Edmontonian Time

The clock in my hometown ticks toward a once-distant optimism. Rollie Pemberton on leaving – and coming – home

Edmonton’s High-Level Bridge in winter. Photograph: Lucas Boutilier/Naked Rain Creative

Canada is a great land mass with a multitude of faces, climates and attitudes, a realm defined and strengthened by its amorphous, uncategorizeable nature. Our country is bound together by shared values and ideologies based on an inherent goodness that belies the history of what, exactly, allowed many of us to settle here in the first place. This dichotomy has never been clearer than this year during Canada 150, with its dizzying onslaught of government-sponsored sesquicentennial parties in the shadow of a First Nations clean water crisis. But what truly sets us apart from province to province is how we perceive time.

In my travels across the country as an artist, I’ve learned how each Canadian city’s relationship to time is different. In Toronto, where I currently live, you’re rarely afforded an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time. You find every free moment booked up with professional obligations, navigating a constant stream of opportunities. It is a city where people ask what you do before they ask who or how you are. You’re unable to make time for anything outside of the rat race, and the carrot at the end of the stick is a condo. Still, it’s a productive place and if you’re focused, your time will be well spent.

In beautiful Montreal, time gradually slips away from you, reality itself becomes unmoored by an endless parade of picnics in the park. Being timely begins to feel less important. Staying out until 4 a.m. on a Tuesday is not considered socially irresponsible. After living there for several years, I often worried that I might wake up one Sunday next to the George-Étienne Cartier Monument, across from Parc Jeanne-Mance, with grey dreadlocks, a djembe and no idea how two decades had flown by.

No such concern in Edmonton. The colossal, yawping sky and winters with unmitigated brightness and clarity make it quite apparent precisely how much time has elapsed over any given period. Our country’s unfavourable climate forces us to spend half the year in a state of suspended animation, facilitating deep introspection and subsequently, some fantastic art. This is particularly true of Edmonton, where snow falling well into May is not uncommon.

A capital city of 1.3 million people that has historically defied definition in the popular culture, Edmonton can be a peculiar place. Even after the peak of its international relevance as the home of the Edmonton Oilers champion-ship dynasty and the World’s Largest Mall in the 1980s, there is a lingering sense of ambiguity about what the city stands for and what it’s like to live there.

In his 1985 profile of Wayne Gretzky for the New York Times, Mordecai Richler called Edmonton “the boiler room” of Canada, describing it as “a city you come from, not a place to visit, unless you happen to have relatives there or an interest in an oil well nearby.” Today, Edmonton’s page on the Lonely Planet travel website labels it “frigidly cold for much of the year” and “a government town that you’re more likely to read about in the business pages than the travel supplements.” Dominated by boxy, brutalist architecture and a numerical grid system that turns its street addresses into a jumble of numbers, Edmonton often exudes a sense of rigidity.

But there is an ephemeral, transient quality to the city as well. Edmonton has traditionally been a through-point for the country. For many, it’s a boomtown where you can make a fortune and then scuttle off to a more permanent destination. Like its northern cousins in Yellowknife and Whitehorse, for whom it provides a gateway, it’s a place where you can reinvent yourself, away from the unforgiving eyes back in your hometown. I’ve known several people who changed their names and identities upon moving to Edmonton.

The city itself has often behaved in the same manner, allowing the urban landscape to be remade over and over at the expense of heritage buildings. Historical sites have been laid to waste countless times, most recently the 117-year-old Etzio building on Whyte Avenue and the 108-year-old Mitchell & Reed Auction House. This attitude was made apparent in 2015 during the dustup around the Welcome to Edmonton signs that beckoned drivers in from outside city limits. The angular, taupe signs also bore an additional proclamation: City of Champions. It memorialized former mayor Laurence Decore’s tribute to citizens’ courageous response to the F4 tornado that ripped through Edmonton’s east side on July 31, 1987.

As dated and hokey as the signs now look and as irrelevant as the slogan might seem in recent years, the removal of Decore’s statement from the signs felt like a tacit admission by the city that Edmontonians were, in fact, not championship material. Born and raised here, I never felt that way. To me, Edmonton was a glittering, under-appreciated metropolis. I wondered why all of the music I heard and the films I watched were filled with romanticism for places like New York, London and Paris, yet never for my city. Everyone knows that time is money in New York and everyone knows that time is unhurried in California. But what can be said about Edmontonian time? It was that absence of understanding, that lack of a cultural imprint, that pushed me to create art about Edmonton in the first place.

Photograph: Simon Law/Flickr

I‘ve always tried to write about what I know. I wrote songs that covered the expanse of Edmontonia: the strip malls, the gentrification pushing my friends out of the city, the Avenue of Nations and the local venues where I learned how to perform. I rapped about the windy nights driving to Edmonton International Airport during the brutal winter, seeing Highway 2 lined with upturned cars. In my work I’ve shouted out local politicians, shopkeepers, public-access TV stars, scenesters, musicians and athletes. As the city’s poet laureate, I wrote a poem about Edmonton’s strange relationship with its monuments that stands as a self-referential monument of its own, hanging sentence by sentence on the flags that line Jasper Avenue.

I’ve strived to reflect the values and lifestyle of where I come from in the same way my heroes did. Artists like Nas, Lou Reed, Mike Skinner, André 3000 and Martin Newell made their cities feel larger than life and fantastically detailed. I’ve tried to do the same for Edmonton, even if that meant it wouldn’t always be portrayed in a positive light. This is bound to happen when you write about a place with any measure of specificity. You know how Reed sings about meeting a drug dealer in “I’m Waiting for the Man”? The memorable part for me is that he made his transaction at Lexington Avenue and 125 Street in Harlem. If I helped make people think of Oliver Square as somewhere more than just a place you can get both a Booster Juice and a Big Mac, that means I’ve achieved my goal.

Some people have taken issue with how I’ve portrayed the city in my music. I titled my third album, Hope In Dirt City, which refers to a colloquial nickname my small group of artistic friends gave Edmonton. I thought Dirt City embodied the hardscrabble, workmanlike attitude of people in the city. It felt similar to Newark being known as Brick City. But I didn’t consider the fact that some people wouldn’t exactly appreciate having the place they live in being portrayed as unclean or murky. I apologize for the miscommunication.

I find myself particularly inspired when I come back home. The impossibly wide streets set my mind into motion as I walk. I’m besieged by ideas while driving across the city. There’s something about the passage of time here that provides me with a wellspring of imagination. I believe that some of this can be attributed to the city’s adherence to Mountain Standard Time, an oft-forgotten time zone that places the city in limbo: two hours behind the newsmakers in New York and Washington and an hour ahead of Los Angeles and Vancouver. Distractions are limited when I’m back in Edmonton. It allows for the rare opportunity to move forward on projects at whatever pace I choose, rather than allowing my environment to dictate the speed of my lifestyle. I often feel pleasantly disconnected from the flow of world news when I’m there, learning about things a few hours or days later than I would if I were on the east coast.

The Sugar Bowl in Edmonton. Photograph: Ian McKenzie/Flickr

Despite the positive feelings I have when I return, as I look back at my career and my relationship to the city I’m surprised by how bleak some of imagery is. Edmonton has changed a lot since I was a teenager watching kids fight each other with machetes outside of house parties in the west end. Yet whether it’s literature, film or music, I’ve never seen or heard Edmonton depicted in full summer bloom in any medium. Why have these sunny, optimistic visions of the city been obscured from the public consciousness? Could it be because the cold months are so long and chilling that they overshadow the greener seasons (or let’s be honest, season), creating a seemingly inextricable link between Edmonton and the image of a frostbitten gold prospector? Or was it just not that compelling to rap about a really nice day I had at Folk Fest?

Perhaps I can help to rectify that with this essay. I’ll never forget the feeling when I first ventured to Old Strathcona one summer night. My mother drove me there as a teenager to rap along with my uncle Brett Miles and his jazz trio Rise at the Sugar Bowl. The clusters of people on Whyte Ave as we drove by, the shimmering marquee of the Garneau Theatre, the independent spirit of the audience for our gig that felt so different than the more conservative attitudes I was accustomed to seeing on the north side of the city: this was when the city came alive for me. When I was older, I would live a couple buildings down from the Sugar Bowl, subsisting primarily on chicken burgers from the long-closed diner Keegan’s.

The river valley nearby is indivisibly linked to Edmonton, a natural wonder that sets it apart from any other city in the world. There aren’t many places where you can walk down some stairs and suddenly be in a massive forest.

For many, the High Level Bridge is an object of fear and desolation. It has recently been outfitted with tall fences to prevent suicides so rampant that they warranted a documentary by filmmaker Trevor Anderson. It makes me recall a romantic first date where the two of us walked across the bridge together, stopping to look at both sides of the city simultaneously. It also reminds me of some scenes Steven Hope and I shot there during the making of the music video for “Coming Home,” a song I wrote with Shout Out Out Out Out about returning from tour to a city that has changed without you.

Fellow Edmonton native Mac DeMarco recently released a song called “Moonlight on the River,” a ballad from his album This Old Dog, about returning home to visit his ailing, estranged father. This elegiac tale of loss and acceptance obliquely casts the North Saskatchewan River as the setting for a potential final farewell: “I’m home, with moonlight on the river, saying my goodbyes.” The fact that a place in Edmonton can potentially inspire such a broad spectrum of emotions is proof that our monuments have as much value as those of any other city, a testament to the myriad ways that you can make art about Edmonton.

On one of my trips back to town in 2016, the optimism around Rogers Place and the current Oilers team inspired me to write a song about their young star player Connor McDavid. Just like the previously moribund downtown core that Richler famously denigrated, McDavid has resurrected the hopes of the team and the city in a way that hasn’t quite happened since the heyday of Gretzky. New successful businesses are springing up around the stadium’s orbit and, according to new census data, Edmonton is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. There were times (usually during the winter) where this kind of upswing felt distant and impossible. I guess time in Edmonton just moves at its own pace.

This essay is courtesy of the author and Edmonton Community Foundation.

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