Times Square North

A visit to New York City is incomplete without taking time to walk around Times Square, where the city’s “big lights will inspire you,” according to the tune, Empire State Of Mind, sung by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.

Times Square in Midtown Manhattan is ablaze with bright billboards and advertisements, and dotted with numerous shops and restaurants along its streets. Officially, signs in Times Square are called “spectaculars,” and the largest of them are called “jumbotrons.”

The square is sometimes referred to as the “Crossroads of the World,” the “Centre of the Universe,” and the heart of the “Great White Way,” among other names to describe what happens to be one of the most people-friendly attractions to be found in any of the world’s big cities.

What is truly amazing is the number of people who crowd the square on any given day, looking up to take in the dazzling neon and LED billboards or sitting on the steps in the middle of the plaza where Alicia Keys belted out the chorus for Empire State of Mind. Times Square is one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions, drawing an estimated 50-million visitors annually. Daily, approximately 330,000 people, including a multitude of tourists, pass through the square, while over 460,000 pedestrians walk through it on its busiest days.

Tim Tomkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, which promotes and oversees the plaza’s development, is in Winnipeg to meet with city planners to discuss the fate of Winnipeg’s famous corner of Portage and Main. But while Times Square ranks as a people-friendly destination, our intersection is closed to pedestrian traffic, which the Downtown BIZ and the Exchange BIZ hope to change. The corner has been closed to foot traffic since 1978, when pedestrians were diverted to an underground concourse.

Will it be reshaped in the form of another Times Square? It’s doubtful, since it would mean closing the entire corner to vehicular traffic as is the case in the people crowded Times Square. Banning vehicles in Times Square started as an experiment and was originally opposed by local businesses, but they quickly saw the benefits of increased pedestrian traffic. On February 11, 2010, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the pedestrian-only presence would become permanent.

Certainly, the corner of Portage and Main is great for vehicles, as cars, trucks and buses can rush through the corner unimpeded by the presence of pesky pedestrians. Its present reality is that it’s a drive-through corner where no motorist stops to take in the sights, which is a pity since Portage and Main has an over 150-year history. It’s the corner where armed Mounties on horseback charging from the corner onto Main Street to break up a crowd during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, and the unsuccessful Save Our Jets Rally in May 1995. In terms of Canada’s national winter sport, the corner also witnessed the signing of Bobby “the Golden Jet” Hull on June 27, 1972, by Ben Hatskin, which marked the true beginning of modern-day professional hockey in the city. NHL hockey returned to the city for the 2011-12 NHL season.

Shrouded in the murk of the past is that the corner was the creation of one man with a vision — Henry McKenney, who came to Winnipeg in 1859. When the Ontario-born McKenney arrived in the future Manitoba capital, he first bought a store from Andrew McDermott, a pioneer resident, which was quickly converted into the Red River Settlement’s first hotel. As a popular drinking establishment, the Royal Hotel provided McKenney with the inkling of an idea. He noticed that the bar’s regulars didn’t follow the Portage Trail to Fort Garry, but cut across the prairie directly to his hotel.

McKenney in partnership with his half-brother John Christian Schultz, approached McDermot with an offer to purchase a piece of land on the west side of Main Street near the boundary of McDermot’s lot 248. They paid McDermot £110 for the land plus an easement to the river, with the land changing hands on June 2, 1862.

Part of the deal was that they paid £60 in cash to guarantee the right to purchase another piece of property that they could immediately occupy in five years. Interest on the remaining £50 was at six per cent per year.

“The site was low and swampy, covered with scrub oak and poplar,” wrote George F. Reynolds in the MHS Transactions article, The Man Who Created the Corner of Portage and Main, “... In the eyes of the old settlers, the worst feature was the distance from the Red River. ‘Nobody in their right mind,’ they said, would even think of building over a quarter of a mile from the river, at that time the only source of water.”

But McKenney was undeterred by the laughing arising from skeptical residents and built a wooden structure that Reynolds called a “ghastly example of Red River Primitive.” The hip roof of the structure earned it the nickname “Noah’s Ark.”

“The house (structure) was a long two storey building,” wrote Joseph James Hargrave in his book, Red River, which was published in 1871, “80 feet long by 24 feet wide by 22 feet high, the ground flat of which was lighted by two large windows which, with the door, occupied one end, while the sides were windowed only in the top storey, which was used as a dwelling house ...

“The house was erected in a particularly isolated spot and the hurricanes which sometimes blow across the plains, it was then imagined, would beat against the broad sides of the slightly-built edifice with such force as would reduce it to native timbers.”

Even then, what would become Portage and Main was noted as being the windiest corner in the settlement.

At the time, McKenney said he wanted the store’s corner jutting out into the Main Trail to become the central hub of settlement from which roads would branch out like the spokes of a wheel. The Assiniboia Council gave their approval to McKenney’s vision by surveying a right-of-way for a street measuring 66 feet from the south end of McKenney’s property to serve as a central point for the 132-foot wide future Portage Avenue.

By 1869, 33 buildings had clustered around the corner. The store McKenney established stood for 25 years and was finally demolished in 1887. Despite his significance to Winnipeg as the creator of the corner of Portage and Main, no city street is named after Henry McKenney. Apparently, McKenney alienated enough important people, including his politician half-brother John Schultz, that he was conveniently forgotten in later years as the creator of Winnipeg’s most famous corner.

The city’s 50-year lease deals with private developers in order to open an underground concourse, linking shopping malls under the four corner properties and to permanently close the pedestrian crossings at the intersection, expires in 2019.

What future shape the corner will take is still speculative, but shouldn’t Times Square North — where the big lights would inspire you — be one of the options at the top of the list?