Where a ’90s tourist guide will take you in Edmonton, Alberta

This is the story of a story that died.

Last summer, a start-up arts-and-culture website based in a large American city asked me to contribute to a series they were running. The assignment: hunt down an old Lonely Planet travel guide, try to follow all of its recommendations for the city I live in, today, and see how the experience measured up.

TL;DR: I wrote the story, went through the editing process, invoiced, my editor quit, I was never paid, it never ran, everyone stopped responding to my emails. The circle of life.

But I liked the story! And I didn’t eat broccoli soup in the basement of the Alberta Legislature building for nothing, dammit. So here is my odyssey through Edmonton circa 1997 (circa 2015), roughly one year later.

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Edmonton, Alberta. (Credit: Edmonton Economic Development (EEDC))

Even within Canada, Edmonton is still plagued by a series of outdated reputations: as a milquetoast government-and-university town, as one big blue-collar suburb of the oil sands, as a far-flung frozen wasteland located too far north in a country that’s already pretty damn northern. By now, you’d think the influx of new ideas, money, and young people who’ve been pouring into the Alberta capital for at least the last half-dozen years (the overall population has grown by 42% since 1996) would have given the city its due as a cultural and business start-up hub whose star is on the rise. Not quite. Not yet.

Outside of Canada, meanwhile, Edmonton is known for two things and two things only: West Edmonton Mall, for a long time the biggest shopping mall in the world, and the Oilers, a once-unstoppable hockey dynasty that racked up five Stanley Cups in seven years (until the team was tragically kidnapped by Carmen Sandiego).

But whereas both of those achievements are pretty squarely time-stamped to the ’80s, this Lonely Planet tourist guide to Canada I’m holding is from 1997. And that was a much different time for the erstwhile City of Champions.

The 20-odd pages devoted to Edmonton circa 1997 are largely an exercise in euphemism.

Edmonton was never the most well-designed or sophisticated of cities. At the peak of Oilermania, Mordecai Richler described it in the New York Times as Canada’s “boiler room,” citing its lack of good restaurants, the fact that there is “hardly a tree to be seen downtown,” and “grim religious zealots” prowling the streets in the dead of winter as reasons to decamp for Toronto or Montreal. But Edmonton took a further hit in the ’90s when then-premier Ralph Klein cut public spending across the province by more than 20% in order to eliminate Alberta’s mounting debt. Thousands of government workers, most based in the capital, found themselves out of work. Meanwhile, a similarly debt-phobic city council slashed arts and infrastructure budgets to the point that at one particularly bleak moment in 1991, city staff suggested closing off roads entirely, rather than paying to fix the potholes that riddled them.

None of which, of course, is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. Really, the 20-odd pages it devotes to Edmonton circa 1997 are largely an exercise in euphemism. You don’t get more than a few paragraphs in before mention of the “vagaries and fluctuating fortunes of the oil and gas industries,” which have brought “a series of minor ups and downs for the city.” But don’t worry: “The city continues to develop albeit at a modest pace, in all aspects, slowly forging its own identity.” Gee, have you booked your flight yet?

Still, maybe there are some lessons to be learned here. That’s why I set out on a recent weekday to see how the Edmonton represented in this tourist guide matches up with its present-day counterpart.

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Downtown Edmonton. (Credit: Government of Alberta / Epic Photography)

DOWNTOWN

Edmonton’s skyline isn’t particularly memorable. And for whatever reason, several of its most recognizable downtown buildings belong to government: The pyramids of city hall, on the east end, and especially the domed Beaux Arts provincial legislature building, better known as “the Leg” (pronounced “ledge,” as in I-wish-you-would-step-back-from-that). It’s fitting, then, that the very first place my guidebook recommends for food is the Leg cafeteria, which serves “plain, decent food at the best prices in town.”

This seems insane to me. First of all, is that even a recommendation? (I suppose cheap garbage doesn’t roll of the tongue quite so nicely.) Second, I used to work on the Leg grounds, and I can’t recall anybody so much as mentioning the existence of a cafeteria there, let alone one that catered to the general public.

But, sure enough, I’m wrong. It turns out the cafeteria is located in perfect camouflage underneath the main lobby of the Legislature. At least in the ’90s it would’ve been easier to access: Thanks to a fatal shootout at the federal parliament last year, some 2,000 miles away, our provincial government has seen fit to seal off those majestic front doors and instead permit the public to enter through a tiny entrance around the side that feels distinctly like crawling through a mouse hole. I shuffle through a metal detector, then sign in with a sheriff wearing an earpiece and bulletproof vest, who finally hands me a bright orange lanyard to wear around my neck indicating that I would like to eat lunch.

Inside, I meet Darcy Henton, provincial affairs reporter for the Calgary Herald, whose office is in the press gallery just down the hall. “I used to joke that the cafeteria had the best food in the building, once they took the vending machines away,” he says, as we browse a front counter offering basic fare like fish and chips, sandwiches, and soup. To Henton, who has reported out of the Legislature off and on for the past two decades, the quality of the food has varied over the years. These days it’s contracted out, but generally pretty good, he says, though a sympathetic cashier always gives him a heads up on how long the egg salad has been sitting out for.

When session is in, this cafeteria, with its wood walls and patterned carpets, is usually full of MLAs and their staff. On summer days like today, however, everyone is either back in their home ridings or else enjoying some food-truck grub outside by the fountains. One man at a nearby table is flipping through a more recent travel guide than mine, this one about the Canadian Rockies, which, I want to point out to him, are currently on fire. Henton and I both opt for a $6 bowl of soup. Mine’s cream of broccoli. It’s fine.

The Leg. (Credit: Marcel Schoenhardt)

Travel guides aren’t known for their senses of humour, but one sentence in this one makes me laugh out loud every time: “Parking is a problem in downtown Edmonton.” As I head north away from the Leg and turn east onto Jasper Avenue, the main downtown corridor, I count parking lots into the double-digits without even trying. But that’s how you know the guide is authentic: This city is obsessed with cars and where to store them. If you were to update Edmonton’s coat of arms for the 21st century, you’d have to save a spot for the surface-level parking lot (along with — what? — a magpie and a flaming effigy of the guy who traded Gretzky?).

“Hardly a tree to be seen downtown”? In your face, Mordecai!

It’s still the lunch hour, so most of the people on the street right now are office workers. One redheaded woman walks by, complaining about the city’s wayfinding signage to a friend who is sipping some expensive-looking juice. There are also a few standouts, like the two Jehovah’s Witnesses who maintain their usual unobtrusive post in front of the Tim Hortons on 107 Street. When I cross the street, a guy in full Stormtrooper gear, minus the helmet, strides past me with mysterious purpose.

I duck into Audreys Books and ask Steve Budnarchuk, one of the owners, for a couple of loopy Spanish novels that have just come in for me on special order. He retrieves them off of a shelf that is mostly taken up by hardcovers of Harper Lee’s long-awaited To Set a Watchman, which is officially in stores this week. These days, Audreys is the only remaining independent bookstore in the city, but my guide lists it next to multiple peers, all now defunct. I ask Budnarchuk whether Audreys was really known, as the guide suggests, for its “Canadiana, travel guides, and maps,” and he gives me a puzzled look. “It’s a general-interest bookstore,” he says. “It’s always been that.”

Eventually I find myself in the centre of downtown, at the traffic-calmed intersection of 101A Avenue and 100A Street, because the guide has promised me “trees [that] have been planted and … benches for lingering.” It lives up to the hype. The benches are all taken, but I linger in the sunlight nonetheless — at least until the dust and noise from a nearby construction site becomes too distracting to enjoy the trees, which, yes, are still planted to this day. (“Hardly a tree to be seen downtown”? In your face, Mordecai!)

City Hall and Churchill Square. (Credit: Kurt Bauschardt)

LONELY PLANET DOWNTOWN RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Edmonton Art Gallery — Still there; rebuilt as the Art Gallery of Alberta
  • Map Town — Gone
  • Silk Hat — Still there; now The Hat
  • Nest — Gone
  • Bistro Praha — Still there
  • Goodfellows — Gone
  • Sherlock Holmes Pub — Still there
  • La Crêperie — Still there
  • Harvest Room (Hotel Macdonald) — Still there

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Whyte Avenue in Old Strathcona (Credit: Jamey M. Photography (Flickr))

OLD STRATHCONA

Edmonton’s two major districts are separated by the North Saskatchewan River, and began life, more than a century ago, as rival towns to one another. Yet while downtown has generally tried to keep up with the times, with varying results, Old Strathcona’s efforts have largely gone the other way, dragging its heels and delaying bright shiny modernization as much as possible.

This is a neighbourhood that prides itself on its heritage feel, from the early 20th-century street facades to the numerous plaques and historical designations celebrating its time before being amalgamated into Edmonton in 1912. My guide notes that Old Strathcona “is now one of the most vibrant and interesting areas of town with numerous cafes, restaurants, bookshops and buskers.”

Right around the time my handy guide came off the presses, however, things started to change. Until the late ’90s, Old Strathcona was the heart of the Edmonton theatre district, and nearby cinemas and bookstores were anchors of the city’s countercultural scene. Whyte Avenue was always a site of worlds colliding — nobody has ever explained to me where all the car dealerships came from — but at least there was enough cheap rent and ambitious cultural activity to keep things interesting.

“Whyte Avenue was an amazing scene to be around. Now it’s just gossip. The crowds changed.”

I park just off of Whyte and wander west, thinking about how difficult it is to keep the future out. Yes, Old Strathcona is still thought of as an outlet for the city’s bohemian side, and its proximity to the University of Alberta means that it’ll always be a stomping ground for local twentysomethings. But even when I moved to Edmonton, in 2008, the barbarians were already not just at the gates, but through them. The bars had arrived. Ditto the chain restaurants. Rents in general had skyrocketed. The most symbolic proof that historically minded Old Strathcona was losing its fight came in 2003, when a grubby-but-iconic building at the corner of 104 Street and Gateway Boulevard burned down, and a Starbucks and Chili’s went up in its place.

One of the businesses lost in that fire was the New York Bagel Café, which has since relocated to a less central spot on Gateway Boulevard. Owner Grace Kalinowski still vividly recalls Whyte Avenue at its peak. “It was an amazing scene to be around,” she says, “to be in that bar, listening to my customers. Oh, it was fun. It was a pleasure to listen to interesting people” — brainstorming their newest play or debating the latest in global politics. Kalinowski waves a hand dismissively. “Doesn’t happen anymore. [Now] it’s just gossip. The crowds changed.” She must not inspired by her only other patrons at the moment, a guy in cargo shorts and a girl in a Blue Jays hat, each picking away at an afternoon omelet with bright clusters of fruit on the side.

The Old Strathcona Public Library. (Credit: WinterE229 (Wikipedia))

Back on the street, I note the remains of other pieces of the old Old Strathcona as I pass by. Greenwoods’ Bookshoppe is now a skateboard shoppe (its original location, further down the block, currently a Mediterranean bar and grill). The Model & Toy Museum is a boutique advertising agency. Weirdly, two of the neighbourhood’s biggest and most perennial selling points aren’t done justice by the guide: The Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market isn’t mentioned at all, while the Edmonton Fringe Festival, a massive, freewheeling Whitman’s sampler of live theatre that takes over the entire neighbourhood every August, is undersold to the point of irrelevance. “Well worth catching,” it says, with no further explanation. I guess ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ didn’t exist in 1997.

A few blocks down, I walk past a new building that’s recently replaced a long-time car wash. (Like I said, Whyte is weird.) New retail bays are rare in this part of town, yet so far most of the suites sit vacant; the only space that’s been leased so far is to a beauty and cosmetics store that’s perplexingly titled Wigs ’R Hair. Word is that the rent is still just too high around here — these days, young entrepreneurs are more likely to try their luck downtown, or on 124 Street, than they are on Whyte.

Kalinowski’s voice, reminiscing about a heyday I will never see, stays in my head for the entire walk back to my car. I’ve long been under the impression that in the ’90s, Edmonton was at its nadir as a city. It didn’t occur to me to consider what might have been special about the place back then, or what has been lost in the years since.

LONELY PLANET OLD STRATHCONA RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Rutherford House — Still there
  • Greenwoods’ Bookshoppe — Gone
  • Model & Toy Museum — Gone
  • C&E Railway Museum — Still there
  • Telephone Historical Centre — Still there
  • Uncle Albert’s — Gone
  • New York Bagel Café — Moved to Gateway Blvd.
  • Veggies — Gone
  • Strathcona Gasthaus — Gone

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The Santa Maria in West Edmonton Mall. (Credit: Daniel Case (Wikipedia))

WEST EDMONTON MALL

After a brief dinner-and-putting-kids-to-bed interlude, I’m back in my car and headed west, to the place that to this day exerts more magnetism than anywhere else in the city: West Edmonton Mall. A self-proclaimed “world-class destination” and, to residents, a source of endless urban legends — from spawning a new species of cockroach (false) to once housing a Jewish school (true).

“‘West Ed’ is really something else,” says the guide. “More than just the world’s largest shopping mall and largest indoor water park, it’s a self-contained city complete with roof. You could live, OK, exist, inside for years.” Always throwing shade, this thing.

From the road, you can see WEM from a mile away. No surprise, considering it occupies 48 city blocks, has more than 800 stores, and greets 30.8 million visitors per year. Attractions include: Amusement park, ice rink, indoor water park, movie theatre, sea lion pool, pirate ship, mini-golf course, and hotel (complete with theme rooms like Roman, Igloo, and Hollywood Nights, the latter of which comes with its own stripper pole next to the bed). WEM may have lost the title of “biggest mall on Earth” in 2004, but it retains several others, including my personal favourite: the world’s largest parking lot.

In other words, it’s kind of gaudy. And loud. But it’s also, increasingly, just a mall — which I’m reminded of, walking in through entrance 48, by the Forever 21, as I make the first of many sidesteps around floors that are being remodeled and store signage that’s being upgraded. WEM has recently decided to court a more upscale clientele. That means that much of the kitschier décor of years past, like the live flamingo enclosure and the goofy amusement-park mascot Cosmo on mall signage, is on its way out.

This includes, sadly, the statues of prostitutes I’ve been directed to find at the “ersatz New Orleans Bourbon Street.” They were auctioned off to the public in 2011. The rest of this indoor strip — which I thought had since been typologically rebranded as BRBN ST., but can’t see any mention of now — is also undergoing renovations to make it more sleek and contemporary. Instead of marbled odes to sex work, there are glittering decorative panels on the walls under which families with young children stand around eating complicated ice-cream sundaes for dessert. Squint hard enough, though, and you can imagine the drunken-brawl district the strip can still become on lucky Friday and Saturday nights.

There’s no heritage here to be tainted by commercialization because West Edmonton Mall’s heritage is commercialization. That is its sole purpose.

By and large, Edmontonians are embarrassed by their relationship to the mall. But you know what? As stupid as it is to have a fluorescent Frankenstein of late capitalism be your city’s major claim to fame, every time someone comes to visit from out of town — every single time — guess what the first thing they inevitably ask to see is. That’s right: Good old WEM. It remains an honest-to-god attraction. Unlike Old Strathcona, there’s no heritage here to be tainted by commercialization because WEM’s heritage is commercialization. That is its sole purpose. And even your most Adbusting friend from college, upon seeing the World Waterpark for the first time, will mutter to themselves, with begrudging admiration, “Jesus. It’s huge.”

The World Waterpark. (Credit: GoToVan (Flickr))

On my way out, I buy some socks, walk past a large-scale replica of Columbus’s Santa Maria, and eat a British-only import chocolate bar while watching a dad teach his daughter how to ice skate. Love this place.

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Michael Hingston (@mhingston) is a writer and novelist based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has appeared in Wired, The Guardian, Atlas Obscura, and the Globe and Mail.