I’m going to state the obvious . . .

. . . All politics is local.
We all know we don’t vote for Prime Minister, right? I hope we’ve all had enough of a Canadian civics education to remember that traditionally the Prime Minister was chosen by the House, like the Speaker continues to be, rather than by the somewhat aborted attempts by the Parties to make their Leader selection process U. S. style Presidential Primaries.  I expect that deep down we all know that when we look at that ballot, it is printed not with the names of potential Prime Ministers, but with (ideally) neighbours who are offering to be our representatives in the House of Commons.  Except for the few who live in a riding in which a Party Leader is running, the vast majority of Canadians do not vote for a Prime Minister.

So, what do the vast majority of us do with the partisan expressions of hope that a Leader can “count on our vote”?

Well, here’s what I’m going to do:

I live in Edmonton-Strathcona, the only non-Conservative-held Federal riding in Alberta. I like living here. I like being one of the outliers. I expect Linda Duncan of the NDP will win again.  I like her. I see her around the neighbourhood.  She goes for walks without an entourage. In thirty years or so of living in this neighbourhood I’ve never seen another MP just going for a walk.

I don’t want Thomas Mulcair to be Prime Minister.  His pigheadedness and apparent ignorance about our Senate frightens me.  I don’t want Stephen Harper to be Prime Minister any more. His vision of Canada is so antithetical to my own that it’s agonizing.  I’d honestly be content with another Prime Minister Trudeau.

But, all politics is local. If I were to let my vote be determined by who I want to be Prime Minister, I’d probably throw it away by voting for the Liberal candidate in my riding.  But I know my neighbourhood well enough to be convinced that a plurality want Thomas Mulcair as Prime Minister and/or Linda Duncan as their Member of Parliament.  I feel comfortable voting for the nice lady in the neighbourhood but I do not feel that it is a vote for Thomas Mulcair.  If I thought the Liberal candidate had a hope of winning, I might grudgingly vote for her, whoever she is, and through that I would vote – under protest because we don’t vote for Prime Minister – for a hypothetical PM Trudeau.  But, of course, it would be up to the voters of Papineau to decide whether Mr. Trudeau even returned to the House.

And here is where all the strategic voting plans fall apart: our politics is still ultimately local. We can do all the intellectual convolutions we want to try to support a Party’s candidate in hopes of having an effect on who becomes Prime Minister, but in the end, it’s up to the voters in the Leaders’ ridings to decide. There’s talk that both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair are in tight races.  I seem to remember some suggestion that even Mr. Harper’s race isn’t a completely sure thing.  All our support-by-proxy for a distant Leader means nothing if that Leader is defeated in his own riding.

So, yes, I’ll consider the Party Leaders and the Parties when I do my electoral calculus.  But most of the weight for my decision will come from knowing my own neighbourhood and thoughts about which candidate best reflects it and which candidate I actually see in the shops and parks and in the audiences at festivals.

I also tell myself that if we all made our decision on how to vote with an emphasis on candidates we expect to consider not Party directives but, rather, the hopes and desires of the constituency, maybe the Parties would start to realize we want to elect representative neighbours, not toadies of the PMO.

Then all politics would finally feel local.

So, I went to a restaurant . . .

So I went to a restaurant in Edmonton some time ago.  It is a virally popular restaurant that I won’t name.  I’m just not sure what to do with my experience, which is so totally at odds with what seems to be the overwhelming consensus of the #yegfood cognoscenti.

I went at lunch on a rare day I had time on my own. The place was packed. I placed my order – too go – and struggled to find a place to sit and wait.  I ordered what is essentially a sandwich of an ethnic variety.  It arrived in a styrofoam clamshell with a lidded plastic cup of sauce in due course.  All that quite comfortable.

But, the service was indifferent.  I don’t mean that the service was unremarkable – I mean the service exuded indifference.  There seemed to be no concern about the experience of an individual customer – there was another right behind in the line up.  Even at Taco Bell there’s a superficial effort to smile and say “Hi!”

And the food.  My sandwich was virtually inedible.  It wasn’t that it tasted bad or off – it was physically almost inedible because of the bread, which was a flavourless thing with the texture of an excessively crumbly cake. It could not be held without falling to pieces back into the stryofoam clamshell, onto my shirt and pants, and into the streets of Edmonton.  The soggy bits of meat were also without flavour, which is remarkable as the restaurant represented itself as serving a national cuisine noted for being highly flavoured.  Perhaps the cup of watery sauce would have added flavour, but the crumbly bread would have become a strange gruel in my hands at a single touch of whatever that liquid was.

It’s been a long time, more than a year, maybe two, since I went that one time to that restaurant.  People still rave about it.  I sometimes think about giving it another chance, but, to be honest, I gag a little at the thought.  Why should I give it another chance? There are lots of other places in Edmonton to get “authentic” (and physically edible) examples of that national cuisine.  If I were to go back, would I not be just submitting to peer pressure and contagious fashion, like a 70s teenager hating “Saturday Night” on first listen but running out to buy cropped tartan slacks and The Bay City Rollers the next day?  How many of us as adults continue to follow the crowd to the latest fashion, whatever our honest opinion would be if we considered the thing?  How many of us support local uncritically and thereby support mediocrity?  I fear too many do.

So, I went to an Edmonton restaurant that everybody raves about, and frankly, I hated everything about it.  It was a starkly naked emperor surrounded by a sycophantic hoard of loyal fans of the imperial threads.  Why would I want to give such an imperial birthday suit another chance?

Has anybody else had an experience like this? Have you tried the restaurant that everyone hails as the greatest thing since the discovery of bacon, only to find that there’s better and more “authentic” cuisine of its type at the 7-11 or the freezer section of the supermarket?

Why not share that experience in the comments section?




What will we do about Edmonton’s built heritage?

Edmonton has a problem with “built heritage” (old buildings).

This week in the news is the pending demolition of the Graphic Arts Building, presently studio space for artists, and the Reed Auction House, former home of the Artery. That city-owned – perhaps not heritage, but certainly old – buildings can’t seem to be saved is a repeat of so much of Edmonton’s brief architectural history.

Few today remember the glorious old Main Post Office that stood where the relatively featureless brick of the Westin Hotel now sits.  And who remembers the Varscona Cinema that stood on the corner of Whyte Avenue and 109 Street, replaced twice since its demolition?  The MacDonald Hotel was almost demolished once upon a time.  A Mayor not long ago is said to have described the old AGT Building, now the Legislature Annex, as “crap architecture” or words to that effect. In fact, the AGT Building is something of a landmark, a glass-curtain-wall tower built in Edmonton, of all places, before Mies van der Rohe’s iconic glass-curtain-wall Seagrams Building in New York.  Recent lamentation over the lost Etzio building on Whyte Avenue and now over the Graphic Arts Building and the Reed Auction House is refreshing.  I fear, however, that the two buildings on Jasper Avenue are doomed, in large measure by Edmonton’s historically consistent attitude to contemporary construction, which all old buildings started out as.

Edmonton’s boom and bust history has been discussed endlessly in a great many contexts. It is our reality.  We have usually built quickly and for the short term.  The Etzio building was a hastily built wood-frame building.  It was remarkable that it lasted ten years in Edmonton, let alone a century.  We rarely build to last, and when we do, we grow bored with it in a generation and tear it down or wrap it in the tin foil of architectural fashion. The Stanley Milner (formerly Centennial) Library has been the victim of this once already, having a tumorous stucco thing pasted to the front.  Soon the Library is scheduled to have a more complete and superficial exterior remake, being wrapped in literal tinfoil. Does anyone remember the architectural coherence of the original design?

The growing concern in Edmonton over preserving old buildings, Heritage designated or not, is, I think, a good thing.  But if we are to effectively preserve our built heritage in the years to come, we need to change out attitudes toward young and newborn buildings.  We need to encourage architects and developers with a long term vision, who build to last.  We need to look at our ten year old and twenty year old buildings and ask whether our grandchildren will rally to preserve them.  And, most of all, we need to encourage the proper maintenance, perhaps through some sort of financial incentives, of interesting buildings that are in danger of decay.

This last item needs a fine balance, however.  The Graphic Arts Building and the neighbouring Auction House are today valued by the arts community as affordable space for studios and events.  And the spaces are so affordable precisely because they have been allowed to decay.  If owners half a century ago had had incentives to maintain and upgrade the buildings, there would be a more general desire today to continue to preserve them but property value and rents would be higher, and the arts community would still be looking for affordable space.  We cannot ignore the affordability offered by what are effectively temporary buildings, but it would be nice if affordability were also offered by something other than decay.

I don’t have a clear road map for preserving Edmonton’s built heritage. I don’t know if such a map is possible.  But I’m certain that if we don’t build at least some buildings with a century-long vision, if we don’t look at young buildings with that vision, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be protesting the demolition of affordable, quirky, but, in the final analysis, fatally run-down temporary buildings.  And we’ll forever have very few century-old buildings.

Personally, I’m going to try to look at the relatively featureless brick of the Westin Hotel, and a whole lot of Edmonton’s young architecture, with a more positive, century-long vision.

As an endnote, I highly recommend Capital Modern, a website dedicated to educating Edmontonians about our Modern Architectural heritage from 1940-1969.