The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Sunday, May 07, 2006

City Summit has Katz's Winnipeg confused with someone else's

We confess. We're guilty.

The Black Rod has been as cynical as the best of them when it comes to efforts to resuscitate Winnipeg. But it's not for lack of trying.

We want to cheer. We want to applaud. We want to hold our breaths at an elating idea and wish that it's as successful as its promoters say it will be.

Two days after the Mayor's City Summit, we were excited to see this headline in Saturday's Winnipeg Free Press: Action already after summit.

Oh boy, we thought. Publisher Andy Ritchie is proving to be a man of action. He's taking the lead.

After a week of fine reporting about revitalizing downtown, Ritchie has been inspired !! -- and he's moving the city's biggest newspaper back downtown !!

After all, it was the move of the Free Press and its hundreds of jobs to Mountain Avenue West that put the stake in the heart of downtown, and Ritchie has decided to be the man of the hour, to show what can be done, to show what should be done. Carpe diem, and all that.

Or so we thought (see what optimists we really are) ---- until we actually read the story.

It turns out a city business owner was so inspired by the City Summit he's decided to rake the boulevard beside his business, something every homeowner does the first week of spring. Whoop-de-doo.

Oh well, we said, maybe the story next to it has better news.

It was Gordon Sinclair's column and carried the headline: Have vision, work miracles. At least the paper's headline writers are inspired.

Sadly, Sinclair's column showed it was pretty much back to normal at the Free Press. Another column of cheap shots at Mayor Sam Katz: he "doesn't know the first thing about leadership", he has no vision, he's collecting a paycheque from the Winnipeg Goldeyes.

So this is what Andy Ritchie considers qualilty journalism. And you wonder why we're cynical. Because a real journalist, even a pretend journalist like a columnist, would have zeroed in on the real message of the City Summit.

The decrepit downtown, the bleak and depressing image of the city is not Sam Katz's Winnipeg.

It's Glen Murray's Winnipeg.

Murray was the visionary feted by the Sinclair's of the media and by the urban renewal pundits.

"Somebody decided we need to get that bridge built, we needed a symbolic signature piece. You can criticize how it came about, but someone got it done," crowed lawyer Richard Buchwald when, as the paper reported, he "pointed to Esplanade Riel as (a) prime example of heavily criticized project that required leadership to complete."

What the bobbleheads of the press failed to point out was that the bridge is also a prime example of everything that was wrong with Glen Murray's leadership of the city.

First, he started the project, then he split before it was finished, so that he wasn't around to be accountable for its cost (six million over budget) or its lack of utility (a high end restaurant that stood empty for a year until Mayor Sam Katz found a tenant and fought off the opposition of Murray's cheerleaders).

The City Summit addressed the biggest failure of Murray's time as Mayor, one that Sinclair and the other Murray apologists have managed to keep off the public agenda for years. The inexorable deterioration of downtown.

We have a pretty bridge and a downtown that's so scary nobody wants to shop there or open a business. Way to go Glen.

Murray's only "leadership" regarding the downtown was to throw street parties and to threaten a policeman who gave him a ticket for making an illegal (and uncharacteristic right) turn.

"Don't you know who I am," he told the cop at the corner of Donald and Portage.

That was his agenda as mayor. Don't you know who I am?

But, but, but. What about the New Deal?

Let's see, that consisted of raising taxes so Murray could spend more and waste taxpayers money. He, and let's not forget his sidekick and now city councillor Donald Benham, wasted a million dollars promoting the New Deal when a single phone call---that's one, Donald --- to the Premier would have told him that the province was not going to give up the taxing powers that the New Deal was built on.Murray's legacy continues.

Benham has been the biggest critic of Mayor Sam Katz and has been the biggest defender of the panhandlers downtown, the single blight everyone --- that's everyone, Donald --- at the City Summit pointed to as the first priority of any revitalization.

And yet none of the Free Press reporters or Benham's biggest supporter, Gordon Sinclair, thought it newsworthy to interview Benham. Instead, we heard stirring words from Summit co-chair Leonard Asper. Winnipeg must immediately bring its top minds together to overcome its second-rate status and find a way to keep up with other Canadian cities, he said.

Reporter Mary Agnes Welch called it a call to arms. She forgot to mention that Asper doesn't live in Winnipeg anymore. He moved to Toronto.

Columnist Lindor Reynolds threw kisses at Summit moderator Diana Swain who declared the priorities of participants as "ho hum." She forgot to mention that Swain doesn't live in Winnipeg anymore. She moved to Toronto.

Their views are obviously superior to the views of Winnipeggers still living here who were continually dismissed as "naysayers."

The Free Press loved that word. They used it three times in Thursday's follow-up stories on the Summit.

* "During two question-and-answer sessions, several delegates wondered how the city could escape the nitpickey naysaying that often holds back progress" reported the newspaper.
* "We can not be led by the naysayers. We have to be led by people who want to get things done" said Gary Doer.
* Keynote speaker Rudy Guiliani spoke about the successful use of workfare in his plan to clean up New York City. The plan worked, he said, despite the resistance of - third time - naysayers.

If Sam Katz adopts the successful plan of workfare, let's see who the naysayers will be.

Like most Winnipeggers we couldn't afford the steep price for tickets to see Guiliani. But long-time readers got the same information 16 months ago. We went into the archives of The Black Rod where we predicted exactly what Guiliani would say, long before anyone had thought it would be necessary to spend $200,000 for him to make a personal appearance to bring the exact same message.

originally published Jan. 17, 2005
Today's topic: Downtown safety

Ask yourselves this question: if downtown Winnipeg is so safe, why are the security guards at Portage Place wearing stab-proof vests?

This single, sad image tells you all you need to know about the past, present and future of this city.

The press in this city will tell you that it's Waverly West that determines the future prospects of Winnipeg. Nonsense.

The true harbingers of Winnipeg's path, like the appearance of body-armour, are clear and apparent to everyone who lives here. So why doesn't the news media recognize it?

One day this month the daily newspapers managed to carry two stories which should have set off the alarms of city-watchers.

The Free Press story, headlined "Crackdown on begging" told of new Mayor Sam Katz's vow to tackle the problem of the army of beggars that harasses anyone who ventures downtown. The Mayor is quoted saying that seniors phone his office because they are afraid to leave their downtown apartments.

Did the newspaper, or any radio or television station, interview any senior citizens, or seniors organizations, or children of seniors living downtown, or city councillors representing the downtown, or anybody at all about this?

Hell no. Who cares about old people? Not the Free Press.

No, they rushed to interview social workers who, of course, defended the bums and cloaked themselves in the politically correct speech of "rights". Not the human right of the elderly to live safely in this city, but the rights of bums to harass people for money so they can spend it on booze and sniff.

The Winnipeg Sun story was headlined "Graffiti fines pushed". The story told of a petition by downtown business owners pleading for the city to stop vandals from defacing their businesses. City councillors quoted in the story said the obvious, graffiti is a problem. NDP Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh said the province is proud of "innovative programs" to paint over vandalized property.

Attaboy Gord. That's action. Don't stop the vandals, clean up after them.

Two stories. Two problems. Problems which can be addressed under a single heading--quality of life.

The people living in Winnipeg are telling the politicians and the press loudly and clearly that the quality of life has tipped for the worse, that nobody is doing anything to correct the balance, that people want action, real action, now.

Look again at the two stories and you will see something missing. Or rather, someone. One person not mentioned. Not quoted. Not even hinted at.

The Invisible Man. Do you need a clue? Well, he's travelling the country selling himself as an "urban visionary". Of course. Who else but ex-mayor Glen Murray?

But somehow this urban visionary never noticed the graffiti defacing the city, nor the scruffy panhandlers accosting honest citizens as they tried to get to work or to school.

He was too busy changing the face of Winnipeg with bridges, one-of-a-kind restaurants on bridges, high speed transit corridors. (Not one of which he actually stuck around to see to completion, mind you. We suppose urban visionaries must be too busy envisioning the urban to bother with details that consume little minds like budgets, feasibility studies, safety in the streets - stuff like that.)

Still, you might think that the newspapers would ask how the Mighty Urban Visionary saw quality of life in his vision. Or point out how much graffiti could have been erased by the six million dollar over-run on the dink bridge, or how many panhandlers could have been paid to get lost out of the million plus wasted on the restaurant-that-shall-never-open.

However that's too much to expect. The Winnipeg Free Press is proud to be a "good corporate citizen" which means boosterism, first, last and always. They can't even figure out the irony in reporting extra police security at Moose games to prove how safe downtown is.

The Winnipeg Sun, on the other hand, is so anxious to prove it's a cool paper that it's taken to calling graffiti vandals as "taggers", to, like, show they're hip, eh. Neither paper has an office downtown, and reporters simply drive in, spend a few minutes and drive out without actually "seeing" anything. How else can the appearance of stab-proof vests on security guards go unnoticed?

We can't expect the papers to play a leadership role in addressing the true problems of Winnipeg.

To understand true leadership we have to look at the example of a real "urban visionary", New York's great ex-mayor Rudy Guiliani. He recognized quality-of-life issues at the start of his term, and by the time he left office, New York had become the safest big city in the U.S. with a thriving city centre the unlike of which anyone had dreamt of in decades before his election.

He did it by applying the lessons of the "broken windows" theory, which at its most elementary is that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. In a recent book, The Tipping Point, the author devotes a chapter to Guiliani and his experiences.

Of the theory that guided New York's revitalization, he writes:

"In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, pubic disorder and aggressive panhandling...are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crime."

He quotes a paragraph from the original article explaining the broken windows theory---and it is a template of what we are seeing in Winnipeg.

"Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions. If the neighbourhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place."

Sound familiar? Remember the stories this fall about female students from the University of Winnipeg being mugged in front of the university and in front of Portage Place?

During the mayoral election the only candidate who recognized the dangers of turning a blind eye to the street disorder was MaryAnn Mihychuk. She made "broken windows" a centrepoint of her unfortunately woeful campaign, but she never got to put the theory into practice. That's left to the winning candidate Sam Katz.

He faces a gargantuan task.

The "movers and shakers" of this city are all graduates of the Bill Norrie Seventies School of Urban Renewal---get the federal and provincial governments to pump money into new buildings downtown (say a new arena, a new library, a hydro building) and proclaim a new boom in confidence. That's the thinking that gave us--gulp--Portage Place.

And if he can't expect any help from the establishment, he's shouldn't expect any from the new faces at city hall, either...

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