google Street View our downtown for an hour and not find graffiti. The gamble is whether or not they go eastbound along Portage -- but, then, that's always kind of a gamble in real life, too.

Jason 1984:

Yeah, it could have been a lot worse, no lie. Of course, it could have been a lot better, too -- but, when I say that, I do have to include the caveat that my standard for a better downtown is now "how many unicorns are downtown at any given time". We've got a ways to go, Winnipeg!

James Hope Howard said...


Yes, we get it, thank you. You're the Downtown BIZ Defence Force, heroically slagging the writing skills and/or personal character of anybody who speaks ill of the organization. ('Sup, Graham.) It's a cute gimmick, and you'll get years of mileage out of it yet if you play your cards right.

To follow up on a statement you'd made last time, though:

"I am dying to see all the graffiti photo’s. I work on Portage and cannot find a single one."

Where exactly on Portage do you work? I'm curious, now. It must not be at Portage and Main; it's obviously not near the Avenue Building (mind you, what is?), the APTN building, or the Air Canada Park; and it couldn't be near Portage Place, or you'd already be well familiar with that one tag staring down at you like the Eye of Sauron for months now.

Are you in the Investor's Group building, perhaps? Because, assuming for the moment that the by-laws haven't been changed to classify the flute guy as aural graffiti, I can see how that would work out. The downtown borders basically end there, so you could bus right up to it from the west in the morning and bus out again in the evening -- and then every day is a day you've downtown without visible graffiti. Hey, that's clever! I don't know if that's what you do, but if so, well done.

Anyway, this "fake" thing intrigues me. Do elaborate! Did I stage the photos on the same set they did the Moon Landing on? Or was there a specific list of rules for the eligible graffiti -- including timelines, materials used, and height limits -- that I forgot to consult beforehand?

For that matter -- and you left this dreadfully vague, so please clarify at your earliest convenience -- how old are we calling "old"? Is April 28th, 2010 considered fresh or stale? And what telltale visual clues are you using to determine how long each instance of graffiti has been there? Show your work, man! This is important.

And I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed your Montreal vacation; if you have any ideas to foster a similar vibrancy in our own fair city, please let us know.

C. Beresford Tipton said...

I'm in James' corner on this one. Downtown Winnipeg smells and looks like feet.

Saying it doesn't is a lie that only delays actually doing something admitting that inaction has only resulted in making downtowns inviting places for vagrants -- instead of inviting places for young artists, young families, young businesses, young students.

(seeing a trend here..?)

Great post, James.

H said...

Say what you will about downtown... but I love those stupid unicorns.

Winnipeg Reasoning said...

I think that the "Anonymous" poster above is actually an operative for the Downtown BIZ.

Downtown Mike said...

James, you keep stating that Grande lied to the public - I haven't been able to find any incidents in the media of him saying that there is no graffiti downtown.

From the Free Press Article where he issued the challenge:
"We want to engage our community and we want people to be part of the solution," Grande said. "If it's a problem with graffiti, aggressive panhandlers or public drunkenness -- give us a call."

Seems to me (although my reading comprehension might be dubious by your standards) that Grande is acknowledging that there is graffiti out there. I don't see this egregious lie that you claim to have caught the BIZ in.

Anonymous said...

Its quite obvious to me that this whole discussion is misdirected. Since when is the Downtown BIZ responsible for the well being of the entire downtown?

How about the development agencies? How about City Hall and the downtown councilors? How about the Planning Department? Or how about Public Works which is in charge of cleaning the city in the first place?

Hello?? The BIZ is pretty much the only group out there defending the downtown, doing things, and challenging the powers to be and even championing ideas.

Check out their WEB site

You don’t event have to drill down in the tabs to get a sense what this organization is doing.

The organization is business driven. It’s not a government department.

Yes, I am biased. I sit on one of their committee’s. So I can tell you from first hand experience, the BIZ office is filled with young and smart people who understand what has to happen. And I can tell you, there is probably no-one more passionate about the downtown then their ED.

And its good to see so many others holding Slurpees and Murder accoutable for such a biased post.

Winnipeg Reasoning said...

Downtown BIZ is just smoke and mirrors. They lost all credibility with that horribly biased safety survey, and I'm not referring to the NRG survey on cleanliness.

As I wrote elsewhere, their safety survey was administered all in-house. They wrote it, conducted the interviews, managed the data and data input, analyzed it, and released it. Given that they also have an interest in influencing public opinion, they should have had their mitts-off the entire research process for said poll to have legitimacy. The biggest joke of the poll being that people will certainly respond they feel safe if they are standing with the interviewer, who also happens to be a Downtown Watch/"Red Shirt." And did they ensure proper demographic representations, such as a 50/50 gender split... or did they survey significantly more male respondents than female?

Be on the lookout for organizations that have an obvious interest in releasing certain results and act as their own client in the research aspects. Also consider question wording. Why was Downtown BIZ afraid to ask people of their overall impressions of downtown, such as "generally speaking, do you feel downtown is safe?" Their question was rigged to provide a very day/time specific outcome, where they could have very well ensured that conditions at the interview location was perceived to be safe.

This is likely a more accurate depiction of people's impressions of Downtown Winnipeg:

Anonymous said...

Maybe one day it will be safe enough for Stefano Grande to move out of East St. Paul and into downtown Winnipeg!!!

Pulse said...

@Winnipeg Reasoning (and James for that matter): What exactly do you think is the MO for the BIZ to "have an interest in influencing public opinion" other than encouraging people to experience - as the majority of us who are downtown on a daily basis - that downtown really isn't that scary of a place?

I'm not following the train of thought the two of you seem to share regarding the BIZ being some sort of corrupt powerhouse.

Whether the BIZ conducted that survey themselves or had a third party do it, they'd still probably highlight the results that showcase favourable impressions of downtown (as everyone who commissions a survey tends to).

Winnipeg Reasoning said...

Like I said, Downtown BIZ does not do themselves a service when their methods are so biased and they seem so out-of-touch. They have about zero credibility as an organization in the PR front. When an organization loses credibility as much as they have, not much hope at getting 'the message' out effectively.

Besides, when most people think of Downtown Winnipeg, they're not of the metrosexual mentality that the BIZ is so eager to target. Rather, people think of women being attacked with a hatched by youth on a mugging rampage, teens being held-up with a gun while skating at the Forks, stabbings and beatings in front of some of the seedier hotel bars (which are all over the place), pregnant teenage moms with strollers and smokes that spit and swear all the way down the sidewalk, G-Unit wannabes traveling in packs and shouting sexual remarks at business women, vagrants sexually servicing each other in bus shelters, and of course, murder. Not even babies are safe!

Most people are not naive enough to forget these types of stories and sights when being presented the Downtown BIZ spin. In fact, the BIZ is not doing a service to those few who are that naive... who will then believe that it is perfectly safe and let their guard down. The BIZ would be better off with an honest strategy: "we know these are the issues, and here is what we're doing to aggressively address the situation."

At least those flower pots they are putting out today is a better place for the zombies to urinate than the entrance at City Place!

Anonymous said...

WOW the post above truly exposes you people.... ugly and angry, lashing out at anyone in positions of power, who can do no right in your eyes.

I actually feel sorry for you.

There was a good writer once. Dallas H. He was a bitter dude. Look where that got him? And another dude Marty. He used to be a cool radio guy. Now just a fat angry little man spewing bs on some third rate talk show.

And then ther are people like graham, who revel in it all.

A lot of hate and anger here folks. Hate for the Downtown, hate for anyone trying to make things better.

Bitter people not capable of effecting change in any which way other then throwing verbal bombs.

WOW. I really feel sad for you guys.

I urge the sane people top now abandon this blog, forever.

Its tainted.

Anonymous said...

Great post. An epic takedown.

CreativeNige said...

Epic blog post, James. I like yer butt.

Winnipeg Reasoning said...

Somebody! Call the waaaaambulance!

Is it any wonder that the Downtown BIZ is a failed organization? They can't even get basic PR right.

They sent one of their board members over to Slurpees and Murder, of all places, to bring out the crocodile tears because not everyone touts the same "everything is wonderful!" line regarding downtown.

They issued a bold graffiti challenge during limited hours. How did that work out? It is well documented here what a farce that scheme was.

Continual PR disasters... thanks for the laughs, Downtown BIZ. When they lose their credibility, they lose their effectiveness as an organization.

Sorry pal, but what I wrote are the perceptions that most Winnipeggers likely have about downtown. The shame and degradation on constant exhibit and documented in the news and police media releases are too much for the BIZ's target audience, the suburbanites. They'll stick it out at St. Vital Mall rather than risk being accosted downtown.

IMO, eliminate all aspects of the BIZ and keep only the "Red Shirt" Watch Ambassadors (and have them administered by a competent organization, not the BIZ). Take the BIZ levy and "donations" from city departments (and provincial crown corporations if the prov is willing) and put it towards policing and the Red Shirts so as to address the greatest problem facing downtown, which is crime and safety. Just check out how much taxpayer money is being funneled to the BIZ in the form of "donations" on page 32/"2009 Partnerships" in their 2009 Annual Report:

Until the safety issues show sustained and significant improvement, the BIZ's mandate will remain unfulfilled and its message will not resonate.

Anyway, luckily there are some good Winnipeg blogs and other venues which have a realistic take on downtown and Winnipeg; such as Slurpees and Murder, Winnipeg Cat, The Black Rod, and Destination Hell. I suggest that the Downtown BIZ types stay away from these sites if the only measured response they bring forward is whining. What do they expect anyway? LOL.

Jackson said...

@WinnipegReasoning. Do you ever go downtown? Cause your downtown is not my downtown (nor is it many other people's experience).

Anonymous said...

personally I have no problem with downtown. I am not threatened , its pretty clean. Rather boring and uninteresting. I like the night and I don't mind graffitti. I ignore panhandlers but I do hand out smokes to those that need em.

My wifey on the other hand, a born and bred pegger......she's scared shitless of downtown Winnipeg.

I don't know what the beef is but 10's of thousands need to be downtown and the whole area should be bouncing into the early morning.

But what do I know

Winnipeg Reasoning said...

@ Jackson, what city do you live in?

Jackson said...

Winnipeg, obviously.

Jackson said...

Winnipeg, obviously.

Anonymous said...

The Black Rod likes what he sees downtown.

Anonymous said...

So Black Rod only says "the canary in the coalmine is dead" when he likes something a lot? Maybe good news for his blog, but not good for downtown.

Winnipeg Reasoning said...

@ Anonymous 9:06pm,

What did the writers of Black Rod like in what they saw? All the litter after welfare payday? Or the half-a-dozen derelicts hanging out at Donald and Portage? Or the asshole bicyclists on the sidewalks? Or the crazy guy hanging out in front of the library shouting at an invisible enemy? Or the intoxicated couple being attended to by the Watch Ambassadors? Or the countless empty liquor bottles? Or how Belle Rykiss finally threw in the towel on downtown?

They write: "So, safer? Not when you've had a moment to think about it," and conclude that when the canary in the coalmine dies... run!

Seems that Anonymous at 9:06pm didn't actually bother reading the post on The Black Rod.

Anonymous said...

Funny how even the Blackrods comment of the wedding store are shrewn with distain for the downtown. Lacking of any real research which he despises the general media for.

And its even funnier how all of you suckle it up like sheep.

Truth be known the store shutt down becuase the new owner jacked up the rent 40 percent to get the wedding tenant out, to attract another tenant who will pay the increased amount. Sounds to me like the landlord believes his space and downtown is worth more.

Right, the downtown sucks.

All of you are pathetic.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that they are the only one's standing up and defending the downtown. Yet there are so many other entities that are responsible for the downtown.

If the BIZ believes everything is so wonderful, why do they have so many programs in the area of safe and clean?

And why do they have a strategic plan that says, positions on everything – here is what needs to happen – and this is what we are going to do about it...

Black Rod is not better then an average blogger. No research, just uninformed and uneducated opinions.

And its plain to see that the bloggers here have zero credability.

cherenkov said...

I need to install more RAM if you're going to do more posts like these.

"Either the landowner sent in an application to turn a perfectly good little urban park (one the Downtown BIZ used frequently for chess events) into a gravel parking lot, or he didn't and just bulldozed it anyway. "
B: he didn't and just bulldozed it anyway.

I noticed that the "City of Winnipeg Authorized Graffiti Zone" tags that I blogged about months ago are still up -- two of which are 'downtown biz' as opposed to 'Exchange biz'. To be honest, I kind of like them.

Anonymous said...

The oppressive length makes it even funnier.


Anonymous said...

Great blog post.

I wasn't aware of the ongoing Winnipeg unicorn conspiracy and I apprecate the personal risks you take to bring us this important story.

alvinaluv said...


alvinaluv said...

Ikr lmao

alvinaluv said...

It's a lot worst were I'm @ and u call BIZ .WTF? Who cares graffiti doesn't hurt anyone it's a way to express yourself and it's there hard work going down the drain Nd its just art