The corners of your mind
by Alison Mayes
Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba
It's often called Canada's most famous intersection -- a wide, windy crossing place steeped in history, commerce and labour struggle.
But Portage and Main has been barricaded from pedestrians for more than 30 years. We're in danger of forgetting it was once a public place that used to bustle with human activity, says a visual artist who is creating a work about it.
Jake Moore is asking Winnipeggers to call a special phone line and contribute their memories of Portage and Main.
She wants to hear stories from the era when it was open to pedestrians, or from the years since 1976, when the city decided to erect concrete barriers and force foot traffic into a new underground concourse.
Even if you have no recollection of being at Portage and Main on foot, Moore finds that significant and invites you to talk about it.
Moore, 43, was born and raised in Winnipeg but now lives in Montreal, where she earned a master's degree in fine arts at Concordia University. Her work often explores questions of identity and how we are shaped by our surroundings.
"I'm very interested in urbanism," she says. "Portage and Main isn't just an area of land. It's a place. It was a town square, and it is no longer."
Moore says she wants to tap into collective memory and try to "reactivate" the public site.
When she started to research the history of Portage and Main, she was especially struck by an undated postcard that shows thousands of people gathered there to celebrate Labour Day during the boom years of the early 20th century.
When she showed the postcard to several Winnipeg seniors, they immediately began to share stories of a time when Portage and Main was a vibrant destination.
In Moore's call for stories, she describes the art project as "an oral history of the ruins of the public site that Portage and Main once was, and the monument to the automobile and civic politics that it has become." The "audio sculpture" that Moore is creating from the recorded anecdotes will be part of _Subconscious City_, a show by 27 artists running Feb. 8 to May 11 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The show, curated by artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, "examines the often hidden underpinnings of Winnipeg -- its myths, its vacant lots, its forgotten communities, its hidden gems -- and reveals a complicated picture of where we live and work." Moore's sculpture will take the form of four antique glass apothecary jars, each mounted on a column, to mimic the four points of the intersection. A small speaker broadcasting the soundscape of Winnipeggers' memories will be mounted inside each jar, a metaphor for storing or preserving, as well as amplifying.
"The four speakers," she adds, "have wires between them that end up being a barricade to the central space."
Moore herself has childhood memories of the Childs Building, an early skyscraper on Portage Avenue near the intersection, though not of crossing at the corner. As an adult artist working in Winnipeg, she says, she often hosted visiting artists who wanted to see the downtown and were amazed to be barred from the iconic crossroads.
Of the 40 oral stories she has collected since December, some are positive memories from people who were wonderstruck by the opening of the underground mall.
But several people have said they wouldn't accept the barriers when they were installed. They recall scrambling over them, "just refusing it." Moore relates that refusal to a landscape-architecture term, "desire lines" -- the pathways people create when they ignore a prescribed route, such as a sidewalk.
The curators of Subconscious City characterize the conscious city as "the affluent, the celebrated, the new." That would have described the scheme, approved in 1976 and completed in 1979, to funnel pedestrians into the climate-controlled retail concourse while facilitating the swift passage of cars.
Moore sees the decision as a triumph of private enterprise over human values. In her view, what was once an urban "forks," echoing the river forks as a place of convergence, is now desolate, and we as a community are poorer for it.
She notes that the underground Winnipeg Square and Lombard Concourse are kept under security surveillance. Class differences, she says, are highlighted by the fact that those who work in the corporate towers pass through without coats, so people wearing coats become "outsiders." Moore believes Winnipeg should celebrate its history and culture and stop trying to "dress up as something else." Regardless of whether Portage and Main is scientifically the windiest corner in Canada, it's a unique part of our mythology that has stuck with outsiders. We should embrace it, she says, and let visitors experience it.
What about the argument that stopping multiple lanes of heavy traffic for pedestrians just isn't workable?
"Yeah, it has really, really interfered with New York. And it's deeply affected Berlin and London," she deadpans.
Moore is hoping some influential personalities will contribute their voices to her work.
"I would love to hear from the mayor of Winnipeg. What does Gary Filmon (the former premier who was a city councillor from 1975 to 79) think, or other people who were involved with the closure?"
To contribute a story about Portage and Main, call the voice mailbox at 943-1423. If your story is particularly long, either leave several messages, or e-mail Jake Moore at email@example.com to arrange contact.
_Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2008_