Edmonton – Centering Itself

I remember when I arrived in Edmonton in the late 80s, its downtown was a bore. Scarcely populated with no cultural vibe, it was an area that was not the hub that I expected it to be. Having just seen Toronto, its inspiring CN Tower and the memories of New Delhi’s hustle-bustle fresh in my mind; Edmonton was eerily quiet, especially Downtown.

The only places that ever attracted a visit to downtown were the views of the river valley, which were just as magnetic then as they are now. Riding in the back seat of the Dodge Aries K-car, going up the McDougall Hill Road and listening to 80s Bollywood beats is a memory that still makes me chuckle.

Edmonton was a Car City in those days.

Office and institutional areas were separated from the industrial; residential communities were built with large roads, freeways, and transit was not the easiest option to go shopping or to work. Back then, this was a conflict between my ride for sports or the car serving my parent’s new business. Without a car, my hockey aspirations were hopeless. As inferred, that k-car was never taking me to sports, it was hauling Saris and Punjabi Suits to our store, and of course being our “Kitty-party” mobile on the weekends.

I did, however, enjoy basement ball hockey with my family and friends. Luckily, teenage boys like me in early 90s were celebrating that playboy was going digital and internet would change our lives.  Life was getting pretty awesome with video games as Atari and eventually Nintendo overloaded my analog nervous system.

We as a family, immigrated after the recession of the 80s, arriving slightly after the discouraged Edmonton economic vibe had passed. I am sure the Oilers great run in the 80s and early 90s dampened the melancholy of the economy-past. The city was just starting to shed the glum and wake up – the revitalization of Edmonton was happening. Personally, I witnessed the successful resurgence and invigoration of Old Strathcona, which was fun and energetic.

Old Strathcona, in particular, Whyte Ave., was the most attractive part of Edmonton for me in my youth. The eclectic atmosphere with unique pubs, cool restaurants, and better coffee appealed to my values and became a frequent destination for adding lustre to my weekends.

I am sure the plans were fraught with controversy on the political end because there was the issue of drunks, panhandlers and other lack of ‘social-sensibilities’ at times. Even with these controversies, as I reflect back, it was a tutorial for me to witness Edmonton’s ability to achieve change. Today, as the winds are changing further in creating more living spaces in Old Strathcona, the revitalization phase of the 90s is the foundation on which these ideas are standing on today.

Where Edmonton sputtered was in its ability to create a downtown that magnetized. Other metropolitans were assembling city centres that had growth and community – we were still staring at office buildings. We did not have immigrants flocking in our downtown the way Vancouver and Toronto attracted them. The lack of ‘culture’ in our central geography made the prospect of living in downtown Edmonton nothing short of dreary.

And then it happened.

The beloved Oilers and their group created (and still creating) a controversial development that transformed everything. The “Arena” and all of its additions have created a spark that will change Downtown Edmonton for the next phase. It will make it popular, vibrant and economically exciting for developers to look at Edmonton’s core with a promising eye.

Yes, before the Oilers arrival into downtown, there were residential condo towers being constructed but the “Ice District” lit the area up for what many call “urbanization”. A word that relays the idea that people are moving and will move into central Edmonton. I do not know if the word is quite fitting because it almost suggests that a 20 year old moving from his parents house in Millwoods into a condo in downtown is moving from a “rural” locality to the “urban” geography of 104 Avenue. I think the idea is more akin to ‘Centralization’. He was already “urban” but now his address is central – linked to public transportation and even a decent amount of entertainment.

We are social beings and perhaps Edmontonians are considering the benefits of living in tight spaces. Lululemon has made tight comfortable, and housing developers are trying the same thing. You can live in a tight village in Central Edmonton possibly without a car. Work, gym and social events all connected and you have a community that lives without a lawn mower. Just like the 5000 square feet Blockbusters have phased out into streaming internet services, as has Edmonton’s desire to sprawl itself out to suburbia.

We are shedding that “Car-City” mentality for so many reasons – maybe it is the evolved public transit, or the ease of Uber, or our psychology anticipating autonomous vehicles – but the ‘Car’ is not the asset it once was. My older son looks at a car with the same feeling as he looks at our house washer and dryer. A utility. He does not see much of a difference between a Honda, a Toyota or a Mercedes and on some days I agree with him. A feeling that is hard to admit and provides heart-burn (a condition I am finally old enough to enjoy).

The ‘House’ is dead? This rental economy is here for all of us. No more is the idea that owning a house is any form of “success” – in fact it may feel like quite the opposite. Having hundreds of thousands tied up in ‘home-equity’ does not provide the ‘superstar’ feeling that it used to. The ticker tape parade that was reserved for home-owners is as expired as the recognition of a high-school diploma. No one quite knows if it really is an accomplishment.

Even seniors are selling their homes and renting so that they can pull out cash for travelling, modernizing, and increasing their disposable income. Seniors are smart and they are seeing that renting in downtown could be fun and honour the decluttering feeling we are all pursuing. The minimalism vibes are en vogue and age is no barrier on their attractiveness.

An idea whose time has come…

My Cassettes are long gone, I hope so is Edmonton’s need to encourage wide spread out communities. The next neighbourhoods are going vertical and I am curious what we will build.

Edmonton, with all of its speed-bumps over the past thirty years, will finally have a downtown that will be busy and fun. It will be filled with renters that want to live cozy; spend less time on the commute; and socialize.