Edmonton:Calgary::Austin:Houston

Or “Edmonton is to Calgary as Austin is to Houston.” (Can’t remember how this form is called but it’s pretty common.)

At the risk of inflaming some city rivalries, I propose that Edmonton and Austin might be functionally equivalent cities in their respective contexts. I say this without having been to Alberta or even to Houston. But I get the feeling my analogy isn’t too far off.

An newspaper article about Edmonton confirmed my earlier suspicion (been thinking about this for a while, actually).

Alberta and Texas have several things in common, including cattle and oil (along with cultural correlates like rodeo and external signs of wealth). Texans seem to know relatively little about Alberta but I get the impression Albertans can relate to some dimensions of Texas culture. Possibly more than most other Canadians.

Some Albertans I’ve met in the past have described Calgary and Edmonton as radically different cities. One (Calgary, I assume) is taken to be quite representative of the province as a whole, including its financial potential. Edmonton, on the other hand, was taken as a “different” city from the rest of the province. If, as that newspaper article implies, Edmonton used to be Alberta’s “cultural capital,” it all seems to make sense, to me. Even if it’s not that accurate. Significance and truth are different things.

Alberta as a whole is likely to be misunderstood by the rest of Canada. Typically, at least in the East, that province is perceived as the Canadian equivalent to the (legendary) “American Old West” (complete with cowboy hats). I’m certainly not saying that this association is accurate, especially given the level of inaccuracy involved in images of the “American Old West” in movies and literature. But I think that, in the Easterners’ skewed perception of Alberta, images from Western movies are more prominent than those of UofA. My feeling is that Edmonton is somewhat further from this “Western” stereotype than Calgary is. Yet both cities certainly have their own “personalities,” far away from stereotypes.

(As an aside. It’s customary for me to address stereotypes on diverse occasions. I know I’m walking on eggshells. My attitude is that stereotypes are important because they inform relationships between groups of people. I don’t condone stereotypes but I do enjoy taking them apart.)

Coming back to Texas. Like Alberta, it seems to be misunderstood by the rest of the country. And while the “American Old West” stereotypes are quite inaccurate, many people throughout North America (and even Europe) do perceive Texas through the “Western” lens. Several comments made by Austinites and visitors to Austin have demonstrated how far Austin is considered to be from the Western stereotypes. My impressions is that the Texas capital’s unofficial motto of “Keep Austin Weird” (used as a slogan for local businesses) partly refers to Austin’s eccentricity by opposition to stereotypes about Texas. Not exclusively, but partly. At least, this is the impression I get from intellectuals who talk about Austin.

So, both Edmonton and Austin might be cities which are specifically trying to break away from regional stereotypes. They both host important festivals with themes of marginality or independence.  As it so happens, both cities are capitals and neither city is the largest in its region. They both have important universities which have traditionally been better-known than universities in their respective rival cities. And they seem to be unofficial sister cities.

Now, how about Calgary and Houston? Well… Both are big oil cities. Does that mean anything? I really can’t tell. People seem to assume a lot from these broad impressions about cities. And I’m quite convinced that these assumptions eventually imply the influx of people who are seeking a specific lifestyle. My guess would be that both Calgary and Houston may attract people who enjoy the same kind of thing, including driving and attending rodeos. (I’m only half-joking.)

No idea about Edmonton on this point but I must say that Austin attracts drivers. Of SUVs. As a compulsive pedestrian, I perceive a disconnect between the “absolute necessity” of having a car in Austin and the ideals many Austinites seem to have about pedestrian-friendly lifestyle. As compared to Boston, Montreal, or even Chicago, Austin is not a pedestrian-friendly city. Some people want to change this state of things but it’s possible that their efforts are doomed unless they carefully assess the situation.

Going back to my original analogy… I would add New Brunswick to the mix. Fredericton is like Austin and Edmonton while Saint John is like Houston and Calgary. Funny that Saint John should be an oil city the site of a major oil conglomerate [Edit 11/04/08 1:11:21 PM] and that Fredericton should be a capital. But I mean it more in terms of cultural associations.

The pattern doesn’t apply everywhere. It’d be very hard to fit cities in most other parts of North America or Europe in the model. In fact, I’m convinced that people will describe, in detail, how wrong I am in my associations between the four cities in the title.

But I still find it a fun thing to talk about.

Although I really enjoyed Fredericton and I’m currently enjoying life in Austin, I don’t mean to say that I’d dislike Calgary, Houston, or any other city. I feel that I can live in just about any city and, in the ten or so cities where I’ve lived for at least a month in the past eight years, I’m not always sure which I preferred. Actually, chances are that what I can do in a city is much more important than the city itself, in terms of my liking the locale.

Ah, well…

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

7 responses to “Edmonton:Calgary::Austin:Houston

  • enkerli

    @Andrew Thanks for the perspective!
    Modesty, diplomacy, and class all work quite well, for me.😉

  • andrew

    I must say, scott’s view point was right on. he touches on the real facts of the two cities.

    I wish i could go on about how much edmonton surpasses calgary in many aspects of being a great city, but then i would sound like a “loud, brash and boastful” calgarian, a true opposite of the modest, diplomatic and classy edmontonian.

  • PHP #1: Austin, TX (USA) « The Compulsive Pedestrian

    […] I’ve blogged somewhat extensively about Austin and even mentioned both its transit system and its opportunities for pedestrian living on my main blog. Furthermore, carfree living has been a topic of discussion, here in town, and […]

  • enkerli

    @Laura Answered through email but I will elaborate through my new pedestrian blog.

  • lauratex

    Unfortunately, I think because Texas is so huge and there are no natural limits on growth, there will always be suburbs that require cars… until oil gets too expensive, perhaps…

    What do you suggest in terms of “assessing the situation” of pedestrian improvements in Austin? I also want it to be more pedestrian friendly and my current strategy is to forego the larger house a bit further out (and therefore not as close to things taht are worth walking to) for a smaller house in the central part of the city. But that is a personal strategy. I also am seeking employment and may not have very good options to commute besides by car.

  • enkerli

    @Scott
    Thanks for the insight!
    My guess is you’re a Calgary guy…😉
    Though your insight seems to contradict what I was saying about Edmonton’s distance from AB culture, what you say confirms a suspicion I have. That the AB culture Easterners have in mind is inaccurate and corresponds more to Calgary than to Edmonton.
    What’s funny is that the same may be true of Austin. I didn’t travel much across the state but I get the definite impression that there’s a lot of Texas in Austin in terms of (yes, really!) openness, eccentricity, support for local businesses, etc. Not to mention “rugged individualism” but not in a partisan politics sense. More in a “small-l libertarian” sense.
    On the other hand, you don’t see cowboys, farmheads and foresters within the Austin city limits, much.

  • Scott Thompson

    Calgary is a wonderful USAian city (over 75,000 USA citizens make it their home). Very unlike the rest of Alberta, it is a one-horse town, and very “George Bush”, with a black and white civic attitude, you’re either for the corporate masters and ruling political party or you are by default against them. Calgary has only voted for for one political party for decades, that being the Reform/Alliance/Conservative party. Calgary is efficient, loud, brash and boastful. Calgary has one big festival/exhibition, the Calgary Stampede, The Stampede is huge, it is famous, but the rest of the year is desolate. Calgary let its philharmonic orchestrat go bankrupt. Calgary has a great zoo. Finally, the city does a super job in perpetuating and projecting the “cowboy” “wild west” myth/image but you never see real cowboys or oil workers in that city anymore. Instead it is full of US Oil company subsidary executives, bankers and the range of support companies those sectors generate – lawyers, accountant, ad agency people.

    Edmonton is a wonderful Canadian city, much more like the rest of Alberta and Canada in terms of values, tolerance, diversity and respect. Edmontonians discuss, debate and see a continuum of shades of grey in issues. Edmonton is reserved, self-depricating, ponderous and a little too shy for its own good. Edmonton’s voting has reflected it’s diversity and it citizens have elected a variety of liberals, new democrats and conservatives over the past 2 decades. Edmonton has a myriad of festivals and exhibitions that run from May through September: The Fringe Festival (North America’s largest theatre event, the International Childrens Festival, the Street Performers Festival, International Jazz Festival, Blues Fest, the Works (visual arts), the Candian Finals Rodeo Edmonton, Folk Festival (Rolling Stone says it is one fo the top 10 festivals on the continent), the Edmontoton Coliseum (Rexall Place) is the 5th busiest entertainment venue in North America and 13th busient in the World. At one point, Edmonton had two symphony orchestras. Edmonton’s zoo is not nearly as nice as Calgary’s. Finally, Edmonton is the geographic, political and increasingly, manufacturing heart of Albert. As the largest North American city furthest north, ironically, it is Edmonton that is the true frontier, with real cowboys, real rigpigs, farm hands and foresters.

    Tis an amazing province.

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