Image above: Community members visit the Sister MacNamara School Gardens on the Inner City Community Gardens tour, from Volume 15 Issue 1, September 2009.
History – by Erika Wiebe
In early 1995, the Inner City Voice had just folded. ICV was a community newspaper that spanned the entire inner city and north end of Winnipeg and told stories relevant to these neighbourhoods. ICV was well regarded and widely read, but after about eight years it folded because it became impossible to keep the paper financially afloat.
The West Central neighbourhood, just west of the downtown and north of Portage Avenue, was one of the neighbourhoods that keenly felt the loss of the Inner City Voice.
At that time, Canada was just beginning to recover from the recession of the early ‘90s. The scars were evident in neighbourhoods like West Central, where streets such as Langside were dotted with almost as many boarded up houses as occupied, positive resources for families and kids were scarce and many local residents were fleeing the neighbourhood in light of perceived increased gang violence. Coverage from the mainstream media tended to focus primarily on the negatives.
At the same time, a growing number of people were aware that there was another story to be told about the neighbourhood and in particular, the people who lived there.
I was a Community Development Worker, employed by Winnipeg Child and Family Services, stationed in the West Central neighbourhood. Much of my time was spent on organizing local residents to resist negative influences in the neighbourhood; things like shutting down booze cans and illegal massage parlours and organizing boycotts against corner stores that were selling Chinese cooking wine at inflated prices to local alcoholics. We were also in the midst of lobbying the City to get a new recreation centre built.
At a certain point I realized that people were running out of energy for this kind of work; that what was missing amidst all this ‘rabble rousing’ and fighting against this, that and the other thing, was community-building, or in other words – connecting people, building solidarity, developing a neighbourhood identity, recognizing shared strengths, building greater understanding among people, building mutual support and respect, getting a positive ‘vibe’ going...
It was around this time, that over lunch amidst a discussion about the loss of the Inner City Voice, I said “I wonder if a smaller, more neighbourhood-based newspaper would work”. Not much else was said about it but the comment stayed in the mind of Tammy Sutherland, a Volunteer Coordinator at St.Matthew’s-Maryland Community Ministry. She kept bringing it up until I could no longer resist, and I called a meeting.
For the first meeting, we called together a handful of people who we thought would be interested – Tanya Lester, a writer who lived on Simcoe Street, was among them.
Very early on, some key decisions were made that would set the tone for the next 15 years of the paper’s existence.
First, the paper would be about the stories of people who live in the neighbourhood – not the businesses, churches, social service providers and community programs – not the people who already had a high profile – but the ordinary people who live along the streets of West Central. The very same people who were normally least likely to be heard from, were the ones we were interested in profiling, when possible in their own words. Everyone else’s role would be to support and help facilitate the participation of local residents.
Second, we would keep it small and local and we would insist on keeping the content from within the boundaries of West Central.
Third, we would offer opportunities for local residents to participate in the production of the paper, paying them for their contribution, and we would use local resources and services in the paper’s production - where possible.
Finally, we decided (and this was Tanya Lester’s idea) to profile stories related to a particular West Central street as part of each issue. The name of the paper (also Tanya’s idea), West Central Streets, arose from this concept.
None of us had participated directly in producing a newspaper before. But with some technical advice from our friends at the Inner City Voice and a clear vision for the paper in mind, we proceeded with the goal of producing one issue, to see what was involved and test community reaction.
The first issue of West Central Streets came out in October 1995 with Furby Street as the ‘focus street’. There was a story about Furby Street residents, Walter and Lena Gunn who were care givers to a big family of children and grandchildren. There was a story about a park on Furby that was getting a facelift. There was a story about some kids who had received letters from BC artist Robert Bates. And there were big strong black and white photos throughout.
Reaction from the community was immediate and positive. People loved seeing familiar faces and issues in print, and their neighbourhood finally presented in a more positive light. We were encouraged to keep going, and did so for the next fifteen years.
Over the years, the paper evolved and grew in various ways. But the original intent and concept – keeping things local and about the people who live in West Central – remained constant from beginning to end.
From the get go, the Publishing Committee was key to the success of the paper. With the exception of the very first few issues, the Publishing Committee was made up entirely of local residents. They worked with me, as Coordinating Editor, to plan, make any developmental decisions, and make sure the paper stayed true to its mandate.
The PC was small – no more than five people. In the beginning, PC membership developed by people coming forward and wanting to get involved. Over the years when there was a vacancy, new members were invited in by the existing members. The goal was to have a representative committee in terms of geographic residence, ethnicity, age, gender, economic status etc... as well as committee members who supported the intent of the paper, were well connected in the neighbourhood and had a good sense of strong storytelling and writing.
In order to keep things manageable, meetings were kept to a minimum – one per issue, so five meetings a year. At the meetings, the finances were reviewed, any new developments were discussed, and the previous issue was ‘de-briefed’. Then the Guest/Contributing Editor and Youth Editor would join us to brainstorm and discuss story ideas for the next issue.
Publishing Committee meetings tended to be long and loud. The discussion was always animated, jocular and philosophical as well as practical – as the members tried to discern how best to tell the story of this rich and complex community.
The longevity of some PC members (some for the majority of the paper’s 15 year existence) can presumably be attributed to a sense of satisfaction with being a part of this project.
After about the third issue when we realized we needed some stable funding to keep going I sent a letter to local philanthropists, Bill and Shirley Loewen. Bill had supported the Inner City Voice and I thought he might be interested in our project. Less than a week after I sent the letter, he walked into my office, pulled his cheque book out of his pocket and said “How much do you need?” I came up with a figure that would keep us going for a year and he wrote out the cheque, and continued to do so once a year for the next 15 years.
Besides sending them issues as they came out, the Loewens asked for very little in return. We thanked them on the fifth Anniversary of WCS with art created by local resident, Penny Kovacs – and with a certificate created by another local resident, Daniel Goulet, when the paper closed down.
This stable contribution from the Loewens was key to the paper’s success. We are very grateful.
In November 2001 WCS got a grant from LITE (Local Investment Toward Employment). LITE’s mandate was to support inner city job creation. So with this money we were able to institute new ‘job’ opportunities in the production of the paper, for local residents.
LITE continued to fund WCS with annual grants, until April of 2010.
With the funding from LITE we hired a local resident as ‘Assistant Editor’. He worked with me to solicit and create content for the paper. But he wasn’t able to continue over the long term. Then, Publishing Committee member Virginia Maracle had the brilliant idea of ‘Guest Editors’ – where we would hire a different local resident for each issue and require that they come to the Publishing Committee meeting to help plan the next issue, and contribute at least five stories for the issue. Usually, the ‘focus street’ for the issue would coincide with the Guest Editor’s street of residence, to give the Guest Editor opportunity to tell stories related to his/her neighbours.
The Guest Editor (later to be known as ‘Contributing Editor’) proved to be a very successful approach. It offered local residents the opportunity to try their hand at writing and be paid for it. It helped keep the paper fresh and dynamic because new voices were being heard with each new issue. And because we encouraged Guest Editors to write about what they were interested in, it brought a new viewpoint and tone to each issue.
The Publishing Committee believed that local youth were particularly marginalized – particularly in the mainstream media where the stories of youth were most often associated with criminal activity of some sort. So beginning with the March 2004 issue, we dedicated one page in each issue to youth. We called it the Youth Page and with funding from LITE, hired local youth as Youth Editor to develop the content for that page.
Unlike the Guest Editor, we kept the same Youth Editor over as many issues as they were able to participate, in order to give them the opportunity to develop and hone their skills. Over the years, six local youth served as Youth Editors.
The Youth Page and the young people who made it happen as Youth Editors, helped give local youth a voice.
The longevity of West Central Streets was in part due to its success in the community, and partly due to funders such as LITE, the Loewens and some consistent advertisers. But perhaps the major factor was that I was able to do the coordination of the paper as a part of my job as Community Development Worker. So this meant that that was a significant resource that the paper did not have to do fund raising for. It was basically a free service to the paper.
But in 2010/11 there was a significant shift in my job responsibilities which no longer included the work on West Central Streets. At around the same time we also lost the funding from LITE, because LITE wanted to allow new groups to apply for the limited funds available.
Once I and the Publishing Committee became aware of these two factors, we began to think about options for the future of West Central Streets. Passing the paper on would require another local organization (all of whom already had their plates full) taking on the administration and figuring out how to raise the resources for the coordination.
We were also aware that the neighbourhood had changed significantly in 15 years and maybe the paper had run its course in the current form.
In the end, we realized there was no easy or realistic way to pass it on.
We also thought that this might be a good time to create the possibility of something new; that if there was to be a community paper in the West Central community, it should be something new and different, which would reflect the ‘new’ West Central community.
So the Publishing Committee made the decision to shut the paper down.
On February 8 2011 a party was held at the West End Cultural Centre to mark the end of the paper. People reminisced and told stories, trivia games were played, awards and recognitions were given out, Kerri Latimer performed a couple of songs, memorabilia and one copy of every issue of Streets were on display as well as a big photo montage created by local designer Daniel Goulet.
The stories told and the long faces in the room were a clear indication of what the paper had meant to the people of West Central.
I don’t think anyone, including the people who conceptualized the paper at the beginning, was aware of the level of impact that West Central Streets would have on the neighbourhood. To some extent this only became evident when the announcement was made in November 2010 that the paper would shut down, when many people came forward with stories of the paper’s impact on them personally, and on the neighbourhood.
In 1995, we set out to produce a paper that would connect local people through shared story telling. Fifteen years later I am convinced that West Central Streets played a significant role in helping people in West Central feel stronger, more connected and more hopeful.
We have learned that sharing stories is a powerful force when it comes to building community.
The last issue of West Central Streets came out in January 2011, 15 years and 3 months after the first.
Erika Wiebe was the Coordinating Editor of West Central Streets.
The West Central Streets Digital Archive is the result of the hard work of a number of people:
Daniel Matthes, Archives Technician: scanning, layout, design, metadata
Michael Hohner, Head, Strategic Initiatives & Scholarly Communications & Systems: project management and technological development
Monica Fritz, Cient IT Services Provider: project management/technical support
John Dobson, Webmaster: technical advice and support
The University of Winnipeg Archives is grateful to Erika Wiebe for her patience and generosity in partnering with the Library on this project.
Copyright permission has been provided to the University of Winnipeg by the copyright holder.