A Few Privileged and Hasty Notes on Two Edmonton Planning Concerns

I have a bit of time on my hands, unlike the majority of people in my neighbourhood. Most people around me are still students, parents, renters, workers, homeless, marginalized, seniors, mobility challenged, with an “and/or” between each item. With each passing year the proportion of well-off, privileged, work-from-home, non-parent, chronically healthy, house/condo-owning individuals increases in my neighbourhood. I confess I am one of the privileged, fortunate enough to have moved into the neighbourhood in the 80s and stayed on through the decades of change. I have time to sit and do online surveys where the City attempts to “engage” with citizens (but really just gives the time-privileged a place to vent about their pet projects) and write blog posts.

Right now I have two pet beefs: the “planned” Centre Line LRT and the ongoing “Renewal” of the infrastructure of Strathcona. I’ll begin with the renewal because it is the one that has actually had a concrete start on the avenue in front of my house.

Renewal in Strathcona

Over the last few summers, 83 Avenue, most thoroughly in the stretch between 99 Street and the Mill Creek Ravine, has been closed for long periods while the road has been rebuilt, sidewalks and streetlights have been replaced, and a dedicated bike lane has been added. Superficially and in principle I love it all. I will soon be able to cycle to my little bit of part-time retirement work in (confusion and) safety (sort of). I can walk safely to the wonderful amenities of Strathcona, in my case, particularly the theatres and restaurants, and pretty much only in daylight. Bus service is wonderful for all the places I need to get that are a little too far to walk or too cold to cycle. And I’m privileged to have a car for the further trips or when I’ve a little too much to carry. The neighbourhood is good to me.

But. There has to be a but.

When the planners came up with the bike lane design, they decided on a multitude of them, particularly if the 106 Street doubled, multi-level, skinny lanes are considered. Between the Ravine and 99 Street on 83 Ave the lane is painted, dedicated to bikes one way and shared with cars the other, with wacky little roundabouts at the intersections and no left turns for cars off 99th. The roundabouts are a dangerous and confusing menace to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They limit access for emergency vehicles, city maintenance vehicles, and moving and delivery trucks. The restriction on left turns off 99th forces resident motorists and visitor motorists to make convoluted loops through the neighbourhood, or to make dangerous left turns down back alleys, merely to get to their home/destination.

Between 99th and 103 and beyond 104 it seems to be largely a physically separated two way lane with one way car traffic and greatly reduced parking, largely in front of walk up, largely rental apartments, rather than single family-owned homes. Clearly those who depend on cars, particularly renters and the mobility challenged, were not considered in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Between 103 and 104 the bike lane is a slightly elevated abomination which I expect will lead to countless trips, falls, and injuries during summer festival season. Clearly pedestrian safety was not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

The north-south lane on 106 street is an ugly and confusing collections of winding curbs and grin pillars that make driving or cycling feel like flying an x-wing down the trench on the Death Star. With speed bumps. Bus stops are separated from sidewalks by bicycle traffic lanes, and busses are boarded from a thin curb on the edge of the bike lane, a virtual impossibility for those with walkers or in wheelchairs. Clearly transit users and the mobility challenged were not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

I won’t even imagine the headaches of snow removal.

The sidewalks that have been rebuilt so far are very nice and walkable. A+ on the final concrete work.

The new streetlights on 83 Ave east of 99th are very pretty in the daytime, I expect they save energy at night, and the adequately light the road and bike lane after dark. But after dark the sidewalks are a pitch black abyss. Often when walking home after dark — which, face it, is any time after 4 pm for a good part of the year — I have been infinitely grateful for the home owner who has left a porch light on to help guide my steps. Clearly pedestrians with or without mobility issues were not a huge consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Given the inconsistency of the designs used in these really quite small and straight stretches of bike lanes and the confusion and danger this inconsistency will cause, I feel it clear that cyclists weren’t actually a huge consideration in this particular planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Right now the City is “consulting” with citizens (who have the privilege of leisure and time to go online and do a survey or show up at open houses) about the future steps in this reconstruction of Strathcona’s infrastructure. Much of the open and less open thrust of what little discussion there has been has been a giddy push for more bike lanes, apparently whatever the design or consequences of that design.

The Centre Line

There seems to be a desire on the part of unnamed planners to have a surface, low-floor LRT line down Whyte Avenue between the University of Alberta and Bonnie Doon, replicating one of Edmonton’s wonderful old streetcar lines. Right now that stretch is well serviced by a fleet of convenient kneeling buses which are regularly filled with citizens of all social and mobility levels. But, okay. I like the LRT. I take it fairly regularly. Having a stop a block from home would be nice.

But.

Where are these planners? Have they ever been to Edmonton? Have they never even looked at a map of the current LRT lines? “. . . connections between Downtown, the Alberta Legislature, the University of Alberta, Strathcona, Bonnie Doon, east Edmonton and the wider LRT network” the blabbity says. But, Downtown, the Legislature and the U of A have had LRT connections for years. For decades! If you look at the map accompanying the “plan”, every bit of the proposed route, except the bit down Whyte Avenue, parallels/duplicates an existing and expensively constructed underground LRT line — through downtown it would be the third east west line! And a new bridge will have to be built almost on top of two existing ones. Why? What is the reason for duplicating that line on the surface and those bridges? Are they trying to justify the (inevitably monumentally disruptive) line down Whyte Avenue? Why not just build a surface line from Health Sciences station to Bonnie Doon and beyond? Even just between Health Sciences and Bonnie Doon the line would be significantly longer than the current continually troubled NAIT line, and it would be a good start on a long overdue commuter line to Sherwood Park. And no redundancy (if we forget about the buses which are doing so nicely on that route).

As someone who uses/has used all transportation modes in the city –car, bus, LRT, High Level Streetcar, walking, cycling, motorscooter — even unicycling in my younger days — but not those Segway river valley tours, I wish Edmonton’s planners would spend less time on narrowly focused dreams and misleading consultations with privileged single-issue citizen activists and a little more time actually walking, driving, cycling, LRTing, and bussing through the areas they’re treating like big sandboxes of expensive experiment.

“Hadestown” at The Citadel

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora . . .
— Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book I

I just had to post a hasty note after seeing the first preview performance of Hadestown at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre this evening.

What a piece of work!

Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful, powerful, poetic words and music, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and in the hands of such a talented cast, band of musicians (that trombone!!!), and technical staff, have given new, timely form to the Classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Greek mythic world is here a mythic Great Depression America, a fusion of the Mississipi Delta and the Rust Belt, of the particular and the universal. The whole is made so remarkably topical: While Patrick Page’s Hades is nothing like the President to the south, he does pump up his indentured workers with praise of the Wall they’re building to keep the Enemy (poverty) out of their homeland; the destruction of Persephone’s natural world by unbridled industry can be nothing other than a reference to the environmental precipice on which we teeter; and then those oh-so-current resonances in references to “what happens behind closed doors.”

Apart from praising them to the sky, I don’t want to take a whole lot of time describing all the wonderful details of the production and performances — you should see, hear, and enjoy them yourself.*  What I was particularly struck by about Hadestown (apart from the glorious music and dance) is the play’s firm roots in the Classical myth. This is not a riff on vaguely remembered characters. Hadestown is the product of a deep understanding of both the myth and its profound meaning.

Just before I went to the play, I reread the opening of Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Orpheus and Eurydice passage is quite brief, only a hundred lines of verse or so. But so many images are shared by Hadestown and those hundred lines of Latin verse. The huge tree that dominates the first act of the play parallel’s the catalogue of trees that gather in Ovid to mourn with Orpheus. Orpheus’ awakening of hope in the Chorus of Workers in the play parallels the beautiful passage in the Metamorphoses in which the torments of the dead cease for a moment while Orpheus sings — even Sisyphus is able to climb on his rock and rest for a time. For a moment there is hope even in the depths of Hell.

Hadestown is a most intelligent and engaging retelling and reforming of an ancient myth. a joyous, inexpressibly powerful demonstration that the old stories continue to have profound messages for our lives, our societies, and our deepmost selves. And the biggest, most important and timely message of Hadestown is:

Hope.

 

Cos here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin
To sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
— Hermes, in Hadestown

 

 

Hadestown continues at The Citadel until December 3, 2017.

See it.


*Audience members from Old Strathcona will likely find Reeve Carney’s Orpheus oddly reminiscent of our own shirtless, rollerskating, guitar-playing guy.

 

__

New Voices

What an inspiring evening hearing New Voices I just had!

I’m still trying to process a bunch of stuff:

A young lady I’ve seen have scary tantrums and whom I’ve also seen around town doing the kind of menial jobs that people with developmental disabilities are sadly so lucky to get when they can — this young lady turns out to be a beautifully soulful singer;

Artists with developmental disabilities hobnob at their music video launch with Miss Sarah Chan and her husband, the Mayor of Edmonton;

The head honcho of ATB Financial announces that his company’s downtown office building is lit up in purple in honour of an inner-city art studio where professional artists mentor artists with developmental disabilities, were artists with barriers of all sorts are given the opportunity to exhibit their work, where musicians and dancers from the larger arts community mentor the resident Collective;

And, I can’t shake from my mind the fact that an outfit “advocating” for the disabled shunned the wonderful institution that brings all these people together, from business, from politics, from the arts, and from the all-to-often-invisible disabled community — I can’t shake the memory that an organization claiming to advocate for the disabled rejected this wonderful, integrated, outward-reaching place as “segregated”.

No. This place, The Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, which I’ve written of before, is a place of true integration. This isn’t a place of art lessons for “normal” people with a chair or two set aside in the corner for “special” people. No. The Nina Haggerty Centre is a place where people are helped to be a part of the larger community, of a larger community than most of us “normal” people ever get to be a part of. The Nina helps people to find their voices, voices they often themselves don’t know that they have.

And what voices they are!

Please listen to Angela Trudel singing words composed by her Nina Collective colleague Alana Gersky, and then listen to Angela singing her colleague Amber Strong’s words as Amber plays her own music on the piano.

Please listen. And hear.

I won’t name the agency that argued that the Nina Haggerty Centre was segregated. I understand their opinion has changed, perhaps in small part due to my online rants.

The Nina Haggerty Centre is all that is best about Edmonton and about Canada. It is about finding the beauty in each of us and helping each other to share and enjoy that beauty. Sure we screw it up a lot. Sure we are often tone deaf and we have bad days or years or centuries where we just don’t seem to be able to hear each other. Sure we’re hateful, impatient, hurtful, stupid and just plain tired lots of the time.

But when we get it, when we listen, when we just darn well work hard for what is right, and true, and beautiful. When we simply ask “what are you feeling?” and listen — truly listen — to the answers, especially answers from New Voices, we do pretty amazing stuff.

Yes, we make a mess of so much. But, do you suppose we can, like Nina Collective artist Yvette Prefontaine, keep on Searching for Hope?

I Took My Father for a Drive Today

My father was born and raised in Montreal in the first half of the last century. He served in the RCAF (briefly) and the Royal Canadian Navy (less briefly) during World War II. In the ’60s he traveled in Europe as a merchandise buyer for a major Canadian jewelry chain. My father has been around the block.  For some reason, although he had never visited this city on the North Saskatchewan River, my father always wanted to live in Edmonton. He had a feeling it was the place to be.

In the early 1970s he was offered the position of Edmonton Area Manager of the jewelry chain and, of course, jumped at it. We were living in Windsor, Ontario at the time. My father flew out to Edmonton first to find a place to live and settle into his work. I can still remember him describing Edmonton to me: the River Valley was everything in that description! As you approached the city, everything was flat and then suddenly, this vast expanse of green opened up beneath you! My father took a furnished apartment downtown and walked everywhere.

A few months later when the school year had ended, he flew back to Windsor and packed us all into our old Ford Custom and drove us to our new home. It was the best move ever! Our family is now into its fourth generation in Edmonton (our eighth generation in Canada, if my arithmetic is correct). Edmonton has been very good to us.

My father lives in Sherwood Park now, a bedroom community on the east side of the city. He’s ninety-one and hasn’t been downtown for a few years.

Today I took my father for a drive.

He could not believe his eyes! The New Arena! The Epcor Tower! The new City office tower, the Stantec tower going up, MacEwan University, Norquest College, the U of A’s Enterprise Square campus, all the apartment towers! The warehouses converted to lofts! The Neon Sign Museum! To close off the little ten minute tour, I turned south onto 104th Street, heading for Jasper Avenue.

“Look up to your right,” I said. My father craned his neck to try to see the top of the newish apartment towers on the west side of the street.

“And look. There’s the Armstrong Block. And the Birks Building.”

Edmonton had come full circle for him.

We turned east on Jasper and struggled through rush hour to take a look at the new Hyatt hotel and to go down Grierson hill for a glimpse of the new funicular. “Is that a new bridge?” he asked, pointing at the giant white arches connecting Walterdale to Rossdale.

I told him that indeed it is the new Walterdale Bridge.

When he packed up his family to pursue his odd conviction that Edmonton was the place to catch a ride to Tomorrow, my father was much younger than I am today. This afternoon I felt like my little car was a time machine, and I’d gone back and fetched that younger version of my father from a 1970s River Valley stroll and brought him right into the future he had been dreaming of all those years ago.

Well done, Edmonton: you really impressed an old dreamer today!

And that old dreamer was right all along: Edmonton really is the place to be.

A Conversation with one of Voltaire’s Bastards

The easy answer is that decision making must be decoupled from administration: the former being organic and reflective, the latter linear and structured. . . The rational advocacy of efficiency more often than not produces inefficiency. It concentrates on how things are done and loses track of why. It measures specific costs without understanding real costs.
–John Ralston Saul,
Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 626-7

 

The other day I returned a call from a fellow at the City of Edmonton’s Drainage Department and found myself in a bit of a Joseph Heller novel, all because I wanted to make a sensible suggestion.

Although Edmonton is a remarkably young city from a built point of view, my neighbourhood’s sanitary sewer system is about a million years old. My neighbourhood also has a substantial part of one of the world’s largest healthy stands of American Elms. Taken together, these two are a recioe for disastrously root-plugged sewer pipes and black sludge spilling onto basement floors.

As well as an ongoing program of replacing or relining these old pipes, the City sensibly has something called “The Root Maintenence Program”. When my house was built over twenty years ago, the builder sensibly put a new, modern sewer line to the property line, tying into the old system there. For as long as I can remember, every twelve to eighteen months a City crew has politely and sensibly come to my house and augered out the roots blocking the old City pipe, sometimes sending a herbicide down the pipe to put a bad taste into the mouth of Old Man Elm.

Last year the main line on our street was relined, leaving only the short million year old lateral between the main line and my property line open to night-soil-seeking tree roots. So, the City crew came again a week or so ago, finding lots of roots again, saving me from a stinking basement, and generally being sensible and polite.

The Root Maintenance Program is a common-sense stop-gap until the sewage system is upgraded — the cost of routinely removing the roots is almost certainly less than emergency overtime and damage claims that would be filed by sludge-flooded homeowners if City trees were allowed to spread with wild abandon through the sewer pipes of the metropolis.

Yes. A sensible stop-gap until the scheduled upgrades proceed.

The evening of the Friday after the crew politely and sensibly augered my main drain, I found a voice mail message from a man at Edmonton Drainage Services.

“The lateral line to your house is going to be relined in the next year or two so you’ve been removed from the Root Maintenance Program. If you have any questions, call me at, etc.”

Oh. In a year. Or two. Every eighteen months the sewer has been on the verge of backing up. If it’s left for two years . . .

The next Tuesday morning I called the number and identified myself.

“Yes, I remember,” the fellow interrupted, and he immediately started into a defensive speech about how there would be no charge . . .

I squeezed in with “No, I just want to make a modest and, I think, sensible suggestion: they’ve been coming to clean it out every twelve to eighteen months and now you say it may be two years before it’s relined. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave me on the Program? Then, if the relining is done in a year, take me off, and, if it’s done in two years, I’ll get one more visit from the crew and be assured of no back up.”

“If you have a back up just call and we’ll clean out the roots. No charge.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have me on the program for one more visit?”

“I can’t put you on both lists at once. Once you’re on the relining list you have to be taken off the Root Maintenance list.”

“You can’t put me on both lists?”

“No.” I could sense a “No charge” about to float out.

“So,” I asked, sensibly, I thought, “policies and procedures take precedence over what makes sense?”

“Yes” the fellow replied, without any trace of regret, or irony, or anything other than “that’s a mildly interesting but obvious fact.”

I was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into the idea that the assembly line is more important than the product of the assembly line, that the mission statement is bigger than the mission.

“So, rather than leave me on the list, I have to watch my drain and hope I don’t find sludge in my basement.”

“Call at the first sign of a blockage and we’ll come and clean it out.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement.”

“Free of charge.”

I shifted  gears and joined the game:

“So, it would make sense for me to just call next summer and say I’ve got a blockage when I don’t actually have one.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” No appearance of seeing the mild absurdity of it.

“So it would be a good idea to lie? Okay. I’ll call next summer.”

“If you have any further questions, feel free to call.”

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions.
Saul, op.cit., p. 630

I’ve told this story to pretty much everyone I know and it has been met with unanimous recognition of the absurdity of rules so slavishly followed that common sense is abandoned. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all Voltaire’s bastards. And yet, the routine maintenance of the physical system is being replaced by emergency maintenance, probable overtime expenses, potential damage claims against the City, all because the Management System says “I can’t have you on both lists at once.”

Saul was depressingly accurate in his description of the dystopia we have created. From the needs of people with disabilities to the fundamental infrastructure underpinning our technological society, I’ve noticed that maintenance of the Rules has come to take absolute precedence over the needs and desires if citizens, over efficiencies of labour and cost, and, at root of it all, over common sense — sensus communis. As individuals we are forced to play the game according to often absurd and arbitrary rules or risk wading through sludge on a winter morning.

It pains me, but I guess I’ll play the game, make a phone call next summer, and lie about some tree roots.

But, tonight I’ll have a slightly bitter laugh or two while watching Gilliam’s Brazil again. But this time I’ll watch it as a documentary.

And I’ll try to remind myself:

“We’re all in it together!”

A Visit to the Neighbour Centre

A few weeks ago with homelessness on my mind I took a few minutes to drop in on the Neighbour Centre, another great Edmonton thing.  I’d been meaning for some time to visit this rare resource for “street people” on the south side of the River.  The visit was a fine and moving experience.

As one o’clock opening time approached about a dozen people gathered at the door, most laughing and smiling, all apparently familiar with each other.  I hung back, feeling myself to be an outsider here.

Finally the front door of the little storefront across 104 Street from Strathcona High School opened, but it wasn’t quite time to go in.  I watched as a mysterious lottery took place. A number, but not all of the gathered, called out to have their names put into a hat.  Four names were drawn and then the doors opened and all filed inside, I at the end of the line.

Unlike many inner city “missions” the world over, the Neighbour Centre doesn’t require that a meal be purchased with a bowed head or an open ear for a prayer or a sermon.  The proceedings began with what seemed a completely voluntary opportunity for individuals to publicly reflect positively on themselves.  Staff, volunteers, and Neighbours all took a moment to either pass or to tell the group what they thought of themselves when they were at their best, a pretty positive exercise.

After this brief self-affirmation, the purpose of the mysterious lottery became clear: four of the Neighbours appeared in yellow safety vests, “The Neighbour Centre” printed on the backs, equipped for their afternoon cleaning litter from the sidewalks of Old Strathcona.  For their work, they would be paid an hourly wage in cash. The fact that a lottery must be held for these jobs puts the lie to the idea that the “homeless” are not willing to work.

The Neighbours now disperssed through the building, some to the back to the showers, some straight to the fresh food in the “kitchen”.  The Neighbour Centre does not have a full kitchen, making to with microwaves and rice cookers and a healthy offering of fresh fruit and vegetables.

As I chatted and learned about some of the philosophy of the Centre, I saw neighbours offer to wash up the dishes. There is little distinction here; everyone pitches in. The Neighbour Centre’s focus is on helping Neighbours become actual neighbours, to help them empower themselves to better their own circumstances. It’s a hackneyed pharse, but the Neighbour Centre doesn’t offer hand outs. It offers hands up.

One particularly exciting program the Neighbour Centre organizes is the Thursday night Dinner Club at the Strathcona Baptist Church.  On these evenings about twenty Neighbours — staff, volunteers, and those who might be called “clients” by other agencies — get together to prepare and share their dinner, side by side. This is not a charity providing “services”, rather, here are neighbours serving each other and building a true community, nurturing individual growth.

Recently the Neighbour Centre has amalgamated with another great Edmonton thing, the Mustard Seed.  This will hopefully bring administrative efficiencies while not undermining either organization’s philosophy or strenghths.  Together with Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS), the Neighbour Centre is a rare bright light for our most disadvantaged neighbours on the south side of Edmonton. Each of us needs to try to be such a light for our neighbours. All of our neighbours.

 

Until the fine future day the Neighbour Centre is no longer needed, I hope all shoppers on Whyte Avenue, when they pass a worker in one of those yellow safety vests, will share a smile and a “Thank you, neighbour!” and maybe a conversation and some laughter.  As I did a few days ago with this fellow: