A restaurant popped up on the river – and changed our thinking about our city

Stefano GrandeDowntown
Stefano Grande

Believe it or not, many of us look forward to it: the moment when Winnipeg is rapt with minus 40 degree cold, freezing the gentle ripples of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers – opening up Canada’s largest wintry skating path. From all parts of the city, rosy-cheeked skaters and bundled-up cyclists make their way to The Forks, once a meeting place for trade, hunters, settlers, and pioneers.

Winnipeggers have been finding off-beat ways of celebrating this unlikely confluence of deep freeze, social history and their own cheerful, can-do nature. Now, inspired by Winnipegger’s resilience and civic pride, Mandel Hitzer from Deer + Almond and Joe Kalturnyk, director of RAW Gallery, has staged what people are calling the first restaurant above water.

Over 1,200 guests braved the elements and dined in a tent of inspired design, complete with tree-stumps covered with faux-fur for seating, and reclaimed and repurposed wooden tables. The pop-up initiative had the community thinking in new ways about how space can be used and enjoyed.

With that tent in mind, a standout on the growing list of pop-up structures in our city, I asked people to share their thoughts about the new pop-up phenomenon.

“I think they encourage people to visit a destination they may not have visited before, which could generate potential revenue not only for the pop-up venue, but also surrounding businesses,” one student from the University of Manitoba noted.

Pop-up initiatives, though not new, are today spreading across the globe like wildfire, and as part of that craze has come a reimagining of the way in which we view ideas, art and culture in our communities. The ideas seem to be driven by the local community and are popularized virally, a spinoff of the rise of social media, though world-of-mouth is also playing a role.

Across the globe we’ve seen innovative pop-up initiatives, like Candy Chang’s “Before I Die”. (See box.) This pop-up model started in New Orleans as an
interactive and public art project, and was quickly adopted in Berlin, San Francisco, Edinburgh, New Brunswick, and even here in Winnipeg. ‘Before I Die’ celebrates what people find important to them and reflects what matters for the community – and it is capturing the hearts and minds of people from all backgrounds.

Winnipeg played host to its first Park(ing) Day last September. In this annual worldwide event, architects, design enthusiasts and citizens take over parking spots – and transform them into temporary public parks, community gardens, cafés. Beginning in 2005 in San Francisco as a two-hour installation in one parking spot, with an online photo that was in no time on display across the planet, the madcap idea by 2011 had given rise to 975 miniature parks in 35 countries. And changed the way we think about public space and its use.

Winnipeggers have also for the past couple of years come out by the thousands to participate in Nuit Blanche. Nuit Blanche – or in some cities, White Nights festival, is all about arts all night long. It’s a night when museums, galleries and cultural venues are open. It’s now celebrated in over 120 cities worldwide, including Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto.

Held in Winnipeg at the end of September or just after, in conjunction with Culture Days, the heart of our city is literally transformed into a creative and artistic space. Hundreds of art installations, live performances, and other activities light up the streets, engaging thousands of
Winnipeggers downtown.

There was a group bike ride this year that Winnipeggers literally could not miss. Coming from all parts of the city, cycling enthusiasts assembled downtown, and migrated from one from art gallery to gallery and later on to Exchange District dance floors.

It’s locally driven initiatives like these that help create a sense of community and encourage people to explore and enjoy what their city has to offer. Hopefully more people will join in these activities, and support the growing cultural and artistic flavour of our city centre.

Stefano Grande is executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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