Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Alberta dispatch: West Edmonton Mall

This most public of places, this marble mall
— Anne Swannell, Mall

Just how Edmonton became structured as a mall town is something I’ve been wondering about for years. Sitting at the Garneau Pub on 109th Street, I find two paragraphs in Linda Goyette and Carolina Jakeway Roemmich’s Edmonton In Our Own Words (2004) that explain a bit of the car/mall culture of the city of Edmonton. They talk about the creation of the interiority of the infamous West Edmonton Mall in the late 1970s, and the shifts in the construction of city that the mall might not have created, but was simply a part of.

Huge shopping malls were the consequence of rapid suburban growth in post-war Edmonton, not the cause of it. More than half of Edmonton’s residents lived in suburban neighbourhoods. Long before the Ghermezians arrived in town, Edmontonians had embraced Westmount Shopping Park, one of Canada’s first prototype shopping malls, and Southgate Mall, the largest mall west of Toronto when it opened in 1970. The city redesigned itself to serve drivers and their cars, not pedestrians or bus passengers. Public transit did not keep up with suburban growth. Suburban residents became impatient with Edmonton’s limited public transit to their neighbourhoods, not to mention winter waits at outdoor bus stops. They preferred to drive across a wide city to indoor shopping malls where they could park for free.

If you’ve never been here, you have to realize just how much the city is built for strip malls; strip malls, porn shops and liquor stores. There are far more here than in any other city I’ve been in the country; I’m still trying to figure out why that is. What makes a city? Is it population, construction (whether deliberate planning or accidents of movement), finances, cultural concerns, or all (or even none) of the above? Thinking, too, since Ontario was a creation of the Scots (and their dour moralism), it’s pretty much the only province you can’t purchase alcohol either in a convenience store or at the back of the bar to take home with you; what makes one geography have an idea and not another?

There is something about being in Edmonton that requires at least one visit to West Edmonton Mall. Mid-November, Lainna and I spent part of a Saturday wandering the Mall and watching roller coaster rides, the old-timey pioneer photo kiosk, the wavepool and skating rink; catching the movements and the human traffic and the coloured lights. As Alice Major suggested in an email, interesting for “how little use it makes of the traditional western décor or symbol. It tries to recreate Bourbon Street and beaches—places far away from here—not rodeos and wranglers.” I hadn’t been there in nine years, since the ottawa international writers festival’s Great Canadian Via Rail Tour back in 1998 with Sean Wilson, Kira Harris, David McGimpsey and Susan Musgrave, and going through as only tourists do—looking at everything, including participating in the shooting range, bowling alley and roller coaster—and buying (almost) nothing.

Years later, going through Elizabeth Smart’s journals [see my previous note on her here] from her own year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University, I listen to the anger that comes out in her voice. Why did she hate her experience so much? I mean, apart from the fact that her youngest child, Rose, had died of an overdose six months earlier; is she complaining about the provincialism of the city or using that as her target, unable to process Rose any other way? How does (or even, can) one process the death of a child? Here is part of her entry for September 12, 1982:

To think! I was going to enrich their lives & I find myself poverty-stricken. A desert within, a desert without. Needing them—if only they’d take pity on—where can I find it—where is it hiding—the passion & the life.

Instead of the garden, what? (I’d hoped for the Wild)

Instead of friends? (Kind acquaintance? very different)

Instead of big resolving tension drinks? ( a civilized sip, stopped before one gets anywhere?)

Why is this Hell—& how shall I get out of it?

These terrible high-rises & fearsome geometry—not the breathtaking arrogance of N.Y. skyscrapers—& the muddy (but dried mud) parking lots—& the dominance of cars & the endless flat pavements, wide uneventful roads.

It stands to reason, there must be a pulsing human life somewhere, here as elsewhere, there must be. Does it take place in their homes—visiting back & forth, tiny exchanges, boring each other for a purpose?

O where for me shall my salvation come, from whence arise?

Twenty seven years beyond her, I can look into this passage and see shades of familiarity but I do not feel her obvious grief. Kind acquaintance? Am I simply too naïve, too polite (too “Canadian,” perhaps) and can see nothing else? Or is the difference itself in the city, the provincial aspect of Edmonton in the 1980s, highlighting the severe shifts from her many years in England and Ireland? How different this passage reads from her By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, despite being another book rife with heartbreak and disappointment. For Elizabeth Smart and Edmonton, there was certainly no love, or love lost. She might not have had anything left.

I can’t imagine she would have had any reason to go even near the mall, then bare a year old; the stories still float through the English department of her time here, unhappy, unkempt and worn out from drink. I only wish that more of her journals from this period were put into print; or was it simply more of the same? So much of the mall is certainly circus sideshow, yet so much is simply the same as almost any other mall, but one that continues, on and on with each turn of a hallway. With most of its space taken up on two levels, there are smaller malls that have spaces that seem much larger; the mirrored ceiling in the food court that allows the illusion of space, despite the lower ceilings.

West Edmonton Mall opened September 15, 1981, expanding further with three more phases of construction in 1983, 1985 and 1998. The mall was officially the largest shopping mall in the world until 2004, when the Jin Yuan, or Golden Resources Shopping Mall, also known as the “Great Mall of China” in Beijing, with over a thousand stores and a total area of 680,000 square metres. West Edmonton Mall might still be the largest in North America, but the current largest, constructed in 2005, is the South China Mall in Dongguan, with 1500 stores and a total area of 892,000 square metres. Edmonton’s almost seems puny in comparison, with only eight hundred stores, and a total area of 570,000 square metres.

Why did it take nearly a decade to get someone to take me back to the mall? In 2001, suggesting the same to a group of friends on Whyte Avenue, grad students at the University including poets Adam Dickinson and Andy Weaver, they looked at me and my obvious lack of better judgment without saying a word. I mean, how could I?

Nine years since I had wandered the mall, where we went bowling and for Budweisers (when in Rome, as they say) at the Hooters, simply because we thought it was funny (I think Canadians are far too subtle for Hooters, a family restaurant in the southern United States; over the past decade, three have opened and closed in Ottawa in quick succession). I won’t tell which author (I was told later) screamed like a little girl during that ’98 trip on the roller coaster. Edmonton in 1998, where we arrived by train, and somehow our hotel was out by the airport. At breakfast, seeing the sign that told of the daily special, eggnog paralyzers, preparing for the Christmas rush, perhaps? What, we asked, is in an eggnog paralyzer? The waiter slowly checked his 11am watch, looked at us disparagingly, and told us it was exactly what was in a regular paralyzer, except with eggnog. As though every school-child in Alberta had already been taught what we had yet to learn.

Even before I arrived, I knew: there is the mythological Alberta, and, even, the mythological Edmonton, holding on still to the myths of frontier. Robert Kroetsch wrote wild horses set loose over the High Level Bridge in What the Crow Said (1978), and wrote about the land he grew up on near Leduc in his first collection, his “Stone Hammer Poem” that now opens up Completed Field Notes (2002); the land his father and his grandfather owned; the land near where Alberta first struck oil, writing:

This paperweight on my desk

where I began
this poem was

found in a wheatfield
lost (this hammer,
this poem).

Cut to a function,
this stone was
(the hand is gone ―

There are the neighbourhoods, and then the city itself. In Strathcona, it’s still a walking neighbourhood, but no where else in Edmonton, it seems. What Donald Alexander Smith, Lord Strathcona (later, first Baron Strathcona) saw when he train travelled west, creating hotels and neighbourhoods in the wake of his rail. A section of what became Vancouver was built speculatively, waiting for what the advent of rail would bring; they say, for every mile of track, a dead Chinese labourer. Just what are these legacies built on? The Rideau Canal back in Ottawa, built on the blood and the bones of the Irish and French, brought in for the work and then abandoned, when work finally finished.

Former Edmonton resident George Melnyk, long moved to Calgary, also talked about the differences in Alberta of the provincial mythologies against those of the two major cities from his New Moon at Batoche (2000), writing:

My western Canadian identity has come to me through city life. I’m used to concrete towers, brick buildings, asphalt streets with long rows of houses, traffic jams and crowded malls. I’m not the only one. This is the way the majority of Westerners see the region every single day and yet that experience is viewed as incompatible with the agrarian myth of the region. The experience of city life from childhood to adulthood has moulded millions of Western Canadians but it is considered inauthentic compared to the genuineness of rural existence. The continuing self-image of the region is one of endless prairie fields or grasslands with their icons of farmers and cowboys holding us in its sway. The reason for this is obvious. The wheat farmer and cattle rancher are icons because they reflect the distinguishing feature of the region—its prairie geography and a livelihood tied to it—while the Western Canadian urban reality is viewed as the same as that of other cities. If you want a regional identity you have to take it from the land and not from the city. The land is distinguishing while the city is not.

Later on in the same essay, he writes:

Our culture has set landscape above the city. The city and the land are opposites in which the city is negative and the land is positive. That’s the myth we live by. Historical fact is a little different.
Where is Calgary’s mythical archetype? The glorification of the ranching life in the Calgary Stampede is the city’s association with the landscape, not Calgary itself. Edmonton’s archetype is Klondike Days and the heroic trek of gold miners to the Yukon.

But why, over my first Alberta weeks, did I keep returning to Kroetsch, to what I already knew? Why do these myths overshadow, and overtake, even against the weight of such otherwise fact? Editor Srdja Pavlovic encountered the same thing, writing the introduction to Threshold: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing from Alberta (1999):

I first encountered Alberta literature through Seed Catalogue, a collection of poems by Robert Kroetsch. The book was a present for my eighteenth birthday from my uncle, a sailor, who had just returned from one of his frequent exotic viaggi across the ocean. At the time, because of my limited English, I was not able to make out much of Kroetsch’s poetry. The verses sounded distant and complicated. But the book sat on my shelf for years and its dream-prints helped me imagine a distant place and wonder about the people living there. I was young and dreamed the symmetry of the world.

The dream-like Alberta, the imaginary Alberta; that urban prairie versus the rural prairie, and how, as far as the European settlers knew it, developed at the same rate. Writing about Alberta literary journals, Linda Goyette titled her piece in the same anthology “Imagining Alberta.” Flipping through pages of the first issue of filling Station magazine from Calgary, she writes:

I begin to wonder about the differences in perception between Alberta’s creative writers and journalists. Both are interpreters of place, but they see, hear, and tell stories differently. What are the poets and short-story writers discovering this year as they sift through life in a harsher province? Do they even live in the same Alberta? Do they like it better?

Further on, she offers an answer to her own speculations, some sort of conclusion:

Journalism is always about now. This imaginative Alberta has a past and a future, not just a present. Ghosts stick around.

There is the Mall, and then there is the myth of the Mall. There is the myth of the Mall imposed on the landscape but nearly invisible, unlike the century before, as railway hotels imposed themselves on the landscape from one coast to the other. As Edmonton poet Alice Major writes in the preface to her collection Tales for an Urban Sky (1999):

Mythologies are large things, continuous across the generations, marrying humanity to the earth and the sky. But it seems to me that myth-making is more local – a magpie impulse that catches sight of glittery things from the corner of its eye and builds them into some home structure. Myth is made up. It makes do with what it finds nearby.

When talking about Alberta or about Edmonton and any kind of deliberate or accidental mythos, why does it always keep coming back to Kroetsch? Why is one and not the other? Writing specifically of Edmonton and the myth-making of the annual July Klondike Days in his book Alberta, he explains that:

The image succeeds because it has a kernel of truth. The father who gets a gold-embroidered vest and a stovepipe hat for Christmas, the teenage boy studying his young beard in the locker room in January, the ladies, after bridge on a bitter February afternoon, looking at patterns and buying warm-coloured cloth by the bolt: they are part of a past that goes back to the erection of Fort Augustus in 1794, to the erection of its rival, Fort Edmonton, in 1795 – and in Alberta that ain’t history, it’s archaeology.

It is as simple as the difference between home and the dream of home? What if it was never your home to begin with? In the Strathcona Public Library, Myrna Kostach [see my previous note on her here and another here] explained the streetcar tracks down 104th Street to me from a photograph on the second floor wall, the days when they ran two-laned, across 82nd Avenue. A series of black and white photographs of historical buildings, and a group of bearded men. Why wouldn’t any of these framed portraits be labeled? Without even a year or address to place them?

Does West Edmonton Mall belong to the dream of Edmonton, the myth of Edmonton, or the harsh reality? It seems to be all of the above; it seems to be all of this and the nightmare too, as most of the local residents I’ve met wouldn’t be caught dead in the building, calling it Maul.

There is something very Canadian, one might claim, in the humble notions of self punctuated by the scattering of proud and remarkably (and often ironically) big, whether the giant Nickle outside of Sudbury, Ontario, the Big Apple along the 401 Highway near Coburg, Ontario, or the (now extinct) World’s Largest Lobster Trap that sat in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, finally dismantled for parts by the owner in 1998. Kostash even responded to something out of her own Ukrainian background in her piece “Baba Was a Bohunk” (reprinted in The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs, 2001), writing of the large Easter egg in Vegreville, not far from Edmonton:

So, in Vegreville, in 1975, I, second-generation Ukrainian-Canadian, socialized Anglo-American, English-French bilingualist, confronted a festival organized from the consciousness of the first generation. I was amazed. It was obvious that the first generation had grown more self-confident, not to say boastful, and was now assuming that the Ukrainian-Canadian “fact” was of interest to all Albertans. No more church basements for them; the festival was held at the exhibition grounds. It was this generation which had erected last summer a monstrous, aluminum pysanka (decorated Easter egg) near the Yellowhead Highway in Vegreville, and dedicated it to the RCMP. (How short their memories are: it was the police who had broken up their hunger marches in the 1930s, closed down their Ukrainian-language concerts, spied on them in their Labour-Farmer Temples.) It was these same people who had scattered throughout Vegreville signs in shop windows saying “Vitayemo,” meaning “Welcome,” and innumerable plastic and china knick-knacks decorated with Ukrainian motifs. They operated concession booths at the festival selling kubassa-on-a-stick and T-shirts emblazoned with “Drink Molson’s Ukrainian” and “Kiss me, I’m Ukrainian.” The message seemed to be that anybody could be a Ukrainian; it was implicit that somebody would want to.

This is not about size, but identifying with a group; still, the marker is certainly there. There is gaudy big and then there is just gaudy; and then there is just big (again, with the associations often with kitch). What is this with our obsession with size?

In March, finding the Mall not big enough for a store from which I might find myself a pork-pie hat (think of Buster Keaton). Maybe had we been in Beijing, I said, which Lainna didn’t appreciate. In the end, it was easier to drive and find all of your stores in one place than to have them all scatterd, and still have to walk. In the end, Lainna and I using the Mall as a whole as a kind of exhibition space, parkland entertainment, taking pictures of the roller coaster I still won’t ride with her, the fake blue whale, the dragon in the movie theatre. Doesn’t it only become a carnival of commerce if you actually buy something?

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