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Stuck in Place
A meditation on being Still in Edmonton
I think about place a lot. I’m not sure if it’s more than others, but it certainly feels that way. I’m drawn to the ways that different environments express themselves and love to feel out and get to know somewhere new. I also love to go back, as my memories are often geographically-oriented. What I mean is that what happened can be as important as where it happened. My memory works better this way, too. I can remember talking to a friend in a very specific place, at a specific period in my life, and the general feeling the conversation gave me, but have no idea what was actually said.
For these reasons, I’m also very particular about place. Many complain about how decrepit their hometown feels, but by and large they go about their lives and don’t let it interfere with their day-to-day. But it gets to me. Deeply. Others may wish they lived in California, but I sometimes feel like I might kill myself if I don’t kiss the palm trees in Los Angeles.
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The places I’m most interested in are cities. I never quite understood why, but it’s a deeply ingrained thing about me. I love Tofino and Yellowstone but what gets me feeling are Second Empire homes in Buffalo and the U-Bahn in Berlin. I’m a city person, for better or worse. And as a lover of the urban, it’s funny that I’m staring down the end of my 20s, Still in Edmonton™. I didn’t end up in one of the world’s great cities or anywhere an urbanist would be proud to come home to. The only other place I ended up was Winnipeg, which has prettier urbanism but is more dysfunctional than Edmonton.
Sometimes I do genuinely hate Edmonton. Like, viscerally. But, as my wise partner once said, “a hater is also a fan.” So I also love Edmonton, as gross as that sounds. But I love it in a Lady Bird kind of way. She was vocally critical about Sacramento in the same restless way I get about Edmonton. This city does feel like a limiting, even suffocating place, because it really isn’t calibrated to my tastes. It’s too new. Too wide. Too Alberta. But, like Lady Bird, it also raised me, nurtured me, and has so many interwoven memories of my life laid out on its utilitarian numbered roads. I could move to London today but I will always be of Edmonton. I’m probably more Castle Downs than Crown Heights than I’d like to admit. I used to think that was debasing, but it really isn’t. If anything it’s more interesting than a trite existence in the great, but overtold cities of the world.
The difference is that Lady Bird actually left her hometown. I stayed behind. As much as I like to think I try and maximize the best experiences for my life because I’m only here for so long, and only once, the truth is that I live a life of complacency that has left me with regret. I was too scared and ill-prepared to leave Edmonton when I was in my early 20s, and then I enrolled into the UofA, and got locked into the City of Champignons for 7 years. Now I feel like it’s been too long and I’m stuck in place. Yeah, I could still leave, theoretically, but I’m also being realistic. I know me, and as fun as it can be to romanticize living somewhere more interesting, it’s not always realistic based on how the world really is.
It’s not the end of the world. There’s worse problems in the world, but it still sucks to realize that I may live the rest of my life in Edmonton. I had a lot of ideas about where my life would end up back when I was in my early 20s and not a lot of it panned out. That’s normal, I guess, but still demoralizing nevertheless. It’s so cliched, but I thought I’d not only be someone, but end up somewhere. I never imagined staying in Edmonton this long. I feel like I’m mourning those lost futures of my life now, as I find myself in an intensely reflective period following the end of my degree. I used to think I was better than Edmonton, and maybe sometimes that still creeps up, but it’s not that simple. As I’ve matured, I realized that Edmonton isn’t a bad place, it’s just not for me, and now I’m realizing “not for me” may be the best I’ll get for place.
I usually say this lust for living somewhere else started with Portland, but the first glimpses were probably Vancouver, 2006. It was the first time I’d properly “experienced” another city by actively looking at it. This was paired with a fledgling interest in urban planning at the time, no doubt ignited by my ultra-modded creations in SimCity 4. I loved how shiny the Vancouverist condos looked in Yaletown and thought about how the urban format Chapters really made Vancouver seem like a true big city. But Vancouver didn’t hold my attention that long and I didn’t end up dreaming of living out there back then. It was simply me being in awe at a better, busier city for the first time.
Then, in 2009, Portland happened. It’s kind of funny thinking back to being 15-16 totally enamoured with the hipster mecca of the west. I think that because of when I went and the strong, intense feelings it elicited, Portland will always hold a soft spot in my heart. In the wider cultural milieu, it was where my generation went to never grow up, and where it felt like everything was effortlessly cool. Portland isn’t like this anymore; it’s been commodified and turned into a caricature of itself, but Portland lives on as an idea as the ideal city. And the reason why it lives on as an idea is partially because of the cultural values it was ascribed as a Millennial eccentric cultural hotbed, but also the way Portland’s physical environment is. Urbanists love to extol Manhattan and Hong Kong, but honestly, as someone raised in Edmonton, the roomy-but-cosy endless streetcar suburbia and well-designed mid-rise urban districts of PDX really hit the spot. It’s more tactful and lacking Edmonton’s gluttony, but Portland’s still breathable in a way that Seoul isn’t. The temperate climate also breeds a lushness that’s been imprinted onto the urban fabric, typical of Pacific Northwest metropoli.
But, PDX was unrealistic. I had (and still have) one of those pesky pre-existing conditions that would make living in the States more dangerous for someone like me. And yet, Portland’s still the only American city I ever seriously looked at living in, figuring out how hard decent insurance would be to land, what the rent was like, and so forth. When I was last there, in 2019, I was struck by how, a decade later, I still loved the “comfy urbanism” of Portland that just felt right. In North America, it’s probably objectively one of the best cities for what I seek in a place, even if it’s more gentrified and pretentious now. And this is all because of deep-seeded notions of the place from adolescence. My obsession with Portland stuck around for a while, but eventually a more plausible alternative took root.
It was 2011. I just finished high school. What better way to celebrate than to go further from home than I’d ever gone before? So I went to Toronto, of course. Unlike Portland, which I had hyped up prior to my visit due to my awareness of it being on the “up and up” in urbanism circles, I was more subdued before boarding my flight to Toronto. Not that I wasn’t excited, but I wasn’t expecting it to be everything and then some. And yet, the 6 took hold of me for far longer than Portland did. But, like all strong, long-term relationships in my life, it wasn’t a fast friendship, it was a slow build up to obsession.
Still, I remember that first night so vividly. Yonge post-Pride at dusk. The street was electric. Everything was alive in a way that felt so surreal. I thought I was an extra in the music video for “Da Funk.” This is urbanism; this is humanity, I thought. I’m not always happy with humanity, in fact I’m rather misanthropic in general, but I do think, when done right, cities can be some of humanity’s greatest achievements in the way that they weave life together in beautiful and serendipitous ways.
Keep in mind Toronto was my first true big city experience. I love the unique forms of Toronto (and also hate some of them) and don’t really subscribe to the same ideas Hollywood does in seeing it as a stand-in big city for anywhere else. However, I do think the initial gut reaction to Toronto could’ve been affixed to Chicago or New York or London if they were my first big city sojourn. Instead it got stuck on sharp Bay-and-Gables and red ‘80s streetcars. I notice there’s something similar that Winnipeggers have with Minneapolis. I haven’t been to the Twin Cities, but I’ve been told a big part of the attachment for Winnipeggers is that it was the first large city they ever visited, and often at a young age, and so there’s a certain nostalgia for it.
That said, I left Toronto and wasn’t hooked. It was cool, sure, but I wasn’t getting emotionally invested like with PDX. Instead, it was a slow burn. I think the best way to describe what that initial visit to Toronto was like is to think about a time when something stunning happens but you don’t really process what happened until later and you realize what you should’ve said at the time. Back in Edmonton, I became more and more interested in Toronto in a way that I hadn’t before, and slowly Toronto became the new Portland. Toronto was more realistic as it didn’t involve another country, plus it was a proper big city, a type of place I naturally gravitate towards.
It was around 2013 that the Toronto brain developed. Like a deluded marketer trying to come up with a catchy slogan that never sticks, that phrase never caught on. But while the term itself may’ve been tucked into the wrinkles of my brain, never known outside its confines, those around me then knew it anyways. I became Toronto-centric. And I thought the roads of my life all pointed towards Downtown Canada (cringe). The only thing standing in the way was myself. But I was more comfortable sitting on the sidelines dreaming about that future than actualizing it. I even helped other friends get hooked on Toronto and they moved out there, but I stayed in Edmonton.
By 2014, I was returning, eager to spread out into the city that I’d spent so much time post-2011 learning about. I coupled it with my inaugural visit to Montreal, which might’ve been a mistake because, despite how lovely Montreal was, I knew it wasn’t the main event. I’d pumped Toronto up so much in my head by then that Montreal couldn’t be appreciated.
Those who know me know I don’t drive. And I always get asked about it. The why of it. It’s irritating having to constantly explain and justify yourself, usually to new people with whom you’re not yet comfortable. The truth is, as much as I despise car culture, I realize we live in a society and it can be useful to operate a motor vehicle from time to time. I would like to get my full license at some point, even if I don’t own a vehicle, but right now cars are a major trigger for my chronic headaches for some reason and so that’s not really happening for now. However, why I don’t have one stems from this Toronto-centric period (and truthfully, the earlier Portland era too). As I developed my interest in urbanism, I became aware of the different ways space can be allocated and how some were better than others if you’re looking to build community or sustainably. I decided I didn’t want to drive, because, of course, no where I was going to end up would be as bad as where I grew up. I wanted to live out the urbanist car-free fantasy. And for this reason I say I’m probably built more for New York, even though I’m tragically an LA girl when it comes to American megacities. I thought I was going to get to live out that fantasy in Toronto, residing in a streetcar-centric Victorian west-end neighbourhood of proper, fine-grained urbanism. I don’t even know how realistic that would’ve ever been, considering how expensive Toronto is (and was then), but that was the idea I latched onto. And ideas are sticky.
The Toronto story took a dramatic turn in 2018. I fell in love. With someone in Vegandale who was probably the most similar person to me I’ve ever met. And this was back when I thought such a thing was hugely desirable. In the right ways it can be, but in the wrong ways it’s just catastrophic. And that’s what we were. Remember when I said my best relationships aren’t fast? This one happened at lightning speed and then it got weird which of course became cataclysmic. But initially I thought it was perfect; I thought I found someone amazing in the city I wanted to be in. He’d be the push I needed to make the jump. So I dramatically applied to TMU and York to transfer from the UofA despite the mess it would be and miraculously got accepted to both.
But when it finally came time to make a decision in 2019 as to whether I’d really leave for Toronto, the place I’d dreamt about for years, I couldn’t pull the trigger. The relationship I’d started had crashed and burned by then, and I realized I was planning this major move for the wrong reasons at the wrong time and all that. One of the biggest things to come out of this dissolution was that it killed the Toronto brain. The man I’d loved also destroyed this place I’d loved for so long because he became so tied up in it. While I never hated Toronto and I still like the city to this day, that relationship crashing down to earth also brought my idea of Toronto back to a terrestrial level. And so, I moved on.
Of course, all those years I was Toronto-centric I also let my mind wander. I wasn’t monogamous when it came to cities. But my mind largely wandered abroad. Mostly to Europe and Australasia. Melbourne. Berlin. London. Utrecht. Dunedin. I’ve still been to none of these cities. I started grappling with the reality that North American places were limiting for their car-centric urbanism. Only on the fringes was good, vibrant, traditional urbanism thriving despite North America’s Cities [Coming] Back from the Edge. Europe was probably the most ideal, but sometimes Melbourne’s purple glass and terraced houses excited me too. It seemed like Toronto with a better climate and culture. Toronto with Montreal tendencies, obscured by Northern Californian weather. I considered it all. A semester abroad. A working holiday visa. It never panned out. But it was a fun fantasy. I think it would’ve been too much for me — completely cut off from anyone I’ve ever known for a long period of time. I may have wound up resenting the canals of Utrecht and we can’t be having that.
There was also Montreal. After the idea of Toronto fell apart, it opened up an opportunity for Canada’s finest urban experience to take hold of me. In 2017, when I visited a second time, I’d already appreciated it far more than in 2014, when I was merely waiting for Toronto. By 2019, I was ready to move on. Like running into an ex and needing to show off with some guy you’re only sort of into by making out, I embraced Montreal. For all the lauding I did over Toronto, it did lack the quirkiness I loved about Portland. That’s not to say it isn’t artsy too, but the vibe is different. Montreal is the closest you’ll get to what Portland was in Canada. The only price tag is French. That’s not true, actually, as Montreal is gentrifying now and becoming expensive. But, yeah, if you grew up in Anglo-America, you do need to learn a whole other language to operate fluidly in Montreal, despite (or maybe because of) its bilingual nature. And I say this as someone who’s generally good with what Montreal became after the Quiet Revolution. It was no longer Canada’s metropolis, but it became something more interesting. I could learn French to have full access to the city, but the truth is although I love Montreal, it isn’t a love of mine. I’m not willing to move heaven and earth for it like I was for Toronto and Portland, even though it’s objectively a better city than both in most ways.
And then, of course, there’s the Winnipeg of it all. I never was able to hold down an Edmonton boyfriend for very long, but I never imagined falling in love with a Winnipegger. However, life’s a bit of a silly goose sometimes, but these unplanned but good deviations make life more interesting and worth living. It’s funny — I was never someone who made cheap shots at Winnipeg, but I never considered living there. I first visited in 2008, and then again as an adult, before my current relationship, and appreciated it for what it is. Despite it looking significantly better than Edmonton, I thought it would be too small for me.
Fast-forward to the middle of a global pandemic and I ended up moving to the Bullseye of the Dominion. For love, not of a place, but of a person. Because I’m essentially a lesbian and thus am incapable of not getting into some dramatic long-distance relationship. Unlike with Toronto, though, this relationship was (and is) far more stable and healthy and simply good for me. Yet it’s still a bit ironic that the first (and only) place I left Edmonton for wasn’t Melbourne or Toronto, but Winnipeg. The smaller, older Edmonton that’s even more obvious in its racism than my hometown is. Nevertheless, I’m not here to diss Winnipeg. I don’t hate the city, or maybe I do. But remember: a hater is also a fan.
I think there’s a certain type of urbanist who gravitates to cities like Winnipeg. The Clevelands, the Saint Louises. The forlorn metropolitan areas of withering grandeur of bygones. They’re romanticized for their strong “bones” consisting of beautiful pre-WWII architecture and intact old neighbourhoods (that weren’t all urban renewaled to oblivion). These cities will be defended by this class of urbanist from scathing critiques about how dead, dangerous, dull, and done these places are. They’re both pitied for their social issues and envied for their affordability. This phenomenon is more pronounced Stateside, where the so-called Rust Belt is riddled with cities that meet these descriptions, but in Canada they’re less frequent and less emptied out due to different socioeconomic conditions. The cities that do most closely fit this notion here are Winnipeg and Hamilton.
I’ll admit I’m this kind of urbanist too. Detroit is one of my favourite American cities and cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland are top of mind for new American cities to visit. And my favourite thing about Winnipeg is the built environment. I grew up heavily influenced by American culture, and so I have a natural propensity to appreciate American forms. This is why I find the US so much more visually interesting. When you visit the States, it looks like the movies, the TV shows, the music videos, because of course that’s where those pieces of culture I’m consuming originate from. And Winnipeg is one of the most American-looking cities in Canada. It’s not fully there, but if you squint right it’s like Kansas City without the freeways. Essentially, it looks the part and therefore when I look at Winnipeg, it visually strokes the right parts of my brain.
Winnipeg is gorgeous. Yes, I’m brave enough to admit that publicly. But it’s probably not in the ways that most people are looking for. It doesn’t have interesting physical geography like Edmonton’s river valley or Vancouver’s mountains, and its ornate urbanism isn’t yassified like San Francisco’s or Amsterdam’s. But that’s also probably what draws people like me to cities like Winnipeg. Winnipeg isn’t commodified to the same extent and feels more authentic in a world where that word has lost all meaning. The closest Winnipeg has to a Greenwich Village or Notting Hill type situation is the Exchange, but it’s pretty subdued and overall keeps its cool (which is, of course, just the first wave of gentrification). But beyond the Exchange, Winnipeg as a place retains its cool urban form, benefiting heavily from the highest percentage of pre-war buildings still standing of any major Canadian centre. The old mansions on Ruskin Row, the institutions on Promenade Tache, the pre-war apartment blocks in West Broadway, the old industrial buildings in Point Douglas, the Jane Jacobs urbanism of Wolseley, the almost-City Beautiful of Assiniboine Park. It goes on. Coming from too-new Edmonton, Winnipeg is nice — instead of walking up a block seeking that one interesting house, like in my hometown, in Winnipeg the whole block has interesting houses.
The Manitoba capital is also great if you’re into art and culture. Or at least that’s how it feels. But I’m also biased by the fact that I was always on the outside of the “scene” in Edmonton. I never had an in like I did in Winnipeg through my partner. But even still, there’s more, better art galleries, the gay bar is significantly better (as is the drag scene on the whole), and the city seems to have more robust grassroots organizing.
But, that’s kinda where it ends for me in terms of Winnipeg’s perks (beyond personal stuff). There’s other strong stuff, like some great restaurants, but Edmonton also has great restaurants, they’re just different. I still recommend visiting Winnipeg to anyone I meet, but I think I’m a cautionary tale about the difference between living and visiting, even in places that aren’t as “on the radar” or whatever. As cool and sexy as Winnipeg can be to someone like me, as properly stimulating for my eyes as it is, it has a lot of problems too. The rusty grand cities that my brand of urbanist loves have reasons for why they’re not big destinations. There’s often significant social problems underlying them, and Winnipeg’s no exception. Like I said, the vibe of Winnipeg is generally kinda racist and the policies for dealing with the overdose and housing crises are more tepid than out west. Even though Edmonton’s policies leave a lot to be desired, they still seem to be doing more, which is interesting when you consider how “regressive” Alberta’s portrayed, to the point of it being occasionally mocked by lefty Winnipeggers. On top of this, compared to Edmonton, Winnipeg also has less amenities (due to being smaller), is more isolated, and doesn’t have as impressive geography nearby for hiking.
Policy in general is one of Winnipeg’s greatest downfalls. As someone interested in the physical manifestation of space and especially in human built environments, I gravitate towards urban planning policies as an area of interest. So, the poorness of policy is biased by this area in particular. Winnipeg Transit is by far the worst system I’ve used in Canada. I’m sure Thunder Bay’s worse, but that’s not in my realm of experiences. I used to think ETS was shit, and it probably is, but it looks like Hong Kong by comparison to Winnipeg. Winnipeg’s paltry bus system is rarely on time, runs infrequently except in a few areas, and there’s a mediocre vision for the future. This vision involves a bunch of BRT lines, leaving Winnipeg firmly entrenched as the biggest city in the country without rail rapid transit, despite so much of it being built around such transit (streetcars). And while BRT isn’t bad, I’m looking at the one line Winnipeg has already managed to build and I’m a bit skeptical about the end results. Further, despite being pancake flat, Winnipeg’s bike lane system is also quite choppy and disjointed. Lanes randomly end or turn into sharrows. There’s also no real plan to massively overhaul this and connect the dots either. However, Winnipeg isn’t for bus or bike riders, it’s for cars. This is the city that cut into Main Street’s sidewalk to appease business owners who whined about lack of room for loading zones after a bike lane was built despite there literally being alleys and backside parking. But Winnipeg being Winnipeg, it chose the discount version of automobility. No real freeways — instead, it turned its main streets into highways. Or, more accurately, some of the most hellish stroads I’ve ever had the pleasure of crossing.
Edmonton’s ugly, but it’s at least making an effort. It lacks Winnipeg’s bones or even the refinement of many of Winnipeg’s newer architectural creations, but people here at least see a future. Edmontonians have ambition. It trailblazed with the first modern light rail in North America and, after falling behind its peers, is catching up fast with the new Valley Line and extensions to the Metro Line. It’s planning an impressively large expansion of the bike lane network, which will connect any missing links and greatly expand coverage in a short period of time. In 2020, it was the first Canadian city to remove parking minimums in its zoning bylaws. The City is committed to having 50% of its growth be via infill by the time it reaches 2 million inhabitants (it already reached a quarter a couple years ago). Edmonton builds pedestrian bridges in places that actually make sense, too, rather than the redundancy Winnipeg prefers. There’s also the new Warehouse Central Park, which the City better not fuck up. You know what the Exchange could use on one of its giant parking lots (like the one on Smith and Ellice)? A nice new central living room. Truly, if Winnipeg did half of the stuff Edmonton’s been doing, the city would be unstoppable.
By comparison, Edmonton, having significantly worse bones, still has a long ways to go. It can build LRT and update its zoning all it wants, but the extant urbanism is largely bad. It’s not totally Edmonton’s fault — it’s a product of its time. Large-lot post-war bungalows, loops-and-lollipops of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the petrochemical greige since. It’s a city where architecturally benign neighbourhoods like Strathearn and Ritchie are sought after. And it’s gonna take a lot to undo all those culs-de-sac.
But, again, a hater is secretly a lover. I’m critical of Edmonton and Winnipeg because of my love for them, because I see how much potential they have to be truly amazing places and I am frustrated by how often they fall short of it. I want these places I’ve called home to shine, to be the places I know they can be. Or maybe I just want them to be the places I wish I could’ve lived rather than the places people who live in these cities want. In any case, despite my manifesting, I still look at how slow and incremental progress truly is. When I was younger there was talk among local urbanists about the merits of staying in cities like Edmonton because you can be part of the change, and feel empowered by helping make the place greater. But I don’t wanna be 80 by the time Edmonton or Winnipeg finally resemble something I would’ve chosen on my own.
There’s also BC. In 2020, faced with being unable to go to Europe or Los Angeles due to, you know, circumstances, I pivoted to my hike girl summer. I went to Waterton, Banff, Nordegg, Lac la Biche, and Dry Island. I was never one of those MEC girlies, but it was fun (and frustrating) doing bigger hikes than I was used to. I regained my appreciation for the mountain. The waterfall. The natural landscape.
For at least the past 5 years, I’ve become a winter-hater. Each passing year, it gets to me more and more, and my tolerance for the cold becomes less and less. When I was in San Francisco in 2018 for Christmas, it was +12 and sunny every single day. It was perfectly boring and I loved it. I began to envy those out there who could comfortably be outside with minimal effort year-round. I began to realize life isn’t meant to be spent with half the year in hibernation. But, I live in Canada.
Back when I was living in Winnipeg, during Winter 2020-21, dealing with the mix of cold and the isolation of covid, my brain wandered west. Like, more west than home. I mentally landed in Vancouver and realized it may not be the most perfect place, but it checked nearly every box in some capacity. It has the usual “urban stuff” I seek: great transit, walkable and historic urbanism, interesting architecture, busy, and decent amenities. But it had even more: it had mountains and waterfalls and canyons for hiking. Plus beaches and ocean because I love me a coastline. And even better: it has a temperate climate. It’s lush. Things just grow there and even the most banal street looks amazing because of all the ridiculous flora. Sure, there’s a little monsoon season, but winter is shorter there, so less time in the worst weather. Plus, it’s close to Edmonton for easy visits. I realized this more in 2021, but I think I need to be able to visit Edmonton every once in a while if I don’t live there. That’s another strike against Toronto or Montreal. In 2018, when I was in Iqaluit with my dad and knee-deep in my Toronto relationship, we had a conversation about me moving and he said that he likely wouldn’t visit me that often. Like probably just once a year. It was kinda hard to not hold back tears in that dining booth as the reality came gushing forth. I get it. He’s worked hard and deserves to not spend all his money and vacation time coming out to Toronto to see me. And I probably wouldn’t be able to afford coming out much either unless I got a swanky job. It just made me feel deeply sad because my dad has been one of the strongest supports and closest people in my life. And I know he had no interest in moving to Southern Ontario. As much as I know he doesn’t want me to feel held back by him, I don’t think I could go through life with that little contact. I was sort of forced to due to covid and it was brutal and I really don’t want to experience that again.
But, back to BC. The funny thing is that I spent the majority of my 20s hating the place. Too pompous. Overrated. I realized that my adult trips to BC were tainted by a lot of these negative pre-conceived notions and so I wanted to go back and just feel out the place, without the negativity clouding over things.
That still hasn’t happened for Vancouver, but it did happen for Victoria last October. I never really considered Victoria before for much the same reasons I never considered Winnipeg: too small and isolated. But I went, let myself breath in the place, and was luckily going through a good little break from headaches to engage with it fully. What can I say? Victoria rocked. It was a lot better than I’d remembered. It had more interesting neighbourhoods, better food, and still had a lot of those other geographic perks of Vancouver. Plus, with the double rain-shadow, it gets less rain in the winter. And unlike Vancity, I actually know people in Victoria so I wouldn’t feel so isolated. Most importantly, Victoria gave me something I hadn’t had in a long time: the chance to feel something new about a place and to be able to connect with somewhere different in a visceral way.
Since then, reality’s sunk in. Victoria (and potentially Vancouver) may look or feel great on visit because it ticks off my preference boxes, but what about actually living there? With graduating university and having a maturity and sense of self I lacked when I was younger, I finally feel in a place where I could conceivably leave Edmonton behind. So I ruminated. But there isn’t much to it and the reason for why my Victorian dreams didn’t last is probably obvious. It’s expensive. And also, for someone who needs specialized medical care, it can be hard to get in a town full of old people.
Is it desirable to move somewhere amazing, technically be embedded in that environment, but too poor to enjoy it? Or is it better to live somewhere decent, but not amazing, that’s affordable, and allows you the ability to fly off to somewhere amazing and have the spending money to be able to afford its experiences? I really don’t like that our hypercommodified world has come to these two choices. Everywhere “nice,” at least in North America, is overpriced. The coasts, plus random other hotbeds like Ontario, Colorado, and Austin. I recently learnt that, on average, Americans are moving to the least climate-resilient regions in droves because the most stable in aggregate are either too costly (ironically, the coastal states and New England generally) or lacking in jobs (the Upper Midwest). Affordability and access to a steady living is in Texas, the Carolinas, and Florida, not Vermont and Illinois. So it’s not just me. At least the Prairies offer both a decent standard of living alongside good climate resilence (relatively speaking… of course everywhere’s in danger).
If I don’t want to immigrate, there’s really only 3 cities I can fully live out my car-free urbanist fantasy, and all three are either expensive or rapidly approaching it. I know I’d be miserable finally making the jump and moving to Vancouver only to spend most of my income on rent and be unable to go out and enjoy the city without incurring debt, like so many Vancouverites do. Plus, as a diabetic with a pump, there’s only 3 provinces that have provincial plans that cover you forever, regardless of age: Alberta, BC, and Ontario. So Quebec is out. And Manitoba too, even if I wanted to live in Winnipeg long-term, which I don’t think I do. Ontario is too far to visit home with any notable frequency. So there’s BC. Canada got the scraps of North America, and correspondingly got the harshest climates on the least habitable terrains. When we dick measure over how much better or worse our winters are compared to other spots within the country, it’s comparing shades of grey. Nowhere has California’s climate, despite BC’s insistences, or even something akin to places with shorter, milder winters like Kansas or Tennessee. The best we’ve got is a small sliver of rainforest on the southwest corner of the country, and it’s of course absurdly expensive.
I do think it could’ve been nice if I moved to Holland. At least in an idealized sense. Every time I conjure up an idea of what my ideal place would be, it generally looks like the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s overrun with tourists, but the rest looks perfect. The only real worry is rising sea levels and more unstable summers. But it’s a country built with sustainable transportation in mind. You can drive, but you’re no inconvenienced if you choose to walk, bike, bus, or train. Every layer of transportation is well-oiled and convenient, seemingly country-wide. Its cities are fundamentally well built as a result. Walkable, historic, interesting, vibrant. Even the new suburban neighbourhoods exude these virtues. Well, minus being historic, obviously. Generally, small Dutch cities pack better urbanism than most North American cities quadruple their size. Groningen, Utrecht, Haarlem, and Maastricht look idyllic. Or I could go back to where my grandfather grew up, Dordrecht, which looks great and is close to Rotterdam to boot. The Dutch climate, similar to BC, is temperate, but without the rainforest elements. Plus, if I lived in Europe, I could probably do away with flying altogether, which I would love (assuming I never needed to leave the continent).
But there’s no way I’m starting my life over now. If Toronto’s too far from Edmonton, then Holland may as well be Ganymede. I don’t know anyone there and being socially anxious I fear having a hard time making friends and contending with the isolation. Plus, would my partner even be able to join me? As much as it fits with my ideals of place, there’s still reality to contend with. I went through all this when I considered a working holiday years ago. I also think, in these fantasies, I tend to downplay the importance of community. Edmonton may be value engineered, cold, and suburban, but it’s also home and where I’ve found the most community. I could’ve easily had something similar to say about Denver had I spent most of my life there, but I didn’t.
So, as you can see, going through all these potential places over the years, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and as much as it isn’t ideal to stay in Alberta, it also isn’t ideal to be house poor on the West Coast. I did also think about Calgary. It’s nicer-looking than Edmonton by far, is similarly ambitious (if not more so), has better access to better geography, and a milder winter. I think it would be a good compromise for me, but it’s one of the only places my partner has been against. Those mild winters come at a cost for people like them: the chinooks give warm winds but also lots of migraines for Calgarians and my partner’s body has a hard time with pressure changes as it is in Manitoba. So, Edmonton it is.
It’s not the most devastating news, even though I feel like it is. It could be a lot worse though. I could be in Regina. Edmonton has a decent amount of stuff going on and is a city that’s trying to do better. It’s not awfully far from the mountains or Calgary. On the winter front, that’s only going to get milder with climate change too (for better or worse, but mostly worse), and our winter’s already feel significantly milder than 20 years ago. I also think if I moved somewhere central in Edmonton my impression of the city would drastically improve (I told you I’m more Castle Downs than I’d like to admit) and, if I picked the right area, I could approximate that car-free fantasy that more expensive locales have made famous. Plus, with Edmonton being cheaper to live in and having relatively high wages, it’s not unreasonable to foresee me being able to jet off somewhere mild in the winter to take a break and recharge. I think being able to do that, even though its a carbon-intensive luxury, would do wonders for my mental health. Growing up here, it’s easy to take for granted how much easier on the bank account Edmonton is. I was talking with some friends who’d moved here from Vancouver and, although they didn’t go out much back home due to the cost of living, a lot of their friends did, despite being in similar financial situations. It’s all financed by debt. In Edmonton, you can try that new restaurant, go dancing, check out a show, hit up the movie theatre, whatever and not go into debt so easily. And you’re more likely to be able to afford to visit Vancouver for a week and do the same, unlike the locals.
I guess I’m still just processing it all. The weight of naive dreams crashing against reality. Those alternate realities where I ended up in Melbourne or Utrecht or Portland. Where I did something greater with my life. Part of growing up is realizing the limitations of these dreams and how they might be nice at their most ethereal but there’s a real world out there that’s structured in a way that’s stacked against your dreams. Or maybe I didn’t actually want to live those dreams, but merely indulge in the fantasy. If I really wanted to, I probably could still leave Edmonton. And maybe I will. It just doesn’t feel like where my life’s going, and while I’m processing that, I’m also learning to accept that. This life isn’t what I planned out, but that’s ok. Life’s more interesting this way, even if on the surface, in the context of this topic, it seems like not much happened (I stayed put). However, I’m still in mourning, so this more optimistic way of thinking is not really where I’m at. But I will be. I hope.
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This is a reference to Cities Back from the Edge by Gratz and Mintz (1998)