Jane’s Walk 2015: Packingtown

I went to Jane’s Walk today. Two Jane’s Walks, actually.

The first was in Packingtown, the former meat-cutting district in northeast Edmonton. The second was in Riverdale. In fact, I co-led the Riverdale walk, although Allan Shute – the other walk leader, and Riverdale Historian – was the true content expert.

I adore this event. After stumbling onto it four years ago, I quickly fell in love. It’s about walking, and seeing your city in a new light, and community. Not just in Edmonton, but a global event in which locals give free walking tours of their own neighbourhoods. It’s amazing. It’s grassroots. It’s revolutionary. It’s named after Jane Jacobs, and was her friends’ way of celebrating her life. The only bad thing about it is not being able to split into five different people and go to all of the walks. Every year, I get super excited and tell everyone I know about Jane’s Walk, repeat the next year and so on, and that’s basically my heritage nerd life cycle.

This is what brought me to Packingtown. This walk appealed to me because I hail from northeast Edmonton. The Fort Road smokestack is part of my identity. Growing up, it felt like the north side was pretty removed from the experiences of people on the south side or west end. There were cultural differences; for one, when I got old enough to care about these things, you could never find a Vue Weekly or See Magazine on the north end of town. You were cut off when you caught that northbound LRT, travelling along all the amazing graffiti that used to be visible from the train. I wish I had photos of it now. You used to pass the old rollerskating rink, which sits in that strange part of my memory where I can only vaguely remember where it actually was – but it was real, and it happened, and my elementary school would go there every year on Valentine’s Day.

So, I was excited to see that there was a Packingtown walk offered this year – led by Catherine Cole and Don Bouzek from Ground Zero Productions, who instructed a fantastic oral history workshop just the other weekend at the Edmonton Heritage Council, as well as being the masterminds behind the Packingtown Edmonton and Mill Woods oral history projects.

“Packingtown” is the nickname given to the area surrounding the northeast Edmonton meat packing plants that dominated Edmonton industry for a long time. In a fairly small geographic area, there were numerous packing plants. It used to be a respected trade with a decent salary and benefits. Over time, pay has decreased and people can’t make a living doing that work anymore. No matter your opinion about the industry overall, at least workers could survive on that salary. It was not easy work. We watched video clips of oral histories during the Jane’s Walk, and one interviewee mentioned that nobody escaped the job uninjured.

Now, there’s a lonely smokestack in a field where a factory once stood – soon to transform into the new Edmonton Transit bus barns. The plant was demolished when I was old enough to remember, but i don’t. I’ve grown pretty fond of that smokestack. The other day, I rode the LRT home at dusk and got unexpectedly emotional seeing the silhouette of the smokestack passing by. It has drilled its way into my heart.

The north side is a part of me.

I remember the sound of trains at night from my parents’ house growing up.

I remember the smell of the rendering plants from Belvedere LRT station.

I remember the very real junkyard dogs guarding the junkyards between Clareview and Belvedere LRT stations.

I remember the little farmhouses that sat between the 50 Street and 137 Ave for the longest time, slowly being enveloped by development.

I remember the Bullwinkle’s on Fort Road.

I remember the gigantic sand sculpture in Londonderry Mall. Also, the arcade and hanging out in front of New York Fries in the food court.

I remember the Gainers strike, and an oil drum fire as we drove past in my family’s 1976 Chevy Nova. What I don’t remember is understanding what it meant to those workers – that there was a lot happening back then in terms of devaluing and threatening the livelihoods of people who did pretty grueling work. Things had come to a head and workers were fighting back.

I remember the temporary community that sprung up around the smokestack when the city boomed in the late 2000s.

I remember my high school friends surprising me by dropping by the north side and asking for a tour of the area, and only being able to show them a smokestack and the parking lot of Londonderry Mall. They said we should hang out at a coffee shop, and I told them we didn’t have those.

I remember being able to bike to the edge of the city, and I remember the south and west ends of the city feeling very far away.

I remember the north side.

IMG_9103We started our Jane’s Walk at Patrick Dwyer Square in Station Pointe, surrounded by parking lot. The orange tarps will be removed later this year, revealing what I’m pretty sure has to be a unicorn.

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We walked, as per Jane’s “Walk”.

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Lots of smokestack imagery. So into it.

Then there was the river of white meat-cutting coats coming up Norton Street (now 66 Street) toward the Transit Hotel, the bustling businesses up along Fort Road, past the Transit. Barber shop in the front, beauty parlour in the back. The bike shop was once the general hospital.

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The old hospital.

I remember before Station Pointe moved in, and the south side of the street was bulldozed, it felt like a gold rush town. Catherine described the former hospital as being very “boomtown”. That it was. My little corner of northeast Edmonton, and Beverly, share many characteristics including architecture that feels like you’re stepping into another world.

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Back of the building.

Back of the building.

I did go to the Transit Hotel once. After growing up driving past signs boasting “gerbil races” or “robot boxing” (?!?!), and always getting the general impression that it wasn’t the safest place, some friends and I decided on a whim to drive to the Transit Hotel and check it out. It was Easter Sunday, of all days. So, we got in the car and drove to the north end and… it was amazing.

I’m not just saying that out of north side defensiveness, but because it really was. The waitresses were dressed up as bunnies and gave us rice krispie treats for Easter. There was a live country band playing, people were two-stepping, the whole nine yards – and at one point, a little old lady who sounded like Patsy Cline got up on stage and sang a song.

We were humbled in our former disdain for the place. On one hand, it was where I grew up and I was at that stage where I wanted to disassociate myself from my roots, but on another hand it’s a symptom of classism. I don’t know if the Transit is always like that, but it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I’ll go back eventually, but haven’t yet. It’s hard to beat the experience I had, so you can’t blame me for not wanting to burst that beautiful bubble.

Transit Hotel, forgive me for being a jerk to you. You're just a lowly boomtown hotel trying to get by.

Transit Hotel, forgive me for being a jerk to you. You’re just a lowly boomtown hotel trying to get by.

Sadly, I had to leave early to get to the Riverdale Jane’s Walk, and I walked back to the LRT station along Fort Road. I passed Station Pointe, the planned new development between Fort Road and the train tracks. (Why the “e”??)IMG_9144

I looked at some doors.

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Eventually, I made it to Belvedere LRT station.

Downtown is but a speck in the distance.

Downtown is but a speck in the distance. On the north side, we don’t care about things like reflections in the glass.

Checked out some stained glass art in the LRT station.

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And before I caught the train, I noticed this little guy way up high:

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Stay tuned for the next chapter of my adventures (Riverdale!) in my next post. There will be a number of other Jane’s Walks over the rest of the weekend.

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