In his book, City Life, Witold Rybczynski writes that “Most cities have places of which the visitor can say when he reaches them, ‘Now I’m really here.’” Rybczynski argues that, in Europe and Asia, these hallmark sites tend to be monuments or large public plazas, while in North America it is street corners that more often comprise our “symbolic civic places.” Alongside New York’s Times Square and L.A.’s Hollywood and Vine, the author’s list of North American intersections that function as urban hallmarks includes Winnipeg’s Portage and Main. Indeed, no other Canadian corner is as central to the identity of its hometown as Portage and Main is to Winnipeg. As historian David Walker stated, “If people know one thing about the City of Winnipeg, it is the corner of Portage and Main” – a corner that has been dubbed “the most famous crossroads in the Canadian urban landscape.”
Portage and Main is where Winnipeg’s most important celebrations and protests have occurred, from Armistice Day in 1918 to the General Strike of 1919, from the return of professional hockey in 2011 to Idle No More demonstrations the subsequent December. Yet unlike the corners mentioned above – or nearly any other prominent civic intersection – for over forty years Portage and Main has also been characterized by another fact: at this central gathering place, pedestrians are not allowed to cross the street.
In 2018, this fact made the corner a focal point when Winnipeg voters were asked in a plebiscite: “Do you support the opening of Portage and Main to pedestrian crossings?” At that time, journalists explored the origin of the corner’s 1979 closure to pedestrian crossings. Correctly identified as the proximate cause was a 1976 legal agreement between the City of Winnipeg and six property owners who had contributed one-fifth of the cost of building an underground concourse at the intersection. The agreement stipulated that “in order to not short-circuit the Concourse” the city would forbid street-level pedestrian crossings.
Yet many questions remain regarding the history of the corner and its closure, including what led to this 1976 decision. Answering these questions might elucidate not only Winnipeg’s planning history, but also the history of the so-called “multi-level metropolis,” a significant trend in the twentieth-century Canadian built environment.
The creation of an enclosed pedestrian system at Portage and Main was foreshadowed in a 1963 plan created by the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg. This plan emphasized downtown improvements oriented toward “the pedestrian’s viewpoint,” a perspective said to be paramount in an area where “most of us spend the majority of our travelling time on foot.” In “keeping with the severity of our climate,” suggested work included creating pedestrian paths “protected from the weather,” either by means of covered sidewalks or “shopping-centre type development.” A subsequent 1966 Metro plan shifted this proposed climate-controlled pedestrian sphere underground, to beneath part of Portage Avenue (the city’s principal shopping corridor) and under Portage and Main.
In 1967, the construction of the first “underground all-weather concourse” near Portage and Main was formally announced. This was not Metro’s concourse, but a project led by the financial firm James Richardson & Sons. Designed by local architects Smith Carter Searle in association with New York’s Skidmore Owings and Merrill, the project proposed three towers to the northwest corner of the intersection, all to be linked by a subterranean shopping arcade. James Richardson described this arcade in regionalist terms, characterizing it as a response to Canada’s wintry environment. The day after Richardson made the announcement, Metro Winnipeg formally announced the construction of its Portage and Main concourse – and the future closure of the corner to pedestrian street crossings.
Metro framed its plans primarily as a means of making downtown “more livable,” comfortable, and attractive for pedestrians. The broader goal was to help the area vie for inhabitants (and shoppers) with the region’s booming suburbs. At the same time, Metro planners foresaw increased vehicular speed on Portage and Main as an added benefit to the removal of pedestrians from the street. The latter aim was itself not without controversy. The Manitoba Retail Merchants Association argued downtown needed congestion and decried what they called Metro’s plans to render Portage and Main into a “a super-highway.”
To ensure that Winnipeg’s downtown remained lively, lead Metro planner Earl Levin asserted that a necessary complement to his Portage and Main plan was a dramatic increase in nearby residential density. For similar reasons, the planned pedestrian concourse was conceived to be part passenger transit terminal – “interesting and comfortable surroundings” for those waiting for buses or for proposed monorail or subway cars.
The plans for Portage and Main were inspired by tiered circulation projects in other cities. In the middle of the twentieth century, many North American downtowns were being remade into multilevel environments following plans by designers like Victor Gruen (so-called “father of the shopping mall”). British cities also became home to “streets in the sky” in works by Peter and Alison Smithson, in London’s “Pedway,” and elsewhere. In particular, Metro officials and the Richardsons looked to Montreal as a model – specifically its Place Ville Marie, ground zero for that city’s new ville souterraine.
In the early 1970s the Richardson firm, Montreal developers Trizec, and the City of Winnipeg underlined this inspiration by hiring Place Ville Marie planner Vincent Ponte to examine the feasibility and possible layout of a Portage and Main concourse and the related separation of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Called the “multilevel man”’ by Time magazine, Ponte was a noted advocate for tiered systems of urban circulation. Like Metro, Ponte described his approach as centred not on the acceleration of vehicle traffic but on creating “richer, more diverse” urban milieux that could countervail suburban dispersal.
Ponte’s work evinced the influence of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), specifically its 1951 conference agenda, which emphasized three-dimensional pedestrian network strategies in urban cores. Such schemes echoed earlier twentieh-century visions of tiered urban circulation produced by figures like Le Corbusier, Hugh Ferriss, and Antonio Sant’Elia.
Responses to the lived reality of such multilevel circulation projects have often been negative. London, for instance, largely dismantled its elevated walkway system, while Dallas Mayor Laura Miller stated of an underground Ponte project in that city: “If I could take a cement mixer and pour cement in and clog up the tunnels, I would do it today.”
Critics were wary of Metro’s Portage and Main plan from early on. A focus for criticism was the proposed prohibition of pedestrian street crossings. This unusual restriction was not found at Place Ville Marie, which passes beneath René Lévesque Boulevard. Critics were also concerned about the coalescence of corporate and civic powers involved in such plans. The latter type of critique echoed concerns about the “ruthless” commercialization of public space in Montreal’s “new downtown.”
But it was only in the late 1970s, with the closure of Portage and Main to pedestrians close at hand, that opposition gained prominence. On the day that city council ratified the closure, demonstrators filled the council chamber arguing for the “Right to Walk on Portage and Main.” Shortly thereafter, the Manitoba League of the Physically Handicapped and city councillor Joe Zuken led group “jay-walking” protests to highlight the inaccessibility of the new concourse. The Manitoba Human Right’s Commission promptly launched an investigation, though it ultimately refused to rule. In response to criticism of the project, city councillor Gary Filmon emphasized that agreements “could be changed.” Similarly, even after the closure agreement was reached, Winnipeg mayor Stephen Juba suggested the corner could be opened in the summer, an action made possible via the reversible openings for pedestrian crossings built into the corner’s new barricades. Such remedies, however, never materialized. Nor did the planned Portage and Main transit terminal and residential towers.
In 2018, as Winnipeg voters mulled their options, two campaigns made their case regarding the unique status quo condition of Winnipeg’s “symbolic civic place.” The campaign to re-open Portage and Main to pedestrians recapitulated past arguments, including the need for accessibility for those with disabilities. Paralleling downtown retailers of the ‘60s, “Team Open” also advocated for the advantages of the traditional urban street in terms both human and financial. 2018 arguments for restraining pedestrian movement at Portage and Main, however, narrowed; proponents emphasized, above all else, the need to allow speedy vehicle travel. Seemingly lost to time was the mid-century conviction that had justified granting a corporate veto over public space and restricting pedestrian freedom to begin with: that segregating urban circulation creates a more inviting, more lively urban realm.
The result of Winnipeg’s 2018 plebiscite ensured that pedestrian crossings at Portage and Main will remain underground for the foreseeable future. In the months since, however, the city and property owners have initiated the process of removing the corner’s barricades – in part due to required infrastructure repairs and out of a desire to remodel this hallmark site. What seems clear is that the question of how to create a pleasant, convivial urban realm while combining multiple systems of circulation remains a necessary problem to solve, for Winnipeg and for dozens of other cities reconciling traditional streetscapes with artefacts of twentieth-century urban planning.
This research was first presented as part of a 2018 architectural tour for the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.
 Witold Rybczynski, City Life (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), 27.
 David Walker, The Great Winnipeg Dream: The Re-Development of Portage and Main (Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1979), vii; Barry Gough, Historical Dictionary of Canada (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 435.
 The result, a vote of 65% “No” to 35% “Yes,” revealed a distinct “doughnut-shaped divide” with those in favour of opening concentrated in the city’s core neighbourhoods. Jacques Marcoux, “Map of Winnipeg election results shows a city divided by north and south,” CBC News, 25 October 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/map-winnipeg-north-south-portage-main-1.4877508.
 Darren Bernhardt, “’A desperate time:’ Why Portage and Main was closed to pedestrians in the first place,” CBC News, 1 July 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/portage-main-intersection-winnipeg-trizec-underground-1.4724624; Kayla Rosen, “TIMELINE: The history behind Portage and Main,” CTV News, 15 October 2020, https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/timeline-the-history-behind-portage-and-main-1.4135061.
 “Consideration of Report of the Committee on Works and Operations,” City of Winnipeg, 16 December 1976. By 2018, all six of these owners expressed a willingness to accept the re-opening of at-grade pedestrian crossings.
 This level of government, created three years earlier, oversaw inter-municipal matters such as regional planning. After Toronto, this was the second metropolitan municipal government in North America. City of Winnipeg Archives, Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg fonds, https://winnipeginfocus.winnipeg.ca/f00014.
 “Master plan unveiled,” Winnipeg Tribune, 3 September 1963, 3.
 “A walk in the city of tomorrow,” Winnipeg Tribune, 15 July 1966, 5.
 “Huge Richardson centre set for Portage and Main,” Winnipeg Tribune, 23 February 1967, 1.
 “We have been talking about our identity. One thing we are, is northern. We should be providing the leadership in Canada on how northern people can live.” Val Werier, “Doing something about the weather,” Winnipeg Tribune, 28 February 1967.
 Heather Chisvin, “Portage, Main will get underground shopping: Mall to join corners,” Winnipeg Tribune, 24 February 1967, 1.
 Peter Wand, “A walk in the city of tomorrow,” The Winnipeg Tribune, 15 July 1966. This piece cites: Winnipeg Planning Division, Metropolitan Development Plan (Winnipeg, MB: The Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg, 1966).
 This end was likely understood in relation to 1960s Metro studies which argued that vehicle congestion downtown was a problem, including at Portage and Main which was then the city’s second-busiest intersection.
 “Wocks’ wish–some congestion,” Winnipeg Tribune, 16 January 1964, 14.
 “Protecting the pedestrians,” Winnipeg Tribune, 20 February 1968, 6.
 Wade Rowland, “Underground Mall Planned,” Winnipeg Free Press, 24 February 1967, 1.
 Jennifer Yoos and Vincent James, “The Multilevel Metropolis: On the radical origins — and mundane deployment — of the urban skyway,” Places Journal, May 2016, https://placesjournal.org/article/multilevel-metropolis-urban-skyways/?cn-reloaded=1. This aspect of CIAM’s urban agenda, advocated by Josep Lluís Sert (the leader of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design while Ponte was a student), came to reflect both historic CIAM tenets and aspects of the approach presented by the group of CIAM “apostates” known as Team 10.
 Paul Pihichyn, “Sunken Mall Seen,” Winnipeg Free Press, 13 July 1973, 26.
 Author unlisted, “Multilevel Man,” TIME, 19 October 1970.
 Patrick O’Gilfoil, “Rethinking Skyways and Tunnels,” New York Times, 3 August 2005.
 In the 1960s, the planned closing of Portage and Main to pedestrians led one journalist to quip, “James Richardson, for all his zeal and imagination, couldn’t have forced potential customers underground where they would be subject to the planned atmosphere of excitement and vitality. Metro could do it and will.” Wade Rowland, “Metro And Business Plan Underground Mall,” Winnipeg Free Press, 28 February 1967, 6.
 Arthur Beitel, “Place Ville Marie” (McGill School of Architecture, ca. 1965), 55, McLennan Library (ML). Cited in: Don Nerbas, “William Zeckendorf, Place Ville-Marie, and the Making of Modern Montreal,” Urban History Review 43, 2 (Spring 2005): 5-25.
 Ingeborg Boyens, “Portage and Main walkers go under at hands of council,” Winnipeg Free Press, 19 April 1979.
 Tom Goldstein, “Zuken’s protest gains support: Wheelchair contingent may join crossing,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 March 1979. A ceremonial protest group jay-walking occurred shortly thereafter. Tom Goldstein, “Handicapped want right to cross street,” Winnipeg Free Press, 10 March 1979.
 “Commission wraps up its study of human rights at concourse,” Winnipeg Free Press, 18 May 1979, 9. Tom Goldstein, “Rights group refuses to rule on concourse,” 7 March 1980, 3.
 “Pedestrians going underground,” Winnipeg Free Press, 27 February 1979, 3. Just two months after the closure of the corner to pedestrians, the corporations that were party to the agreement concurred, stating that they were willing to renegotiate. David O’Brien, “The battle for Portage and Main,” Winnipeg Free Press, 15 March 2014, 17.
 “Pedestrian ban: Juba has doubts,” Winnipeg Tribune, 1 January 1977, 4.
 “’Would have been a step backwards’: Winnipeggers vote to keep Portage and Main closed,” CBC News, 24 October 2018.
 Dan Lett, “Report underscores voters in dark during Portage and Main plebiscite,” Winnipeg Free Press, 25 June 2020.