Edmonton 2.0

Imagine an Edmonton where tramways take you across the North Saskatchewan, a giant Ferris wheel defines a new Whyte Avenue, and where homelessness is a thing of the past. With the right visionaries behind the helm, these things and much more could be a reality someday!

By Emil Tiedemann

IT'S been more than four years since the last time I saw my cousin, Amy. She had just turned 30 then, so we and about a half dozen of her friends spent the whole weekend drinking far too many hazy shots of tequila and Jagermeister at an endless thread of Vancouver nightclubs.

But now she was on my turf, and those nights of overindulging in overpriced Cuevo and Bacardi were behind us. Well, sort of.

It wasn't even noon yet when I picked Amy up from the Edmonton International Airport. She had barely changed at all from when I shared a carpet with her during one of our drunken swoons back in B.C. "Neither have you," she lied.

Amy was "starving," and even though our next stop was lunch, she insisted on snacking on a bacon club sandwich from one of the FEBO machines at EIA. As she dropped in her coins, I couldn't help myself: "You know, this is now the second busiest airport in the country, and has the largest indoor forest in North America!" The way I bragged to her, you'd almost think I had built the place with my own two hands.

"Oh God, here we go!" Amy piped up. "Every other day, you post something on Facebook about this place. It's not like it's Paris or New York."

"That's right, it's better!" I corrected her.

As we made our way out of the terminal, and much to Amy's displeasure, I filled her in on the latest hometown localities, the same way a new mom babbles on about her baby's first crawl and last bowel movement.

In the car, in between catching up on what Facebook and texting left out, I told her about the downtown greenhouse initiative, in which more than a dozen office buildings have sprouted rooftop greeneries to encourage diminishing our carbon footprints, as well as to serve local food banks, soup kitchens, and school lunch programs with fresh, organic food. 

I mentioned how City Council advocated for entrepreneurs to take advantage of untapped realty space amongst downtown alleyways and back streets, which would simultaneously foster area growth and intimidate late night crime in vulnerable sections of our hub.

And I couldn't help but tell her about how sizeable tax breaks and fiscal support have enticed business folks to open up "ma & pa" restaurants, pubs, cafes, book stores, and retail shops to cut down on suffocating chain corporations that were once spreading through the city like a cancer.

As Amy half ignored my boomtown boasts, heading west on the Whitemud, she couldn't help but admire the freeway scenery. Gardens of mostly regional flowers and plant life, highlighted by Lebanon Cedars and Sugi trees, greeted the Whitemud traffic. 

"Not even a speck of trash," Amy spoke up. "I'm impressed." I couldn't help but smile.

When we drove over the Quesnell Bridge, Amy asked "What's that sound?"

The green-tinted waterfall on the High Level Bridge?

"It's the Quesnell waterfall," I answered. "Most bridges that crosses the North Saskatchewan within city limits has one. They light up green at night until to symbolize the Northern Lights."

We turned right off the Whitemud onto 178th Street, due for "the largest mall in the Western hemisphere," a title West Edmonton Mall recaptured less than a year ago when the third level and 90th Avenue expansion was finally completed.

We parked at the very top of the five-tier parkade and took the pedway into one of the north entrances. "I haven't been in this mall in like 10 years," Laura claimed. "What a difference."

She must've been referring to the 30-storey Rosemont Hotel, the rooftop beer gardens, the underground aquarium, the world-class John Mahon Concert Theatre, or the revamped Galaxyland that included a new rollercoaster that shoots right through the ceiling. But we skipped all of those things and headed to the Pedway Food Court to grab a bite at Jason's Deli.

Amy scarfed down her Cuban Press, and I, a New Orleans Muffaletta, before we abandoned my car for the LRT, bound for downtown. The WEM station was one of my favourites on the line, a lively venue for buskers who play their favourite songs surrounded by local artwork on the walls and elaborate light fixtures hanging from above.

We got off on 124th Street, just as one of the street trollies rode by. "Hey! Let's take that!" Amy begged.

One of the Edmonton Trollies that transport locals in and around downtown?

"Not yet...I wanna show you this amazing vinyl and movie poster hybrid a few blocks in the other direction." Amy's obsessed with records, so I knew she wouldn't need much more convincing than that.

Neon versions of giant guitars and tambourines lit up the avenue, as scorching marquees persuaded passersby with claims of "Broadway calibre" presentations and eccentric Euro burlesques. Every 5X5 foot block of sidewalk was a glazed tapestry of the brush strokes of more than a hundred local artists who waived any payment in lieu of a permanent concrete canvas of their wildest imaginations. Even the weathered poplars that aligned the live theatres, wine bars, galleries, record shops, and Asian and European restaurants were entangled in ivory-coloured holiday lights that were flicked on at the first hint of night.

"This place is unbelievable!" Amy mumbled, as we grazed past a park bench made almost entirely of stained bamboo. Just then we stopped in front of Lionel's Vinyls & Poster Co., and stepped in the old-fashioned screen door just as the 7-storey Spanish-styled clock tower blared a pair of echoing "dongs."

Another echoing "dong" greeted our exit from the record shop, where Amy and I had planned on spending a sizeable fraction of our paycheques on LPs of Morissey, Loretta Lynn, and Daft Punk, but decided to come back tomorrow, with the car.

We mounted the next street trolley and headed down 124th until it curved onto Jasper, where we boarded the very next tramway that sailed some 40 feet above street level, its lines twinning with Jasper Avenue traffic until it curved towards the Legislature grounds and then along the High Level, right into the Garneau district.

But we abandoned the tram near the capital building, where the illuminated Century Fountain blazed whirling spouts of red, blue, and yellow-hued streams straight up into the sky as high as a city block, maybe two.

The redesigned Legislature grounds?

Hundreds of locals and wannabe locals paraded the grounds, a haven for coffee enthusiasts, bookworms, oil painters, and young families. Permanent chess and picnic tables were shaded by giant red maple trees on intermittent patches of government greenery that neighboured gardens of flowers with names I couldn't even begin to pronounce.

Street musicians and self-made jewelry kiosks shared the concrete walkways that led into the skyscrapper villages with hot dog vendors and slurpee huts. It was a stunning sight for anyone to see.

"I really had no idea that the city had come so far in such a short time," Amy said. "It's crazy!"

"That's what happens when you're a town made up of inspired visionaries with the same general agenda. And it's city-wide, on all sides," I said, sounding like a political ad. "All of our city buses are electric-solar hybrids; we have the highest returns on empty bottles and newspapers in the country; and our homeless rate is barely a hint of its worst days.

"There are programs to assist virtually every aspect of society, tax breaks for companies that stay green and local, and countless catalysts for athletes and artists of any medium you can possibly think of." I continued, "Did you know that there are more record labels, more skateboard parks, more indoor public pools, more baseball diamonds, and more libraries per capita than almost every metro on the continent?!"

I told her about how our education system and police department rank #1 in Canada, that our health standards are envied around the world (partially due to the new H. H. Hepburn Hospital), and that the head offices of innovative global companies have the downtown skies seized.

Edmonton has the top-rated hospital in Canada?

As we made our way towards Churchill Square, Amy seemed more interested in the giant murals that concealed most alley walls, as well as the LED billboards, London-fashioned phone booths, WiFi street patios, swarmed street performers, lit-up boardwalks, and the cyclists that seem to outnumber the area's drivers at times.

We walked through the burgeoning LGBTQ+ district, which embodied "gay-friendly" clubs, pubs, coffee joints, eateries, and corner stores, all of which welcomed all people. Rainbow flags draped light posts, subtle lighting criss-crossed the skies above the main block, and posters advertising extravagant masquerade balls and queer dinner theatres masked store fronts and coloured telephone poles. I also pointed out to Amy the chapel where Dean and I eloped. It all centered around the humble Michael Phair Park.

The outdoor farmers' market was in full swing when we made our way past the 104th Street Promenade, which looks like one of those trendy districts pulled out of a glossy magazine spread. It certainly doesn't conjure up any snobbish aura like you might assume, but 104th has gotta be the most desired neighbourhood in the city for the no-kids, under-40 crowd.

As we neared Churchill Square, the crowds amplified the expanse like ants on a dirt hill. The giant digital billboard that hung over the Stanley A. Milner Library informed us that the crowds were there for Zestfest, a bewildering gathering of multi-disciplined artists exposing their visual and audio works celebrating the best things in life. That was the only rule to Zestfest, now in its fifth season.

There had to be thousands of folks in the area, taking in the live music coming from the makeshift stage atop the former City Hall building, the street acts parading the roadsides, the painters exhibiting their canvasses in the shade of the red maples and paperbark cherry's, and the poets whispering their words into microphones for anyone willing to listen.

Zestfest was to occupy the Square only until the next-in-line event took its place, as part of Edmonton's year-round festival extravaganza that has offered all the necessary credibility to our town officially being rechristened "Festival City" some years back.

The crowds were overwhelming, so we continued south, past Neon Alley and down towards the river valley, virtually untouched by technical advancements. That is, of course, other than the addition of the river taxi fleet.

Speedy river taxis can take you to any of the three dozen taxi ports on the North Saskatchewan?

"Where are we headed?" Amy asked.

"Whyte Avenue, just across the river."

"Is that where all the photos of you clinking highballs with random people are taken?" she asked. I looked at her, "Perhaps."

We shared a river taxi across the North Saskatchewan, as brave zipliners reached the other side in a fraction of the time it took us. Some ballsy bungee jumper entertained us from the High Level, and a group of tipsy 20-somethings were "dancing" to Guns 'N Roses on the passing-by Edmonton Queen II, waving at the rafts and canoes below.

When we reached the other side of the river, we hiked it up the illuminated wooden steps towards 109th Street in the Garneau area. The iconic Garneau Theatre was presenting a week-long Alfred Hitchcock marathon, while the aligning patios were filled with thirsty patrons and a streetcar went by heading for Whyte. We followed it.

Once we reached Whyte we were in full site of the Strathcona Ferris Wheel that occupied the opposite side, swirling almost 200 feet into the sky above the old Strathcona railway station. It was a stunning spinning light show when the sun went down, marking the "other side of the tracks," which was refashioned to persuade new families rather than the younger crowd that filled up the side we were about to invade.

The giant Ferris wheel that splits Whyte Avenue right down the middle?

Over the years, the avenue's tenants had shifted somewhat, making way for more pubs, cafes, eateries, clubs, wineries, craft & antique shops, and galleries, none of which were allowed to bare chain names, as part of the Strathcona Heritage Preservation Bill that "forbids" the street from welcoming any further large franchises.

Whyte was now entirely cobblestone, with the streetlights replaced by versions ripped out of British movies from the '60s, and window fronts painted with the names of the accompanying shops or sales of the week.

Strings of holiday lights intertwined the space above the streets, and others laced the avenue's trees. Buskers borrowed boardwalk corners and strummed their acoustic guitars and harmonicas with summer songs, provoked by young revelers looking for the next place to damage their livers: Keg Korner, Route 82, Bernie's, The Blockade, Alfred's Armory, XTC, The Black Dog, etc., etc., etc.

"How 'bout this place?" I suggested.

"The Barn? Why not!"

We walked into a small lobby that gave way to three different options. Downstairs was a "Beatlesque" joint that offered live music "eight days a week." On street level was a hookah bar that was also one of the numerous places on the avenue where it was legal to smoke marijuana. A "pothouse," as some called them. But we took the third entryway, taking the stairs to The Barn, half of which occupied the outdoors of a rooftop patio overlooking the street.

Most of the tables were engrossed in conversation, but we found one next to the pool table. We each ordered a house beer, brewed right in the back. A young woman named Lisa sang a Steve Earle song in the corner of the patio, making it somewhat difficult to hear Amy, so we left after our one drink and took to the streets again.

"There!" Amy pointed across the street to Pitchy, a karaoke and cocktail bar that happened to be celebrating its third anniversary with an upcoming midnight fireworks show.

We sprinted across one of the lit-up crosswalks that served as a severe pain in the ass, I'm sure, for the slow-moving traffic that braved the avenue's coloured cobblestone, sharing the space with cyclists, pedestrians, and street vendors. 

Lighted crosswalks straddle many Edmonton streets, including Jasper and Whyte Ave?

Pitchy was packed with a suspiciously diverse group of wannabe rock stars scribbling their nostalgic requests on touch screens built into straw-coloured pine tables. We didn't bother to stick around for the tipsy hipster girl to pulverize a song by Pink Floyd.

Next, we checked into The Library, an English-styled pool hall furnished with Brunswick pool tables and classic arcade games surrounded by thousands of used and antique books for sale. "Amazing!" I sipped on a shot of Scotch and then a Saskatoon Berry Margarita, while Amy gathered the nerve to down a jalapeno-infused Bloody Mary.

After two rounds of pool and a record-breaking game of Ms. Pac-Man, we shuffled down the road and a block off Whyte to Tap 104, named so not just because it's located on 104th Street, but also to show off the amount of beers it has on tap. We paced ourselves on Alley Kat Ambers, which are brewed right on the spot, and then headed to our final destination.

Occifer is an '80s movie-themed, pot-friendly queer bar, and is the only '80s movie-themed, pot-friendly queer bar in the area. It's small, but gets the job done; that also happens to be their slogan. It wasn't three minutes in before Amy was on the room-encompassing dance floor to a Tiesto-stained remix of "Call Your Girlfriend," with a half-dozen gay young men.

After the DJ played my final request, Amy and I sat at the stools that stretched alongside the outdoors bar section of what's got to be the best pizza in town, hands down. The Flying Saucer is known most for their pizza--and the outdoor parlour--but it is also favoured for its by-the-slice drive-thru, and its second-storey cigar patio and humidor.

"You can buy theirs or smoke your own," I informed Amy. She replied, "Good to know."

We each devoured a giant slice of Pimply-Faced Pepperoni and a glass of ice water. 

We shared a pricey Romeo cigar as we walked to the Strathcona Transit Station. According to the live LED map, our train was just six minutes away. I mentioned to Amy that Edmonton's 42-stop, 24-hour LRT system stretches to all sides of the city, and even well into St. Albert and Sherwood Park.

The lowest transit fares in the country allow Edmontonians on any side of the city enjoy the LRT expansion?

"We're currently working on routes to Fort Saskatchewan and Leduc," I bored her. "Actually, the solar-powered, high-speed railway that connects us with Calgary is supposed to open in less than a year!"


"45 minutes!" I said. "That's all it will take to get there, if you include the 5-minute stop in Red Deer."

The 24/7 'I Heart Edmonton Network' streamed across all the monitors throughout each LRT car, sharing positive local news stories, events, and interviews, as well as music videos, comedy specials, sporting events, concerts, and films domestic to Edmonton. At the moment, it was a locally-based food show filmed out of the basement of the Federal Building, which also houses the new City Hall.

Cooks in the Hall had on a special guest every episode, and this particular one featured Mayor Don Iveson, who's been vital to the growth of Edmonton ever since he was elected. "I've been voting for that guy ever since he ran for City Council," I said. "I remember it like it was just last week when he became Mayor."

Don Iveson declares Edmonton the #1 metropolis to live in the whole wide world?!

Just then, the speaker announced our stop. We tipped some late-night busker selling old-school CDs, but not his own. We took a taxi the rest of the way back to my apartment. I used my debit card to cover the fare, then Amy and I made our way to the elevator.

I pushed the elevator button that read "28" in bright red Helvetica, as Amy read aloud the details of a glass-enclosed poster ad for some upcoming global science convention.

"July 18th to July 25th, NAIT Convention Hall, Edmonton, Alberta, in association with...."

I interrupted her, "I had an awesome time tonight, by the way."

She didn't take her eyes off the poster, "So did I. I have to make this a regular thing, coming here to see you rather than you guys coming there."

I smiled, "Told ya!"

As we leaned against the railing of my 28-storey balcony, I went over some of the places we should see before Amy went back home next week. I suggested the renovated Space & Science Center for the Mars One Exhibit, or the giant Giant Panda enclosure at the Valley Zoo, or laser tag at the Coliseum arena. Since the arena went up in the downtown, the former Rexall Place is used for all sorts of sports games and events, from extreme dodgeball to movie screenings.

So far, she was up for all of the above, nodding at each one. 

Suggestions aside, I insisted on checking out the Corb Lund concert at the Alberta Music Hall of Fame in Fort Edmonton Park (I had tickets!), the karaoke buffet in Little Manila, sitting in for a live taping of The Ryan Jespersen Show at CityTV studios, the Banksy showcase at the Royal Alberta Museum, the production of Hamlet at the replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in Windermere, a 3D screening of 28 Years Later at the drive-in theatre....

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!" she replied. 

One can imagine, can't they?!


  1. Question- What is the primary reason that Edmonton is not pursuing the opportunity to build an 'observation deck tower' especially after the height restrictions have been removed for downtown Edmonton development? The City of Edmonton announced it will be looking for 'investment opportunities' to reduce any increases in homeowner property taxes. It would be great for tourists and local people having an opportunity to pan the City first before going out to specific tourist attractions and/or events. They have a revenue producing Tower in Toronto (CN Tower), Calgary (Husky Tower) and Seattle (Space Needle) to bring more attention to their downtown areas. I still believe that constructing an 'observation deck tower' will bring more tourists and revenue that anything that is available in downtown Edmonton right now.

    1. I agree totally. I would love to see an observation deck tower here in Edmonton. I know that it would help with tourism, because I've gone to all three of those cities you mentioned (Toronto, Calgary, and Seattle) and have paid to get into all three of those towers. It's part of the appeal of visiting those cities...a small part to some, but still a part.

      We have a beautiful river valley and a burgeoning skyline, and a view without the pollution of larger cities, so why not have a building where tourists can view from atop its roof!?! Let's get this started, Edmonton!


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