November 16, 2007


Kevin and have just returned from a quick trip to Edmonton to survey the city we will call home for the next couple of years, and our initial appraisal could not have been more discouraging. Everything about Edmonton is the opposite of what I think makes a good city; everything about Edmonton is at odds with the life I have tried to create for myself as an adult. I can truly say without bias, and I hope without self-pity, that the city of Edmonton – my future home – has no redeeming qualities.

To prove that I went there with an open mind, let me emphasize that my first impressions of the city were not necessarily negative ones. As Kevin and I drove to our hotel in the Old Strathcona neighborhood near the university, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bustling nightlife. Just like in the club districts in more cosmopolitan locales, young people were spilling out of bars and clubs up and down the main drag; the only difference here was that the clubs were blaring country music, and a surprising number of the clubgoers were wearing cowboy hats.

But I don’t discriminate. I actually like country music, and I own a well-worn pair of red cowboys boots myself, which I’m looking forward to pulling out of storage. And who cares if half the establishments were strip joints? It’s all part of the city’s Wild West appeal, right? I’ll even try to overlook the lapse in taste that allowed somebody to name one of them “Filthy McNasty’s.”

No, the disappointment came the next morning in the cold, cold light of day. And by cold, I mean 18 degrees Fahrenheit. The bright, unrelenting light of the far North revealed Edmonton to be one of the most hideous cities I had ever seen. It’s what I imagine Detroit looks like – Detroit being the code word in my lexicon for a gritty industrial city, darkened by the exhaust of too many cars and blighted by urban decay. In the so-called “downtown” I saw few restaurants, even fewer shops, and mile-long stretches of abandoned factories and automotive junkyards. And in the downtown neighborhood where Kevin and I have rented a house no one seemed inclined to dispose of the household garbage littering their front yards, much less plant a tree or a flowerbed. There wasn’t the faintest sign of beauty anywhere. In fact, I doubt that in such barren soil anything beautiful could ever grow.

Despite my aesthetic objections, Edmonton’s biggest problem actually seems to be its out-of-control urban sprawl. It has the lowest population density of any city in North America, with about one million inhabitants spread across some 264 square miles. Although it’s a wealthy city – the entire oil-producing province is riding a huge economic wave – it’s also a young city. Very little was built there before 1945, and so it was designed with the driver, not the pedestrian in mind.

Today it’s a tangle of highways and exit ramps, stretching 12 lanes in some places. It seems that whenever a new school or subdivision or shopping center was needed, the modus operandi of the city planners – if Edmonton even has a city planning commission – was just to build farther and farther afield. Older neighborhoods were left to languish and decay. After fifty years of rampant sprawl, the city is now so unwieldy that any mode of living, sans automobile, is unthinkable. The only way to make the city truly livable, in my opinion, would be to bulldoze the whole thing and start from scratch, but I think someone might object – inexplicably.

As it is, the city has no heart, no real urban core, like a Boston or a Chicago or even a Little Rock. Instead of a city center it has a mall, the West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America. In addition to shops and restaurants, it’s home to a water park, two movie theatres, a golf course, an Olympic-size skating rink, and a Sea World exhibit complete with real-live sea lions, sharks, and flamingos. It’s as big as many cities and to a certain extent even tries to mimic the better-planned ones. There’s a Bourbon Street wing, a Chinatown wing. There’s even a wing called “Europa,” a faithful reproduction of a French boulevard right down to the wrought-iron balconies and window boxes full of annuals. But of course these flowers are made of silk, and behind the fiberglass façades, there are no real shops, no real apartments. I am embarrassed to say that during our three days in Edmonton, Kevin and I went to the West Edmonton Mall twice, for a total of 20 hours. But in our defense there was just nothing else to do, nowhere else to go.

I suppose being dependent on a car is not oppressive for most people. Most Americans drive cars. But I don’t, at least not for the past eight years, and Kevin never has. And frankly we prefer it that way. I’ve liked not having to drive, to pay car insurance, to deal with the DMV. In Boston, I loved that I didn’t need a big house full of nice things because my neighborhood was my home. The coffee shop down the street was my living room; the movie theatre a few blocks away was my home entertainment system. I knew by name my local barista, my neighborhood video clerk, my Russian seamstress and the lovely Japanese couple who served me sushi every Friday. And because the neighborhood was communal property, everyone worked to keep it nice. To borrow a phrase from another raging social debate: “When everyone drives, something is lost.”

… And something else is accumulated, too, in the form of CO2 emissions and political enmity in the oil-exporting countries of the world. I suppose I enjoyed a certain degree of smug superiority that came from not owning a car. Now my carbon footprint will be as big as everyone else’s and I, too, will add fuel to the fire in the Middle East and fan the flames destroying our environment.

I could just not drive, you say. Edmonton does have a bus system. It’s true, I could. But frankly, I wouldn’t even want to walk the four blocks from my house to the nearest bus stop. Although our house is as cute as portrayed in the pictures, we neglected to ask about the neighborhood. And it is depressing. When I walked around it last week with Kevin, I felt terribly vulnerable – threatened even. We passed angry guard dogs snarling behind chain-link fences, posses of thuggish-looking youth on tricked-out bicycles, and piles of drunken homeless people blocking doorways and bus shelters. I suppose in a city where everyone who can drive does, the only people left on the sidewalks are people so poor or so incapacitated by substance abuse and mental illness that they can’t pass a driving test, much less make a car payment.

The curious thing is that such neighborhoods aren’t exactly foreign to me. When my family moved to Little Rock 12 years ago, we bought a house in a racially and socio-economically mixed neighborhood in the historic downtown, but just on the edge of what was considered “safe,” or gentrified. Walking my dog around the neighborhood, I routinely encountered drunks and the mentally ill. On Friday and Saturday nights squad cars patrolled my street for prostitutes and actual helicopters (“ghetto birds” my brother and I called them) hovered above the nightclub across the street to discourage parking-lot drug deals.

Still, I never had a single problem in all the years I lived there. I was never accosted and never felt at risk. Although once, when stopping at a liquor store, one of the neighborhood drunks told me I needed to get back in my car and drive away, immediately. “It’s not safe for you here, white girl,” he said helpfully and with such earnestness that it was hard for me not to laugh. I was one block from home. At the same time, I scoffed at my friends whose parents wouldn’t let them leave their comfortable white suburbs to visit me in “the Hood,” and I berated them for what I perceived as their latent racism and lack of worldliness.

And yet now, I wouldn’t even walk my dog around my Edmonton neighborhood. I would drive him the half-mile to the dog run in a nicer neighborhood, and I hate that. So what’s the difference? Did I become more conservative with age, more close-minded? Would I feel more “at home” if my Edmonton neighbors were black instead of Asian and Native American? I don’t even want to start down that road. Theoretically, we could break our lease and move somewhere nicer. Don’t think I haven’t considered it. But the fact is that in Edmonton there isn’t really anywhere nicer. There are safer, more gentrified neighborhoods, but they are plastic suburban communities full of their own horrors. There is no Edmonton equivalent to my Brookline apartment or my Coolidge Corner studio.

The funny thing is that to the unbiased observer, Edmonton is not that much different from my hometown of Little Rock. Little Rock suffers from the same effects of urban sprawl, and everyone in the city is forced to drive. I even know people who will drive from one end of a strip mall to the other rather than walk the hundred yards. And yet, I would insist that unlike Edmonton, Little Rock has real charm. And it’s not just that my family and most of my friends live there. The city has historic integrity and a promising future, and it’s actually a really nice place to live.

In the past ten years, I’ve watched with wonder as the Little Rock has experienced downtown revitalization bringing in hip bars and boutiques, a presidential library, a thriving farmers’ market and million-dollar condos. Every time I returned home from Boston I was surprised by how the gap between the two cities has narrowed, both in amenities and in mindset. But there is none of that in Edmonton, at least not that I can see from the window of a moving vehicle.

And yet for someone out there, Little Rock is their Edmonton. And so, does it follow then that for someone else, Edmonton is their Little Rock? Is there actually someone who finds Edmonton a beautiful, livable city? And if so, where do they live and are there any apartments available in their building?

Despite my whining, I am determined to stick it out in the house we have rented. I will plant a garden and will make my home an oasis of beauty, even if it’s in the midst of a vast wasteland of ugly. I’ve also promised myself not to become trapped in the gilded cage I’ll build for myself. I’ll venture out to explore new neighborhoods and have new experiences. I’m planning on taking a German class and a cooking class while I wait for my work visa to go through, and maybe I’ll meet a few people there who will make Edmonton feel as much like a home as Little Rock does.

And I supposed that if there is any silver lining in all this – that is, if I can see clearly through the tears of my disappointment – it will be the destruction of my snotty elitism, my blue-state exceptionalism. After all, I did not exempt myself from buying gas in Boston because I was virtuous, but because I didn’t need it. Now, I’ll no longer inhabit that rarified society whose residents can afford to turn up their noses at people who drive cars, who live in ugly neighborhoods, who go to malls – in other words, like most Americans and Canadians. I’m sure there are many people the world over who would count them quite lucky.

And anyway, if I do get to homesick for a different way of life, I can always go to the West Edmonton Mall and sit down at a table in Café Europa and imagine myself somewhere else.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

Some of your best, strongest writing here, I think. You raise and convincingly begin to answer some provocative questions. Edmonton might have the salutary effect of giving you something unrelenting to push against. Keep pushing back.