The Great Divide

The divide between downtown and the southside

I suppose I should begin with an admission that may colour your perception of me. I am, I confess, a Calgarian.

But please! Don’t count that against me. I’m not one of those Calgarians — you know, the kind who, believing Edmonton to be a frozen wasteland, either ignore it or sneer at it with derision. No, you can count me among the Edmonton defenders, the evangelists, one of the true believers in this weird northern town.

I fell in love with Edmonton when I lived here for a one-year work gig, hired by the University of Alberta to write a popular history book for the School of Dentistry’s centennial. There’s so much about Edmonton that charmed me, from the sense of community, to the unpretentious bars and cafes that felt like they could never exist in Calgary.

But the most intriguing feature to me was the river valley; not just the river itself, nor the parks, the golf course and various facilities, but the space above them — more accurately, the divide between downtown and the southside.

This shaggy, rambling gap has been the defining feature of this place long before it was called Edmonton, meticulously cut by the kisiskāciwani-sīpiy, as the Cree called the swift flowing river we know as the North Saskatchewan. When white settlers built their towns, the valley markedly separated Edmonton from Strathcona, the legislature from the university.

The beauty of the valley surely did little to mitigate the frustration of railway planners, who eventually devised an engineering marvel in order to best nature and bridge the span from cliff top to cliff top. (This High Level bridge was inaugurated in true Edmonton style when, in 1913, a group of students broke down the barrier and, with one of them riding a donkey, became the first people to cross the bridge.)

I lived in Strathcona near Mill Creek during my year in Edmonton, but most of my friends lived downtown or in Oliver. I soon discovered that the river valley was not just a geographical feature but a demarcation. If I invited friends from one side to come for drinks on the other, there was often reluctance. Longtime Edmontonians confirmed what I was seeing: The river valley is not just a physical divide. It is a psychological one.

For a Calgarian, this is all quite strange. Our rivers have certainly taught us to respect them, or woe to us. But they are not normally significant obstacles to cross. As an Edmonton cyclist, though, I would sometimes go significantly out of my way to cross the High Level Bridge rather than tackle the descent and ascent of the valley. Lazy though I was, however, I scratched my head when my friends with four wheels found crossing the river onerous.

The river valley isn’t just a part of Edmonton — in some ways, it is Edmonton. We are shaped by our environment, and this beautiful, meandering rift has shaped the city and its culture. But, just for the record, there are excellent eateries on both sides, and you should really make the effort to cross.

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