At 24, Mark Anielski moved into an 11th floor apartment just off Whyte Avenue, and hasn’t thought about living anywhere else but Strathcona. Not even at 39, when a San Francisco institute wined and dined his family, and tried to convince him to move to Market Street and direct a new think-tank based on the well-being indexes he studies.
“Everything is within walking distance,” says Anielski, the author of The Economics of Happiness, who now lives in a century-old Mill Creek house. “I can bike almost anywhere, I can work at home, I’ve got great neighbours, we can walk our girls to school.”
In a word, it’s convenience, which harkens back to the area’s history as the Cree people’s buffalo run. “It meant the food came right to your door,” says Anielski.
This year marks 100 years since the old town amalgamated with the City of Edmonton. Today, boutiques, bistros, bars and a bustling farmers’ market — all the hallmarks of Whyte Avenue and area — make it self-sustaining, while the dense population of 9,000 makes it perfect even by the standards of ancient Greek city planner Hippodamus, who said the ideal state consisted of 10,000 citizens. But few remember that Edmonton’s best neighbourhood almost never was.
In the 1970s, the City of Edmonton almost pushed a freeway through Strathcona, across the river valley and to the increasingly vertical downtown.
“There’s still a big clump of dirt by the Walterdale Bridge from beginnings of development,” says Shirley Lowe, former executive director of Old Strathcona Business Association, who in September left it to become an independent consultant. She ran the organization for 11 years.
At the time, the neighbourhood was derelict, less a place to take a date than to pawn her bike. You can see images of the area’s sleazy squalor in David Cronenberg’s 1979 drag racing film, Fast Company. “The buildings were falling apart and nobody cared because this was the era of the cosmopolitan city, where things were supposed to be glass and shiny, and this place was not,” she says.
But community members like University of Alberta professor Gerry Wright (“The Jane Jacobs of Edmonton,” according to Lowe, referring to the famed urban renewal activist) mobilized a stop to the City’s plan.
This counter-offence succeeded, and galvanized residents to recognize not just what could be lost but what could be had. An area redevelopment plan put forth by the Old Strathcona Business Association implemented strict planning guidelines to maintain landmarks, prominent views, natural features and period architecture. Not only were developers of new buildings told not to obscure this history, but not to even shade it.
In fact, a winding four-block chunk of Strathcona has been assigned as a historic area, making it 50 per cent of the designated historical areas in the Province, says Lowe. (The other area is located in the southern town Fort Macleod.)
As a community league treasurer, Anielski and fellow executives worry about the disturbances that come from high-traffic events like the Fringe and Ice on Whyte, and the year-round nightlife that attracts the young and the restless, and the inebriated. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
From his college years, Anielski knows that when young people party here, they’re also growing up here. It gives them a sense of ownership, even if that amounts to kicking over newspaper boxes. It means that when they’re older and should another freeway plan threaten their party, they’ll probably dropkick it to the ground, too.
In Avenue’s Best Neighbourhoods survey, readers responded enthusiastically to living in established neighbourhoods and among character homes. Strathcona scores high here, given that 15 per cent of its homes, which stretch to the top of the north bank and hug the Mill Creek Ravine on the east, predate 1946. Comparatively, the city average for pre-war homes is four per cent.
But readers expressed the highest desire for pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, and that’s where Strathcona triumphs. And not just according to our index; Walk Score, a website promoting walkable neighbourhoods, gives it 88 out of 100.
“We’re social creatures,” says well-being expert Mark Anielski. “[In Strathcona] there’s a chance of bumping into one another … You meet so many people you know, you’re probably lucky if you even got home.”
One of the perks about living within the limited space of these old houses, he says, is it “forces you out into the front yard.” Or, if you don’t have a front yard, it forces you to go onto the sidewalks. That’s how we feed our “hunger for relationships.”
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