Last Friday, my best friend Kristin took me on a hip parade of Winnipeg’s newest and best places.
It started in the area of the city called the Exchange District, named for the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and other commodity exchanges that, from the 1880s to 1920s, helped catapult the city’s growth and turn it into a major Canadian center. After World War I, though, the area faltered and, because it was eventually named a National Historic Site, became frozen in time, with many of its 150 heritage buildings sitting empty.
From 2001 to 2004, I worked in the heart of the Exchange District and, almost once a week, I would make the trek to the Underground Café, where I would order the very best veggie burger on the planet. On my walk, I would stare at these empty buildings and feel both nostalgic for a time I had never known and deeply sad that nothing present-day seemed able to fill them.
As Kristin pulled into a parking spot on Princess Street, I recognized immediately that, in my 14-year absence, the Exchange District has been injected with new life. And not the kind of life that is tentative and, flower-like, opens quietly, the kind that comes out kicking and screaming and has a head full of hair.
Restaurants, cafés, coffee houses, galleries, vintage stores, barber shops, yoga studios, and tattoo parlors now thrive in these former warehouse spaces. There is one store dedicated entirely to green living. There is a virtual arcade gallery. There is a documentary production studio. And, happily, there is still the Underground Café.
Kristin took me to a restaurant called Clementine, which we were only able to get into without waiting because it was a Friday at 9 a.m. The little, subterranean eatery was cozy and humming with diners moaning over everything from chilaquiles to Turkish eggs.
An Exchange District restaurant so packed that you regularly have to wait in line to get into it would never have existed in 2001. And that forced me to wonder: What the hell had happened?
Then our waiter arrived with my ricotta tomato toast. He wore a plaid shirt severely buttoned up and sported a ponytail bun on the very top of his head, so it looked exactly like a pincushion. His beard shone with beard oil and his jeans looked like they belonged to 1927.
That’s when I knew.
The hipsters had done all of this in Winnipeg.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the hipsters are changing — and have already changed — city centers all across North America. Obviously in places like Knoxville (downtown) and Louisville (NuLu), but even in places like Somerset, London and Corbin, this movement has injected life into the very dead spaces that, 18 years ago, we had no idea what to do with.
From a commercial standpoint, the key to the movement is finding value in basic commodities that (purportedly) lead to a simpler, more creative and well-intentioned life. Old clothes. Bicycles. Records. Artisanal bread. CSAs. Good coffee. Craft beer.
These commodities, in turn, need stores in which you can buy them. And in order for, say, an old flannel shirt to look appealing to a potential hipster customer, it can only be for sale in a gritty, storied, urban space, like one, for example, that once housed a hardware store until Walmart came along and ate it up.
However you feel about hipsters and their love of irony and counter-culture (even hipsters are wary of being labeled a hipster because the minute you’re immediately identifiable as one, you stop being hip), the mainstream (and let’s be clear: that’s me included; I’m no forerunner) has benefited enormously and, more importantly, is supporting their efforts.
In Somerset, the classic story is Jarfly Brewing Company, which is housed in a chunk of space that, for decades, had been home to Goldenberg’s Furniture and, frankly, was destined to sit empty for decades more after Goldenberg’s closed up shop. Now the space is a bar that makes and sells craft beer. Every Thursday, there is trivia night and it’s packed. The bartenders donate their tips to the local animal shelter. The brewers have joined up with Baxter’s Coffee, another locally-run business that likewise produces its own product by roasting its own beans, to make a coffee stout.
In short, it’s a feel-good story all around and, most importantly, it’s good for downtown.
But would Jarfly have, well, flown without the hipster movement? I really don’t think so. Up until the hipsters got involved, most of us were all just drinking Bud Lite and thinking it tasted, well, pretty OK.
Of course, not all hipster businesses will make it. There was reportedly a store in Edmonton that only sold axes (which is hilarious) and, at least according to my Google search, it isn’t there anymore. But the idea of repurposing these downtown spaces — and for people to recognize that there is still life in them and we can find parking if we want to go badly enough and not all stores have to be lit by fluorescent and soundtracked by watery versions of “Send in the Clowns” — that ethic will live on, I think.
At least, I sure hope so. Because all of us are reaping the rewards.