Point Douglas — “do people really live there?” a lot of people ask me, when I tell them where I live. That’s if they know where it is, a lot of people don’t. But it’s a lovely central little neighbourhood in Winnipeg, sandwiched between Elmwood, The North End, and the budding condo village of the Waterfront (a place where I grew up taking nature walks along the river and docks because there were no sidewalks — my how things change).
That’s not entirely true about people not knowing where Point Douglas is, at least, it’s starting to change. To gentrify. People have said in the media that PD is “the new Wolseley” (a hip and trendy neighbourhood for those not from here — Wolseley is a lot of great things but that’s the core of what the media was getting at if we’re being honest). I’ve had new, white, neighbours look at me in shock when I tell them that I’ve lived here since I was a kid.
Point Douglas is also a neighbourhood that is split in two, by the presence of the Disraeli bridge looming over Sutherland avenue. When my brothers and friends and I would walk to Norquay elementary school, we noted that there were more trees on the other side of the bridge, closer to the school. It made that side seem darker, and we laughed saying that it’s a clear sign you’re going to the bad side.
A couple blocks away from Norquay school exists a 2 block stretch on Main street between Higgins and Selkirk, with several hotel vendors and pawn shops. It is considered one of the rougher parts of town. At an office job once, I had to listen to a boss talk loudly to his colleague about how he’d had to stand outside the Yale hotel on a Friday night to catch a bus, and how he was so scared for his life because he was a skinny white guy. I almost went up to him and said “Hey, my elementary school was a block away from there! I’ve done karaoke there! You shoulda come in and seen if I was there.” but I decided against it.
My friend and I lived on opposite sides of the Disraeli bridge as adults. Both with our families in crowded homes that were complicated but love-filled. I am white and she is Native. We’ll call her Stacy.
One day Stacy and I were hanging out, walking around the various parks in the neighbourhood and talking. We decided to walk to my place. As we crossed the Disraeli underpass, she commented “now we’re on to the bad side.” I laughed and told her how my friends and I had called her side the bad side. She explained to me, “Well, we call your side the bad side because there’s more richer white people, and they don’t treat us as nice.”
Oh. I had never considered that.
At Stacy’s house another day we decided to go outside and sit on her back steps. Her uncle, Lowell, was there and I found out they’d had a party last night. With a couple beers left over the three of us decided to hang out on the back steps and have a relaxing Sunday afternoon with drinks and company. As we were talking, a woman, a white woman, came into the yard and introduced herself politely as a new neighbour from down the street wanting to say hi. She had a beer in her hand, an MGD, which she offered in exchange for one of Uncle Lowell’s rolled cigarettes. They made the exchange, she lit the smoke, and she asked how long we’d been in the neighbourhood.
I told her that I’d lived on the other side of Disraeli bridge since I was a kid, that it was nice to meet her and I hope she liked the neighbourhood. She gave me a puzzled look, then turned to Uncle Lowell and asked “So, how many people live here?”
I suddenly got a sinking feeling in my stomach and I believe Stacy did too because we started making small talk with each other and bowed out of that conversation. Uncle Lowell said in a neighbourly voice “Oh I don’t live here I’m just visiting,” and they continued their small talk.
I thought about it, and Stacy had a lot of family living there, with the couches occupied and some mattresses laid out on the living room floor at night. I can’t speak to the experience of living there and obviously it wasn’t perfect but I wasn’t about to judge, and one thing I always admired was the warmth and togetherness of the family who accepted me with open arms. In that moment, however, I realised that this information could be held against my friend, that last night’s backyard party may have been coded a certain way from a racial lens, and this may have prompted this woman to come over here and gather information, under the guise of wanting to have a nice neighbourly chat. Holy fucking crap was I ever naive.
Uncle Lowell and the neighbour talked for a little bit longer. I admired his way of remaining friendly and ‘oblivious’ to what she was really asking. He was giving friendly, disarming, and also very subtly evasive answers to her prying questions. I am certain that this is a learned response to colonial racism that I have never had to develop for myself. Eventually, our lovely neighbour left.
When she was gone, Uncle Lowell handed me the bottle of MGD and said “Here, you have the white girl beer.” All three of us laughed. I shrugged and accepted the drink.