Sunday, June 29, 2008

Go East?

The notion that most North American cities have their lower income zones on their east side because of the direction of the wind carrying the pollution from each centre's industrial areas seems like an interesting fact at first, but if continued to be mulled over, the idea starts to fall more like trivia about a hierarchy that doesn't matter anymore.

Due to idling, big box stores, and urban sprawl in all four directions (but most heavily west and south), the increasingly privileged unsustainable car-friendly zones seem to have it worse than a bit of shared air pollution.

Forced to drive to even the closest necessities like a grocery store, where thanks to poor urban planning it would take 5 minutes to drive, 30 minutes to walk, and an hour by bus, to purchase trucked in produce whose costs are soaring because of the precious oil in every facet of our lives, so that you can keep your oversized fridge stocked in an oversized house where your utilities are also skyrocketing to pay to heat and light up space that you don't really use all that much.

Formerly a resident of a deep west end neighborhood, where walking became the most lonely and often dangerous activity alongside endlessly curving blocks and sidewalkless roads filled with speeding SUVs and sports cars, the isolation is a real defining experience of the city. It gets easier central, but even in downtown after the end of the business day, though there are certainly more people and activity on the streets these days, the presence of pedestrians is quite sparse relative to the amount of space there is.

. . .

Not entirely unrelated, but having lunch with Kristy Trinier, Public Art Director for Edmonton Arts Council, she tried to convince me that East Berlin is a lot like Edmonton. She's lived there, I've only been there, but I certainly didn't buy the statement. She connects the two through their shared sense of having the image of being an industrial wasteland, but I maintain that the priorities are just too different. I did however bring up the statement the next evening with a friend who lived there for the past year and has returned indefinitely. Claire, who despises everything about this city, and lives in Millwoods, thought about the comparison and said she could agree, but only about very specific parts of East Berlin. There is one area that everyone knows about, as from the train to the airport it is just a stretch of barren wasteland filled with abandoned industrial zones that everyone there thinks is a shithole. Walking through the area one day by herself, self defense kicked in about the sudden isolation she felt about navigating empty streets. This sudden thought that she could be jumped at any point came into her head for the first time in her travels and it reminded her of home.

As most everyone who stays in Edmonton leaves often to connect to the rest of the world, what will happen as our gas-dependency will soon make frequent traveling obsolete for most individuals? Has the last fifty years of lived-in global cultural exchange coming to an end? And will cities like this one be able to continue as a place people settle for good?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Eating, Not Walking

Strange phenomenon to have to leave your house, get in a car, drive to a restaurant, circle for parking, eat, and then get back in your car, and drive home to sit down once again. Strange as it's so unnatural--and poor for digestion and your overall experience of life.

finding myself circling this rainy city in between procrastinations, I stop for a mid afternoon meal, in a strip mall on the very north side. stepping out of the car there was a used rolled up diaper discarded in the parking lot. with no sidewalk leading up to the restaurant, or garbage cans, just road and parking, I splashed my way inside, ate an unappealing meal that was lukewarm, while staring into another strip mall across the street, got back into my car next to the used diaper, and drove home, thinking all the while about the lack of confidence this seems to emanate. no pride or value put into place, how else are we going to connect and relate but through disregard?

Looking out my window, just north of 118 Avenue, I see people walking by, most often if not always, looking straight down at the broken ground before them. No one is looking up, looking around, seeing if there is anything worth seeing. I am still foolish enough to be looking around, trying to see what I want to see, instead of what's simply there.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jasper Avenue, Saturday night, 2008

It's been Whyte Avenue that the sensible have been avoiding, between Thursday and Saturday, sidestepping the drunken bravados, fist fights, stabbings, gropings, and the overall unbridled debauchery and excessive public urination.

Only it's been creeping up to the north side of the river, slowly taking over with the strongest concentration between 109 St. and 106. Spilling out mostly from the Oil City Roadhouse, a monster in itself, its clientele takes over the entire block of sidewalks, pandering in groups or trying to find one another on their cellphones. Past the point of coherent drunk and raucous in groups, the air is thick with the tension of a fight ready to break at any moment.
Walking by last night shortly before 2 a.m., a couple of cops on bikes stand still nearby. A young man in a white shirt turns around and you can see that he is covered in blood. A small group are slumped in a corner, where usually a homeless person sits or sleeps, and they are now waving toxic swizzle sticks and serenading a birthday pal. Turning the corner two more cops jaunt by on foot, coming from the alley where the cruiser lights are ricocheting down the lane. Somebody yells, a man, or more probably a boy, and I'm warned that there are more cops on this block ticketing jaywalkers more than ever. Because that's the real problem. Pedestrians avoiding fights by crossing the street instead of the establishments incubating this behavior. The aggression on the street is palpable when you walk through it, less so then when you just drive by. Walking through a haze of the delirious, the only sound is traffic and sirens.

Crowds and density are not the problem, as I feel more on guard walking in Edmonton than I do amidst the busiest intersections in the world; the problem is the purpose of density. Density in Edmonton manifests two ways.

- In one, it is in traffic, specifically the arteries of the Yellowhead, Whitemud, and soon enough Anthony Henday that swings thousands of people and tonnes of goods along with burning gallons of gasoline every single day. It is a density-in-transition, something fitting for this gateway nexus, and its transient energy cuts through to how citizens may live and try to navigate this place.

- The second density correlates with the first. Edmonton is a transient stop, the "big" city with over half a dozen satellite cities and counties, whose young and restless blow into town with the sole purpose of getting absolutely trashed on their big night out. Concentrated, destructive, they disperse again leaving downtown and Strathcona sticky and stained. Of course residents frequent these areas too on the weekend, but the overwhelming majority are not. Edmonton is shedding its 'big city with a small town mentality' image with a much more dismal notion of being a small town with big city problems.

Then again

this morning mo and i attended the mayor's pride brunch. we were at michael phair's table, and so was doug iveson, one of the recently elected city councilors. ben henderson and laurie blakeman were at the next table over, with the dean of education and the mayor himself. to be transparent about this, mo and i lucked into our tickets when michael found himself with some extras. all the official speakers were full of enthusiasm for downtown, queers and youth. the mayor went so far as to publicly dis joel kotkin, upcoming speaker at the edmonton chamber of commerce later this week and proponent of single-family homes and suburban "nerdistans." as i listened to enthusiast after enthusiast, it was hard to stay unmoved. in what other city in the world right now could you buy access to the movers and shakers for a $40 brunch ticket?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pride 2008

if there's a nicer crowd than the one at pride every year, i don't know it. disco and beer unite everybody in a glowy feel-good afternoon: greens, queens and the NDP, organic grocers and leathermen, cops, anarchists, sissies, butches and bears. even the MCs aren't very bitchy.

i feel conflicted about pride. every year i'm undone by the "i love my gay daughter" t-shirts, and i resent it. i am moved by the old queers, who were fighting for recognition years before it even occurred to me to kiss a girl, and i love them. then i see someone in his teens and i realize, god, i'm closer to the old folks than the young studs. the HIV banners always make me cry, reminding me as they do of the late 1980s in san francisco, when pride "parades" were actually endless funeral marches. and i don't know what to think about the hordes of queer teenagers chanting "we love gay camp! we love gay camp!"

i feel ambivalent, i should say, about edmonton pride. i've done pride in a bunch of other cities, and i'm full of untainted, sentimental memories. my first pride was san francisco 1988, shortly after i came out. my security-guard girlfriend and i rode helmetless (and me, shirtless) in the dykes on bikes contingent: i was 24 years old, sporting a skirt and a flat-top. in london for a conference a few years back, i took myself to pride, which wound around and around the old city, everybody getting drunker by the block. toronto 1996, shortly after mo and i got together, and were staying at her ex's place: i wore a leather dress and bought mo some big black boots. at vancouver pride one year we ran into rob, whom we hadn't been able to reach by phone, and then adam, his freshly-ex-boyfriend. dublin pride 1998: just when i thought i would die of loneliness, a few lesbians took me out for a pint. stonewall 25, 1994, new york: we walked with the ACT-UP counter-march (who can remember, now, the dispute), and so arrived at central park in time to watch the mile-long rainbow flag wend its way in.

there's a familiar sense of sincerity and warmth at all these pride events: it's a pride thing, to set aside your reservations for the day and feel the love. so i don't exactly know why i am ambivalent about edmonton's pride. it's not that it's small; i actually liked edmonton pride when it was even smaller, a few dozen of us risking harassment walking around the block in old strathcona. and it's not that it's quiet, though it is that. (note to floats: music! play music! especially if you run a radio station or own a bar!) it's not even that the floats are always a little disappointing, though, again, the floats are usually a little disappointing. and i can look past the insulting fact that edmonton schedules pride here to accommodate toronto's, which will happen next week.

as best as i can tell, it's that edmonton's can-do love makes me feel chary. i want edmonton pride to be better -- bigger! louder! more fabulous! -- but it feels downright mean to want that when everybody is clearly doing their best. on a day characterized above all by non-judgmental warmth and generosity, who am i to stand back and sniff about new york 1994, corporate toronto glitz, or the feisty irish?

in this way, pride is continuous with every other aspect of edmonton. criticizing the city is a no-win prospect. the response is either, "oh, but you're not from here, are you" or "oh, but you're from here." let me come clean: i use both of these responses myself, regularly. we're suspicious of people who choose to stay here. "but why?," i've asked, bewildered, imagining that even a refugee would choose detroit's mean streets over edmonton's soft landing. on the other hand: don't tell me there's no culture here; you just don't know how to look for it. and then, on the third hand, i worry that we're used to being second-rate, and so we expect to be second-rate, and so we accept being second-rate.

my hope is that this blog will help me develop a critical take on the city that's not just critical. i hope it will help me see this place more clearly. if we're lucky, "walking in the city" will become a site for other edmontonians to stop in and speak their minds. in this way, it might become part of the cultural fabric of this place.

so i'll close with two of this year's surprising sights: first, the quakers. yeah, that's right: quakers marching along in the parade, holding a banner advertising quakers in support of same-sex something-or-other. second, a group protesting L ron hubbard's homophobia. they stood in a small group on churchill square and handed out flyers denouncing dianetics' approach to human sexuality in general and to homosexuality in particular. now, you don't see that in vancouver.

(do you?)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Heading Down to Camrose

ACD and I took one last road trip before her impending departure, and once again, it was a D related trip. Last time Morinville, this time Camrose, where D and Sandy and little Daphne exist in their cozy 70+ year old house, standing strong just a couple of small town blocks from Camrose's historic downtown. The new family is looking good, quiet and away from it all. A glass of wine led to a short field trip to burgers and ice cream at the old Tim Horton's, which has expanded and moved up the street. A blaring drive around the periphery of Camrose, listening to everything from nouveau German pop to the Log Driver's Waltz, and it may be years again until this trio cruises carefree like this down an empty paved road. A quick O.V. at the Windsor Pub, where it was karaoke night and the old timers took it with unlikely gems like 'Barbie Girl' and 'Grease Lighting super remix.' Rounding out with 'On the Road,' we headed back out, towards the twinkling nights of the chemical refineries until we were back in the hood of Edmonton.

Going in and coming out, good talks sped us along the way as soon as the traffic thinned and the horizon appeared. Leaving Alberta for an indefinite period of time, not for ever, but quite possibly for good, ACD and co. pack up and leave on Monday, like far too many people I know right now. The reasons vary, but it all boils down to how unlivable it is here. Yes, you can grind down and bare through it, but is that how we have to live? Not just the winters, which break down our roads and sidewalks that are overused and disconnected, respectively. Not just the lack of a proper public transportation system where you don't have to walk for 10 minutes to a bus stop, wait up to 40 minutes, and still be just half way to where you need to be. It's also not just the lack of dignity rampant in the streets, breaking our hearts collectively. Mixed with the soaring costs of living in a place that already had a pretty high standard of living (especially relative to what you're paying for), and adding it all up, increment by increment, over the years, the weight is palpable.

Even Camrose, a charming little town, with generic big houses spreading like wild fire from the centre, big box stores opening up along the way to the highways, where it's impossible now to look and admire without thinking about the devastation to the land to fuel our consumption, a consumption not at all based on need, but profits that will drain this land dry. If you hate this place, you will hate it until it destroys itself. But if you love this place, can you bare to witness its own self disintegration?