MWAC in the Media

Misunderstood Mill Woods

As the suburb wins praise from within, a new study of the neighbourhood with a bad rep aims to set the record straight. Special Report by Elise Stolte

By Elise Stolte, May 6, 2012

There’s a certain stigma to Mill Woods, even now, more than 40 years since city bureaucrats first hatched the scheme to create a garden city and bring down housing prices.

Today, people praise the walking paths, proximity to a hospital and parks, and biking through the Minchau ravine.

But outside the area, some “people perceived Mill Woods as a violent place, and the amount of affordable housing as a negative,” said Catherine Cole, a historian who started work last fall on a five-year project to understand the development of Mill Woods.

“People see it as a poorer community. They see it as an immigrant community, ergo a place where people who aren’t immigrants don’t go,” Cole said. “This project is intended to find out what Mill Woods is really like, why it is the way it is. People living in Mill Woods will tell you they do like Mill Woods.”

Mill Woods was Edmonton’s first city-led development project. The municipal airport lands will be its second. That makes it a perfect time to study what really happened in Mill Woods, Cole said.

She won a $14,750 grant through the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues’ living local program to partner with several Mill Woods artists for the project. She also received a $25,000 grant from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation to start searching through the archives and recording oral histories from key players in the Mill Woods story – the chief of the Papaschase, former city planners, long-term residents and the heads of the ethnic and community groups who spent years fighting for better services in the growing community.

Mill Woods is now, by population, equivalent to the thirdlargest city in Alberta. It has about 25 neighbourhoods between Whitemud Drive and the Anthony Henday, east of Calgary Trail.

The community has a history of struggle and civic action. It was created on land that was first the Papaschase Indian reserve, then farmland for German and Russian immigrants, before it was bought up by the province for a land bank at a time when affordable housing was a national concern.

Edmonton was booming in the 1970s and many newcomers struggled to find a place to rent. Each time the city made lots available, they sold quickly. More than 100 people lined up overnight at City Hall for a chance to buy a discounted lot in the Lee Ridge neighbourhood.

At one point, lots were discounted 50 per cent, leading some residents to worry about high concentrations of affordable housing, Cole said.

The city prepared the roads and designed the neighbourhood with the best planning ideas of the time – curving roads, cul-de-sacs and crescents that were thought to slow traffic and make communities more walkable. But many of the planned walkways and parks were cut when the city allowed Mill Woods to expand faster than intended, Cole said. The promised schools were slow to come, and the community still doesn’t have its promised LRT link to downtown, although the city is now working on plans for that.

Cole found the archives full of newspaper clippings of parents fighting for schools, recreation centres, even postal service. One photo shows 96 children packed onto a city bus to attend school 10 kilometres away in Ritchie.

But the struggles made people meet and fight for something together, and the affordable housing attracted many different ethnic communities, which is another strength, said Jannie Edwards, a long-term resident whose children learned Spanish from friends.

Edwards misses public art and theatre space, but that will come slowly.

“Mill Woods has a kind of pioneering spirit to it,” said Edwards, a poet. “It was a raw community and it takes a while for culture to develop. You have to get your basics looked after first.”

Edwards’ involvement is part of Cole’s new approach to telling and researching history, which involves the community throughout the process of research and presents the information in many different ways. Her last project, an eightyeareffort with artistic director Don Bouzek of the Great Western Garment Company, resulted in a book, a play, travelling exhibit and a series of videos.

Cole brought Edwards and spoken-word artist Rod Loyola into the project under the living local grant. They started an artists’ collective and will be holding a cabaret night for Mill Woods musicians June 1 with everything from Indian dance to rap. Each participant will be asked to bring an artifact of life in Mill Woods to add to Cole’s collection, and the two poets are also preparing works to explain Mill Woods for a booth at the Canada Day festival July 1.

On Canada Day, they are hoping to encourage other ethnic and community groups to sign up and tell their own histories.

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