As a relatively recent Ontario transplant, my working knowledge of Windsor is limited.
What I knew about the border town, upon embarking on this mission to discover why people live there, was that Stephen Colbert dubbed it the "worst place on earth" and later the "earth's rectum."
A quick Google search led me to online forums filled with other flattering labels describing Windsor as Canada's/Ontario's "armpit," a place known for car robberies, drug dealing, and "0-little culture." One person rather poetically noted, "Windsor smells like desperate American youth mixed in with dirty Canadian hosers," while a University of Windsor student said, "The city may smell... and the university may be shitty... but who gives a fuck once your [sic] drunk." Fair enough.
The crash of the once-booming automotive industry has led to rampant unemployment, with a 30 percent reduction in manufacturing jobs over the last decade or so, and is likely behind Windsor's rep for being rough around the edges.
It can't be all bad, though. After all, Windsor is home to more than 200,000 people, so there must be something keeping them around. In 2014, the city even placed 162nd on MoneySense magazine's "Best Places to Live" list (for context, Toronto and Vancouver came in 32nd and 39th, respectively). In the interest of learning more about this much ragged-on town, I reached out to a bunch of Windsorites to hear about some of its major draws:
It's Near Detroit
Pretty much everyone I interviewed praised Windsor's proximity to Detroit (about 2 miles separate them) as a big plus—if not the only plus.
Some of the city's best views are of the Detroit skyline, and it's where residents get their fix of big-city music/culture.
"I don't think I would still be here if it wasn't for Detroit," said Murad Erzinclioglu, 32, who runs the music department at local college radio station CJAM 99.1 and organizes annual arts festival the FAM, which he says is akin to a mini version of Toronto's NXNE music festival.
"It's still one of the top ten markets for music... It's the birthplace of techno and Motown. These kinds of things inform to a certain extent Windsor—there's a lot to live up to."
"Detroit is one of the best things about Windsor," added Daniel Bombardier, 39, a visual artist who left the city to live in Vancouver and Toronto in his 20s and moved back 12 years ago.
"You can fly outta Detroit to anywhere in the world. That's pretty much what me and my friends do—leave as often as we can. The slogan should be 'Welcome to Windsor, a great place to store your shit.'"
As an artist, Bombardier said he was inspired by witnessing Detroit's rise and fall firsthand. "It blows my mind... As far as statements on consumerism and capitalism and politics, it's like the frontline of it all."
Locals feel so attached to their US neighbor, they've nicknamed Windsor, "South Detroit," (it is in fact south of Detroit), according to photographer Kevin Kavanaugh, who spent his childhood watching Red Wings games and touring arts venues in the American city.
"We're pretty much one and the same," he said, though he admitted the love affair is somewhat lopsided. "Detroit would never think of Windsor as a suburb of it."
As a trade off of sorts, underage Americans flock to Windsor nightclubs like the Boom Boom Room, a venue known for its fake tattoos and weed.
Windsorites are obsessed with their pizza, often making outlandish claims that it's the best in the world.
I asked University of Windsor law student Becca S., 30, what the secret is, to which she replied, "Basically pepperoni is chopped up in small pieces. That's it."
Still, Becca is faithful to her hometown pies—she prefers a place called Krusty's, where the owner "sounds like Krusty the Clown" and calls her nicknames like "angel, princess, or baby."
She was quick to slam Condé Nast Traveler's recent global pizza ranking that placed Edmonton eighth in the world (Windsor didn't make the list). "It's bullshit," she said. "Windsor is the pizza capital of Canada, end of story."
Bob Abumeeiz, owner of Arcata Pizzeria, a Windsor institution for more than 60 years, said a local couple who moved to Regina paid $140 [$109 USD] to ship one of his pizzas to their new home during last year's Super Bowl. The rage right now is Arcata's shawarma pizza, a combination of garlic paste, basil, and meat that's been marinated for 48 hours—they recently went through 80 pounds of chicken in two days.
Asked about his thoughts on the Edmonton pizza ranking, he said he wants to throw down in some kind of competition.
"I'm the first one to sign up," he said. "I'm not afraid to lose."
Strip Clubs Galore
The City of Windsor actually stopped giving out new strip club licenses because there are already so many of the establishments around, including Leopard's Lounge, a place known for recruiting college girls by promising to pay their tuitions and hosting offensive dwarf tosses.
When the latter event took place in February, back by popular demand, club owner Sam Katzman told VICE, "We think of Leopard's Lounge as Canada's home for dwarf tossing." (The event drew the ire of the Little People of Canada, which started a petition to stop it.)
Dean Scott, 27, editor of the Windsor Independent, covered the toss for VICE and said, "It was kind of fucked up to talk to some of the people in the audience and see how much joy and delight they found in it." That includes one Albertan who flew in to see it, despite having skipped five family Christmases in a row because he didn't want to pay for airfare.
Scott told me Windsor's fixation with pizza and strip clubs are a part of its effort "to look for anything to grab onto a source of pride." He cited the excitement over the penis bush scandal of 2013 as another example of that.
It's Cheap as Fuck
While those of us living in big cities are at times forced to rent out literal boxes to get by, it's not uncommon for youngish Windsorites to own multiple homes.
Kavanaugh told me he has three properties, including a house/photography studio that he and his wife share, and is in the process of acquiring another. And while the market is not nearly as hot as Vancouver's or Toronto's, he said there are occasional "bidding wars" in sought after progressive neighborhoods.
After moving back to Windsor, Bombardier convinced a building owner to let him in live and work in an apartment in exchange for paying the guy's property taxes—about $700 [about $545 USD] a month. The arrangement allowed him to save up and purchase his own 5,000-square-foot space downtown for $100,000 [$78,000 USD].
"In Toronto, it would be a $3 million [$2.3 million USD] building," he said.
He's also managed to take advantage of the auto industry bust by using old machines and factories to make art.
"We'll make a production line of pieces of artwork," he said.
All of the entrepreneurs I spoke to said Windsor has two crucial characteristics necessary for success: It's affordable and kind of lacking in everything, so the chances of having an original idea are much higher than in larger, more cultured cities.
Budding Weed Scene
One of the more positive reviews I came across pegged Windsor as a "poor man's Amsterdam" with its abundance of weed and strip clubs.
There's some truth to that assessment. Windsor recently opened up the largest vapor lounge in North America—and possibly the world, said owner Jon Liedtke, 27.
Housed in a 6,000-square foot former nightclub, Higher Limits has a head shop with pipes and other smoking paraphernalia, a horseshoe bar lined with volcano vaporizers, a dab station, arcade games, and pool tables.
"Go big or go home," said Liedtke.
It's open to medical marijuana users, though staffers are not actually allowed to ask for anyone's license. Themed activities for 4/20 next week will include making "craft bongs" out of melons.
Liedtke said both cops and neighbors have been pretty chill about the lounge's opening.
"The cannabis scene is really growing," he said.
There's beauty in the shittiness
Some locals have fully embraced Windsor for its gritty charm.
"It's like living in a real life David Lynch movie," said Bombardier. "It just seems like every single person who walks by every day is just a different character, and there's some malfunction."
People regularly push around shopping carts, he said, "like they're a fucking accessory."
From an artistic POV, he said he doesn't like things to be clean and shiny and "gentrification all up my ass" (cough, Vancouver), but prefers to be in a place that's hit rock bottom and is slowly building itself up again.
A homey, small-town feel where everybody knows one another was also touted as one of the nicer things about Windsor, though both Becca and another female university student told me the incestuousness sucks when it comes to dating. Like, you fuck one person, "and you knock out all the options by proxy," said Becca, who favors dudes from Detroit anyway.
Still, it would be unfair to say Windsor has won everyone over.
Simona Lepadatu, 23, who is currently in teacher's college, has lived there since she was a baby, and her parents moved "against my will."
Her list of beefs includes air pollution from Detroit factories, a sloppy bro vibe downtown, and zero job prospects outside of the casino and club industries.
"Since city transit is terrible, it makes living here very difficult," she said, adding newcomers who discover these flaws get depressed and leave. It's something she plans to do as soon as she graduates.
"Stephen Colbert is probably right."
Ottawa Street, described by Windsor tourism as a "hidden gem." Photo via Flickr user Jim Cagney
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