A simple yellow sign on the doorway of Divine clothing store in Old Strathcona reads: “Sorry. Divine is no longer in business. Thanks to all of our customers for the last 25 years.”
Divine’s quaint basement and eclectic sales staff has attracted a diversity of customers over the years, all while providing an alternative shopping experience and bold fashion choices. While half of the store consisted of vintage clothing and accessories, the other half carried new items by independent and local designers. In addition to being a clothing store, it also offered affordable piercing and tattoo services. At first glance, the store may appear to be just a hole in the wall with a fluorescent sign. But after walking inside for a bit, it’s understandable why it holds a solid customer base. With Divine on Whyte Ave. now closed, it’s apparent that local and independent businesses are finding it difficult to stick around as larger corporations slowly creep in to replace them.
With plenty of yoga studios, trendy bars and local shops, Old Strathcona is repeatedly considered one of the top neighbourhoods in Edmonton. Though many retro and consignment stores have disappeared in recent years, other local vintage stores still stand on Whyte Ave: Decadence on 107th St. by the university; Red Pony Consignment on 101 St. and The Junque Cellar on 104 St. are a few that have currently set up shop in the area. Websites like live-local.ca also promote Edmonton’s local shops, eateries and entertainment — several of which are still located on Whyte Ave. I personally consider Old Strathcona to be one of the most vibrant parts of Edmonton, but sadly, it’s becoming increasingly less authentic. Bookstores and gift shops have also been experiencing a turbulent time as of late. Similar to Divine, shops such as Greenwoods and Untitled Bookshop have recently closed. Though some bookshops and vintage stores still remain in Old Strathcona, they’re becoming increasingly scarce.
The replacement of many owner-operated businesses on Whyte Ave. with chains may eventually create another unwelcoming shopping district without character or energy. The heart of Whyte Ave., around 104 Street and 82 Avenue, already holds four major chains: Starbucks, a “Scottish” bar named The Tilted Kilt, Second Cup and the infamous ice cream giant, Dairy Queen. With Whyte’s popularity still on to increase, it’s not a stretch to infer that it’s also causing higher rent prices. Perhaps local businesses currently residing in Old Strathcona are finding it more difficult to afford the pricey rates. In any case, one can only hope Divine is replaced with something local — not another Starbucks or Dairy Queen.
As a former employee of Travel Alberta, I always suggested that visitors of Edmonton check out Old Strathcona in lieu of more popular places like West Edmonton Mall. Old Strathcona is a historical district filled with culture, character and community. At the Saturday Farmers Market, you can witness moms attempting to be bohemian versions of Martha Stewart. At the Fringe Festival in the summer, you can watch hundreds of world-renowned performers and playwrights demonstrate their talents. I firmly believe that Old Strathcona is one of the hottest spots for entertainment and nightlife in Edmonton, yet although there are plenty of independent coffee shops, notable dive bars and artsy festivals, there still seems to be a gradual corporate invasion happening.
If Old Strathcona continues to move towards a more corporate culture, it won’t have much artistic substance left. If all the independent bookstores, clothing stores and music venues disappear from Whyte Ave., what will make Edmonton different from any other city? Though some nightlife is worth checking out, the sad truth is that Whyte Ave.’s identity is slowly being enveloped by corporate hot shots with liquor licenses. An avenue lacking culture or identity is not an avenue that anyone would find remotely interesting.
With hard work from citizens in the area and organizations like the Old Strathcona Business Association and the local community, Whyte Ave. and Old Strathcona can sustain some of the dignity that it has left before it becomes just another uninspired neighbourhood.