Few tears shed for Merchants


Premier Greg Selinger told CJOB Radio talkshow host Richard Cloutier it was a “plight on the neighbourhood” that “depressed housing prices” and was a source of “neighbourhood safety issues.”
Few would argue with the premier that the Merchants Hotel was not any of the above, and few are now shedding tears that the long-time fixture on Selkirk Avenue has ceased to exist as a hotel with a beer parlour and vendor and will be redeveloped a multi-use facility by the North End Community Renewal Corporation (NECRC) on behalf of 20 local organizations. In fact, when Rob Neufeld, the executive-director of the corporation, took down the liquor licence from the wall, a cheer arose from the crowd gathered to mark the occasion.
“Selkirk Avenue is central to the life of the North End residents and we look forward to revitalizing the neighbourhood and renewing the welcoming spirit of community,” said Neufeld. “Many people have worked diligently and look forward to seeing this project begin.”
The three-storey hotel at 541 Selkirk Ave. was purchased by the provincial government for $1.3 million and will be holding the property for the colation, which also includes the Urban Circle Training Centre Inc., the Selkirk Avenue BIZ, Andrews Street family Centre, Ha Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Ndinawemaaganag Endaawaad Inc., the Community Education Development Agency, the University of Winnipeg, Red River College and SEED Winnipeg, until a development plan is established within six months and then implemented.
The existing building and addition, and four adjoining lots currently used for parking on Pritchard Avenue will be used for the redevelopment as a “destination hub” that blends new housing, education opportunities and commercial enterprises, according to a press release from the University of Winnipeg.
The community-based coalition first announced in September 2011 that it wanted to transform the key corner of Selkirk Avenue and Andrews Street into a vibrant mixed-use building, and the announcement on April 30 was the culmination of their efforts.
The Merchants Hotel became a symbol of despair and violence in the North End. Headlines over recent years in newspapers spoke of a customer set on fire and robbed of the case of beer he picked up at the beer vendor — others have been stabbed, beaten and then robbed of their beer — a woman who went outside the hotel for a smoke being stabbed to death, and numerous brawls. The vendor at the Merchants was noted as the busiest in the city, giving hoodlums plenty of opportunities to emerge from the shadows and rob hapless victims of their beer cases.
Law-abiding local residents became deathly afraid of being anywhere near the hotel whenever it was open. “It’s scary,” one resident told the Free Press.
Gus Damianakos, owner of the Windmill Lunch Restaurant, told the Sun in 2008 that as long as the hotel was there, “there will be trouble.”
To paraphrase the lyrics from The Music Man, the trouble created by the presence of the Merchants Hotel was spelled with a capital “T.”
It wasn’t always that way. In 1933 when a hardware store built in 1913 was converted into the Merchants Hotel, it was at the centre of a thriving multicultural North End community that was a “hive of activity.” At the time, Selkirk Avenue was known as Winnipeg’s second commercial hub after Portage and Main. Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Anglo-Canadians and Germans lived side-by-side in the North End. With such a cosmopolitan make-up, the air was continually filled with the sounds of several European languages. The North End was the city’s immigrant haven — a small piece of their homeland in what was at first viewed with trepidation as a strange new land. In the North End lived 87 per cent of the city’s Jews, 83 per cent of the Slavs, 67 per cent of the Scandinavians and 22 per cent of the Germans. 
There was a dazzling variety of stores along Selkirk where working-class North Enders, usually employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway, shopped. The more enterprising merchants were conversant in Yiddish, German, Ukrainian, Polish or English, changing languages to suit whoever they saw walk through the shop’s door.
“Nathan Fogel lived behind his grocery store at 264 Selkirk, as did Moses Duboski, who had a produce store at 303 Selkirk (Jim Blanchard, Winnipeg 1912, University of Manitoba Press). Louis Gronbach had a butcher shop at 354 Selkirk and lived next door at 386.”
Probably most famous of the local merchants was H.I. Oretski, who first opened a general store in the front rooms of a house. After years of expansions, Oretski’s became known as the “Eaton’s of the North End.”
There were teamsters, teachers, plumbers, stonemasons, electricians and cigar makers living along Selkirk, and their children played and went to school nearby. Their families worshipped at Selkirk Avenue synagogues and churches.
My father, Stan, who grew up in the North End, occasionally tells stories about how busy Selkirk Avenue was during his youth. People didn’t have much material wealth, but made the best of their circumstances. The street was always filled with people, including little children licking ice creams bought by parents who scraped together a few cents from their hard-earned wages. Then there was the Rialto Theatre, where children could catch a Saturday afternoon serial for a nickel or adults saw an evening feature for a quarter. 
It was a neighbourhood of smells that greeted the nose, according to my father, such as bread from Gunn’s Bakery  (a bakery that after 75 years is still on Selkirk Avenue) or salami from the deli or kobassa from the butcher shop.
While a handful of immigrants and children of immigrants from the early days of the “Foreign Quarter” still call Selkirk Avenue home, there has in recent decades been an influx of aboriginal people from reserves. It is they who are helping to revitalize the neighbourhood.
“The search for (a) community with safety and economic has driven the process forward,” said community aboriginal elders Stan McKay, Stella Blackbird and Anna Callahan in a press release about the sale of the Merchants Hotel and its redevelopment. “We look forward to the ongoing involvement of the community in the realization of their hopeful vision.”
The spirit of working together has been the common trait of the North End from its earliest days to the present. Through necessity, revitalization occurs. And it was necessary to remove, for the benefit of the neighbourhood, a “plight” that stood in the way of hope for the future.