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I’m leaning against a car in front of Blues on Whyte, Edmonton’s definitive blues joint, located on Whyte Avenue, the epicenter of the city’s Old Strathcona neighborhood. A woman stands on the sidewalk, playing music on a Chapman Stick and hawking CDs from an instrument case as passersby stop to listen. Neither homeless nor pandering for dough, she appears to be a studio musician just killing time. This is how it works on this colorful street.
Also known as 82 Ave., or just “the Avenue” to locals, Whyte is Old Strathcona’s mile-long boulevard of eclectic shops, restaurants, pubs and more — Edmonton’s urban corridor for the idiosyncratic. Not for high-end retail or monolithic malls, the road is the city’s anti-Rodeo Drive.
Of all North American cities with a population of more than one million, Edmonton is the most northern one. Its history includes fur trading, the railroad industry, oil booms and the Gretzky years (before he went Hollywood). But Strathcona originally developed as a separate town with its own history across the North Saskatchewan River from Edmonton. First incorporating in 1899, it was here that the Calgary and Edmonton Railway Company originally terminated its line, spawning a turn-of-the-century commercial center that soon eclipsed Edmonton proper. After much larger rail lines bore across Canada and arrived in Edmonton, a bridge was built across the river, connecting Strathcona with the main city. As a result, most subsequent developments and infrastructure improvements emerged only in Edmonton, so the folks of Strathcona voted in 1912 to annex themselves to Edmonton.
When downtown Edmonton decided to revitalize 60 years later, the plan included running a freeway straight through the former Strathcona. But local gadflies mobilized to preserve Strathcona’s heritage and save its historical buildings, many of which sit on Whyte Avenue.
Now the area is referred to as Old Strathcona. Buildings originally erected by the railroad company now house theaters, nightclubs, bistros and a wealth of homegrown businesses. At nighttime, Whyte Avenue’s bars and pubs attract hordes of club crawlers. A farmer’s market anchors one part of the neighborhood on weekends, while a slew of festivals erupt all year long, especially the Edmonton Fringe, North America’s biggest live theater festival. Even in the winter, when temperatures plummet to subzero levels, the revelry continues, with events such as Ice on Whyte, a grand ice-carving festival that drew more than 48,000 visitors this year.
Students from the nearby University of Alberta also contribute to the backdrop of Old Strathcona, as they have for a century. After Alberta became a province in 1905, its first premier, A.C. Rutherford, a practicing Strathcona attorney, helped establish the university in his home locale.
In 2004, Edmonton celebrated its centennial, so Old Strathcona decided to launch a mural project along Whyte Avenue. From 109th to 99th streets, and in various alleyways, 40 utility boxes are now painted with an artistic rendering that dovetails with the immediate surroundings. Visitors can obtain a map with locations of all the murals, although I discovered about half of them without even trying.
Whyte Avenue, as a whole, provides intimate connections, especially with those of the sonic sort, as street musicians occupy various nooks and crannies. As I leave the woman jamming on the Chapman Stick, I amble around the corner to the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market and observe an acoustic bluegrass trio performing on the sidewalk. Unfortunately for them, they are soon eclipsed by a bagpiper nearby. Inside the market, a short teenage girl with long sandy hair and glasses stands on a milk crate and plays violin, sight-reading from a music stand.
I decide then that I don’t even need to go to a proper gig — there’s plenty of music right there on The Avenue.
Metterra Hotel on Whyte10454 Whyte Ave.Studios, rooms and suites designed according to the elements of earth, air, fire and water.www.metterra.com
Two Rooms Cafe10324 Whyte Ave. An eclectic, funky breakfast and lunch place with an outdoor patio for people watching, Two Rooms Cafe provides a pub-like setting, complete with music and a variety of bottled beers. 780-439-8386
Blues on Whyte 10329 Whyte Ave.Edmonton’s most famous blues club. Live music seven nights a week with no cover.www.bluesonwhyte.ca
Tin Box10512 Whyte Ave.An eclectic gift shop with a range of collectibles, including home decor, body care, clothing, jewelry and lots of Canadiana.www.thetinbox.ca