Transforming Edmonton

Trigger Warning: Tales of irresponsible and potentially self-destructive adolescent behaviour

BombShelterSo now it’s Edmonton, the city of my youth. At 41, a return is bewildering and bittersweet. I find myself touched and reassured by the oddest things: a grey rabbit loping through the concrete heart of downtown, or a magpie darting through the tarmac of 109th Street, nibbling traces of roadkill. Even the infinite rows of traffic pylons warm my heart, as they speak to Edmonton’s dogged resolve to keep pace with her own sprawl. And sprawl she shall; unlike Kelowna, whose growing pains are largely proscribed by mountains and lakes, Edmonton has nothing but prairie to interrupt its growth.

Within its ever-expanding limits, Edmonton’s status quo is change. I’m enjoying discovering which longstanding businesses are still around, and which have been overturned. Banks become drug stores, which become restaurants, which become vaping outlets. Bars become taprooms, then pourhouses. Everything becomes condos.

Even the garish landmarks that haven’t been consumed by YEG’s cheerful maelstrom of industry are subtly affected by it, including the spots that dot my own old stomping grounds in the West end—specifically Crestwood/Parkview/Laurier Heights, for those in the know.

My junior high school still stands proud, with several new “portables” orbiting the building—extra classrooms, to accommodate the extra families living in the newer duplexes nearby. The playground across the street is gone, but signs proclaim a new one is due in the fall, not that kids really need another one—I wouldn’t be surprised to find Edmonton has the highest number of playgrounds per capita in Canada. On the corner, there is no sign of the Red Rooster where I once bought my very first X-Men comic, but there is a drive-through TD bank and a premium deli, if the kids want to grab a pastrami on rye during their lunch break.

BlueChicagoIf you meander north on 142nd Street a ways (use the municipal service roads to avoid traffic), you’ll find a curious example of Edmonton’s self-love. On the busy corner of Stony Plain Road, the ever-vacant Blue Chicago restaurant still stands, because whoever owns the land is holding out for a condo grab. But some city councilmember whose commute took them past the eyesore wearied of the sight, because now its grey facade boasts bright, colourful poster-prints of Edmonton’s skyline and river valley. Problem solved; a municipal echo chamber, projecting self-love from empty lots.

On the other side of my school stretches the storied McKenzie Ravine. At lunchtime, my hetero lifemates and I would sprint through alleyways, wolfing carrots and granola as we ran, so we could steal 25 minutes amid the ravine’s slanting pines. In winter, we’d play a variation of capture-the-flag that involved sledding down the icy slopes on our jeaned bottoms. Once, on the final day before Christmas break, we got as far as the North Saskatchewan River, and we inched our way onto its partly-frozen surface till the ice gave out, plunging me into the swift icy current up to my waist. The stalwart crew pulled me out, but we got back to school ten minutes late and received detention in lieu of the farewell dance, which we hadn’t planned to go to anyway, so there.

In the summer, the region drew us back, and we got up to even more illegal and foolhardy tricks, if you can believe it. Once we spent a hot Saturday trying our collective best to break into the civic bomb shelter beside the ravine. Above ground, a squat, unmarked concrete cube surrounded by fencing; but ten feet down, set into the ravine’s face, was an airtight metal door, and how it called to us. Despite applying all our nerdly strength to the door with crowbars, hammers, and bike spokes jury-rigged as lock-picks, we got nowhere. Today, the cube squats on, still unmarked but incongruously painted in Mediterranean blues and whites—another off-beat demonstration of Edmonton pride.

PipeBridgeAnd then there was the Pipe Bridge. More than any of the other landmarks of my youth, the Pipe Bridge signifies my mythologized transition to adulthood. The Pipe Bridge is a green arch of crisscrossing pipework—some as thick as your thigh, but others finger-thin—supporting a thick aluminum conduit for natural gas. At its apex, the pipe looms 100 feet above the ravine floor. A perfect recipe for tragedy: get light-headed from the gas fumes, slip and break your everything below.

Climbing onto the Pipe Bridge was criminally easy. Tree growth had interrupted the chainlink fence in many places, so we slipped through and monkey-barred our way up the archway to the central span. Sometimes, during the school year, we’d hasten up there and eat lunch with the birdies, saluting the cars driving as they crossed the nearby bridge. Summertime, we might spend a whole afternoon up there, kings of all we surveyed.

Somehow, miraculously, none of us died on the Pipe Bridge—although the first play I ever wrote (and for which I received a “Teen Festival of the Arts” award and a handshake from Brad Fraser) was a what-if alternative personal history that ended with a fatal fall. The stubborn willfulness of adolescence was enough to bend fate in our favour.

But it truly amazes me that, as far as I know, no other stupid teen has succumbed to its siren song and fallen from the MacKenzie Pipe Bridge, which still yawns across the branchy chasm—and totally unchanged, unlike the other local landmarks. I wonder, if I crawled out there today and spray-painted “YEG RULES” across its beat-up aluminum breadth, would the city give me a fine? Or a medal?

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