#YEG: History Meets The Wrecking Ball

Thoughts on infill and historic homes.

December 29, 2016

illustration by Eric Diotte

They came to the barren infill site sniffing for treasure. With the dust cleared and the earthmovers gone, the ravaged earth was ripe for the metal detectors.  

“Could be old coins, who knows?” one young man holding a divining rod told me.

I walked past the scavenging detectorists and the great tree that had been felled in the name of two-for-one lots that the City, in its wisdom, has decided is the new 21st-century model for urban planning. 

What exactly is lost when we raze yet another historic character home in Edmonton? Am I merely pining for something nostalgic and antiquated?

Full disclosure: I live in a 100-year-old house. There were two previous owners — from 1913-1922 a certain Charles Layton, banker, and thereafter, the Johnstones, long-time denizens who saw our neighbourhood through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the ’60s and into the new millennium. Neither owner was especially noteworthy, unlike aviator Wop May a few blocks over. Our house doesn’t warrant a plaque as do some of the historic homes. I’m quite certain that ours would have been demolished, too, had we not poured a stupid amount of money into defibrillation and resuscitation.  

There is so little of historic Edmonton. Surely, we don’t want what is left of it to be contained within a theme park in the river valley so that we can charge people $26.20 for a glimpse of the olden days. What gives a city its flavour are its neighbourhoods, those we may freely walk about, to gaze at real buildings and glorious trees, to dream about who lived here and what they may have accomplished, however humbly, during their residency and in the making of Edmonton. 

A word about trees, the lungs of a city: isn’t it both sad and ironic that the people clamouring for these architecturally incongruent behemoths, who want to live close to downtown in a mature, treed neighbourhood, are complicit in the destruction of those very trees?   

I know that eventually all of the houses in this neighbourhood will likely go the way to dusty death. I can only bear witness, I suppose. As I write this, four old Groat Estate houses on my street are either in the process of destruction or gone; 10 infills are already finished. Who but the detectorists and romantics will remember or care about the lives lived or the beautiful old buildings that once contained them? Such is the price of urban progress. Charm and attention to detail be damned. City of Edmonton: Thy will be done. 

Gail Sidonie Sobat is an author and a Global News Woman of Vision for 2016-2017. She is the creator/ coordinator of YouthWrite, a camp for kids who love to write and was recently writer-in-residence with the Metro Edmonton Federation of Libraries. She has moved 32 times in her life, from Badlands to Siksika Nation reserve to hideous suburbs to Istanbul to the Sunshine Coast to her writer’s garret in Edmonton.

This article appears in the January 2017 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.


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