The Unbearable Lightness of Being a City: Is Edmonton Still in the Midst of an Existential Crisis?

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Yellowknife with my friend Tim Querengesser. Yellowknife was having its annual folk music festival, Folk On the Rocks, and I figured it was as good an opportunity as ever to visit the city. I had been wanting to visit Yellowknife my whole life. Like many Canadians, as a child I fantasized about the North. I read Farley Mowat ad nauseum and day dreamed about running away from home to lose myself in a mysterious Arctic wonderland. Maybe that explains why I moved to Edmonton…

Just kidding.

But truly, there is something enchanting about the North. I think I was spellbound within moments of hitting the tarmac. As we drove from the Yellowknife Airport to the Arnica Inn in Old Town, a great calm descended over me. It was reminiscent of the feeling I get when I visit home (Victoria, BC) – a particular sense of timelessness that exists in towns that move at a slower pace.

However, the feeling I got in Yellowknife was different. There was an indisputable authenticity about the place. This authenticity is perhaps afforded to it through the geographical disconnect from the hustle bustle culture of busy southern cities. Whatever the source may be, there is a tangible sense of integrity about the place.

As most Edmontonians do when they travel to other places, I began to reflect on the similarities and contrasts between Edmonton and my newfound crush of a city. I can’t pretend that I became an expert on all things Yellowknife over the course of a 3-day trip, but during my short time there I was able to get a decent feel for the city. I should note that my understanding of the city is strongly influenced by the engaging conversations I had with Tim as he showed me around his former home. During our walks around Yellowknife and over beers at the Black Knight Pub, Tim shared perhaps only a sliver of what he knew and I learned a lot. He’s the guy you want to talk to if you have any questions that pertain to Canada above the 60th parallel.

As I had mentioned earlier, there is an authenticity that exists in Yellowknife – an honest grittiness. The history of the city was intact and evident. A walk through Old Town revealed an “okayness” with a rough and tumble sort of beauty. Cosmetic upgrades were scarce, and thankfully so. It was apparent that this city was staying true to its self.

I believe there is a lesson in this for Edmonton.

This past June, I had my one year “anniversary” as an Activation Board member with Make Something Edmonton. It has been an impressive year at Make Something Edmonton, and I am really, quite excited about the future of the organization. On the longest day of the year, we saw Edmonton’s DIY placemaking abilities with #DIYCity Day. In May, we got news that the Edmonton Freezeway, a whimsical and ambitious project that was initially ridiculed by some, is quite close to being a reality. In December we celebrated “Edmontoness” at Sounds, Light and Motion. If you were to ask me what any of these things have in common, I would say that they are authentically Edmontonian. That they are not contrived and perfectly packaged and that that was what made them magnificent.

But recently, I have had some concerns about whether we are adhering to this ethos. I used to think we had gotten over our identity crisis, but something tells me that we are still smack dab in the middle of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that changing and progressing as a city is bad in any way. I’m all for improving our city, i.e bike lanes, transit, infill, commercial development etc. I just feel that a few recent events are signalling that we may be trying too hard to portray an image of ourselves which I believe to be incongruent with what Edmonton is really about.

We all know about the Ice District debacle. For some reason, despite being a stakeholder in the arena district endeavour, the City wasn’t consulted on the naming of what will inevitably be the heart of our downtown, let alone the Edmonton region. I don’t particularly care for the name, and it is pretty obvious that the name was chosen to market to a specific subset of the population. To me, it is contrived and so brutally corporate. Most “districts” slowly and organically grow into their names (Distillery District in Toronto, Meatpacking District in New York, Gastown in Vancouver). In Edmonton, we get a branding agency to fast track that process.

Yesterday, Omar Mouallem wrote an interesting article which alerted me to another “district” that popped up in what is currently known as the Avenue of Nations. That area is now known as the “Design District”. Omar correctly points out that the business association that renamed the already named area neglected to acknowledge the rich culture of the area’s African immigrant community. Ugh. I guess the word “design” appeals to hipsters? What about that area screams design? It appears to be gentrification at its worst. It just feels gross to me on so many levels.

Oh, and I can’t forget about the city-wide uproar caused by a poorly written article that criticized Edmonton. The article ran in a local newspaper in a suburb of Nevada – and the author was clearly a grumpy guy. In my mind it was inconsequential, yet it became the talk of the town. I can’t imagine any of the other “big 5” cities spending any time on a silly article. Why did we care so much? It seems that our opinion of ourselves is really, quite fragile.

Occurrences of this sort embody a frenetic energy I sense sweeping over the city. An urban neurosis of sorts. Some people in the world of psychology would contend that illness or dysfunction is in part a result of one’s alienation from their true self. Could the same hold true for cities?  I don’t know about you, but I think it’s been an odd summer when it comes to city affairs. It’s as if there has been a full moon hanging over Edmonton for the past while.

I can understand where it’s coming from. This city, downtown in particular, has been neglected for so long and now we’re getting some well deserved attention. The coming of Connor McDavid and the countless developments that will soon pop up in our skyline has everyone in a frenzy to push out an image of the “new Edmonton”.

Now that I think of it, I think my visit to Yellowknife reminded me of the Edmonton I first encountered and came to love. A city that was aware of its faults, knew its potential, and was generally okay with who it was. I think the excitement that has overtaken the city has understandably thrown us off kilter, but it may be prudent to take pause. I worry that if we don’t, we will lose something very special that makes us who we are as a city – and it will be quite difficult to reclaim that endearing quality when it’s gone.

(photo in header was taken by me during a canoe paddle amongst Yellowknife’s floating house boats)

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One thought on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a City: Is Edmonton Still in the Midst of an Existential Crisis?

  1. I like it all, Robin, but I really think the “Ice District” thing is a big “meh”. Most “districts” in North America have been named by developers. Do you really think Sherwood Park, never mind it’s neighbourhoods, evolved their names, or were much discussed by the at the time part time Reeve and Aldermen? Of course not!

    “District” names will evolve despite corporate (or City Council) buggering around. Who named it “Edmonton” after all, if not a suck-up flunky of the Hudson Bay Corporation? Personally, I call the city Pehonan when I don’t call it Edmonton House. And that hockeyball rink is Iron Foot Place.

    And 200 years from now, evolution will have happened 🙂

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