Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.
Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.
Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.
But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.
The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading. Read more…
Without question, Times Square is the center of the urban-tourist universe, and all other city cores are distant suburbs. The splashy lights and night-defying non-stop glow are mesmerizing, intoxicating… until you realize that most of the magic around you are advertisements. Even then, all those pleas for the pennies in your pockets blend together into a euphonic crescendo, a blast of visual tympani that will leave your rods and cones shimmying a jitterbug for months.
The neighborhood is also one of America’s safest – apart from the occasional terrorist threat, of course. It may be the pinnacle achievement of urban Disneyfication, but it is unparalleled as a tourist mecca. There’s nothing to do in Times Square, and therein lies its brilliance. Sure, you can shop at a couple stores, snarf back a McBurger or slurp up a margarita at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. But those options pop up around any major attraction, don’t they?
In Times Square you are there to look. Not at a specific building, just at the air around you, tickled to life by neon and the hot blue breath of LED signscapes. You may be one of thousands of pedestrians (or millions if it’s New Year’s Eve), but your feet are planted at the nexus of America, where corporate cash, glitzy braggadocio and our collective self-importance collide in a glamorous display. It’s hard to believe that not long ago, the area was astoundingly natural.
Don’t let the frilly collar fool you; John Morin Scott was a certified bad-ass, one of George Washington’s generals and ballsy enough to keep his heels firmly into the mud as British forces kicked Revolutionary ass in the Battle of Brooklyn. He was the last of Washington’s top men to argue against surrendering the island of Manhattan to the British in 1776. Was it his unflinching spirit? His weep-worthy patriotism? Or (more likely) the vast amounts of land he owned in what would someday be called Midtown? Read more…
Last week, while another icy winter blast was gossiping through our beloved city streets, I heard a familiar question discreetly uttered in my office tower elevator. It’s a question that inevitably falls from the cliffs of quivering lips every year when the onset of March is mocked by November-esque climate.
“Why did anyone decide to settle a town in this spot?”
It’s true that, while our swirling stripe of river valley parkland is an emerald jewel among modern urban nature triumphs, and while we perpetually possess a bountiful bevy of artistic talent that vastly supersedes expectations, our winters also display a wicked longevity. And the earliest Edmontonians had half a country of gorgeous parkland to sift through, none of which had an established arts scene. So why here? Why plant one’s flag amid such an unforgiving tundra?
Money, baby. A businessman goes where the customers are, and in 1795 there were scads of Blackfoot and Cree folks in the region, not to mention a raucous cavalcade of settlers headed west. No one knew there was a generous cauldron of bubblin’ crude below our terrestrial waistline (that surprise was 150 years away); back then our town was all about hocking pelts to the locals.
Today, Edmonton’s premier tourist attraction is inevitably our monstrous Mall, which sucks more than 30 million shoppers and gawkers inside its yellow brick shell each year. Ironically, a mall is exactly how Edmonton started out. The North West Company picked out the spot where the North Saskatchewan River shook watery hands with the Sturgeon River (near modern-day Fort Saskatchewan) and opened up a trading post in 1795. The Hudson Bay Company joined them shortly thereafter, giving us two anchor stores. For all your pelt and survivalist needs. Read more…
Having spent all but three weird months of my life in Edmonton, a portion of my available fascination is perpetually woven into the snug threads of the city’s storied history. Admittedly, when the frigid fingernails of a late November cold spell are scraping bone through skin I will occasionally entertain a baffled speculation as to the reasoning behind Edmonton’s founders choosing this spot in which to settle. But they did, we’re here, and some magnificently cosmic clattering of fate’s dice landed me at birth within these city limits.
A tremendous Facebook page, operated by a former resident who finds the constant fluctuation of our city’s urban visage to be a matter of fascination and deeply in need of public documentation, is an inescapable vice for me. It was nothing short of a revelation to me that before our cold, brutalist courthouse we had a splenderiffic edifice, complete with Roman pillars and a classic aesthetic. I’m still amazed that we had an incline railway that once covered the same ground as the parkade where I occasionally stash my Toyota during the workday.
My workplace view overlooks our pointy, modernist City Hall and the Chicago-inspired McLeod Building, and I take a moment to soak in a fresh smidgen of our landscape every day. But beneath that landscape is a brief but hurried urban history, one which propelled us from a frontier trading post to a 21st century metropolis with astounding speed. I’d like to learn more, to dig my feet a little deeper into local lore. And where better to start than with the decadent facial hairstylings of our first mayors?
One hundred years before I was legally entitled to fling a ballot into the steampunk apparatus of civic democracy, Matthew McCauley was elected our town’s first mayor. I poked around his legacy for a smattering of dirt, but all I could uncover was an unending procession of awesomeness. Our school system, our first hospital, our Chamber of Commerce… they all are smeared with Mayor Matt’s fingerprints. He was the quintessential first mayor every town needs. Read more…
While the world heaps its historical praise upon the Thomas Edisons, the Henry Fords, and the Giordi Lobzhanidzes (he invented the modern garlic press), we forget that for each titan of invention who helped to shape our twisted, wicked world, there are many who remain practically anonymous. I’m not talking about the utterly unsung individuals whose names are forever scrubbed from their legacy and lost to the ages. No, these are names that get heralded on some small scale in their time, but are likely to vanish into the fog of obscurity only one generation later.
I’d wager a flask of Ovaltine and my old Donald Fagen 8-track that no one from my generation is going to pipe up and claim that they remember Earl William “Madman” Muntz.
Blank and unimpressed as your face may presently be upon reading this, the topic of today’s probing kilograph, I would argue that, strange as it may seem, Muntz’s life’s work did have some sort of effect on the world around you. Perhaps it’s a tiny ripple, but isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t we all be tickled to know that the fabric of time continues to quiver from our impact some 24 years after we’ve scooted into oblivion?
Earl Muntz spent most of his life one or two steps ahead of his time. He spent his youth disassembling electronics and learning how they work. He might have followed this passion down an academic freeway, but the Great Depression booted him to the curb and forced him to quit school to work in his parents’ hardware store in Elgin, Illinois. A few short years later, a 20-year-old Muntz was ready to open his first business: a car dealership. He relocated to California once observing that used cars sold there for much more than they’d fetch in Elgin. Then Muntz single-handedly changed the industry. Read more…
In honor of this week marking the anniversary of my first visit to Las Vegas as an adult – for a romantic post-Valentine’s weekend with my wife, who at the time was simply this chick I was shagging (hi, honey!) – and possibly as a testament to the fact that I haven’t left this city in over a year and a half, I have decided to pay tribute to Sin City for the rest of this week. This will no doubt make me yearn for escape, to taste the stale peanuts of liberating air travel, to feel that flaccid foam of a WestJet complimentary pillow, to watch a ten-month-old Hollywood blockbuster on a six-inch screen on the back of some belching redneck’s seat in front of me, all while sipping bubbly Sprite from a plastic cup.
So why Vegas?
Because no other city has packed so much activity into a mere 72 years of history as a vacation spot. Because nowhere else can you cram a weekend vacation into a two-hour layover. Because it’s Las Vegas: tacky and touristy, a gambling mecca, a city-wide den of debauchery, and a cultural inferno. You can make the biggest mistake of your life, marry the girl of your dreams and watch a Cher impersonator vomit on a duck beside an enormous man-made lake, all within the course of an hour or less.
The first time my retinas were seduced by the come-hither flash of Las Vegas lights was Christmas, 1985. I was eleven years old, and my father was producing a show at the Riviera Hotel. It was called the Hollywood Game Show, because my dad’s astute marketing mind knew that the word ‘Hollywood’ would pique the interest of the geriatric Bermuda-shortsed keepers of the nickel-slot torch. Playing slots gave out credits for ‘Riviera Dollars’, which could be exchanged for valuable prizes at the show. Or maybe you’d win Riviera Dollars at the show, to be used in their slot machines. I honestly don’t remember. Read more…
Growing up in a city where most of the local skyscrapers feature all the flourish and architectural zeal of a Lego brick, I was always fascinated by New York City’s style-salad of motif integration. From the glimmering ornateness of the Chrysler Building to the bulbous Guggenheim to the triumphant Empire State, New York is a visual feast. When I finally got to visit, I soaked it all in like a… like a sponge who had never been to New York and really loves architecture. A lucky, lucky sponge who lacks the instinct for a good simile.
There was one historic structure that eluded my itinerary when I finally visited though, and that was the Flatiron Building, wedged between the crossfire of Broadway and 5th Avenue, less than a dozen blocks south of the Empire State Building, on 23rd Street. The Flatiron is the ideal scrunching of space and style, still towering over the district of Manhattan that was named after it. And the joint has a little history too.
When Amos Eno, inventor of the self-seasoning steak (not really, but how cool would that be?) bought the wedge of land where the Flatiron now stands, it contained a four-story heap of bricks called the St. Germaine Hotel. He ripped it down – probably with his bare hands; the article doesn’t specify – and put up the Cumberland Hotel, pictured above. A handful of insignificant smaller buildings filled up the point of the wedge, which left a massive slab of empty brick wall facing north. Eno did what any enterprising New Yorker would do: he turned it into a giant billboard. Read more…