THE STREETS OF CANADA

Main Street, WINNIPEG

ROBERT COLLINS August 17 1957
THE STREETS OF CANADA

Main Street, WINNIPEG

ROBERT COLLINS August 17 1957

Main Street, WINNIPEG

THE STREETS OF CANADA

A day is a cycle of dreams and wild extremes on the oldest, shabbiest and most important street in Manitoba — melting pot and financial hub—where the girls, they say, are the loveliest in the land

ROBERT COLLINS

Main wears many masks. Grotesque at city hall, turbulent at Portage and Main, even — on a park's rim — bucolic

By seven a.m. on most weekdays sunlight has chased the panhandlers, rubby-dubs and teenagers in James Dean jackets from central Main Street, Winnipeg. In their place wizened men in cloth caps take up day-long vigils in the lobbies of cheap hotels. Soon pawn shops and cut-rate stores open their doors, spilling second-hand luggage and war-surplus raincoats onto the sidewalk.

Along north Main shopkeepers chattering in Ukrainian, Polish, Yiddish or German, rise from their beds back of the delicatessens, kosher meat markets and tailor shops. In the north Main open-air market, gnarled country women in babushkas lay out fresh vegetables and boxes of sunflower seeds.

On south Main waves of stenographers file into a gloomy grey canyon of financial build-

ings. Teletypes stutter in the brokerage houses, wickets slide back in railway stations and a twenty-four-ton vault door yawns open in the Bank of Montreal.

And the oldest, dowdiest yet most important street in Manitoba begins another twenty-fourhour cycle of dreams and wild extremes.

Main Street is Manitoba in miniature. Everything dear to Manitoba is on it: railways, grain, the scents, sounds and memories of a hundred old countries. So are the mistakes, disappointments and oddly assorted activities of a province that is itself far more assorted than strangers usually give it credit for.

Between the foot of Main, at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and the point six miles north where it melts into provincial highway Number One, you can be married, buried

or join the LPP, the CCF, the Jewish public library or Jehovah's Witnesses.

You can visit a drive-in movie, a skid-row flophouse, the businessmen's ritzy Carleton Club, a home for aged ladies or another for delinquent girls. You can buy a saddle, a Dutch cigar, a live mink, a flock of baby chickens or a medicinal herb tea for coughs and colds.

It is the street of the very old, like the fur traders’ crumbling Fort Garry gate, and of the very new, like International Nickel's downtown offices symbolizing Manitoba’s northern mining empire.

This strange mixture has only one common ingredient. Main Street, all of it, is built on dreams; wistful ones in the ageing financial section which was once the hub of the west; hopeful ones among the heterogeneous people of the

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The Streets of Canada: MAIN STREET, WINNIPEG continued

This is the testimony of the eloquent signs: railway hotels for the travel-weary, rubdowns for the muscle-sore, hockshops for the destitute, chop suey joints for the famished, guarantees for the wary, flop houses for the derelict—and salvation for sinners

north end; broken ones in the shabby central district.

Main is partly the street of the Hilda Howells. Prior to her death last January, fifty-six-year-old Hilda reigned twenty-five years as queen of the derelicts around central Main. Like many skidrow characters she was intelligent and kind but erratic. Once she had to be forcibly removed from the mayor’s council chair, in city hall, where she insisted she had as much right as he did. She appeared in court on numerous liquor charges, argued her defense, cross-examined witnesses and sometimes won acquittal.

When cronies went to jail Hilda visited them with a withered apple, orange or bouquet "borrowed” from the nearest open-air market. And although they frequently had to run her in. the police w'ere fond of Hilda, not so much for what she was as for what she might have been.

Main has been kinder to Chris Kelekis. a burly sixty-nine-year-old Greek restaurateur. He came to Winnipeg forty-four years ago. worked for a confectioner and later patrolled Main with a peanuts-and-popcorn cart.

“Sundays,” Kelekis recalls, “I used to push the cart down to Portage, then all way to Assiniboine Park, three-four miles, to catch the crowds.”

Kelekis graduated to a twenty-dollar car, which he turned into a Main Street fish-andchips van. Now he owns two neat north Main restaurants (fish and chips the specialty) operated by his children. Kelekis surveys his domain every day wearing an immaculate suit and an expression of happy disbelief.

Yet again, Main is the street of the financial temples: sixteen banks, the James Richardson brokerage and grain organization, the GreatWest Life Assurance company and the grain growers' co-operatives. Like Kelekis' restaurants, each of these represents a dream. Early in the century prairie farmers, impatient with the monopoly and abuses of a few private grainhandling companies, founded United Grain Growers and the three Wheat Pools. The UGG and Wheat Pool buildings now stand on Main near Portage, representing 280,000 prairie farmers and two thirds of the grain handled in Canada.

Near them is the controversial Canadian

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The Streets of Canada:

MAIN STREET, WINNIPEG

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Career girls go by, bankers and brokers assemble, and the young sports’ satin jackets outshine the neon lights. A drugstore cowboy is born, babushkas pass in silence; young love and old knowledge retreat to park benches. Main is Manitoba in miniature

Wheat Board, which endeavors to control grain marketing in an orderly manner. Behind, just off Main and a little forlorn, is the Grain Exchange, which houses most private grain merchants and the Board of Grain Commissioners which administers the Canada Grain Act. Among other things. Board employees at a long table with steady northern light, check for grade samples of wheat from boxcars moving to terminal elevators. So there's still wheat in the Exchange, its trading floor now dealing in futures only in rye and flax, is a ghost of its former self.

The James Richardson investment office shares the gusty corner at Portage and Main with three other Manitoba landmarks: the CNR and CPR offices and the Bank of Montreal. On

this choice site, the vortex of Winnipeg, swirling with traffic and businessmen, the late James A. Richardson started to build an office in 1929. When Wall Street crashed he stopped excavation.

“I’d be ashamed to quit now,” a friend told Richardson. “I'd work a few more months to save face, even if it meant just digging and filling the hole.”

“I’m not a hole-filler,” said Richardson. But he filled the hole just once—today it's a parking lot, beside the investment house—and turned to ventures like building an airline and a radio network, and buying enough shares of International Nickel to keep control in Canada.

To Jeffry Hall Brock the important thing, in 1891, was an insurance

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Main Street, Winnipeg

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It was built wide for oxen; now it's a marathon for pedestrians

company for the west. Accordingly, without a day’s insurance experience, he founded Great-West Life. Even Winnipeggers jeered at the idea of an insurance headquarters in a shack town of twenty thousand. But by 1893 the Great-West had sold two and a half million dollars’ worth of insurance.

Even Brock couldn’t have dreamed that sixty-four years later his company would be the third-largest Canadian insurance firm, with sixty-one branches in nine provinces and twenty states, and 750 of the prettiest girls in Winnipeg. The Great-West girls have become a byword among Winnipeg judges of pulchritude. When newspapers want to pose a photogenic girl with the first robin they invariably call the insurance company. When bachelors want to spend a worthwhile lunch hour they stand at Main and Lombard watching the Great-West girls go by.

For years the Great-West rented offices but when it built there was no question of where. In those days everything important was built on or near Main. Settlement grew around it automatically, for this was the first highway of the adventurer. The “main road” paralleled the Red River, and warrior, explorer, priest and homesteader plodded the road, from the American boundary to Fort Garry. Some then pointed their oxen west along the old Portage trail. Others pushed twenty miles north to Selkirk, a town that was once expected to grow faster than Winnipeg.

When the muddy ruts reached the hubs of their Red River carts, they started fresh trails. To make room for several parallel trails the Assiniboine council of 1840 decreed that Main be a hundred and thirty-two feet wide. Now it takes a nimble pedestrian to cross on a green light and some consider jaywalking a challenge, a privilege and a necessity. In court three years ago a Main Street jaywalker was offered a twodollar fine or two days in jail. He indignantly chose jail.

Main was still a muddy ungraded trail in 1870 when Louis Riel’s firing squad marched Thomas Scott into the road for execution. The city fathers finally paved Main with cedar blocks and in 1884 built city hall there, an archi-

Who is it?

He was born in Ireland, grew up in Vancouver, and beat the world’s best at his specialty. Turn to page 48 to see who this boy grew up to be.

tectural horror with ugly towers, groaning staircases and grotesque trimmings.

Engineers threaten to condemn it. Two American engineers ventured into its trembling tower recently and came away muttering, “Let’s get out of here.” Al-

dermen fear its clock tower will crash into their laps some Monday night. Steve Juba, Winnipeg’s rags-to-riches mayor, once helped repair it as a laborer but feels no creative pride. Instead he guides visitors to its creaking upper

regions and points out bolted beams, rotting timbers and ornamental railings patched with wire. There’s also the skeleton of a goat, tossed by pranksters into a rickety room that’s unsafe to enter.

Juba likes the provincial government’s offer of a spacious free site uptown near the legislative buildings. But council can’t decide. Main Street businessmen want city hall, old or new. to stay downtown. They think, perhaps rightly, that its loss would be Main's death-blow.

But Main still has attractions for the would-be adventurer. The CNR and

CPR stations empty central Europeans and eager young Britons onto the street. The latter, often, are apprentice storekeepers or trading-post managers of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But any with lingering dreams of northern adventure are disappointed in the hushed mahogany chambers of Hudson’s Bay House, the company’s Canadian headquarters on south Main. There’s not a raw pelt or an Indian trapper within miles of Bay House and, as the apprentices learn from films and lectures, even the farnorth trading posts have carpets, armchairs, electric lights, bathrooms and sometimes hot and cold running water.

The Europeans with their belted trenchcoats and battered suitcases generally find their way to north Main. They are soon at home among stubby men with warlike mustaches, onion-shaped Greek Orthodox church domes, newsstands displaying Winnipeg’s twenty-odd foreign-language periodicals, and doorways fragrant with liolnhtsi, mitzos or heaping trays of pickled herring.

Here the lunch counters resound with friendly bickering:

“Give me one those.”

“These?”

“No, no, NO! Them.”

“The bagel? Why didn’t you say?”

“You don’t sell them, maybe?”

“Sure we sell, you tell us what you want, already.”

There are even authentic sounds and smells of Vienna. Five years ago Austrians Max and Frieda Scheindel started afresh on Main, with the numerals of Nazi concentration camps stenciled on their arms. Frieda is a former singer: Max has the grand manner and pliable, roughly handsome face of the comicopera actor. In a year, as caretakers, they saved three hundred and sixty dollars and opened the Old Vienna café with accordion music, checked tablecloths, wienerschnitzel and apfelstnulel. Everybody came, from homesick immigrants to the mayor.

In their spare time the Scheindels rounded up other old-country singers and. in a downtown theatre, presented light opera like Die Fledermaus and Lchar’s Wo Die Lerche Singt.

Recently the Scheindels moved a step ofT Main into a bigger café with a wall mural of Vienna, a picture of Strauss, imitation crystal chandeliers and, incongruously, a juke box. But there’s still live music three times a week, with the patrons joining in song. Often son-in-law Benno Strummer sings Viennese opera to diners.

Warmed with nostalgia and spicy foods, immigrants are soon sending ecstatic letters and food or clothing parcels back to Europe. Several Winnipeg “trading companies” will ship parcels anywhere, including Soviet Russia. For about twenty-five dollars a Winnipegger can send good suit material to the USSR. Comparable material would cost a Russian twenty-five hundred rubles (roughly five hundred and fifty dollars by the official exchange rate).

One company, Ukrainska Knyha, is licensed by lntourist and ships direct to Russia. Others, because, they say, of their anti-Communist views, are refused licenses and must ship through European intermediaries. Whatever its political sympathies a parcel-shipping agency pours millions of dollars into Russia every year. All USSR duties, which often

qual the value of the merchandise, are ollectcd in Canada.

"But what can you do?” shrugs Roma anicki. who with her husband owns dain's anti-Communist Vega Overseas ‘arcels. Roma, a slight vivacious Pole, pent three years in a Siberian prison

camp early in World War 11. “Those people need the parcels. I know how it is to be hungry or without clothes.”

If their parcels inadvertently help Russia with dollars, Winnipeg’s ethnic groups thwart the Soviets in other ways. The Ukrainian Canadian Committee, representing twenty-two anti-Communist organizations in Canada, spends hours sifting fact from propaganda in Russian newspapers that reach its Main Street headquarters, and in publishing acid criticism of communism in its quarterly, Ukrainian Commentary.

The north-end Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre has become the free Ukraine’s main refuge. Every month sober reports on life under the Russians reach the Centre in boxes, bundles or trunks smuggled out of Iron Curtain countries. Rare volumes and fragile sixteenth-century maps prove the existence four hundred years ago of a separate Ukraine, a point which Russia now denies. Once a Moscow committee wrote the Centre, suggested an exchange of books, and a Russian publishing company that imports books asked for a list of every title on the Centre’s shelves. The Centre ignored both letters.

While scholars study these treasures in a handful of third-story rooms, below in the Ukrainian National Federation Hall there is probably a kolyuda (Christmas carol), a Mctelytsya (folk-dance of the snowstorm) or a noisy happy wedding party. Weddings have lost much oldcountry ceremony but they still include songs, dances and feasts.

Nobody enjoys weddings more than Mrs. Evelyn Crabtree, the pink-cheeked proprietress of Diane’s dress shop. In the Depression she began selling hand-made dresses, sewn from men’s shirts, for thirty-five cents. Timidly she offered one to a department store for ten dollars. The store sold it for sixteen dollars under a “made in Paris” tag and begged for more.

As north Main's Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish community grew, there were more demands for wedding gowns at up to three hundred dollars each. Her shop now caters exclusively to weddings and, when romance is high, sometimes grosses five thousand dollars a week.

“I remember a time 1 couldn’t raise ten dollars for a secondhand coat,” said Mrs. Crabtree recently. “Now . . .” pointing to a furrier delivering a new stole “. . . I go for a thousand-dollar mink!”

The north-enders who can't go for mink can at least aspire to it, or its equivalent, someday. Not so the derelicts of central Main, where sooty red and yellow buildings huddle behind the balustrades and cornices of another era. Once this was a proud busy district with forty hotels on or immediately off the street serving railway traffic. Now the shabby hotels depend on shabby beer parlors for a living, and the street shelters threadbare men in mismatched coats and pants.

Passengers on main-line trains passing over Main see tawdry sights: swaggering youths in pegleg trousers and matching scarlet or turquoise jackets preen their oily hair in front of movie-houses. Down one side street a gypsy fortuneteller beckons from her window. Down another a hostel offers free soup and salvation.

Two women stage a hair-pulling brawl. A drunk with a bottle peeping from his hip pocket lurches hastily down a side street at sight of a patrolman.

Periodically the police swoop down on crap or poker games here. Last November they closed a, Main Street office which was telephoning “point spread” odds on United States college football games to bettors all over the continent. After running in five big-time gamblers

(who were fined ten thousand dollars each) the morality squad spent a pleasant hour posing as crooks, giving wrong odds to all callers.

But central Main is more drab than wicked, and there are more secondhand dealers, pawnbrokers and cut-rate clothiers than dangerous criminals. On the fringe of this district. The Man With The Axe. a department store, parlayed lowpriced goods into a million-dollar business.

Nine years ago Joe Marantz, a wholesaler, founded The Man With The Axe

as a modest retail outlet. He sold everything from antifreeze to watermelon and tickled customers with marquee slogans like “Men's underwear, half off. Let's get rid of it before it drops lower." Once Joe's son. Base, the store’s advertising manager, sold ten tons of mixed nuts with a radio advertisement that began. “This is a commercial about mixed nuts. But to tell you the truth there’s nothing you can say about them except that they're mixed and they’re nuts . ..”

"But we want to get off Main." says Base. “There’s no customer parking and

furthermore it’s almost impossible to defeat the shoppers' attitude toward Main Street. A lot of potential customers just won't come to this district.”

So The Man With The Axe is eyeing Portage Avenue. The Great-West Life is building new quarters on Osborne, near the provincial legislative buildings. City hall may go. The grain trade has lost its excitement. Only the north end of Main has all its youth and vigor left. And. as it did in the beginning, the street on which a province was founded looks to the new settlers to give it life. ★