There was much hand-wringing in Winnipeg this week when an anonymous hockey player said he felt he needed to wash his face after going for a walk in the city.
Winnipeggers worked themselves into a tizzy when a San Jose Shark questioned whether the city even had wireless internet.
While Winnipeg gets its back up when someone says something mean, though, the city trips over itself whenever it is praised.
Winnipeg blushed when National Geographic proclaimed the humble Prairie city one of the best trips you could take anywhere in the world.
The city had a strut to its step when it was literally in Vogue (magazine), or when a character on The Simpsons famously declared, “That’s it, back to Winnipeg!” or when The Office set an episode in the city.
It’s like Winnipeggers crave the affirmation of others. There is much chest-puffing when the city is lauded, and dismay when it is panned.
And then there are the Winnipeggers who are baffled that anyone thinks their city is cool or trendy.
So CBC News asked some noted Winnipeggers: Why does the city even care about what other people think?
Looking for love from other places
“I’ve always wondered that myself,” said Paul Jordan, chief executive officer of The Forks — a tourist attraction becoming, like the city, a must-see destination in the eyes of outside publications.
“I’ve always found this a very unique place and I’m always surprised that other people are surprised by that,” he said.
“I’m always surprised that people need verification from somewhere else. It’s a very unique, niche kind of place.”
He sees Winnipeg as a gem in the middle of nowhere. Because it’s isolated from other big cities, Winnipeg has struck out on its own and found its own fun. As evidence, he points to the way the city embraces winter, through its river trails or warming huts.
Jordan says Winnipeggers should stop comparing themselves to others.
“They think that other people are living better, or they think that they need to compete when honestly, you don’t,” he said. “Vegas does casinos better than we do, but we do winter better than Vegas does. It’s what makes us different that makes us interesting.”
Obby Khan, a Winnipeg Blue Bomber-turned-restaurateur, says the humble, blue-collar city is startled whenever it’s effusively praised.
“As an underdog … you don’t expect anything great to come,” he said. “We know we have it in us, but the outside isn’t expecting anything like that from us. So when it does happen, you’re like, ‘Holy crap, they did it.'”
Despite the praise Winnipeg has garnered from reputable publications, he knows it is still fashionable to roast the city.
He heard it from an elderly couple from New Jersey, who were in town this week to see their Devils tangle with the Winnipeg Jets.
“They were really happy with what Winnipeg had to offer, but they said on the way here, people were saying, ‘Why are you going there?'”
But when they arrived and “walked a day in our underdog shoes,” he said, “they came to love and appreciate what we have.”
Poking fun at ourselves
Alex Plante is a Winnipeg artist who riffs on her city. Her poster featuring recognizable (for locals, anyway) elements of city life — like the old Palomino Club building and a Peter Nygard billboard — has been well-received.
She believes Winnipeggers care about how their city is perceived because they’re too often overlooked.
“We have so [many] ridiculous things that it’s easy to focus on how to make fun of it, instead of how to appreciate it,” she said.
“And I think that plays into the inferiority complex, especially because you have so many people from bigger cities saying, ‘Oh, I would never go to Winnipeg.'”
As for the criticisms, she reasons Winnipeggers are protective of their city — we can make fun of ourselves, but you can’t.
Children’s entertainer Al Simmons suspects Winnipeggers just aren’t used to the attention.
“It almost seems unbelievable to us when we say, ‘What!? We’ve got four stars from somebody?’ or ‘Really? We’re a destination?’ But when you think of it, my goodness sakes, when people come here, it’s a gem.”
Winnipeg is a “great-kept secret,” says Danya Spiring, who is essentially a full-time booster of the city as head of Economic Development Winnipeg.
“When other people start to see it, when Vogue comes here, when the L.A. Times comes here, when the New York Times come here, that’s pretty sexy and that’s pretty exciting,” she said.
“And when people trash us with no basis for doing that, I think it gets our backs up, and rightly so.”
That flak from other people can bother Winnipeggers because we work hard for the things we accomplish, says Susan Thompson, who was mayor of Winnipeg from 1992 to 1998.
“And to face thoughtless criticism,” she says — referring to the anonymous NHL player who was concerned about his facial cleanliness, according to an ESPN poll released this week — “is not very kind.”
Another former mayor, Glen Murray — who went on to political life in Ontario but has since come back to Winnipeg — says there’s no place he’d rather live, but the city’s flaws shouldn’t be ignored. He said tourists are going downtown, and they see problems.
Go to other big-city downtowns, he notes, and you’ll see a bustling area, teeming with people — but in Winnipeg, there are boarded-up stores and a prominent intersection barricaded to pedestrians.
That’s a shame when there are great amenities nearby, like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the ballpark and new housing developments.
“We get these really exciting reviews for some of the great things we’ve done and we’re a really hip, cool place — and God knows we are,” he said.
“We also know that we get some drag sometimes, and we just can’t quite close the deal.”