Never visit Edmonton in the winter!
This was Jan Morris’ warning in the prologue to her 1990 essay about the City of Champions for Saturday Night magazine. She arrived and it was “COLD, VERY COLD and while everyone was friendly and the city seemed to be handsome and all of her creative comforts were satisfied she felt defeated.”
The longer she stayed the more she wondered “why on earth would anyone want to live there and she left a day early.”
Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.
She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do. The series of essays on Canadian cities in her book “City To City” were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.
Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.
Perhaps I am jealous?
Poor First Impression
It didn’t start well with her decision to attend the Full Moon Hootenanny at the John Janzen Nature Centre to listen to the hooting of owls and learn how to hoot herself. Blinded by snow flurries and baffled by the intersections, the city’s numbering of streets and avenues and the one-way bridges she couldn’t find the place. “I circled helplessly in the gloom.”
The initial venture into local culture was a complete failure. Not a good first impression, but read on as she has some nice things to say.
The second day wasn’t much better as she explored the city centre where the streets were half-deserted with only a few cars and trolley cars on the slippery streets and the subway stations looked abandoned.
When she arrived at the downtown commercial district she thought, “I might be in Houston, Denver or almost any other provincial business city of the United States. The Legislature could easily be the capitol of one of the smaller American states and she notes it was American-designed. The unmistakably Canadian building, the venerable railway-baronial Macdonald Hotel was boarded up.”
This was not a good start.
She did think Edmonton was a “forceful place” mostly because of the magnificent North Saskatchewan River. Adding, “The architecture is predominantly late Bauhaus with few post-modernist tomfooleries…seems to me to offer an urban vista of world class.”
Strathcona to WEM to UofA
On the third day she “ignored downtown and went to the unmistakably indigenous quarter of Strathcona, whose very name struck me as allegorically of the country.” Here she found the archetypal prairie settlement of the 19th century, still recognizable and offers a homey contrast to the skyscraper clump in downtown.
She loved Strathcona’s main street (Whyte Avenue) which still feels like a main street with grand old hotel, theatre, car dealerships, pinball arcade and various shops and restaurants. However, it offered her “no rumbustious vibration,” she sensed the “inherited strain of reserve to the Canadianness of Edmonton.”
Morris found it strange that while the city swarms with every kind of foreigner it did not feel in the least like an immigrant city. “Even the few Indians I saw looked more integrated than most…it was hard to realize that only a few generations ago, Cree and Blackfoot lived in tribal panoply, pitching their tents on Whyte Avenue sometimes.”
“The Canadianness of the place worked on me rather slyly” she says, things like the destination names at the Greyhound Bus Station – Wandering River, Elk Point, Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House. She also met several interesting people that made her stay interesting. She noted her view out her hotel window was very Canadian in a “distinctly insidious way: the Great West Saddlery Co. Ltd., Café Budapest, W.C. Kay the Gold and Gem Merchants, the gentrified Boardwalk Market decorated with fairy lights, stacked office towers beyond, and the illuminated thermometer on a building across the street registering minus 27 degrees centigrade.”
She acknowledges Edmonton’s one big international claim to fame is the West Edmonton Mall and so she decided to visit and judge for herself as someone had told her the Mall is “aimed at an average mental age of nine.”
To her it is “mostly artificial, largely derivative, it is a very declaration of contemporary capitalism, the world-conquering ideology of our time. It is beyond nationality, beyond pretension actually, and however much you may detest it yourself, you must be a sourpuss indeed to resist the eager excitement in the faces of people young and old, for better or worse, as they enter its shameless enclave.”
At the end of her fourth day she wondered “if the fantasy of West Edmonton Mall was the one thing in Edmonton that I really got the hang of. For the rest of the city seemed to be losing, rather than gaining, clarity in my mind…so indeterminate does the civic message seem to be. Edmonton has few instantly recognizable features, and so far as I could see no very pronounced local characteristics.
People did not talk in a recognizably Edmonton way, or cook specifically Edmonton dishes…I noticed very few striking-looking people in Edmonton.”
She concluded her rant with “sometimes I thought it the least Canadian of cities, in its lack of icons or traditions.” But then says “at other times I thought it the most Canadian of cities, but of an indistinct kind. I expected it to stand, temperamentally speaking, somewhere between Saskatoon and Calgary…in the end I concluded its character to be altogether unique!”
This is followed by “Edmonton does not feel like a young city. There is nothing brash about it except the mall…it seemed to me a gradualist kind of place…Edmonton appears to have developed, through many a boom and many a bust, with persistent reasonableness.”
She was not a big fan of the University of Alberta either, “the buildings look more or less indistinguishable from the apartment blocks and office buildings nearby.”
She recognizes that Edmonton has always been a liberal city, a place of bureaucrats and academics. She also acknowledges “theatres abound, art galleries are two a penny, bookshops are nearly all within reach. The natural history dioramas in the provincial museum are the best I have ever seen. A professional symphony flourishes, there are several publishing houses, the Edmonton Journal isn’t bad and there is a lively film industry.”
She concludes the essay with “For a city of its size Edmonton is cultivated not just by North American but by European standards. And yet it left me curiously indifferent – not cold exactly, except in a physical sense, but unengaged.”
Ultimately, she decided to leave a day early, hence the title of the essay “Edmonton, A Six-Day Week!”
What was she thinking?
In her essay, you can sense Morris’ frustration that she simply couldn’t understand the city’s sense of place, or why anyone would choose to live there. It is too bad she chose to visit in the winter, I am sure she would have had a completely different experience in the summer.
Still I am surprised she wasn’t able to understand how the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) was a logically adaptation to winter, providing a warm and inviting place for shopping, entertainment and recreation. How it became the city’s town square? How it usurped downtown as the city’s gathering place. How it reflected a city dominated by its new suburbs.
I couldn’t help but wonder why she loved Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and hated WEM? Aren’t they pretty much the same thing? In fact WEM, has a better mix of uses.
I also found it strange Morris was frustrated with the roads on her first day. I would have thought an experienced traveller would know anyone getting into a strange car and driving in a strange city almost always ends up getting lost and frustrated by the quirks of the city’s streets.
Add to that it was cold and snowing and one has to ask “what was she thinking?”
Morris found Edmonton to “disarmingly modest, in the biggest-west-of-Winnipeg mode.” This is not surprising as she finds all Canadian cities lacking in “bravado.”
I wonder what she would think of Edmonton today with its shiny new downtown toys - arena, art gallery, museum, office and condo towers. Surely, she would be impressed by how it has become one of North America’s best festival cities and how its river valley park system is one of the best in the world. And I wonder what she would think of Edmonton’s current “ICE District” bravado?
Perhaps if she visited today, winter or summer, her essay would be titled Edmonton: An Eight-Day Week!
It is amazing how cities evolve.