If ever there was a neighborhood that could be called “in transition” it would be an area in the shadow of Edmonton’s skyline that’s been re-branded as “The Quarters” as the city partners with private enterprise to push the ignored, somewhat seedier side of the city toward the gentrified mainstream. I joined a free lunch hour walking tour of the district sponsored by ArtTourYEG,  a project made possible by the Downtown Walkability Initiative and the Department of Sustainable Development of the City of Edmonton, and saw the area for what it is and the direction the city wants to see it go.

The Quarters became Edmonton’s first commercial district in the late 19th century as the first real business and residential zone beyond the walls of Fort Edmonton. The area occupies a 100 acre area extending from 97 Street to 92 Street, and from 103A Avenue to the top of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and takes its name from four “quarters” –  the Civic Quarter, Heritage Quarter, McCauley Quarter, and Five Corners Quarter – each with its own character. The centerpiece of the Quarters is the Armature, the first City-led “green street” pilot project that’s created a pedestrian-focused green street.

The artists rendering in the video is a reasonable facsimile of the current avenue minus the construction and midday drunkards ensconced outside the local liquor store, a reminder that some things about this part of town haven’t really changed that much despite the city’s best efforts.

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Etched into the granite at each mid-block crossing along the Armature is Derek Besant’s poem entitled Then, Here, Now  which can be can be read backwards and forwards.

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The Salvation Army’s wall has been decorated with the Edmonton Peace Mural created by both Canadian and Central American children and unveiled and unveiled to mark Change for Children who celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2001.

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Public art sprinkled throughout The Quarters includes Wild Rose by Rebecca Belmore & Osvaldo Yero which has a pair of symbols of Alberta, the wild rose mounted atop a tall lodgepole pine.

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Along the Armature are street signs with both the original street & avenue names and current numbers and the tour guide Ian explained that the move to rename Edmonton’s streets resulted from the amalgamation of Edmonton and Strathcona in 1912 as until then street names were the sole creation of realtors which created a haphazard grid for local police and firefighters to try and navigate in emergencies. The first map with the new street numbers appears in 1913 and the street renaming process was completed in 1914

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Similar street signs may be found throughout Old Strathcona and I’ve come to appreciate the elegant way my city melds past & present in a utilitarian street sign.

There are some unique buildings along Jasper Avenue that are being preserved including Edmonton’s “flat iron” building the Gibson Block. This 1913 four-storey brick building constructed for commercial use on four city lots at the eastern edge of Edmonton’s pre-World War One commercial core was added to the register of Canadian historic places in 2005.

A few block West stands the Ernest Brown Block, another 1913 brick building which housed the studio of Ernest Brown, one of Alberta’s most famous early photographers. The facade of the original building endures with a new, thoroughly modern addition rising behind it complete with floor-to-ceiling glass offering dramatic river valley vistas.

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The Goodridge Block was completed in 1912 and housed a menswear store, barbershop, wine, liquor and cigar store, and pool hall before becoming the local landmark  W.W. Arcade hardware store, Edmonton’s largest, between 1932 – 1991.

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Upscale eatery Hardware Grill opened in 1996 after a multi-million dollar restoration of the building and earned many culinary accolades including appearing on lists ranking the best restaurants in Canada before suddenly announcing it’s permanent closure on Twitter the week after the tour.

The tour ends behind the modern Edmonton Law Courts opposite the Oil Lamp Greek Restaurant whose exterior wall has been adorned with a mural by Ian Mulder entitled ‘City Slickers’ which features the magpie, a bird residents either love or hate. I’ll admit to being in the latter category having had many a morning interrupted by the loud, incessant chatter of this scavenger bird.

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The ArtTourYEG Series is a free walking tour was made possible by the Downtown Walkability Initiative and the Department of Sustainable Development of the City of Edmonton. Other tours  cover an assortment of downtown districts and include the Jasper Ave., Capital Boulevard, and  Churchill to McKinney tours.