31 October 2008

Prince Albert, Saskatchewan

Tim Atherton
After being established in 1866 Prince Albert experienced early success and prosperity, but this turned out to be a fleeting and often temporary experience. The Canadian Pacific Railway chose a more southerly route that sidelined the city. When the important institutions were shared out, Prince Albert lost the university to Saskatoon and got the penitentiary instead. Since then, the city’s fortunes may rise and fall – but never quite far enough to be disastrous or truly prosperous.
So, downtown Prince Albert and its Central Avenue didn’t undergo all the periodic changes that other prairie cities went through. And now the central core can either appear mildly depressed – following the closure of the Weyerhaeuser pulp mill – or, a year later, now optimistic with the potential of a diamond mine from DeBeers, the mood judged by the opening of the new cappuccino bar.
Walking Central Avenue you find yourself going from the brand new hopeful and contemporary Forestry Centre to pre-First World War stone faced bank buildings to false-fronted early twentieth century shop-fronts to the flourishes of tinwork frontages and Prairie Historicism all within a couple of blocks.
Big wall-sized mid-twentieth century advertisements still remain painted on brick-sided buildings for O-Pee-Chee chewing gum and Old Chum Tobacco, faded almost to transparency. Elaborate cornices and touches of Romanesque are noticed if you take the time to look around.
Along with this, the post-modern migration – even in such a small city – from centre to edge continues unabated. The first generation of malls, dying and almost empty, are now being replaced by new parking-lot surrounded mega-stores – the home building/lifestyle supplies stores, the super-Walmarts, competing supermarkets and the drug store chains that now sell everything from cough syrup to milk to summer garden supplies.
John Szarkowski, Director of Photography, Museum of Modern Art said, ‘these pictures have a kind of fragile, tentative beauty that I associate with such northern places (including my own home town) where the idea of civilisation itself seems an experiment, on probationary status’.
In Prince Albert the grain elevator just hangs on and civilisation here does indeed often seem to be on probationary status, still an experiment.

Atherton, Tim. 'Prince Albert, Saskatchewan' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Tim Atherton and On Site review

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