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Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

From the Ice District to the Nevada article: Edmonton’s identity crisis isn’t over yet

This past weekend, I visited Yellowknife for the first time. And as most Edmontonians do when they travel to other places, I reflected on the similarities and contrasts between Edmonton and my newfound crush of a city.

I didn’t become an expert on Yellowknife in three days, but I got a feel for the city. There’s an honest grittiness to Yellowknife. The history of the city was evident. A walk through its Old Town revealed an “OKness” with its rough-and-tumble sort of beauty. Cosmetic upgrades were scarce, thankfully. This city was staying true to its self. I believe there’s a lesson there for Edmonton.

This past June, I had my one-year anniversary as an activation board member with Make Something Edmonton. It has been an impressive year. This summer, we saw Edmonton’s DIY place-making abilities with #DIYCity Day. In May, we got news that the skate-to-work route, Edmonton Freezeway, is close to reality. In December we celebrated at Sounds, Light and Motion. What do these have in common? They’re authentically Edmontonian — not contrived or packaged.

But recently, I’ve been concerned about whether we’re adhering to this ethos. I used to think Edmonton had gotten over its identity crisis, but recent events indicate we may still be trying too hard to project a certain image to others.

We all know about the Ice District debacle. For some reason, the city wasn’t consulted on the name for the heart of downtown. The name is contrived and corporate. Most “districts” grow into their names (Distillery District in Toronto, Meatpacking District in New York, Gastown in Vancouver). In Edmonton, we get a branding agency to fast track that process.

Recently, Omar Mouallem wrote about another “district” that popped up in what is currently known as the Avenue of Nations. That area is now, apparently, the “Design District.” Omar wrote that the new name ignores the rich culture of the area’s African diaspora.

And I can’t forget about the uproar caused by a poorly written article that criticized Edmonton, which ran in Nevada. Why did we care so much? Our opinion of ourselves is really quite fragile.

Some psychologists say illness and dysfunction are in part a result of alienation from the true self. Could the same hold true for cities?

I can understand it. This city, downtown in particular, has been neglected for so long. The countless developments that will soon pop up in our skyline have everyone in a frenzy to push out an image of the “new Edmonton.”

But my visit to Yellowknife reminded me of the Edmonton I first encountered when I moved here a few years ago. A city that was aware of its faults, knew its potential and was generally OK with who it was. I think the excitement that has overtaken the city has thrown us off kilter. I worry that if we don’t find balance, we will lose something special that makes us who we are.

Robin Mazumder is an Edmonton community activist and public speaker. This column originally appeared at Omar Mouallem will return next Monday.

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