A Big Small Town

November 8th, 2012 by Emma Durand-Wood

Heads up right off the bat: this post isn’t completely about Winnipeg. Partly it’s just reflections on a trip I took this summer, and partly it’s observations, comparisons and random thoughts resulting from those travels. It involves imperial cookies, public transit, and concrete jungles, and the admission of my continued low-grade identity crisis. You’ve been warned!

This summer I took a trip to Ontario with my mum and siblings. I’d been to Toronto a couple times for conferences and whatnot, but never spent much time exploring. Aside from that, though, I’ve never been anywhere else in Ontario, unless you count Kenora, which most people in Manitoba don’t.

So, over four days we spent time in Stratford, Niagara Falls/Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Toronto. Driving from YYZ to my sister’s place outside of Brantford, I was reminded a lot of the Lower Mainland, where city after city run one into each other. That part was not particularly attractive, but wow – once we got out into the country, it was just stunning. My sister and brother-in-law are living in a beautiful restored farmhouse that has a pond in the backyard. You can hear the neighbouring farm’s cows lowing in the day and the crickets’ and frogs’ surprisingly loud din at night. It was completely idyllic.

We spent the following day in Stratford, which is an absolutely lovely town with a proper main street full of interesting and locally-owned shops – just my kind of place! We didn’t catch a play but I would love to come back here some day. Mostly so I can go to Olive Your Favourites, a newly-opened olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop that I adored! We drove out to Goderich (once called “the prettiest town in Canada” by ER II) for dinner and to see the beach along Lake Huron. We hadn’t heard Goderich’s story until earlier that day: last August, an F3 tornado ripped through the town, destroying industrial facilities on the shoreline, ravaging its iconic town centre, killing a man, and injuring dozens. Now that I’ve had a chance to look at photos of Goderich “before”, the destruction is even sadder. (Especially since this is just what a lot of inner cities look like – no tornado necessary.) It’s so sad to know that this little town had a bustling downtown just torn apart. The Mayor of Goderich estimates the damage to be at $100 million.

Anyway, as we left the beautiful drove into the Niagara area though, I started to feel overwhelmed by all the concrete. There are bridges bigger, longer and higher than any I’ve seen before.  The major tourist area around the Falls is jam-packed with development, and because it’s on a slope it feels even more dramatic. There are so many massive complexes built so close together. The thought that kept coming to my mind was, “This would be sheer insanity if there were some sort of natural disaster”. Just thinking about how all these structures got built blew my mind, and in kind of depressing way.

But then, driving into Niagara-on-the-Lake, we saw that it was this picturesque small town and it was hard to believe that it’s just minutes away from a complex web of freeways. (Side note: there were imperial cookies on prominent display in two bakery windows. Except they call them empire biscuits.) It made the concrete jungle we’d seen earlier that much more depressing, to think of all the natural beauty that had been destroyed to built those superstructures.

Mmm… empire biscuits!

Also known as imperial cookies!

Even after all that, the funny thing was, once we drove to our hotel in downtown Toronto, I got sort of sad and nostalgic about my Vancouver days. Seeing so many people just hanging out in downtown Toronto on a Sunday afternoon made me yearn for my younger years in the West End or Kitsilano. But then walking through the endless construction between Union Station and Rogers Centre I got that overwhelmed feeling again, like I was going to suffocate if I didn’t get some fresh air or see some grass soon. (Kinda like in the movie Waydowntown, I guess.) But it was worth it to see the Jays play the Yankees – I’m not a baseball fan by any stretch, but man, big league games are fun!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I spent much of the trip alternating between thinking “this place is insane, I’m so glad I don’t live here” and “wow, this is so awesome, I can see why people want to live here.”

It’s funny — I was talking with former WoMHer Aaron, and we were trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about Vancouver that we miss. I think he summed it up best with these thoughts. What we loved about life there was that we could just walk out of the house and go. We were young; the city was our oyster. Transit was so good that you didn’t even need to check to see when the next bus or train was coming, you just knew from experience how long it would take to get somewhere, and you could count on it pretty reliably. (I was surprised to see Greg G mention this very thing – not having to check for bus times – in his post on living in downtown Winnipeg!)  In some ways we didn’t know any other way of life in Vancouver; Aaron owned a car for the first year (while he lived in the North Shore) but after that most of our gang of friends was car-less. We rented or used Zipcar when we needed wheels. No big deal. But because we didn’t have vehicles, we almost always chose to live along excellent transit corridors. And it was very convenient to get from one major area of town to another.

I miss those days. I get that feeling – freedom of movement, real urban vitality – sometimes when I’m in the Exchange, and I imagine that living in Osborne or Wolseley might feel like that, too. As much as I love my neighbourhood of Glenelm, it just isn’t the truly walkable neighbourhood it could be. Not many neighbourhoods in this city are.  Don’t get me wrong. I do use Transit here in Winnipeg. Taking the bus downtown from my neighbourhood is extremely convenient and I love that we can get there and not worry a bit about parking.

But mostly I think my strange, contradictory feelings about Ontario are just a reaction to how different my life is now: I’m a wife and mother, and my time’s not just my own anymore. So, that’s not to say that I couldn’t live a life like that in Winnipeg, just that stage of my life is over (or at least on long-term pause). I also recognize that even the best transit in the world wouldn’t make Winnipeg Vancouver; being so mobile in BC was a lot easier thanks to the mild weather (though it was a giant PITA when the Skytrain would stop running because of 1cm of snow!). And there are 2.3 million people living in Metro Vancouver, which makes building transit infrastructure more more feasible, and totally necessary. I also recognize that while I was in Vancouver my life was heavily oriented to consumerism (eating out once or twice a day, shopping on my lunch break and on the weekends for fun), and that’s something I’ve moved away from, for the most part, thankfully. But I still struggle to figure out who I am and where I fit into the city as an individual, outside of my roles within my family.

So, I know, I’ve just complained about the massive development in one breath and then how I miss the vibrant accessibility of big cities in the next. But I don’t think these things have to be mutually exclusive. (In a recent Maclean’s article about urban sprawl, it was mentioned that Calgary’s new city planner Rollin Stanley’s motto is “No place is worth visiting that doesn’t have a parking problem.”) An interesting thought in the context of Winnipeg, which has often been described as a big small town.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, thanks for reading my rambling and disjointed thoughts. And let me know – what feels “big city” to you about Winnipeg? What feels “small town”? Are these good things or bad things?



6 Responses to “A Big Small Town”

  1. Riverman says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post Emma – I really enjoyed it. We travel to Toronto frequently for weekend getaways and have become completely addicted to the vibrancy of the city, so much so that we have decided to leave Winnipeg behind and move there. The masses of people was disturbing at first but we have come to like it.

    I too live in Glenelm and yes it is a great neighbourhood!

  2. That ability to just “walk out of the house and go” is sorely lacking in Winnipeg. In a livable city, there should always be someplace you can go during waking hours and find things happening.

    It costs us dearly in terms of perceived quality of life. For young people, who are looking for new friends and a mate, it means that more exciting cities have a strong pull, which adds to the outmigration numbers. For people from other parts of Canada, it means that Winnipeg is not even on the radar as a place to move to or visit.

  3. I went to Toronto/Niagara Falls/Niagara on the Lake for the first time recently (in Sept to see Madonna). I noticed those imperial cookies too and even commented to my husband and friend about them!

  4. Yer Pal says:

    I live in Osborne/Corydon area & just like you said: eating out & shopping all the time. Never had a car… don’t need it. A bus comes by every few minutes & everything I ever wanted is downtown or the village. I’m never growing up!

  5. SunBeam says:

    Wow… what a find. What a post! I should be in bed, but had to comment on the total interest in reading “A Big Small Town“. I’ve had so many of the same feelings only shifted a few hundred miles to the south. Born and raised in Minnesota, then moved to Seattle… only to move back to Minnesota again.
    Not only have I visited Winnipeg and travelled through many Canadian provinces, I always have part of me thinking I should have been born there… or more accurately I wonder if I should move there? Well, safe to say I’m entrenched here for the foreseeable, and that is not all bad and not all great, but it’s all right.
    I love the Winnipeg Free Press for its holiday cookie section “12 Days of Cookies” and in that hunt saw word of “Imperial Cookies” which lead me here.
    Wayyyyyy cool. I only hope I can find an Imperial Cookie recipe or figure out how to bake them. It doesn’t look impossible, but I want them to be good… not just OK.
    Hey… this search has yielded one gem so far: Honey Dill Sauce! Woo-hoo! Yeah… since I’m not a ‘pegger, how would I know???

    In the meantime, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who chose to move back to the flatland, yet at times pine for the Pacific Coast and the smell of salt water sea spray. 🙂

  6. Vangirl says:

    I was born and raised in Winnipeg, but was longing for change. I packed up two suitcases, threw them in my car and headed west. I wanted to live in the big city. When i first arrived in BC i stayed with a friend in Coquitlam, which was fine because I had my car, But i wanted to experience life downtown. Young and single I figured it was now or never. I found myself a roommate and rented a beautiful loft just outside of Yaletown. Everything you need is just a few steps away.. I can walk to the seawall in 5 minutes, I can head over to Robson in 3 minutes or I can hit up the Davie village in 10 mins, But what fun is it to have all of this stuff around you if you can’t afford it. I’m learning this now. The high is wearing off and the reality is hitting me. I often think that I should move back home to Peg city, back to my friends, back to the affordability. The only turn off is the weather. Will I regret it? It seems like most of the ppl in Winnipeg are always wanting to move out of there. Now that I’ve experienced this life on the west coast, i’m realizing that I am a prairie girl at heart. I feel like i’m doing the same things out here in Van that i’d be doing in Wpg, except it’s costing me three times as much to do it, and I don’t have my friends along for the ride. Lets face it, the people out here in Van aren’t as warm and inviting. People barely even make eye contact when walking down the street, they’re either too busy on their phones, or looking down as they walk. To stay or leave, that is the question… Advice anyone?

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