The makers, foodies and history of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood

Omar Moualleum

Travel Alberta

Nov 15, 2017 - 7 minute read

Clenching a leather straphanger in a wood-panelled streetcar, Dan Rose pushes his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and cranes his neck to admire the North Saskatchewan River valley’s vivid greens. “It’s by far the best view of the city,” says the 28-year-old as we cross the High Level Bridge’s top deck, connecting downtown Edmonton with Old Strathcona – a rival city before amalgamating with the Alberta capital in 1912.

Rose, a heritage expert, explains that the streetcar itself (complete with drivers in nostalgic conductor hats and uniforms) is a simulation of one that crossed the commuter bridge until 1951. 

“During winter storms,” he says, “it would sway on the tracks. The conductor would have to hop out and climb on this track with a giant stick to fish the hook back onto the electric wire.” Today it mostly operates as a summer tourist attraction – the destination being a lively neighbourhood that continues to reinvent itself with every generation. 

Old Strathcona seems to transform itself every few decades. These days, it's morphing into a kind of haute-meets-hip version of itself. 

Travel Alberta / Cooper & O'Hara Photography 

Embracing the neighbourhood's Edwardian architecture

From a rugged boomtown to a common main street in the first half of last century, to a mini-bohemia and mega-bar district in the second half. The 2010s have ushered it into another era: “This is by far the bougiest Strathcona’s ever been,” notes Rose, opening the Spanish colonial doors of El Cortez.

The Mexican restaurant’s interior is like a scene out of a music video. Indeed, the owner, accomplished filmmaker Michael Maxxis, hired L.A. set builders and artists for the hyper-stimulating design. Such a place wouldn’t exist a decade ago, when Rose was a history student at nearby University of Alberta taking full advantage of the nightclub era’s debauchery that crescendoed with a 2006 hockey riot on the main drag Whyte Avenue.

“There’s certainly momentum on Whyte Ave. towards quality again,” says Rose, before folding a cinnamon-braised pork taco into his mouth. He points upstairs to sister restaurant Have Mercy, serving elevated Southern U.S. comfort food like grits and ribs, to nearby NongBu Korean Eatery (which pairs sweet and sticky sharing plates under black-and-white Asian cinema on a projector screen), Tokyo-style pub Dorinku, and the city’s best smoked barbecue (and bourbon offerings) at MEAT. Nearly all of them exist inside Edwardian brick buildings that Edmonton came within an inch of tearing down for a freeway in the 1970s.

The Old Strathcona Farmers' Market is bustling place on a Saturday with vendors like Cookie Crumbs handing out sweet treats such as custard-filled waffle cookies.

Travel Alberta / Cooper & O'Hara Photography 

As we enter an open bay of the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market inside a refurbished bus barn, Rose explains how activists fought urban planners and created this market to attract people to a part of town that had broken glass and litter strewn across the doorways of pawn shops. “All the development pressure was on the downtown core, so Old Strathcona was essentially forgotten.” 

Soon it inspired the world-famous Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival to cluster around the market and spread culture across Whyte Ave. Now what second-hand shops exist feature highly curated vintage clothing stores and kitschy antique shops like the Junque Cellar.

With a bag of lemon custard-filled waffle cookies from the market’s Cookie Crumbs in hand, he takes me to one of his favourite haunts, Barber Ha. Saturday is the only day of the week the barbershop accommodates drop-ins and Rose needs a clean-up. The vibe is a cacophony of banter and ‘90s rap. He’s seated by Brandi Strauss, his regular barber with a punk bob and sparse tattoos fitting of the 10-seat shop’s minimalist but artful design.

He recalls his first time stepping foot into Barber Ha and being startled to see a live band – Strauss being one of the performers. “There’s so much more to this place than a haircut,” says Rose.

“True,” adds Strauss. “There’s a real community feeling here.”

The High Level Bridge, built between 1910 and 1913,  was a link between what were once two separate cities.

Travel Alberta / Cooper & O'Hara Photography 

Play with cats at a café and hoist a craft beer in a historic building

As we head west toward the area’s most vibrant corners, we can’t resist investigating the neighbourhood’s newest edition, Cat Cafe on Whyte. We get a rundown of the rules (don’t pick up the cats or feed them anything but cat food) from manager Destiny MacDonald (a former dog groomer converted to an ailurophilia) and enter a living room that’d make a penthouse owner jealous. Ten adult cats lunged, trotted and, of course, slept on posh furniture below original paintings of their kin, while a dozen humans sipped bubble tea and protected their pastries from the nippier pets. “This is our thing,” says one visitor, adding that her hometown’s cat cafe is among the best her family has patronized in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Soon, on a massive outdoor bar, Rose and I cling pints of Blindman’s Longshot and Troubled Monk Saison – great Alberta beers and two of MKT’s 100-plus beers – and he offers another history lesson. “This is where it all started,” he says, pointing to the beer house's brick walls that can accommodate 1,000 patrons. “This was the northernmost terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. In true boomtown fashion, you had people coming here throwing up some timbers overnight and calling it the first whatever – the first saloon, the first hotel, the first tent shop. It was from this rail depot that that Alberta’s agricultural bounty flowed.”

We finish our round and shoulder through Whyte Ave.’s swelling crowds and puppies panting under the Prairie sun, lapping water out of bowls on the sidewalk. We pass Work hall, the signature store for designer Nicole Campre’s line of minimalist dresses with asymmetrical cuts, streetwear shop Foosh, and other boutiques catering to young adults, before entering a construction zone where two mid-sized residential towers – the first in decades – are just breaking ground.

Mix of people changes neighourhood's character 

Turning north at the 109 Street thoroughfare, we enter the neighbourhood of Garneau, home to many old craftsman-style houses now inhabited by professors, sororities and fraternities. Most of the old commercial buildings are from the last few decades, save for the brick home of Sugarbowl Diner – where profs and students eat legendary cinnamon buns in the morning, chomp into lamb burgers mid-day and clink pints at night – and the Garneau Theatre. The black and red independent cinema is the greatest expression of art deco in the city, placed at the southern tip of the High Level Bridge. “There’s something about coming up the hill and seeing the neon signs, the theatre all lit up, and then seeing the title of classic movies on the marquee,” says Rose.

Cooling down with cold presses at Transcend Coffee, a roaster and cafe in the theatre’s building, Rose reflects on the forthcoming towers and whether they’ll change the character of the neighbourhood. They’re controversial, he admits, but it’s just evidence of the neighbourhood’s fluidity. “We have to remember that the history of this neighbourhood is more than buildings; it’s how people have been using it.”

Take a ride on the High Level Bridge streetcar for a blast from the past. Conductors are outfitted in nostalgic hats and uniforms, and you'll get the best view of the North Saskatchewan River Valley from up here.

Travel Alberta / Cooper & O'Hara Photography 

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