If you stare at an intense yellow light long enough, the cone receptors in your eye get fatigued, lose sensitivity and temporarily leave you seeing the opposite wavelength colour – purple. This is called afterimage. It’s science. Except for when it occurs at the Alberta Legislature. Then it’s culture.
I first heard about Purple City in 2006, while sitting on the Black Dog rooftop with a few of the friends I’d made since begrudgingly moving to Edmonton. They spoke of their youth pastime as if I was expected to know it. I didn’t. As they explained – going to the leg grounds at night (usually under some influence), craning their heads toward a floodlight and gazing into it until the downtown skyline exudes a violet aura – I was convinced it was a practical joke played on the new guy. It wasn’t.
The more Edmonton-lifers I met, the more I heard of this decades-old ritual of unknown origins. Even my then girlfriend (now wife) made a jaunt to Purple City on her prom night. It wasn’t just a trip. It was a tradition that separates locals from visitors as firmly as Canadian passports separate nationals from foreigners. But by 2010, this city that I’d previously thought of as backwater had been so welcoming that it was hard to think of myself as anything but an Edmontonian. That is, until Purple City came up and nothing could hide my alien-ness – not even if I was in the middle of cleaning green onion cake crumbs off a vintage Messier jersey with a plucked magpie feather.
A few Christmases ago, my now wife and I took a romantic walk around the tinkling decorations strung along the government grounds. She suggested we tap into the hidden light. It was time for my citizenship test.
“If you can’t see anymore, you’ve gone blind,” she joked while crouching and cocking her head two feet from the lamp that gives the baroque landmark its ethereal glow. I followed suit, staring into the bright yellow light until it hurt. I looked away, eyelids aflutter, and with every blink the changing colour of the snow intensified until it was like standing in grape-soda slush.
Colour perception is subjective but, for 30 seconds, we saw the same thing through our violet-tinted glasses: A city where you make your own fun. Like Edmonton itself, Purple City was something I couldn’t appreciate until I’d been there, experienced it and, even after that, it would be difficult to explain to outsiders why I loved it. You have to see the afterimage to get it. It’s science.
Omar Mouallem is an Edmonton-based editor and a National Magazine Award-winning writer. He’s written for Wired, The Walrus, Eighteen Bridges and enRoute.