Edmontonians are horrible storytellers

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Edmonton is terrible at telling its story — nevermind to people living in other towns, provinces or countries; it’s even bad at telling its story to the people who live here.

I graduated from university in 2004, and all I could think to myself is that I couldn’t wait to leave. “There’s nothing for me here,” I would say to myself. Despite the fact that I’d worked as a student and freelance journalist, and thus got to see a lot of Edmonton’s angles, I wanted out.

I had a rough start to my career here. I worked a few odd jobs, or career jobs that weren’t suited to me. I wound up landing a good writing position at a utility company — and even then, I told myself I was biding my time for a move to Toronto or Vancouver.

But something happened to me around 2006 (I’m totally going to get the dates wrong, so forgive me): I started to become more involved, more vested in this place. Around the same time, Don Iveson — a friend and former colleague from my Gateway days — decided to run for city council. He chose to see the potential in Edmonton, rather than where it was in the present. He decided to do something to help build up and advance the place he’d lived almost all his life. That kind of thinking is infectious, and I started to feel the same too.

Edmonton had a lot going for it then, as it does now. It was moving in the right direction. 104 Street and Jasper was starting to become an interesting spot, not just a wind-swept urban-desert landscape strewn with old newspapers, but a place where people could live and shop and walk and talk. Now we live in a city with organizations like Startup Edmonton (situated 104 Street !), and companies run by entrepreneurs who’ve put their stake in the ground and said, “This is where things are happening, and this is where I’m going to make things happen too.”

So much has changed here in the last five years. The city even feels different. I remember in my early 20s, I was always ragging on the fact that there’s nothing to do here. Now, I dare you to find an evening where there isn’t one or two very interesting things taking place.

And some of us know this — to me, it’s obvious. But we’re just fucking awful at articulating the story of this place in the present, and our forebears (and even contemporary Edmontonians) have a particular fondness for erasing our past. This makes telling Edmonton’s story difficult and confusing — we keep erasing and editing bits without any regard for the overall narrative of this place.

But we need to explain Edmonton, first to ourselves — so that we understand what it meant to live here in the past, what it means to live here in the present, and what the values of this place are (hopefully, not tearing down our history anymore). We need to do this so that we can tell our story to the world, so that the next time someone asks you, “Why do you live in Edmonton?” or says, “Pfffft, that city’s just a big mall and a shitty hockey team,” you can answer them by saying, “No, it’s actually an incredible town! The people here are amazingly friendly and supportive. We’re host to small, medium and large companies here. It’s a growing city with small-town sensibilities in the very best ways you can imagine. Let me show you!”

Our brand is stale, and our story is old — it hasn’t been updated in decades. It’s time for this generation to conclude this chapter in the book of Edmonton and write the next one. Because this place keeps getting better, and we’re still terrible at telling its story.

This post was inspired by Kathleen Smith’s remarks on the renaming of the CapitalEx. Thanks for being my muse today, Kikki!

Photo by Darren Kirby on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

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31 Responses to “Edmontonians are horrible storytellers”

  1. Angus Gastle
    July 11, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    This is the kind of thing people need to talk more about. It is something that we run up against every time we engage on a city branding project. What is Edmonton’s story? Why aren’t we prouder and bolder about what makes this place so special? How do we weave our story into the broader national dialogue?

    It’s a tough nut to crack, given our non-confrontational Canadian attitude.


    • Adam Rozenhart
      July 11, 2012 at 8:50 am #

      Angus, do you really think our non-confrontational attitude is holding us back? I’m not so sure that’s it — and it definitely isn’t the *only* thing. I think a big problem is that a bunch of us have it in our heads some of the traits we associate with this city, but we’re not talking about it together — there’s no effort to unify around Edmonton The City, and there needs to be in order to articulate the City’s voice and brand.

      • she
        July 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

        It’s not just Edmonton. This inability to see the wonder in our cities and towns seems to be common across all of the cities I’ve lived in in Canada. I wonder if Edmonton is not struck by the same regional mentality that my profs used to describe when speaking of my home town in the Maritimes; “it’s not the butt end of the earth, but you can certainly see it from here”.

        I’m not sure I’d agree with Angus’ “non-confrontational attitude” argument but I would agree that this lack of ability to articulate what is unique and wonderful about where we live could very well be a distinct Canadian characteristic.

        • she
          July 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

          Occurs to me that I should probably clarify the “it’s not the butt end of the earth, but you can certainly see it from here” comment.

          It’s not that we think Edmonton (or any Canadian city or town) is horrible, it’s that we aren’t able to see the good in our own areas and instead pine for a life (often imaginary) in a city/town elsewhere. Usually one where its stories HAVE been told so much better than our own…

  2. Jon Lai
    July 11, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    I am a generation behind you, graduating from university in 2009. But I share the same sentiment with you on the same timeline through the 2000’s to present. This is the most correct attitude to have!

    • Adam Rozenhart
      July 11, 2012 at 8:44 am #

      Thanks Jon — for what you had to say AND for posting the Unknown Studio’s 1,000th comment!

      I think some people around our ages still think it’s “hip” to slag this place (SOME people). It’s way past time we tell our story differently.

  3. Stuart
    July 11, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Your statement

    “The people here are amazingly friendly and supportive. We’re host to small, medium and large companies here. It’s a growing city with small-town sensibilities in the very best ways you can imagine. Let me show you!”

    Applies to about a dozen communities in Western Canada and 100’s across the rest of North America.

    If you are calling us all out – give us more of a story.

    • Adam Rozenhart
      July 11, 2012 at 9:31 am #

      Totally fair comment, Stuart. This is stage one of a process. We — not just me, but all of the people who care about this place and want to share it with others — need to start by thinking and talking divergently about this place before we can converge on some really unique and representative pieces of narrative to share.

  4. Jeff Nachtigall
    July 11, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    I wasn’t born here; I distinctly recall “choosing” Edmonton at least twice. I moved here from Winnipeg, and moved back here from Vancouver Island once (twice if I tell the longer version of the story). These decisions were made in the 90s, when Edmonton wasn’t as nearly as exciting as it is now, but I moved here for the people – the community – that I had found. After a while I matured and discovered that “community” is a much more flexible thing than “place”; people change, people leave, friends and family come and go. The constant person in your community is you. Get involved. Become part of the community. Talk to your neighbours. All of them. Do stuff. Contribute. Interact. Get off your @$$. I love Edmonton, because I decided to.
    Who is Edmonton? I am Edmonton. And I’m pretty awesome.

  5. Marissa Loewen
    July 11, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Adam – you are echoing my sentiments of late. I moved away to Toronto see what life was like on the other side and here I am back. I’m now determined to make the city a place people want to stay, work, live and for pete’s sake stop complaining about.

    We are not WinterCity. We are not RiverCity. Not defined by our weather or our natural resources – we are defined by the people who live here. The artists, small businesses, shopping local, bloggers, etc.

    I’m ready to start writing the next few chapters for our city – and let’s begin with the outstanding people we have.

    Let’s not settle. Let’s push it forward and put it out there for everyone to see – ESPECIALLY the people who live here.

  6. Mack D. Male
    July 11, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Couldn’t agree more. “So much has changed here in the last five years. The city even feels different. ” YES. And yes, we do need to become better storytellers.

    A couple months ago I wrote “Why Edmonton?” at the top of a digital page, and started writing. I’m still writing. So far I haven’t been able to answer the question. In other words, this is an important problem, but it won’t be easy. Though I suppose nothing worth doing ever is.

  7. Marissa Loewen
    July 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Mack – maybe you need to make that Why Edmonton? a wiki and we can all brainstorm it. Digital Graffiti?

  8. Jay Palter
    July 11, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Being relatively newish in Edmonton, I’ve had to create my own story for why we stay here.

    I tell people from back east that Edmonton’s got all the arts and culture benefits of a big city with the community sensibility of a smaller place. I don’t think there are that many cities in Canada that boast our population and communal character.

    I tell people that when it comes to community recreation facilities, access to medical care and public education, Edmonton is hard to beat across this wide country. Our quality of life is great.

    Like the river valley’s topography, the people and communities of Edmonton have a depth and richness that is hard to appreciate when looking across the plain. You have to get down into the lush “valleys” of this city to really find and understand it’s virtues.

    I think Edmonton IS a River City AND a Winter City. I think it’s also a city in which the interior spaces, both communal and personal, both literal and figurative, are the most important spaces.

    But in the end, I cannot disagree with other commenters: Edmonton is its people. And it attracts a special kind of person, someone who likes an urban lifestyle but has no interest in the rat race, someone who strives to do great things but has little use for pretensions, someone who recognizes that a healthy tolerance for harsh and variable weather only makes the gorgeous days that much more incredible.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Adam.

  9. Beth S.
    July 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    Very true: this city HAS changed so much, in a relatively short period of time.

    Yet somehow, when I was in Calgary just the other day, I lacked the words to properly answer a cabbie’s jibe: “Why would you ever want to live in Edmonton?” All I could do was shrug my shoulders. My friends also couldn’t really answer the question, except in a really half-assed way (“it’s convenient for people who work in Ft. Mac??? We have a nice river valley??”).

    Even after leaving the razzle-dazzle of Calgary’s city lights for home, it’s difficult to define WHY I love this place– why I’m a bit reluctant to pack up and leave (at least right now). We may not have a shiny, pretty downtown (yet), or more than one LRT line (yet), but there’s a lot of promise here, a lot of diversity, and a thriving pioneer spirit. I stay because of the people here, because of the things I’m involved in, and because I know if I leave, I’ll miss out on all the fun.

  10. Jason
    July 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    First of all, I take offence to the “bad storytellers” thing but I know it comes from a place of love so I’ll let it slide. Just this once.
    Secondly, how do you get so many people to comment on your blog thingy? That’s sweet.
    Lastly, and most vaguely, I think that Edmontonians may not necessarily be bad storytellers but we have just made poor choices of who we put in charge of telling our story to the the rest of the country, the world, and to ourselves. Edmonton’s story isn’t just in what we decide to name our fair and how hideous we can make our parade floats. Edmonton’s story is in how we treat each other and in what we celebrate together and HOW we celebrate it. It’s time to give some different people *ahem* a chance to tell our story the right way.

  11. Jason Buzzell
    July 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    I grow tired of the “grass is greener” in the States, in Vancouver, out east, mentality that has been passed down to a lot of new and old Edmontonians.

    I guess after leaving for a few years, it made me realize how much I missed it. Maybe it’s what these people need. I still want to meet and hang out with more Edmontonians who don’t continually want to either move away or holiday every second month elsewhere.

    If we don’t invest in the city and the surrounding area – both money AND time, then how can we become the great city I know we can be. Our grandparents generation seems to have had that vision. Somewhere along the way it left for a while.

    I think a lot of us are getting it back – I hope!

  12. Kikki Planet
    July 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    It’s been 21 years since my return to Edmonton, the city I was born in. It was a return from the magical land of the west coast – and everyone who knew me thought I was insane for leaving Vancouver. Upon my arrival here, I couldn’t help but agree with them.

    21 years ago, Edmonton was an ugly place. It was a low point for the city – no employment opportunities (people camped out to apply for jobs at new Save On Foods stores), nothing to do in this town but get loaded on the weekends, no art gallery, no downtown revitalization (our core had been ravaged by the monstrosity that is West Edmonton Mall) and Edmonton was still, for the most part, a city of ultra conservative, backwoods, homophobic, racist, anti-intellectuals.

    Sounds harsh? Perhaps. But as someone who has spent 45 years travelling across Canada and living in several of our nations urban centers, I can tell you that Edmonton was the ultimate culture shock for me. And that’s coming from a woman who spent three years in Winnipeg.

    Fast forward 20 years and what I see now is a city that has exploded not only in terms of our economy and growth, but in terms of our vibrancy, vitality and opportunity. When I first set out to create my website, my primary focus was to share with my generation – the people who may still be clinging to 1992 – what I now saw in this city. It was Mack that inspired that. It was Adam and Scotty that inspired that. It was Britney LeBlanc and Evan Eadnams and Kasia Gawlak and Ryan Jespersen and Kari Skelton and Amanda Babichuck that inspired that. Because I wanted my generation to see the city I now saw. I wanted my generation to not only participate in the telling of the story of Edmonton’s progression, but also of her future. I wanted my peers to be willing to either hand the torch to you and yours, or to understand that it will be ripped from our hands.

    If there is one thing I’d like your generation to understand it is this: Edmonton is yours now, in every sense. We didn’t leave you a lot to work with, and yet you’ve taken up the banner of this city and on a daily basis you all do us proud. You champion Edmonton in a manner and with an enthusiasm we didn’t have the courage to do. YOU are the face of this city. YOU are the future of this city. And although we have failed to tell her story effectively, we know that YOU are capable of that. And that you will do so with pride, with compassion, with true heart for the history of this prairie town.

    Thank you. And as we give you whatever support we can, we know that we will watch YOU do amazing things for this city. Astound us. Shock and awe us. Be the new Edmonton while keeping a critical albeit compassionate eye on our history. The City of Champions is yours now. Champion her, and let us come along for the ride.

    • Rick Harp
      July 11, 2012 at 10:38 pm #

      “Edmonton was the ultimate culture shock for me. And that’s coming from a woman who spent three years in Winnipeg.”

      Hmm… as a born and bred Winnipegger who now calls our shared city home, perhaps the New Edmonton could see it become a city whose citizens no longer feel the need to implicitly/explicitly define itself as better or worse than somewhere else? 🙂

      Indeed, I see a lot of parallels between Edmonton and Winnipeg — the good, the bad *and* the ugly. Accordingly, I too am excited about this discussion: what I might learn from it, and what I might contribute to it. Thanks for musing Mr. Rozenhart in the first place.


  13. Marty
    July 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    I agree. When it comes to promoting what’s great about this city, we need to do a better job. I’ve lived in this city for most of my adult life, and I do recognize that this city has grown. While we may not be New York or London, we are certainly a far cry from the Edmonton I knew in the 80s.

    I think there are good stories to tell and great storytellers to tell those stories, but the challenge is the natural cynicism or pessimism that some Edmontonians seem to have about our own city. Sometimes, it’s like talking to teenagers. They won’t react to anything except in a negative way, and anyone who is overly positive is viewed as arrogant, weird or naive (or all three).

    Maybe we need a little cock in our walk. Maybe we need to dare to be different. Or maybe we should be proud to be optimists. I think we owe it to ourselves to tell stories that don’t start with “if you ignore the Mall, Edmonton’s not too bad.”

  14. Trent Wilkie
    July 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    Bang on Adam. And to add a side-note, not every story has to explain Edmonton. For example, you don’t have to throw WEM or the Oilers or that frigging stupidly large baseball bat into every story. The story just has to interesting and take place in Edmonton or with Edmontonians. Identity of the people is what is needed. What is an Edmontonian? I’m still trying to figure that out and have been for the ten years I’ve been living here. To me and Edmontonian is someone who can appreciate art, appreciate culture, appreciate sports and all at once. There are very few ‘scenes’ in Edmonton that don’t overlap. On the other hand, there are those Edmontonians who consider truck nuts to be a good idea. It’s an evolving identity…we’ll leave it at that.

    Thanks for making me think.

  15. Jen Banks
    July 11, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    When you type “Edmonton is” into google, the first suggestive key phrase is “Edmonton is a shithole”. I think we are slowly turning this around.

    Yes, we have huge vehicles with truck balls, but we also have huge hearts.

    When I think of Edmonton, I think of people who come together to give money to charity, bring awareness to a cause and who volunteer in their community. We help our own.

    It’s time to stop laughing when people make fun of our city or call us “stabmonton”. Just like any city, we’ve had our growing pains. With the negative also comes positive.

    We are the generation that needs to define OUR Edmonton. We have the tools and voices, so let’s get started. Hell, we helped kick the Wild Rose party right out of Edmonton. If we can do that, we can do anything.

    Adam, thank you for writing this. This topic should unite us to come up with a way to make this city sexy again. Also, thanks to Kathleen for once again, questioning the status quo in our city.

  16. rev recluse
    July 11, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    I love Edmonton. I’ve lived in many different cities around North America and it’s heart is as big as any of them, bar none. There’s a great deal of smart, articulate, talented people here that are making things happen in a variety of different fronts, and when summer truly is on (like the last few days) there’s no more perfectly zen place to be.

    Since I’ve been here I’ve had to catch up on the history of Edmonton; the vintageedmonton.com website is the result of seeing for myself just how layered and fascinating the city’s history has been. It still is; it just needs the stories told today. We can all make that happen.

  17. Deborah Merriam
    July 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Wonderful work, Adam. This is a conversation we need to have in this city.

    I moved here in 1994 for grad school, thinking it would be temporary, a stepping stone – and never left. Yes, the politics here make no sense sometimes, and yes, people from here have a weird inferiority complex about their city, and an equally weird sibling rivalry with that city three hours to the south. A lot of Canadian cities have the same grass-is-always-greener problem (ask the Halifax kids who all moved away to Montreal and Toronto). However, here’s what I saw that made me want to stay: optimism, pragmatism, lack of pretension, friendliness, culture, intellectualism, worldliness, inclusiveness. A wonderful quality of life. A terrific education system. People contrarian enough, or principled enough, to consistently vote in opposition politicians. A place where you can set down roots and make cool things happen.

    Maybe it’s because I was part of the U of A bubble, but honestly, the Edmonton that Kathleen describes was not my experience of this place. The mid-90s were not bereft of culture here; amazing indie bands came to play here all the time, and there were these two fantastic annual parties called Folk Fest and the Fringe. A lot of the talent that was on display was home-grown even then. Yes, downtown was dead after hours, but the same was true of almost every downtown core in North America – and Whyte was a vibrant hub of locally owned businesses, great restaurants, and interesting watering holes where people were happy to baptize a newcomer into the cult of hockey and explain what Purple City meant.

    Edmonton does just keep getting better and cooler. There are amazing things happening here, and I don’t just mean more festivals and bigger galleries. Month after month, I am staggered by the number of fascinating events in the newsletters of local groups like E-SAGE and NextGen and EBC and LiveLocal. I am so impressed by all the people who I have met who are volunteering for great causes, working to make change where they feel it is needed, and running fantastic values-based businesses.

    Those people who Google is quoting when it fills in the blank with shithole? They are trying to make their own city or their own choices look cooler by slagging our city. Why do we even give them the time of day?

  18. Dave
    July 12, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    I like how Edmonton continues to expand outwards with suburbs, continuing a heavy reliance on the car culture, making 30 minute drives to meet friends or run errands a common experience. The people are nice too.

  19. April
    July 13, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    “Edmonton is terrible at telling its story” – Seems to me that IS Edmonton’s story, that we suck at self-identity.

  20. Nadine Riopel
    July 13, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    Where to begin?

    First – I agree with all statements to the effect that we have to tell the story to ourselves first. If Edmonton is awesome for Edmontonians, the rest will follow naturally.

    Second – I think there is more than one Edmonton. As Deborah says, her experience was different from Kathleen’s at the same point in time. Like Adam, I found it pretty dismal right after university. As a kid, I only knew the suburbs and the malls and the most mainstream festivals.

    Now, I’m hooked into a whole other world, where eclectic and stimulating events abound and progressive minded people circulate, sharing ideas and making connections. It’s awesome, It easily rivals anything I’ve experienced elsewhere.

    BUT: I have cousins who live in the suburbs and work in the industrial parks and won’t come canoeing on the river because it’s ‘gross’. I know people who are afraid to come downtown, especially after dark. I know people who never seem to go out to anything but a bar or a pro sports game. They are living in a different Edmonton than I am. They don’t know about Mack, or Kathleen, or The Unknown Studio, or Startup Edmonton, or Pecha Kucha.

    I often wonder, as I live in my comfy world of like-minded and interesting people, about the division between us and the people out in Millwoods, Sherwood Park, and west of the Henday. Is Edmonton getting better, or am I just lucky enough to have found a piece of it that’s better? Maybe there was always a ‘bubble’ like that – maybe there was always a group of young adults who thought they were on the cutting edge of a new and improved version of the city?

  21. Allison
    July 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I like to think of Edmonton as a depressed city. Our self-criticism is our loudest voice, and we don’t often see the positive qualities we possess. We depend on external validation for self-worth, and tend to celebrate those negative qualities we hear. We just need a dose of civic ssri’s. In time, I think.

  22. Dan Herrick
    July 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    I like Edmonton because the summers warp my brain into thinking that its alright all year round. Then winter hits and I wonder how many Mojitos it took for me to think that!

    I think the biggest reasons for living in Edmonton is that we are a growing community of business owners, artists, students and families that are all forward looking. Look around at all the businesses that survive and thrive here. Look at the festivals and the activities that abound.

    We can take risks here knowing that their is always the ability to work at Tim Hortons for $14/hour to pay the mortgage. I can tell you that in other communities people are looking for stable government or corporate jobs and not thinking about how to innovate or try something new!

    And I guess if you you get right down to it, we have mountains on the left and plains on the right so if the polar icecaps melt we will be safe.

    • Adam Rozenhart
      July 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

      Interesting points, Dan. I feel like you’re saying that the economy here sometimes means we can sometimes take risks where others might not be able to.

      The funny thing is one of my former business partners and I always talked about how TOUGH the business climate here is. If you can build a business here in Edmonton, you can do it anywhere in Canada. I’m not sure if that holds true today, but maybe there’s something worth exploring there.


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