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Modern life in North America often seems like a Faustian bargain: in exchange for material comforts we must give up a sense of community, social cohesion, and genuine contentment. Most modern North American towns bear witness to this awful trade-off. Edmonton, Alberta is no exception.
Today I drove to Edmonton’s downtown and discovered that the historic Arlington Apartments have been demolished. Once a proud edifice just a stone’s throw from Jasper Avenue, the Arlington Apartments had an interesting and lively past. The building itself was an exemplar of elegant early twentieth century architecture. Between 1994 and 1995, I lived there with two roommates for about six eventful months. I remember once preparing myself chilli con carne with week-old ground beef and, after eating it, going into a 24-hour delirium, interrupted every hour by violent vomiting. The climax of my stay at the Arlington was when the upstairs apartment flooded ours with sewage.
A couple of years ago, a fire ripped through the Arlington and destroyed most of it. Nevertheless, the facade overlooking the street remained, and many people believed that the building could and should be rebuilt. Clearly, these voices have been ignored. In between the black-glass office tower on one side and the ugly green home of the Fresh Start education centre on the other, is a gaping hole. The hole where my home once stood.
What does it do to the human spirit to see the places of one’s past torn down and replaced with condominiums or parking lots or strip malls? During my relatively brief sojourn in Edmonton, I witnessed the destruction of the old Edmonton Journal building, a grain elevator, city hall, the lieutenant governor general’s house… There was even talk at one time of tearing down the Hotel MacDonald.
I remember when I was fourteen, and the Journal building was coming down, I asked my peers, “Why are they doing this?” The general consensus was that the building was “too old” and that a “better one” was needed. In Edmonton, people generally think that history is something that happens elsewhere – i.e. in Europe, or possibly eastern Canada. People rarely think how history is something that happens everywhere, and that we all have a part in creating it and preserving it.
The other day, reading the Edmonton Journal, I discovered that many councillors at Edmonton’s intrepid city hall are “outraged” at the prospect of spending $50,000 to restore an historic Edmonton area barn. Thinking like this has prevailed throughout most of Edmonton’s history, and the result is that the city now has the feeling of utter abandonment. To travel around the place on a brisk day like today is like visiting the scene of some violent catastrophe that has killed most humans and condemned those that survive to huddling in temporary box-like structures. I stood in the heart of downtown and there was not a single soul on the sidewalk. In Edmonton, this is normal. This is what passes for city living.
People move around Edmonton looking miserable and rather shell-shocked. They seem suspicious and nervous of each other. I first noticed this general surliness when I returned to the city for Christmas 2007. This Christmas, my girlfriend noticed the exact same phenomenon.
Is it any wonder that Edmontonians look so miserable when the city itself is hell-bent on replacing everything old and unique with garish new warehouses that promote mass-market brands such as McDonalds and Boston Pizza and IKEA? Most of Edmonton is a perfect example of what author Howard Kunstler calls “the geography of nowhere.” How does it feel to live somewhere that looks like everywhere else, or in other words, like nowhere at all? Perhaps, after living in “nowhere” for long enough, people might end up feeling like a bunch of nobodies.
Is there any real difference between Blue Quill, Duggan, Clareview, or Riverbend? Beyond the size of the houses, as befits Edmonton’s varying social classes, do any of these neighbourhoods actually have a story to tell? I can’t think of many neighbourhoods in Edmonton that have a defined centre – i.e. a main street, a social hub, an historic core. All you get as you move from one part of the city to the other is the incessant voice of the commodity culture imploring you to buy buy buy.
I have immensely enjoyed many things about my festive season in Edmonton. The company of my wonderful girlfriend, her family, and the numerous stalwart friends that I’ve had a chance to see here -it’s been splendid. But boy am I glad to live somewhere else.
While I was in NYC, Mother Nature made sure that my neighbourhood, Villeray, would look suitably festive for Christmas. She dumped many inches of snow upon our streets and sidewalks, and now the drifts pile up around cars and decorate the steps of walk-up apartments. When I walk down the residential streets at night, the snow radiates in the glow of Christmas lights. It is still a beautiful novelty for now. The snow will probably seem less delightful by March, but that’s an update for another day, another season!
And here comes Banchi, jumping onto my lap to say hello, and now climbing onto the printer, from where she has a vantage point to look over the street. Yesterday, she briefly went out onto the balcony and played in the snow. She doesn’t drive a car, so the snow has few downsides for her. Merry Christmas, Banchi! I will say it now, since on the day itself, I will be thousands of miles away in Edmonton, and will not get a chance to say it in person.
There have been some small dramas this week here in Villeray. On Monday, I received a visit from crack-smokin’ Pierre who lives with his mother in the downstairs apartment. He said that water had trickled from my apartment into his. I went down to see what was up. Pierre’s mother, Francine, was doing the dishes, and when I said “Salut, Francine!” she did not look up from her task. I think she was very grumpy. Regular blog readers will recall that this is the second time my apartment has leaked water into hers. Upon looking closely at the ceiling and the wall, there was a thin but long trail of discoloured water making its way downwards. So Pierre and I returned upstairs to see what was causing it. Pierre, after some sleuthing around, isolated the source of the leak to my kitchen sink.
Thereupon I phoned the landlord, Monsieur Armand Ouellet. He told me that a plumber would arrive the very next day. And lo, so he was, punctual as Big Ben. The kitchen tap was apparently not in place properly, and a five-minute fix was all it took to prevent any future leaking. No more need to wash my dishes in the bathtub. Thank goodness for that.
The remaining drama of the week was the small jubilation at the news that my new communications company, Villeray Communications, started in partnership with Matt, will embark on its third contract soon… Combined with a contract for me at the National Film Board of Canada, starting in January, it looks as though 2009 will bring more work than ever before.
What could be better than the kind of work that builds your own business, tests your skills, and forges new ones? Bring on 2009, I say. Early signs are that it will be a gooder. I am grateful.
Last, but certainly not least, from everyone here at this blog, namely Banchi and me, the best of the holiday season to you all.
I am in New York City and a week has passed in a seeming whirlwind of travel and rain and cold and drink and interviews and more drink and meagre food rations. New York City always seems big, and the more time I spend here, it just seems to get bigger. I’ve been in Queens and Brooklyn and also out to Long Island. The distances seem vast. But New York City is like a cosy village when it comes to the instant warmth of people once you talk to them. There is not much of the polite and polished veneer that makes relations smoother in Canada, but also makes things more distant.
Yesterday I saw rats in the subway. How they seem to like the subway, those furry beasts.
Today I saw two kittens walking around in a Queens car sales lot. Weird. Abandoned kitties? I thought of Banchi and wanted to adopt two new companions for her, but thought better of it.
I will really welcome being home again. It’s good to know that New York City is never that far away, but it’s far enough to start missing home pretty soon. I want a nice dinner with my girlfriend and a big lazy breakfast the morning after.
Canada’s government seems set to crumble mere days after it kicked off a new parliament. At first, I was enthused by the idea. Even at around noon, yesterday, I sent an email to everyone I know, encouraging them to rally to the defence of a potential NDP-Liberal coalition (propped up by the separatist Bloc Québecois). Now, I admit, I’m not so sure.
The fact is, a three-headed coalition government is going to expose Canada’s regional fault-lines like never before. The West is going to go berserk! They’re already apoplectic out there at the very idea that Stephane Dion, a colossal failure in the election, might replace their man, Stephen Harper. And to an extent, I can see their point.
But the scariest part of a coalition is making concessions to the Bloc Québecois. It’s a sign of Canada’s current dysfunction that its second largest province has seemingly embraced a party that wants to flee Canada at the first opportunity, and meanwhile, will extract every last entitlement that it can out of federal coffers.
How to get any clarity in this current quagmire?
The ideologue in me – that profoundly disliked Harper from the get-go – relishes the prospect of him getting his ass kicked for the monumental stupidity of last week. What was he thinking? Trying to bankrupt the opposition by removing federal financing? It’s not only a slap in the face to the opposition, it’s a slap in the face to me and all the millions of other Canadians who embraced this system – who knew that our vote would mean just under two bucks in funding for our chosen party. No matter how ruthless Chrétien was in his day, he never tried to destroy the other parties.
Nevertheless, the pragmatist in me – that wants Canada to stay as strong as possible – is balking at the idea of Stephane Dion seizing the helm. Rationally, it doesn’t make sense. It goes against the country’s best interests. I mean, I agreed with Dion and the Green Shift – tax the hell out of pollution, that’s what I say. But it must be conceded that most Canadians did not embrace Dion or his platform. So to appoint him leader now is going to strike millions of Canadians as a bit of farce, not to mention, undemocratic. Granted – there is parliamentary precedent for it, indeed, Harper suggested exactly the same power-sharing arrangement in 2004, but just because Harper thought of it first certainly doesn’t make it right.
In the long term, I think there is only one way of saving Canada. We have to reform our democracy and introduce a form of proportional representation. It’s the only way a country as vast as this one can mitigate the regional differences. The Bloc is not as popular in Québec as their seat-count in parliament would suggest. Moreover, the Conservatives (or Stephen Harper) are not as popular out West as their seat-count would suggest. Both are benefitting from a first-past-the-post system that rewards the racking up of big regional victories instead of appealing to Canadians from coast to coast. If the Bloc Québecois were awarded seats on the basis of their support among Canadians, how many seats would they have right now? Thirty at most? And thirty seats seems about appropriate to their status as a purely provincial party with only narrow and selfish interests.
The vast majority of Canadians prefer centre-left parties. That is what recent history is proving. What unites the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc is that they reject the deference to Big Oil and pure individualism; in this time of economic crisis, they believe more help for struggling Canadians is needed. If we could somehow remove the toxic poison of separatism from this mix, I believe we’d get the government we need at this time.
It’s time for proportional representation!
Through Alberta Eyes, the article Cyrus and I co-wrote about the Quebec election was published today in the Edmonton Journal. Enjoy!