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Cycles of Culture: The Revitalization and Gentrification of Downtown Winnipeg

July 26, 2018


My interest in the redevelopment of Winnipeg’s city centre is one of the reasons I applied to the Cultural Studies program at the University of Winnipeg. I was born and raised in this city and I have noticed the ongoing efforts to revitalize Winnipeg’s Downtown and Exchange District neighbourhoods. I find the renovation of historic buildings into trendy lofts and artists’ studios and the influx of locally owned restaurants, shops, and galleries particularly interesting. These developments not only change the aesthetic of the area, but encourage people, and a certain type of people, to spend more of their time and money in Downtown Winnipeg. Until recently, I did not think about who was being encouraged to live, work, and seek entertainment in the new and “improved” downtown area, and who might be displaced by the narrative of cultural revival and civic resurgence. I did not consider that these developments may only benefit certain members of the community. As we push for a vivid reframing of the city’s urban centre, bringing middle class citizens to the trendy patios of King, Princess, McDermot, and Bannatyne, perhaps we should think about those whom we do not see at the tables next to us, recognizing the gentrifying effects of urban development. 

Rebecca Kinney’s Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier changed how I think about Downtown Winnipeg. Kinney discusses the presence of systemic racism in Detroit, and suggests that blackness is often linked to Detroit’s economic decline. Whiteness, and the increasing population of white Detroiters, however, is connected to the city’s revival. When speaking about Detroit’s Greater Downtown area, Kinney explains that investors aimed to draw young, college educated individuals to the neighbourhood.[1] However, she also notes that seeking to attract a particular demographic “devalues [. . .] those who are not young, not college educated, and not white.”[2] In a city like Detroit where race, class, educational background, and economic status are implicitly intertwined, the favouring of young, educated, and possibly wealthy individuals must also be recognized as a favouring of whiteness. As such, Kinney explains that rebranding Detroit’s Greater Downtown area inadvertently displaces people of colour who can no longer afford to live in the newly renovated neighbourhood.[3] Kinney’s examination of Detroit’s rise is reminiscent of the current revival efforts taking place in downtown Winnipeg; while Kinney is primarily concerned with the division of Detroit’s black and white communities, her discussion may be applied to the ongoing displacement of Winnipeg’s large Indigenous population from rapidly developing urban neighbourhoods. As Stuart Hall suggests, Cultural Studies renegotiates prior concepts, and transplants them to “new soil with considerable care and patience.”[4] In other words, although the history of anti-black racism in Detroit is decidedly different from the displacement of Indigenous peoples, Kinney’s analysis of civic rebranding may be used to examine the cultural shifts taking place in Winnipeg.           

When thinking through the current revitalization efforts of Downtown Winnipeg, it is also vital to consider the lasting reverberations of settler colonialism. While Kinney’s discussion of Detroit is a useful analysis of systemic anti-black racism, Cultural Studies acknowledges the differences between various forms of racial prejudice and asserts that not all forms of racism are perpetuated in the same way. While anti-black racism is a pointed attack on physical blackness, colonialism seeks to erase indigeneity from the white settler state.[5] Colonial practices are repeated and passed down to future generations[6] and the lasting affects and effects of colonization make “indigeneity [. . .] functionally absent.”[7] I have already mentioned my interest in the cultural development of Downtown Winnipeg, and I return to this discussion to examine how settler colonialism informs the narrative of progress in my city. By renovating the city centre and encouraging those who can afford expensive housing to move downtown, current members of the community are forced to leave the area and seek affordable accommodations in other neighbourhoods. As such, Indigenous populations, and people of lower economic status, are not only made “functionally absent” but are physically removed from their homes and displaced from their communities.[8] By using Kinney’s text as a starting point, and integrating scholarly discussions of Indigenous dispossession, I hope to develop an understanding of Winnipeg’s cultural growth and development while considering the lasting affects and effects of settler colonialism. In this way, I will continue exploring the current and ongoing “revitalization” of Downtown Winnipeg, and examine how seemingly positive changes may negatively affect certain members of the community.

To expand on this connection, I turn to my own experiences of growing up in Winnipeg, and my observations of the ever-shifting demographics of my city’s core. I remember being a young child, and being told of the long ago greatness of Downtown Winnipeg. My mother would take me to the now defunct Mitchell Fabrics, and reminisce about the grand Christmas displays of the since closed down Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue. I have heard stories about the hustle and bustle of the Exchange District in its heyday and have seen remnants of the area’s prosperous past during childhood visits to my parents’ downtown office buildings. As an adolescent, I would venture to the Exchange during Fringe and Jazz Fest and notice the stretch of Main Street between Mountain and Higgins Avenues, where the not-so-stereotypical North End neighbourhood gave and gives way to dilapidated buildings and out of business store fronts before crashing into the brick and mortar offices of City Hall. As I grew into adulthood, I began noticing some changes. The Exchange was becoming the location of choice for young entrepreneurs and business owners and consumers were spending more of their time in the rapidly multiplying shops and restaurants. Once empty warehouses were being remodelled into extravagant loft-style condominiums and Winnipeggers were happily flocking to the rejuvenated neighbourhood. The city centre seems to have come full circle. 

While narratives of civic upswing and cultural progression are a prominent fixture in the ongoing development of Winnipeg’s Downtown and Exchange District neighbourhoods, the acknowledgement of the inevitable adverse side effects of this development are often absent from local media outlets and journalistic publications. A 2017 article by CBC’s Bartley Kives reports the sale of the Royal Albert Arms Hotel and discusses the new owner’s hope for the future of the soon-to-be remodelled heritage building.[9] Kives’ piece mentions that the hotel had been used for low-income housing before its recent purchase but fails to explain where the former tenants will be relocated. The article boasts the ways in which the hotel’s redevelopment will benefit the surrounding neighbourhood but does not mention how the Winnipeggers who lived in the Albert Street landmark’s suites will be affected by its sale. The focus of the publication is thus the potential of the hotel’s rebranded future, with little regard for those who have been forced to leave.[10] This and other instances of the displacement of Indigenous and working class populations have become common accompaniments to the rebranding of Winnipeg’s centre and offer complicated additions to narratives of civic resurgence.

In Cultural Studies we discuss the articulations of race, gender, and class, and try to understand how these markers of identity might determine an individual’s place in society. We are concerned with the circulation of power between different groups of people and how negotiations of power continually build and shift in different directions. With this in mind, I wonder how we might connect the revitalization of Downtown Winnipeg to the intricate and multifaceted body of work that is Cultural Studies. To start, perhaps we can view Winnipeg—and similar urban locales—as representative manifestations of Cultural Studies itself. Both entities resist definition; Cultural Studies changes and adapts and is constantly being reinvented and renegotiated by shifting power structures and emerging cultural formations.[11] Comparatively, the composition of a city’s populace is almost always in a state of flux. I wonder how we might use a Cultural Studies framework to imagine how Winnipeg’s rapidly developing urban spaces could make space for both existing and future citizens.  How might our Downtown and Exchange District neighbourhoods be continually revitalized without stripping the current communities of their vibrant identities? By working through these complicated questions, perhaps we, as an urban population, might begin to examine and navigate the impacts of growth and development and further explore the positive and negative affects and effects of civic rebuilding and neighbourhood rebranding.



[1] Rebecca J. Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 127-9.

[2] Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland, 133.

[3] Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland, 139-46.

[4] Stuart Hall, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (New York: Routledge, 1996), 157, 265.

[5] Kevin Bruyneel, “Race, Colonialism, and the Politics of Indian Sports Names and Mascots: The Washington Football Team Case,” Native American and Indigenous Studies 3, no. 2 (2016): 1-2.

[6] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “Bodies that Matter on the Beach,” in The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 41.

[7] Bruyneel, “Race, Colonialism, and the Politics of Indian Sports,” 7.

[8] Bruyneel, “Race, Colonialism, and the Politics of Indian Sports,” 7.

[9] Bartley Kives, “Winnipeg’s 104-year-old Royal Albert Arms heading for mortgage auction in November,” (CBC News, 26 Oct. 2017), https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/royal-albert-arms-sale-1.4373319, Accessed 4 July 2018.

[10] Kives, “Winnipeg’s 104-year-old Royal Albert Arms.”

[11] Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” in Culture and Materialism (London: Verso, 2005), 40-1.