Shirley Lowe is historian laureate of Edmonton. She grew up in Oliver and downtown was her playground, as a kid, though neither neighbourhood looks remotely the way it did when she was little.
“I have trouble connecting with downtown, today, because the one I grew up with is gone. Even now: where are those touchstone places, where I can recognize and feel my city? Built spaces evoke an emotion.”
Pre-caste concrete towers don’t evoke the emotions we’re looking for. And, in Shirley’s words, “there is a special place in hell reserved for whoever invented reflective glass.”
No matter what it is, we want to look inside.
Shirley, who knows more about Edmonton than anyone I have ever met, sums up the city’s spirit in a few words: if we don’t grow it, we don’t own it. This has been the theme of this blog, the result of interviews with almost one hundred people now. Talking to her, over a pizza and salad this week, I was stricken with dread.
All those lunches, glasses of wine, coffees. Shirley knew everything, all along.
Now that I am hunting for anecdotes and examples, little stories that prove Edmonton’s master story, Shirley helped enormously. We were eating in Churchill Square and she pointed at the McLeod Building, one of the few icons from before the Second World War the city didn’t demolish.
“Kenny McLeod arrived here on foot, with a Red River Cart, with nothing,” said Shirley. This was in 1881. He worked for a few years, as a builder, and started his own enterprise in 1893. He was drawn into politics. His ambition was to build something grand, taller than anything else in the city. “He doubled the specs, at great expense, and made something beautiful. You can’t knock that down. The things worth preserving, and celebrating, are the things we make to leave behind.”
When people complain about the number of corporate head offices in Calgary, Shirley smiles. “We have a few thousand head offices. That’s what we’re good at.”
Her full-time job is as a consultant, working on business revitalization zones, main streets.
Some of them are downtown, like 104th Street. She was until recently head of the Old Strathcona Business Association. Both Whyte Avenue and 104th Street transformed from “places you never wanted to be” to the best main streets in the city — with the “smile factor.” Think about what’s happening on 124th Street and Alberta Avenue, and what could happen on Stony Plain Road, Beverly, Chinatown and Little Italy, the French Quarter. And as downtown transforms, with wider sidewalks and street-level retail, cafés, restaurants, more main streets — people places.
Not everyone will be a CEO in an office tower, or even has that ambition. That goes for our layers of first-generation immigrants, many of whom become entrepreneurs, and it goes for young people and mid-career workers eager for a change, citizens on the verge of an active retirement.
Edmonton is unusually good at this, whether we’re talking about business, social initiatives, or culture. The government can help with the sidewalks, and others can help with mentoring and smart partnerships, but Edmontonians have to make it themselves.
Shirley’s two rules, for Make Something Edmonton:
1. Invite people in.
2. People like to be around people.