Monday, 18 July 2016


Walking on Alberta Avenue

In the gaps between the thunderstorms and torrential downpours we either mow the lawn or try to get off the property for a reason other than groceries. The Edmonton Journal last week carried a small item announcing a newly conceived Latino festival, an inaugural street party way up along 118th Avenue, a major thoroughfare a fair distance from the Crooked 9. Knowing the urban geography a tiny bit Ann and I agreed there would be good food to be had. And there was a beer garden. Late last Friday afternoon we crossed the river and headed north.

The busy artery through the neighbourhood used to be known as Alberta Avenue and the community has retaken ownership of the old name. The area is now considered inner city though its residential streets beneath their canopies of elm leaves seem beyond walking distance from the aspirational reassembly of the downtown core. The homes are one storey and modest, most constructed between the world wars. Some are immaculate, obvious sources of pride to their owners. Some are neglected. Some have the air of properties rented to lazy tenants. Most are respectable enough. Currently in-fills get thrown up in more desirable parts of town.

Not being a local, my understanding gleaned from talking to Edmontonians and a little bit of reading is that Alberta Avenue didn’t just smack into its nadir in the 70s, it left a crater. The progress of a long rehabilitation is evident along the avenue itself. There’s an eclectic mix of small businesses and a surprising range of worldly restaurants, Caribbean, Ethiopian, Salvadorian and Italian sprinkled amongst the discount car dealers, manicurists and mom and pop convenience shops with poster-cluttered, hold up-friendly windows. The liquor store must do all right. Still, I was delighted to see that the storefronts of commercial predators, payday loans and rent-to-own, were dark and empty, dusted.

Efforts of rejuvenation are evident. A wall mural here and there. The street signs and lampposts are decorative. The crosswalks are embedded brick. The tips of a few streets offer expanded angled parking for visitors. Even so the bad reputation and some residual grit persist; you lock your vehicle and make sure there’s no drive-thru change in the cup holder, there are some unhealthy looking characters lurking about. I picture today’s provincial economy as a bicycle wheel. The rubber splits the front forks passing the brake pads and revolves downward on a dirt road sprayed with oil to keep the dust at bay. I know there will be an upturn eventually but I can’t gauge the circumference of the wheel. There are some faces on Alberta Avenue that are etched by the results of the classic resource-based cycle: booms benefit other people and busts plague them.

The street festival is comically small, something we might mount in our back lane in an attempt to get to know our other neighbours, the folk one street over. Wind Mobile has a booth for burner phones. The North American Soccer League Eddies, Edmonton FC, is set up too, distributing autographed player cards and pinup schedules. Near us on the corner is Handy Bakery, a Portuguese bakery and deli with a few tables and a beer license. It’s shut and I’m mildly disappointed because if I’d been thinking I would’ve dragged Ann to Handy a week earlier to watch the Euro 2016 final with people who really cared about the outcome and to savour a roasted pork chop smothered in hot piri-piri sauce served as a sandwich filling inside a fresh flour-dusted bun. The major sponsor is El Rancho, a restaurant renowned in the city for its superb tortilla soup. The joyful news is that El Rancho’s staff are doing all of the cooking – albeit on rented propane grills.

At most public events in Alberta you can’t just buy what you want. You must line up for tickets and then join another line to exchange them for what you actually want. The red tape rationale has always escaped me; perhaps it’s a prim Holy Roller legacy hangover. Ann buys us 20 food tickets worth $1 each. We watch as each unwound ticket is then painstakingly stamped with a magenta dot. Killing time, the young person manning the booth asks us if we’re from the neighbourhood. Ann replies, No, we’ve driven over from the south side because we’d seen the notice in the newspaper. Immediately there’s some excited talk among the staff in the ticket booth. They skip and clap. Can Ann mention the festival on Facebook, por favor? I move away to buy beer tickets for us from somebody else even though it’s technically the same booth, but, you know, rules, and we’re only into the first couple of hours of this festival’s beta launch.

On the small stage a woman with elaborately coiffed copper hair topping a tubular black cocktail dress karaoke croons a breathy ballad, Spanish is the loving tongue. At the food booth Ann and I select chorizo tacos and something else that looks like cigars but has little filling and even less flavour. We take our food into the beer garden which is no larger than our backyard patio. The backs of our hands are inked with green dots. The tacos are delicious, their greasy drippings like blobs of red mercury. I find the cilantro garnish slightly overpowering, not my favourite flavour. Our dessert is a dish of roasted baby potatoes seasoned with sea salt and drizzled with juice from a freshly sliced wedge of lime; we look at each other: Hey, we can make these ourselves, easily.

We share a picnic table and converse with strangers. What are you eating? How many tickets? Friends of ours are looking for something to do Saturday night and Ann has promised one of the El Rancho volunteers a festival Facebook mention. When Ann pulls out her iPhone we both notice her hands are pocked with measles, offset pink spots from the food tickets, too much ink pooling on the surface of a coated substrate. I check Ann’s clothes, the contamination seems contained to her palms. Maybe next year the organizers will iron out the rough spots, get it right. Date noted although Ann and I will be back on Alberta Avenue long before then.

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