Place, and Change, and History …

The idea of ‘place’ and its meaning is a recurring thread in my work. This preoccupation seems particularly apt at this point in my life, as I am really ‘betwixt and between’ in many ways: some projects have concluded, others are taking shape; I am revisiting the NEST work, and preparing for a new exhibition; the sabbatical here in Halifax is very quickly coming to a close, and so I will be back at packing and sorting and moving; we are also selling the place we have here, so that is another layer of transition, another shifting relationship to place.

The calendar year is coming to a close, the Winter Solstice just past … returning to light, to work, to a place I have called home for many years.

I think that’s why this building struck me so. I’ve gone by it many times over the years, over many walks downtown, but this time the layers seemed particularly evident, the exposure of change to the wide world more vivid.


Surfaces like this are also a rare thing in Edmonton – we are very good at erasing our history, at least when it comes to buildings. The boomtown preoccupation with the new, coupled with the relative youth of this city has contributed greatly to this erasure, as has the tendency for development to place profit and efficiency over preservation. So, place is different there; its associated narratives and threads of history are less easily read on the surface. They are there nonetheless, but it takes digging (or flying above it all) to really begin to grasp it.

aerial2 aerial1I have often been thoroughly disheartened by what feel like thoughtless, short-sighted erasures and edits to the tangible records of place/history out west (certainly in relation to the preservation of buildings and history in Halifax the difference is most dramatic). But for all of that, there is a deeper thread to understanding the meaning of place for me, that cannot be broken by myriad (and seemingly endless) boom-town-construction changes. Or perhaps that thread is because of the change: because the economy has brought so very many ‘come from away’ people to Edmonton for its entire history – and especially so in the last 40 years – I am something of a rare bird. I was born there. It is a corner of the world that has shaped me irrevocably, if for no other reason than time in.

There are people out here who can go ‘home’ to a place that has been in the family for generations, to a house that has stood for centuries. I can’t do that  – I am the daughter of an immigrant and a first generation Canadian, both of whom did their best to forget the past of the ‘old country’ and even of all but the barest snippets of their growing up years. They saw the house they called home as setting them apart from all of that by its modernity – they renovated the original house to their own design, laying claim to space, changing the land the house stood on, leaving their personal stamp on what they built. 20th Century Pioneers. The life of the place can only really be measured from the very late 1950’s or early 1960s as the place I knew as home. And now, the house and yard has been completely changed by the current owners, and almost everything around it has been transfigured by suburban expansion; even the long, straight roads I walked have been erased, in favour of winding asphalt and cup de sacs.

But the river is still there. The ravine is still there. The changes matter, impact the place deeply, make it a different city. But not entirely. I guess its in the blood, somehow, in much the same way the ties to ‘back home’ run so deep out here in the Maritimes.

It’s just the surface realities that are very different.

5 thoughts on “Place, and Change, and History …

  1. Beautiful, thoughtful post, Sydney! I love your photo of the building where you can see the ghost of the neighboring buildings built up around it over the years. I was born in Calgary, and feel the same way about the erasing of historical buildings. When I first began to travel, I was amazed at the beautiful, artful buildings that continued to be be used and cherished in other towns, cities and countries. Something goes missing when we take those down.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Linda. I think there’s a really interesting moment in life for the the boom-town-prairie-born when we travel, when we see the marked difference in understanding and relationship to the history of place that is embodied in different cities. The irony is, of course, that in many cases, the history in a given city has been preserved in the buildings because there hasn’t been the money to bulldoze and rebuild! A sad thing, but true – and those cities that haven’t seen the “benefit” of the super-heated economies that have shaped Calgary and Edmonton are the richer for it, to my mind at least. I will say, though, that Calgary has done a better job of preserving early examples of its architectural heritage than Edmonton has. Stephen Avenue is a good example, and there are some lovely places in Inglewood and Kensington still standing and being put to good use. Thanks for your comments on this … it’s something I think about a great deal, in relation to ideas of ‘home’ that inform my practice, but also in broader terms – in relation to what living in urban environments is about, and the complicated process of renewal for urban-core districts. Wishing you and yours all the Best of the Season!

      • I love these ideas that inform your practice, for sure. It’s such a personal thing (“home”) but a collective experience, too, that is shaped by everything from people to places to memories. All the best to you as well — looking forward to perhaps meeting at some point and chewing these ideas over with a cup of coffee!

  2. nicely articulated thoughts (As usual) Sydney… I remember my first trip to Italy being struck by how the history of buildings; renovations and repairs, was allowed to show and be present in a way very different from my Ontario suburban youth- where a reno meant total erasure of the past… later i was struck by Hundertwasser’s manifesto on skin and repairs, ( and how when a sweater is mended it should be done in a complimentary colour- so that the life lived, and act of repair is visible- that comes to mind every time I mend a sweater now! holiday hugs to you… Sharon

    • That’s it, exactly. No wonder the notion of (anything) aging is so terrifying to so many people! I love the notion of that intentionality, the apparentness and presence of alteration, change, age, transformation. Everything is in the process of becoming, all the time … why not revel in it, and in the ingenuity that allows for the creative development of places and spaces that honour those narratives? And mending: the weaving of new and old together. Makes perfect sense. Thanks for the link to Hundertwasser … I hadn’t looked closely at his writings. Good food for thought! Best of the Season to you and yours, Sharon!

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