For the last five years, I’ve lived in New York, a city that couldn’t be more different from my hometown of Edmonton. It’s chaotic, claustrophobic and, well, New York. And, as I’ve discovered, it’s filled with people who have never heard of Edmonton. Whenever I tell people where I’m from, they’ll respond with one of two answers: “What’s that?” or “Oh,right, that’s the place with the big mall.”
When I first arrived, it was the second answer that stung me the most.
For most of my time growing up, that big mall, with its campy submarines and replica of the Santa Maria, represented all of the worst excesses of suburban, car-centric urban planning. It was antiseptic and artificial, and filled with chain stores. And, most of all, it was emblematic of our city planners’ extraordinary unwillingness to invest in a culturally, economically vibrant Edmonton street life.
But since I moved to New York, and started coming home only for Christmas, I’ve noticed something unexpected: I’ve fallen in love with West Edmonton Mall.
The mall is still artificial and tacky. But, as I stroll through its corridors every year during the pre-Christmas rush, usually in a panic to grab last-minute gifts, I’ve realized that it’s much more than that. In a city where people spend most of their time in the warm safety of their cars, separated by traffic and cold weather, West Ed actually allows people to rub up against each other. In the mall, I can gaze at the scarf- and tuque-free faces of my fellow Edmontonians, and see what they actually look like. And as we politely jostle against each other during those crowded pre-Christmas days, cranky and tired, I feel a sense of belonging to Edmonton that I’ve missed since leaving it.
In New York, this kind of physical contact is impossible to escape. Most of the time, I can barely fit onto the subway. But in Edmonton, it’s a rarity. In a city that is dominated by cars and sprawl, it’s a vivid reminder that we are, at our core, a city of people.
Thomas Rogers is an editor and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Please tell his upstairs neighbour to keep it down.