Why did you come back here?

You can’t change New York City, not really. You can’t change Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. You can change Calgary but you’ll need a rather important job before you start thinking about it. These cities are relatively stable. This is why, when we make the decision to move to one of them, we know what to expect.

Edmonton — not really.

We came up with several reasons why Edmonton has resisted traditional branding exercises in the past, why internal rallying cries and external marketing campaigns have failed.

Some people say it’s because this is a city you work in but not a city you live in, settle in. You don’t commit to Edmonton, with your money and your heart, the way you surrender to Vancouver. I remember speaking to a great Edmontonian, John Poole, after he and his wife Barbara had decided to donate $5 million to the Edmonton Art Gallery — now Art Gallery of Alberta — with the condition that the institution run an international architectural competition.

“It pains me when people make their money here in Edmonton and then retire to the coast or in Arizona or California,” he said. “I’ll never understand it.”

That made him unique. I always felt I understood it. I did leave Edmonton, happily, in the 1990s. The downside of lacking an articulated story, an answer to “Why Edmonton?” is that it’s easy to leave. As citizens, we want to feel we’re on a journey with our cities.

If there’s no journey, it’s just infrastructure. You don’t even have to say goodbye to infrastructure.

We wanted to imbed this in the story we saw Edmontonians struggling to tell. The fact is, people are returning to Edmonton after leaving forever — to fixed and stable cities — and when they come back they nearly always say the same thing. They can contribute here. They can make something here. More than that: they can make something in Edmonton and feel its impact on the city.

That is, change the city.

On Friday, I sat in Transcend on Jasper Avenue discussing a potential Make Something Edmonton project with an artist and entrepreneur named Victoria Wiercinski. We were at the window. On street level, we could see the downtown main street in the midst of recreation. A little higher, a windowless west-facing canvas: the side of an office tower. The notion that something beautiful should go up there was not at all daunting, not at this point in the city’s history.

What do we want to put up there? Whose door do we knock on, to get started?

You can change Edmonton. You’ve been invited to change Edmonton, in whatever small or large way you like, and you will be rewarded for it. This is not something you do when you retire. It’s what you do now. This is what makes living in Edmonton different from other places: for mysterious reasons, your happiness here depends on it.

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9 thoughts on “Why did you come back here?

  1. i have loved edmonton back when it was considered an odd thing to do, though now more and more people close to me are speaking out. perhaps i was forced into it by the fact that my husband’s job had us move 8 times in the last decade or so and edmonton was the one island of stability in an ocean of change, but somehow i don’t think so. somehow i think that something in edmonton always spoke to me. but when i speak of our city, i tend to preface my love by explaining how edmonton is no paris or vancouver which is very much like saying that i love my husband, who’s no brad pitt, a fact that’s never really mattered to me.
    maybe it’s time to stop comparing edmonton to all the places it is not, and just unashamedly belt out my emotion. for some strange reason, being temporarily exiled to calgary is helping me learn to do just that.

  2. Although I agree that people return here to contribute, it’s important to take into account how much our weather influences the decision to move away after retirement. My grandparents, my father in law, my uncles and aunts – they all left Edmonton after retirement not because they didn’t love Edmonton, but their bodies could no longer handle our harsh winters. It didn’t mean they had lost the love for the city, nor did it mean they were intent on taking their money elsewhere. They left simply because they could not face another winter on the prairies.

    The day may come when I ponder the same decision. Yes, I love Edmonton. I chose to live here, after all. But having said that, our winters are already extremely difficult for me to face. And the dream of a warmer, more moderate climate is not one easily set aside when one is shovelling snow in -20 degree weather.

    • For some, harsh winters is definitely a good reason to leave… but leaving the city for retirement is not an exclusive phenomenon to Edmonton: it does happen in many Canadian cities. Still, many people do stay in Edmonton at retirement because of strong social/family networks or they simply cannot afford to move. Some may even come to Edmonton from rural parts of the province to gain access to services as they age. There are even a few oddballs who like the climate.

      I don’t think it’s necessary to take account for retreats in building a sense of place in Edmonton. People come and go and that is the nature of many cities. If anything, we should focus on making Edmonton a better place to live (and it aready is quite good and improving) and it’ll give more reason for people to stay here when they do retire.

      • They come back to contribute but they REALLY come back because this is a great place to build something – which often amounts to contribution. I have friends all over Canada, and I’ve lived in a lot of cities in the Northern Hemisphere, on this continent and others. EVERYONE thinks the winter is a pain in the ass, even in cities Edmontonians might consider warm. If they can afford it, everyone gets away for a while. But people have also toughed out the winter around here for 8,000 years or so. You’re right, -20 is no fun. But it’s also fun.

  3. Pingback: Why did you come back here? « Stuart Riesen

  4. Thank you for this post. I believe many people are committed to contributing. We need a gathering place of great ideas and a network of resources. We need to create great gathering within urban environments. Take a look at the Imperial vacant lot in Old Strathcona (across from the Metterra Hotel. There are a handful of visionaries working to make this lot a European plaza for fountains, festivals, fairs, markets and more. Got a spare million (and a few friends)? Think of the legacy it would be for Old Strathcona’s festivals. We would have no problem programming all year long.

  5. Ghomeshi last night. We know the city has warts, and we turn up our noses at phonies who would deny this. But we also want to love the city. We elected boosters all our history from Frank Oliver to “Booster” Bill Smith, afterall.

    Edmonton is also a work in progress, and yes we can “make something” here. Unlike most citeis in the Western World we have not yet had our Golden Age. There’s still lots to do.

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