If Earl Levin’s vision had been realized, Winnipeg’s notoriously crime-ridden Portage Place mall would never have been built. Instead, the plot of land where it sits would have been transformed into a very different place.
The idea was to make much of the north side of Portage Avenue, near Winnipeg’s Exchange District, into a park. Dr. Levin worked on his rival proposal with Gustavo da Roza, the architect behind the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The green space would have included underground parking and high-density residential facilities.
In the 1960s and 70s, Winnipeg was in the throes of reinvention and Dr. Levin was at the helm, as the city’s planning director. It was boom time for the city’s downtown. Private dollars were rolling in, giving unprecedented speed to the building surge on Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue.
Dr. Levin, who spoke about cities with passion and eloquence, wanted to see the downtown population triple.
“Our downtown should be full of people of every type and station, of every shape and description, rich and poor, young and old, smart and dowdy, because only people can endow any enterprise with life and with value,” Dr. Levin, who died recently, told the members of the Downtown Business Association at their annual meeting in 1968.
By the early 1980s, however, the north side of Portage Avenue had fallen into decline. Dr. Levin’s park plan was rejected by the city and instead millions of dollars were eventually funnelled toward the plan for a high-end, mixed-use mall, intended to tempt suburbanites back downtown.
Portage Place opened on Sept. 17, 1987, to near-unanimous support. But even in its first year, doubts began to grow over its merits. Tenants in nearby apartment buildings started requesting lower rents, mostly to compensate for having to deal with the derelicts who remained in the area after the shops closed for the day. Today, the overwhelming consensus is that the mall failed in its goal of revitalizing the city’s core.
The mall was a decision made in the interest of business at the expense of the city, Dr. Levin and Mr. Da Roza said at the time.
“City planning has lost something very precious in its passage from Athens to Winnipeg,” Dr. Levin once said, expressing frustration over attitudes such as those that gave the green light to Portage Place. “The loss is not merely that of the ability to create an entire city, which externalizes in material form the inner spirit of the society and to do so with pervasive nobility and beauty; the loss is also that of the identity of the city-planning function itself. We today have no common understanding of the nature of a city.”
Planning is too disconnected from politics, Dr. Levin would argue. He fought for the two to function as one, on the foundation that running a city isn’t just about low taxes and a good business climate. Frustration pushed him away from the city’s department of planning, after years of conflict with Stephen Juba, mayor of the amalgamation of municipalities Dr. Levin helped create, called Metro Winnipeg.
He became quite cynical about the city-planning process and the politics. “It’s all a question of money. The best plans come second to who can make the most money and how quickly.”
Winnipeg heralds him as its own, but Dr. Levin’s contributions to Canada’s urban landscape go much further. He was part of the core team that established Vancouver’s first planning department; he chaired the formation of the Association of Professional Community Planners of Saskatchewan in 1963, and sat as the province’s director of planning; he was vice-president of Murray V. Jones and Associates, an urban-planning firm in Toronto; and he was president of Earl Levin Consultants Inc.
He wrote plans, studies and recommendations for aboriginal groups, provincial governments, the federal government and for a range of Canadian cities, including Weyburn, Sask., and Inuvik, NWT. His influence was felt overseas, too. Dr. Levin worked for the London County Council in Britain, and for the Basildon New Town Corp. in Essex.
Earl Aaron Levin was born in Winnipeg on July 8, 1919, to Sam and Sonja Levin. His birth came two weeks after the conclusion of the Winnipeg General Strike, one of the most influential labour actions in Canadian history.
“My great-grandfather was socialist. And my grandfather was, too,” said Dr. Levin’s youngest son, David Levin. “My father was a blend of socialist and Marxist, but took no issue with accumulating capital.”
Dr. Levin attended high school in Winnipeg’s north end, close to his home on Magnus Avenue. His father, whose parents immigrated to Canada seeking refuge from the persecution of Jews in Belarus, was a sanitary engineer for the city. His mother stayed at home raising Earl and his brother, who was also named David. They did not grow up with unearned privilege. The two boys were driven by the belief that education was the ticket out of poverty.
After Dr. Levin joined the war effort in 1942, witnessing the devastation – the levelled buildings and the displaced people – instilled in him a desire to build cities and house people.
One day while he was in London’s Regent’s Park, on leave and awaiting deployment for D-Day, he met his wife-to-be, Helen Bernard. She was sitting on a park bench with a friend.
After the war, Dr. Levin resumed his studies, receiving a degree in architecture at the University of Manitoba, and travelled to Europe in 1950 to pursue and complete a diploma at the School of Planning and Research for Regional Development in London. In 1952, he returned to Canada to enroll in the MSc program at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.
And in 1993, after decades of work in the field, Dr. Levin, at 74, satisfied his long-standing desire for a doctorate, receiving the distinction from the University of Manitoba for his thesis, City History and City Planning: The Local Historical Roots of the City Planning Function in Three Cities of the Canadian Prairies.
He served the planning community as a professor, then head of the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Levin held a term appointment at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, and was a senior fellow of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
In 2011, Dr. Levin was awarded the Distinguished Career Award in Planning. He was the first person to receive such an award from the Canadian Institute of Planners, an organization he was president of in 1964 and 1965, when it was called the Town Planning Institute of Canada.
Dr. Levin was a thoughtful man, an intellectual who rarely allowed glimpses of his vulnerable side. To his family he wasn’t particularly demonstrative, though not cold either. He was professorial. “Pedantic, in a way,” his son David said. He was an atheist, and would consider miracles, but only as a topic of philosophical discussion and often over a finger of single malt. “He wouldn’t talk about the war,” David said. “The trauma shaped his life, though.”
Dr. Levin and his wife, who lived in a beautiful home on Machray Avenue, were both patrons of the arts. Ms. Levin worked at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s art rental office, and the couple regularly attended the symphony, opera and theatre. He was involved with the Manitoba Opera Company, Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Manitoba Theatre Centre, having been a member of the board for each.
After 61 years of marriage, Helen Levin died of breast cancer in 2006 and Dr. Levin moved in with his son David and his family. Dr. Levin spent his final months in an assisted-living facility with his cousin and life-long best friend, also named David Levin. Earl Levin died in Winnipeg on March 28 of systemic organ failure resulting from advanced age. He was 94. He leaves his two sons and five grandchildren. He was familiar with achievement and success, but Dr. Levin never stopped pondering what it meant to be a city planner.
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