One weekend, lots of Jane’s Walks

Each August, I take a hard look at my schedule, take a deep breath, and try to cram absolutely as many Fringe shows and as much time on the Fringe grounds as I possibly can. That recently came to mind earlier in May, as over the course of two days (May 2 and 3), I tried to cram as many Jane’s Walks as humanly possible into one weekend. The only problem, other than some unpredictable weather, is the walk end times are a little more unpredictable than Fringe shows. With that in mind, these are the three walks I was able to attend this year (and you can jump to the bottom to read a Storify on the walks that other people did in Edmonton). 

Spruce Avenue
This Jane’s Walk intrigued me partly because of the name — we hear about Little Italy and Chinatown in Edmonton, but Little Poland? Our walk leader was Wes, who was plenty qualified to lead the walk (by Jane’s Walks standards) because he lives in the neighbourhood, but he’s also a planner at the City of Edmonton.

Spruce Avenue neighbourhood
Spruce Avenue Jane’s Walk. Photo: Screen capture, MapMyRun/Google Maps

Even though the Spruce Avenue area is considered Little Poland, there’s a lot of influences in the area, notably Blatchford Field, and the land that NAIT is on, which was used by the American army during the Second World War. Blatchford itself was the busiest airport in the world in 1943, as it was being used by Canadian, British and American air crews. Spruce Avenue’s name is unusual in the fact that it got its name from the nearby Spruce Avenue streetcar (Spruce Avenue is 114 Avenue, but at the time all the avenues in the area were named after trees); most neighbourhood names were derived from the neighbourhood school name, or prominent people.

If there’s a hidden gem in Spruce Avenue, it’s actually right out in the open — the Polish food markets just slightly off of the 118 Avenue traffic circle. After a quick refuelling stop there (in addition to their meat selection, the candy selection is quite interesting), the focus turned to the layout of Spruce Avenue.

Since Edmonton’s first economic boom was in 1912, Wes joked that if you want to know when an old building was built in the city, the answer is likely 1912. Spruce Avenue was designed around what’s known as a Garden City plan — a large park at the centre of a crossed layout, with other parks throughout. Had the plan been carried out, it would make a lot more sense as to why Princess Elizabeth Avenue and Kingsway are on angles.

And that’s not the only remnant of how the neighbourhood might have looked — on 101 Street, one side of the street is 33-foot lots, but the other side is 50-foot lots that were replotted after the Second World War. And while you’re checking out the lot sizes, look for three identically shaped houses on the same street — they were built by three brothers. (The key is that instead of all being in a row, the houses are each one house apart.)

Shortly before ending the walk at the Spruce Avenue community centre, we stopped at St. Basil School, which is the only publicly funded Polish-bilingual school in North America. And, to come full circle on our walk of Little Poland, Wes also had some treats from an ethnic bakery to reward us for making it through the walk!

Bonus: not only did I learn a lot about Spruce Avenue and get some delicious Polish treats, Wes also kindly agreed to be part of a new mapping project that showcases people’s perspectives of Edmonton.

I’ve been participating in Jane’s Walks for three years, and for three years, I’ve wanted to attend organizer Ian Hosler’s walk of Westmount. It also sounds like Ian, a resident of Westmount, tries to change up his route every year.

Westmount Jane's Walk
Westmount Jane’s Walk. Photo: Screen capture, MapMyRun/Google Maps

Without an ounce of exaggeration, there were lots of stops on Ian’s tour, and tons of information, so it makes more sense to present that information as it falls into a couple of different categories, instead of in a linear fashion:

Weird facts about Westmount
• When my parents visit from out of town, it drives my dad crazy that St. Albert Trail picks up in different places, and carries two or three different names. It turns out the road used to run through Westmount, and it’s still visible in places.
• Ian told us a story about a man who built a hobby airplane in a Westmount basement, but misjudged the size and in order to get the plane out of the basement, had to remove a wall. It sounded like a good story, until an older gentleman in the crowd piped up that the man in the story was his dad. I believe the plane is now at the Alberta Aviation Museum.
• The Edmonton, Yukon & Pacific rail line was built to compete with CPR going to Calgary and Strathcona, but only 13 kilometres of the line was built. So the joke goes that it’s the shortest rail line with the longest name. Its footprint is on what is now Wadhurst Road, and according to the history books, homes on that road would have backed on to the rail line, so when the rail line was removed, the houses were flipped around (to their current configuration facing the road).

Historic points
• The Roxy Theatre was a family business, and with the Depression, the son came back to run the business, although he had wanted to be an engineer. There are also some good stories about the timings of movies at the Roxy, since the delivery of the films could be delayed by the streetcar crossings. Referring to the recent fire, Ian told us that the Heritage Council has started carefully photographing old buildings, since “we don’t know when they might leave us.”
• Speaking of the streetcar, that weird pocket park on 108 Avenue and 124 Street that looks like it has a road running through it? That was actually the turnaround spot for the streetcar, and eventually, it should be filled in to look a little bit more like a normal park.
• There are lots of historically designated sites and buildings in Edmonton, but go walking down a Westmount alley, and you’ll find the only garage (formerly a barn) that has historic designation.
• If the Robertson-Wesley Presbyterian Church looks familiar from somewhere, it’s because it was built using plans from Calgary’s First Baptist Church. The original plans for Robertson-Wesley were grand and more original, but with the Depression, they decided to use a scaled-down version of Calgary’s plans.

Good ideas
• The one-way design of 127 Street in front of Westglen School also has a bike lane, which means parents can’t park on both sides of the street to drop their kids off, making it safer for both pedestrians and drivers.

Hidden gems

• Villa Avenue, one of my favourite places to run, was known as Robbers’ Roost, because a lot of doctors, lawyers and other well-off families had homes on the street.

We discovered a different view of the Victoria Promenade during Ian Hosler's Jane's Walk. Photo: Catherine Szabo
We discovered a different view of the Victoria Promenade during Ian Hosler’s Jane’s Walk. Photo: Catherine Szabo

• The next time you walk down the Victoria Promenade, look carefully into the valley between the promenade and Victoria Park Road. There’s a worn trail that runs between the plaza at the west end and the 121 Street stairs (and likely further, but it’s very visible at these points), and it’s not just from people walking through the valley — it’s part of an old rail bed.

When I turned the GPS tracking off after finishing Michael Phair’s Jane’s Walk of Oliver, it became evident how much information had been crammed into a pretty short walk. We didn’t go very far, but like the other two walks, Michael knows a lot about his neighbourhood.

Oliver Jane's Walk
Oliver Jane’s Walk. Photo: Screen capture, MapMyRun/Google Maps

In a sense, this walk addressed all forms of rail transit, with some francophone and Aboriginal history thrown in. I knew the CN Rail line was nearby on 104 Street (MacEwan University just recently unearthed a roundhouse structure with their expansion), but I didn’t realize how much land the yards covered, and that the station was where the Save-On Foods is now. Not only that, but the trains ran there until the ’70s, and an iron train bridge (now preserved at Fort Edmonton) ran over Jasper Avenue until 1993.

We discussed the streetcar a little bit before making our way down into the Grandin LRT station, where Michael did a great job of talking about the two murals there and how they came to be. The original mural, by Sylvie Nadeau, depicts Bishop Vital Grandin and the francophone community, and was commissioned in 1989. In 2014, Aaron Paquette’s mural was unveiled, a colourful piece that depicts sacred symbols and imagery to the Aboriginal community. Working in partnership with Nadeau, Paquette’s mural “speaks” to Nadeau’s work on the opposite side of the station, reflecting the journey of reconciliation.

As someone familiar with the francophone community, it’s somehow never occurred to me that the Grandin neighbourhood might be named so for a reason (Bishop Grandin was a large part of the francophone community that settled north of Edmonton, in St. Albert). The buildings named for Grandin, as well as those bearing the name of St. Joachim, were part of the original French Quarter (although we now recognize the French Quarter in Edmonton to be part of Bonnie Doon).

While the 24 kilometres I walked over the course of these three days wasn’t comprised solely from these three walks, they did make up a good portion, and I wish I could have done more. (You can also check out my recap of some of the 2013 Jane’s Walks here.) Luckily, lots of other people attended the walks in parts of the city that I wasn’t able to get to, and they’re collected in this Storify: