Julie Kitt bought her not-quite-600-square-foot house in Edmonton in 1966, the year I was born. It has one bedroom, one bathroom, a living room, a small kitchen and a utility room where she keeps the wringer washer she used up until eight years ago. She’s lived in that tidy white nook for half her life, most of it by herself. She is 83. Her neighbours to the west, a couple in their 20s, rent a little house of about the same size. She’s a contortionist and he lights himself on fire. They perform at fringe festivals across the country. There was another little house to the east of Kitt but that was torn down years ago and a spacious split-level took its place.
Across the avenue lived the Sumarlidasons, from 1949 to 1972. Everyone knew them, it seems. Lillian taught piano; Henry, well, it’s hard to say. In city directories, he’s listed variously as “representative,” “traveller” and “oil man.” They were the sixth to own this house. We are the tenth. I think.
“It’s a mystery, isn’t it?” says Robert Geldart, principal heritage planner for the City of Edmonton. It’s not the answer I seek. We’re sitting at my dining room table, next to the coal-burning fireplace. I’ve spent weeks trying to unravel the history of this place and find out when it was built; scored my corneas poring over handwritten, turn-of-the-century municipal documents on microfiche at the archives; stared so long at grainy 1924 aerial photographs of the open field and horse trails that became my neighbourhood that tears fell onto the magnifying glass. The mystery remained. And I became obsessed. Don’t ask me why. Once I learned a little, I needed more. Who’s been in this bathroom? Who’s looked out this window? What did they see? Geldart tells me other people have tracked down relatives of original homeowners to find answers. He thinks he’s helping me. Enabler. “Your house strikes me as a farmhouse style. Because it shows up out of nowhere, maybe it was moved,” he says. (Geldart’s from my hometown in New Brunswick, so you’ve got to believe him.) “If this area was all field, it wouldn’t have been hard to do. They might have waited until the ground was frozen and then moved it.”
Moved it? But wouldn’t there be some record of that? Isn’t there a searchable database somewhere? I have come to know two things of late: the City of Edmonton Archives is a boundless resource, but some things—old things especially—are simply unknowable.
I live in Allendale, which begins a dozen blocks south of Whyte Avenue and is bounded by Calgary Trail and the rail yard to the east, 109th Street to the west and 61st Avenue to the south. With straight roads on all sides, it is a little square of working class Edmonton—or was at one time, anyway. It’s changing. I live in the northwest corner. Dwayne Donald, who lives in the southeast, closer to the tracks, jokes that I live in “upper Allendale.” He’s descended from the Papaschase Cree who once occupied a reserve in south Edmonton. Destitute and under pressure to cede territory to incoming settlers, three men signed away the reserve in 1888 under “highly questionable circumstances,” Linda Goyette writes in Edmonton in Our Own Words. I’m living on former reserve land.
Turn-of-the-century Allendale was desirable for the same reason it is today: it’s close to Whyte Avenue, but not too close. Later, as the University of Alberta, city bus routes and shopping centres blossomed on the perimeter, Allendale increased its cachet. Today, tiny houses with sheer curtains and hedges you could stand a wine glass on abut brand new chipboard- and-vinyl duplexes and moist-windowed rentals. Neighbours complain about transients and drug dealers but I’ve seen little of that. Mind you, I’m a mother of twin toddlers. Mommy busy. Mommy no have time look.
After the girls were born, I walked a thousand miles on these streets, pushing a double stroller under towering tree canopies, dreaming of the day I’d plant perennials or take a shower. When lucid, I noticed a few things: a crowded seniors residence around one corner and a crowded daycare around the other; real estate agents in fashionable eyewear flashing teeth from ubiquitous billboards and bus stop benches. In the four years we’ve owned this place, the house next door has changed hands three times. I counted six houses for sale this week on the three-block avenue south of me. (You can always tell when a house is heading for the market: hastily installed vinyl siding over the stucco and a fresh load of wood chips on the weeds.) An era is winding down in this little southside enclave and it’s indicative of many Edmonton and Calgary neighbourhoods that emerged in the 1950s. The original homeowners are moving on. The average price of an Edmonton home jumped 50 per cent last year—buyers are snatching up houses to rent, renovate or tear down. Three widows and one elderly couple live on my block. They’ve all been here at least 40 years. We newcomers don’t buy a house for life; we invest in property. Most of us will eventually sell and move somewhere else. But even so, something draws us together—on the sidewalk, shovelling snow, borrowing hedge trimmers; in the play- ground, bored and desperate for conversation. Last week, my neighbour corralled the girls onto my yard while I ferried groceries to the front porch. Vestiges of community linger on, even in our evanescence.
Thomas and Elizabeth Allen, after whom the neighbourhood was named, were Irish farmers from Ontario who cleared a chunk of this slough-filled area a century ago. A 1913 Daily Capital story gushes about the Allens and their ilk. “The settler who clears the country is its true father,” it says. “Without his axe, his log cabin, his solitude, his endurance, his manifold miseries of hardship and exposure, we could not have the abundant appliances of civilization.” The Allens bought three lots on Main Street (now Calgary Trail) for $50 and sold them later for $10,500, a superb example of what would become our provincial pastime: boom-town real estate speculation.
From 1915 to the mid-1940s, Allendale was little more than dirt roads at the southern city limits: a few houses next to sprawling fields and fur farms. In 1944, for example, there were only 10 houses on my three-block avenue. Ten years later, after the boys came home from the war, there were 53. I get out the magnifying glass and look at those aerial photographs again at the archives. There’s my house surrounded by trees and fields. A decade later, there’s my house in suburbia. Cruising the ’hood, it’s easy to imagine young families buying cars, moving into these bungalows and raking piles of leaves for the kids to jump into. This avenue was a snapshot of blue-collar Edmonton in the 1940s and ’50s: train porters, shippers, drivers, carpenters, clerks, salesmen and mechanics. The names are overwhelmingly Irish, German, Polish and Ukrainian.
It didn’t change much in the 1960s. Mary Tiedemann lived on my avenue in 1966. She was a clerk at Eaton’s. Phyllis Falkenberg, a few doors west, was a clerk at the Bay. (Were they friends? Did they take the bus together?) You already know Mrs. Kitt. She was a waitress at a pair of now-defunct Whyte Avenue restaurants, making 75 cents an hour. Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski, a prominent psychologist and University of Alberta professor, lived on the corner. He was famous for his theory of “positive disintegration,” which suggested individuals must endure internal and external conflicts, even breakdowns, in order to develop unique and individual personalities. His house has been replaced by a duplex.
Across the street and a few doors down is 82-year-old Nick Krasowski. He worked at the General Motors warehouse for four decades. The university-educated workers were always a bit dim, Nick says. His wife, Irene, scolds him for making disparaging remarks. Nick harrumphs. Couldn’t train them to do squat. Nick and Irene moved into their new house in 1954. I ask them how much they paid but they demur. “Ten thousand?” I suggest. “No, more than that,” says Nick. “Fifteen?” Now I’m really prying. “That would be in the ballpark,” he says. If, according to the Edmonton Real Estate Board, the average Allendale house sold for $275,000 last year, this house, impeccably groomed and maintained, is worth much more than that.
“Paved? No, heavens to Betsy. It was all gravel.” We’re sitting in the Krasowskis’ sky-blue kitchen with the apple-and-pear wallpaper and Formica table; Irene, 79, is describing the state of our avenue in 1954 over tea and carrot cake. For the first few years in their new house, Nick fashioned a homemade walkway in the basement from salvaged wood; they’d push it out a window in the spring and lay it down on the mud in front of the house. They had two children when they moved in, eventually had two more. The brand new Allendale Elementary School, a half dozen blocks away, was bursting with students back then. Edmonton Public Schools added the junior high portion just as their eldest was nearing Grade 7.
Times have changed. Three years ago, total enrolment at Allendale Elementary dipped to 15, so the elementary program was cancelled. According to an April 2004 EPS memo, there were 109 Allendale elementary students in the public system but most of them attended school elsewhere. Their parents—my neighbours today—seem to hold a mixture of blue- and white-collar jobs. According to Statistics Canada’s 2001 Labour Force Survey, roughly half of Allendale residents work in accommodation and food services, education, health care, manufacturing and retail. Nearly 28 per cent had a university degree, compared to half that in 1986.
My house is seven centimeters wider in the front than in the back, probably on account of the porch. It used to occupy a big corner lot, but in the 1960s the corner was hived off to make another lot. The two houses are a couple of feet apart. There’s original hardwood on the main floor and wide- plank fir upstairs. A decorator named Frederick Saunders lived here in 1936, and after him Malcolm MacIntyre, dean of law at U of A. After them? A storekeeper, a laboratory technician, a Canada Postie. Thousands of people have doffed boots at my door and sat for tea, Scotch, supper. They cried and laughed and stomped upstairs in anger or tiptoed down lest they wake the baby. They broke bones, painted walls, trimmed hedges and cooked soup. Some people might find it creepy, all those souls roaming the house, but it comforts me, feeds my curiosity.
Now, this might get complicated, but it’s related to the mystery so read closely. I spent hours at the archives reading through Henderson’s—annual directories which list every street address in the city, who lived there (or what, in the case of a business), the person’s occupation, a spouse’s name and other personal information that most people would probably never disclose today. The archives has volumes from 1907 to 1987. I consulted every damn edition. That’s where the mystery was born.
From 1915 to 1934, there were only three addresses on my block: 10714, 10733 and 10743. Herbert Backus, who owned a feed store on Whyte Avenue, lived at the 10714 address almost the entire time. Suddenly, in 1935, 10714 disappears from Henderson’s and my address appears. Backus is still living there and it’s still one of only three houses on the block. I find no corresponding municipal building permit for my house listed in the years preceding 1935. And get this: on my side of the avenue, the house numbers go up by twos until they get to 10712, where they skip 10714 and then go up by fours—10714 has vanished.
“I’m stumped right now, too,” says Edmonton historian Ken Tingley. Great. I’ve stumped the historian. The 10714 house could have burned down and Backus might have built a new house on my lot without a permit, he says. “I’ve encountered this problem before, looking at permits. Let me think about it.” He suggests something called “brute force,” which scares me a little. But he’s a historian, I think. Let him finish. He does: sometimes if you read documents over and over, he says, an answer eventually pops out. “But if you lose one link of the chain, it’s almost impossible to make that connection.” I want to tell him to take that back. But I know he’s right.
The Typical Allendale house sells for less than the city-wide average, making the area slightly more affordable than adjacent, more upscale communities: Pleasantview, McKernan, Parkallen. Kyle and Megan Kohls-Wiebe, who live across the alley from us, were delighted to find their house in 2005 after surviving four years in a traffic-snarled, sleepy suburban community 20 blocks south. They’re a thirtysomething couple, horror movie buffs. She’s an occupational therapist and pregnant with their first baby. He’s an artist who works as a porter at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. Her short, cropped hair is dyed red and his facial hair is dyed to match. They like being able to walk to Whyte Avenue and bus elsewhere in the city. They have no car.
Julie Kitt doesn’t have a car either. She took the bus to Whyte every weekday morning at 6 a.m. until she retired in 1982. She so endeared herself to the bus driver that he’d wait for her if she was late. One day, a real estate agent who worked next door to the restaurant described to her a little house for sale a dozen blocks to the south for $8,000. The mortgage would be $100 per month, $10 less than her rent. She couldn’t scrape up the down payment so the real estate agency lent it to her. Seriously.
She has a picture on the wall of her mother Genevieve, her sister Helen and herself just before they emigrated from Czechoslovakia to join her dad, who had come five years earlier. She is 7 in the picture; it’s 1931 and the ladies look stoic. “We didn’t have much back in Czechoslovakia,” she says. “We lived on soup and bread. ”She has endured the Depression, emigration and a war. Her husband, Bill, died in 1975. At four-foot-ten, she embodies the compact resolve often seen in women of her generation who have had to take the reins for one reason or another: she secured the mortgage, she was the breadwinner and she has taken care of herself. She dismisses thoughts of the inevitable—abandoning the privacy and freedom of her home and moving into a seniors facility. “I told my sister, they’re going to have to carry me out of here,” she says softly, brushing wavy gray hair from her face. For now, she has a front door that closes snugly, a diverse collection of salt and pepper shakers and a sister who checks in every day. From behind lace curtains, Mrs. Kitt peers at the avenue with her terrier, Max, watching the houses get bigger, the residents younger.
It’s a brisk March evening. I leave 12 hours of “Mommymommylookblocksmommyfixmommywaaah” and inhale the luxurious silence of these streets. A pickup truck with violet lights under the chassis screeches by, momentarily stealing my peace. I spy a handful of boys on BMX bikes jumping curbs, a couple of old garages that look like horse stables, three young people playing piano in three different houses, and a middle- aged man with a paunch, pulling a loaf of bread from a deep freeze in a basement apartment.
I hear a train wail nearby. The Canadian Pacific Railway station about 10 blocks northeast is still a busy place, transporting freight between Edmonton and Calgary. You can hear the trains in summer when the windows are open, the rumbling engines, that unmistakable ring of the coupling. They are old sounds.
The large rail yards came in handy as a reference point when consulting early aerial photographs of Edmonton, searching for my neighbourhood, my avenue, and a tiny dot on the corner—my house. Kim Christie-Milley came in handy, too. A patient archivist with unbridled enthusiasm, she helped me with sources, and didn’t even get mad when, like a ham-fisted jackass, I ripped a page in one of the Henderson’s directories. I asked sheepishly for tape and she just shook her head. Tape’s not allowed. “We always say just treat them like you would your grandmother,” she said sweetly. “And try not to lick your fingers to turn the pages.” It’s only later I see the big sign which says, “These books are very fragile. Please handle with extreme care.” We’re not accustomed to being careful anymore. We assume everything can be replaced. But when some things get lost, they stay lost.
I don’t know exactly when my house was built and by whom. Maybe it was moved. Maybe it was just renumbered. Maybe it really was built in 1935 without a permit. I’m resigned to let the past go and face the present—the place needs a bit of work. The porch could use some paint and the roof is looking slightly concave. But I’ve met most of my neighbours now and I’m hoping I can borrow their tools. I also hope to gather some gardening tips from Julie and Irene.
I’m getting to know other new moms. We share triumphs and failures at the playground while our children eat sand and hoard one another’s toys.
We all say the same thing: how grateful we are to have purchased a house before the big boom, because we probably couldn’t afford to buy a house here today. And how maybe we’ll stay in Allendale a while longer.
Freelance writer and former reporter Lisa Gregoire lives in an old Allendale house with her husband and twin daughters.