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The Black Rod takes a walk downtown

It was ugly to watch.
Punch. Kick. Slap. Ouch.

The date: May 10.
The victim: Stefano Grande.
The crime: an Internet mugging.

It seemed like half of Winnipeg was piling on the guy. And why? Because he, the voice of Downtown BIZ (business improvement zone), was defending a survey that showed Winnipegers believed downtown was cleaner and safer than the standard image.

"People who come downtown--- those who shop, work and live here, know this," he told a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press. "We know that people who don't come downtown don't share that opinion and we have to get that message out to them."

Without warning, he was swarmed in cyberspace. The comments flooded in, followed by letters to the editor and brickbats on talk radio. And the message was the same: are you nuts? Nobody believes this survey.
Lemme tell you my experience on the dirty and dangerous streets of downtown Winnipeg.

It's time for confession. We didn't believe it either.

But a few days later, business took us downtown, so we decided in the interests of fairness to see for ourselves. We walked along Portage Avenue from Main Street to Portage Place. And...

Holy Moley. He was right.

The street was clean. Litter free, grafitti free clean. Singapore clean. If concrete could shine it would have been shining clean. Ditto for Graham Avenue.

And the downtown herd of beggars and cretins had been thinned significantly. The contingent of drug dealers around Portage Place was missing and even the shady crowd loitering at Air Canada Park was smaller than usual on a bright, sunny day.

Somebody owed Stefano Grande an apology, that's for sure.

Wednesday, we were back downtown on business. And, again, we took a stroll, starting on the northside of Portage.

There was no grafitti to be seen anywhere. But, three weeks later, just after welfare payday, the old downtown was making a comeback.

You couldn't walk 10 feet without finding some litter, usually some kind of paper. Soon the empty plastic juice bottles began showing up, one set down upright two feet from a trash receptacle. Mats of cigarette butts were everywhere. A crowd of half-a-dozen derelicts had set up shop at Donald and Portage, right across from the MTS centre, and 10 feet from them was an empty mickey of whiskey.

Half a block along was a spilled tin can of raviolli, somebody's dinner. More plastic bottles were deposited in the flower gardens.

On the plus side, still no drug dealers around Portage Place. In fact, we would say it felt pretty safe walking around downtown---except for the stream of bicyclists racing pell-mell along the sidewalks.

Hey Stefano, if the plan was to chase women and senior citizens out of the downtown because getting hit by a racing bicyclist would be fatal to them, then you've done a hell of a job.

This time, we crossed Portage and walked back. There was less litter on the southside but cigarette butts everywhere. Maybe that's a good sign---that the street is so clean we notice the butts where before they were the last thing to bother anyone.

There were no plastic bottles on the southside, but an empty bottle of cheap sherry had been discarded on the street at Hargrave. Until then, the stretch from Carlton to Hargrave was the cleanest we found, as clean as the day the survey was released---- and, once again, we marvelled.

Only one panhandler today in the spot reserved for bums just east of Dominion News.

At Fort Street we crossed to Graham and headed to The Bay.

Litterwise, it was cleaner than Portage for the entire stretch, excepting the ever-present cigarette butts, of course. Grafitti-wise, it's our pleasure to say there was none. Not even the tiny scrawl we had seen three weeks earlier beside the outdoor cafe.

The old downtown surfaced at the Millenium library. Not the crazy guy sitting on a bench by the libary and shouting at some imaginary enemy. But the soused young man across the street with his equally soused female companion who were engaged in dialogue with the red-coated street patrol. They were half a block from the crowd at the Donald Street bus stop who were praying for the next bus to hurry.

So....is downtown Winnipeg cleaner than last summer? The sidewalk says "hell, yeah" but the empty liquor bottles say "not so much."

Is the street safer? It seems so at first glance. Running the gauntlet of drunk or doped-up panhandlers is more daunting than waiting to get hit by the hyped up bicycle rider racing toward you. Or better still, wondering if you're going to get smacked from behind when a bicyclist darts past you an inch away and you realize if you had simply taken one step to the left you would be in an amublance by now.

So, safer? Not when you've had a moment to think about it.

And there you have it. We've done our civic duty by providing you with a true survey of downtown. Stefano Grande, you owe us bus fare.

And, yes, you boo-birds, we know, we did our tours in the daytime. It was rush hour, which borders on the evening, but let's face it---we're not crazy. Downtown at night? Maybe next year.

And you know why? Because the canary is dead.

The final stop on our tour was the corner of Graham and Vaughn, right across the street from The Bay. And what did we see?

An empty store.

Belle Rykiss Elegant Fashions was gone.

They had stuck it out through thick and thin, through every civic "revitalization" plan, through social revolutions and recessions. We had watched them sell wedding dresses and prom gowns year after year after year, and we marvelled at how they stayed put downtown through the long depressing decades of deterioration. Until, finally, this year, they threw in the towel.

What do you do when the canary in the coalmine keels over?

Run.

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