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Seasons and Sport Heritage

Last year on this blog I wrote about sensing sport heritage, that is to say that there is a particular form of sensuality associated with sport heritage which is more than just seeing or touching a sporting place or artefact. Many heritages, as we know, are more personal in nature and link to individual pasts and memories, particularly from childhood. Things like smell and taste are part of our sporting pasts, and can take us back to particular sporting experiences. One of my students, for example, recently related a story about how drinking hot chocolate immediately reminded her of being at a hockey rink in her home in Vermont. For her, hot chocolate will always be linked to winters at the rink, and she found that it triggered a very specific form of nostalgia for her.

Perhaps less specific than links to specific senses are the associations of sports with the natural calendar; that there is an almost visceral connection between seasons and particular sports. Of course, particular sports must be played at particular times of the year, although with our ability to control and create artificial environments, weather can be eliminated or controlled in sporting environments in many cases. No, this is to say that watching or participating in certain sports simply belong to the wider heritage of a particular season; that certain sports simply belong at particular times of year. Of course, we may simply be conditioned to expect that particular sports belong at certain times of the year – what is commonly called institutional seasonality. American football is associated with the Fall, and though it feels as though it ought to be associated with leaves and cooler temperatures and autumn holidays like Thanksgiving, the institutional structure of it simply puts it at a certain time of year. Football could, of course, just as easily be played in the spring – but, because of its institutional structure, we associate the sport with the broader markers of the season. Other sports, like baseball, have – in a sense – a dual season – as Ken Burns says (and to paraphrase), baseball gives us the promise of spring and the harsh realities of fall. And, yet, there is something wholly appropriate about the traditions associated with Opening Day in baseball – normally one of the most anticipated days in the American sporting calendar – in large part because of the promise of spring renewal. Similarly, I have friends and colleagues who adore October baseball, not only because it is the playoffs but because the feel of the games are part of the tradition; that summer has clearly past, and winter is on the horizon, but the playoffs occupy that beautiful liminal space in-between. As a colleague said to me earlier this month, “it just smells like October baseball.” Baseball may even have a third season, the offseason where many of the moves and transactions take place, which – associating it with cold, winter nights – is called the “hot stove” which “calls up images of baseball fans gathering around a hot stove during the cold winter months, discussing their favorite baseball teams and players.

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A few years back, I had a paper published about the development of community league hockey rinks in Edmonton. Although the paper was largely a historical look at gender and recreation, the paper was – in part – framed around the winter-based tropes that are part and parcel of the outdoor hockey experience. Of course, cold, winter weather is necessary to have outdoor hockey but, of course, the rink and the season associated with this sporting practice are part of broader identities. I liberally quoted from both academic and popular sources that framed the rink as, in part, “a key signifier of our national claims on winter and northernness, of our identity as a wholesome, hardy people. Rosy- cheeked children play shinny against a prairie sky, a city skyline, a ridge of pines. Cold winds are vanquished by the swoosh and cut of a blade, the thwack of a frozen puck on a stick. A national fairy tale.” In this, the sport cannot be separated from the season; they are both part and parcel of the traditions and heritages of certain times of year.

Of course, like any heritage, the linking of sport and particular times of year are contextual and, perhaps, driven by media discourses. The infamous – and often parodied – introduction of The Masters golf tournament by Jim Nantz has constructed and solidified an impression of spring in the South. Of course, in the global media age, many of these impressions of particular times of year are mobile, and may resonate with people who have never directly experienced these conditions – but feel attached and attracted to them, nevertheless. Growing up in Canada, the outdoor rink was simply part of who we were – though, now, through the proliferation of outdoor hockey events, many fans may now see these kinds of environments as part of their heritage too – even if they are relatively foreign to them.

However, we ought to consider these broader environments – seasons, temperature, and weather – as part of sport heritage. In many cases, they are as important in creating and constructing the sporting past as buildings and artefacts.

Section K, Row 14

For the better part of my life, I have been fascinated with sports stadiums.

I have been fascinated with sports stadiums not so much for how they are operated, or constructed, or designed – but, rather, that sports stadiums are somehow meaningful. They are, as geographer John Bale argues, more than just utilitarian structures where games are played. We have imbued sports stadiums with particular meanings, values, and identities that we don’t do for many other places, save perhaps for our own childhood homes or monuments of national importance. We are, to cite another geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, topophilic about them – that is to say, we speak of them as very special places that, in many cases, we love.

Indeed, this interest in the meanings of sports stadiums has driven much of my research in sport heritage, looking at why millions of people will travel thousands of miles simply to tour empty sports venues. In some cases, people go to them because of a famous event happened there, or a famous team or athlete plays there. Other times, it is because the stadium is particularly old, or has a unique design or aesthetics. But, often, the love of sports venues is because there is a personal connection to them – of games seen, and people we’ve gone to see them with.

I’ve been very fortunate to tour numerous globally famous stadiums and, while many of them are important to me personally, few are as particularly special to me as Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Coliseum, Skyreach Centre) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – which is most famous for being the home of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club.

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This week sees the final Oilers game played at Rexall Place, as the Oilers are moving to a new arena next season. The future of Rexall Place has not yet been determined though, whether it is renovated or demolished, it will have little resemblance to it’s current form.

One of the ironic aspects of remembering Rexall Place, particularly in using terms like topophilla about it, is actually just how architecturally unremarkable it is. It is the epitome of the placeless, utilitarian venue both inside and out.

And, yet, I can safely argue it probably is the most important symbol of personal heritage to me. It is a repository of so many memories, of events of all sorts – not just hockey – seen with so many loved ones. I can still vaguely remember my first game, and though the details of the game itself are somewhat lost (1980 or 1981, maybe. Definitely against the Bruins. And, I think, a 2-2 tie), I went with my dad, sat at centre ice about halfway up in the 200s (or the Blues, as we called them), from tickets he had bought from a scalper outside the door. I remember seeing demolition derbys at the summer fair with my family, Hulk Hogan wrestling cards with my best friend, innumerable hard rock and heavy metal concerts with high school buddies. But, inevitably, I come back to the hockey games, because those were the ones I still remember.

And, I was at some pretty famous games: Game Five versus the Islanders in 1984 when they won their first Stanley Cup, and the relocated-from-Boston Game Four in 1988 when they won their fourth Stanley Cup. I should have seen them win the Cup in at Game Five in the 1987 Cup Finals as well – but, the Philadelphia Flyers had other ideas, though my brother got to see them win it in Game Seven a few days later. I was also at the infamous miss the empty net game, and the incredible Game Six victory over Detroit in the 2006 Cup run.  There were, of course, many games – many seasons, even – that blur into memory. During the mid 1990s, when the building was half-full, my friend and I became defacto season ticket holders, as tickets were in very low demand and very inexpensive to obtain (not to mention we could sit almost anywhere we wanted).

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More than anything, though, I remember who I went with and, more than anything, those are the memories I have when I think about Rexall Place. My mother, father, and brother are who I think of most, and how hockey games were some of my best family memories growing up. Into my 20s and 30s, it was friends and girlfriends, when the hockey game was part of a night on the town.

I considered coming back to Edmonton this season, just to see Rexall Place one more time. My brother and I, in particular, thought we would try and get some tickets near where our father’s tickets were in the 1980s – Section K, Row 14. Neither Section K or Row 14 exist anymore, the red seats removed during a mid 90s renovation, but I decided against going back. Perhaps because hockey is not necessarily a large part of my life anymore, or maybe because one last visit seemed unnecessary, I simply decided it wasn’t worth it. But I did slightly regret not going back one more time, just to be with my people in a place that meant so much to me for so long.

However, last week, it all came around full circle. My wife and son went up to Edmonton to visit friends and family, and she decided to take our hockey-obsessed boy – along with my parents – for his first visit to the old rink.

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My son, born and raised in South Carolina, experiencing a place that meant so much to me, along with the people who took me for so many years. This is the way it should end.

Farewell Rexall Place.

 

 

 

Commemorating the Discarded Stadium

As many sports organizations have realized, heritage is an asset that can be used for a variety of needs and in numerous circumstances. We have seen many kinds of ways heritage have been used in sports, from throwback apparel and uniforms to retro stadiums to nostalgia-based events and experiences (like fantasy camps). Many teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, also view their historic stadiums as assets which provide both cultural capital as well as economic benefits (the Red Sox have the second highest revenue generating ballpark in MLB, despite the capacity, in large part because of Fenway’s history and heritage).

When a team moves venues, often for economic reasons, there is normally a celebration of the old venue. Often, as in the case of Yankee Stadium, Anfield, or the Montreal Forum, the old stadium was beloved and reflect the fact that – paraphrasing sports geographer John Bale – sports stadiums are more than utilitarian structures and many supporters feel a strong sense of attachment to them. In the case of both the new Yankee Stadium and the Molson Centre (which replaced the Montreal Forum), care was taken to provide a blend of old and new – where the new venue has either direct references or explicit echoes to the previous stadium (as Anouk Belanger notes, the Montreal Canadiens had a parade of ghosts from one venue to the other). There was generally an acknowledgment by the teams that, though fans loved the old venue, the new venue would provide the club much needed benefits while also maintaining the sense of place and tradition.

However, this year there are two examples of teams celebrating the final seasons at venues that – to employ an overused phrase – they “threw under the bus.” The Edmonton Oilers, who are set to move to the new Rogers Place in Fall of 2016, are celebrating the final season in their longtime home, Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum; Edmonton Coliseum; Skyreach Centre).

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Rexall Place, architecturally, is unimpressive, but as a venue that has hosted numerous notable events – particularly as a hockey venue – it undoubtedly has broad historic value. However, in securing a new arena deal, the arena was denigrated as “antiquated and outdated“. In fact, there appears to have been little mention that the venue had any heritage value at all until the “Farewell Season” commemorations were announced.

Similarly, the Atlanta Braves are set to commemorate the final season at Turner Field during the 2016 season.

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The Braves inherited Turner Field, as it was previously built for the 1996 Olympics then converted to a baseball stadium. As such, the Braves were never particularly fond of the stadium or location, and so a celebration of the final year at a (shockingly recent) venue is a bit odd.

Celebrating the final season at a venue can have benefits for both team and spectator. For the team, it can provide an additional revenue stream through memorabilia, as well as an incentive to come to games that season. For fans, it allows them to experience the venue one more time, relive memories, and provides a transition to the new stadium. The tone of both the Oilers and Braves commemorations are a little different though, in that neither organization will shed a tear for their old venues given the apathy and, in the Oilers case, hostility towards their former homes. While I suspect the teams would have had commemorations anyway, the fact that both are teams have had or are expected to have little success in their final seasons, the heritage angle to “visit one last time” is probably an effective motivator for fans to go to games, purchase merchandise, and perhaps acquire memorabilia like seats, turf, signage and the like after the final out/whistle. It is the one season when, very likely, “just being there” rather than victories is incentive enough for fans to turn out. That said, these two celebrations this year come across as slightly hollow, particularly when compared to how other teams have seemingly handled these occasions.

The Sport Heritage Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us and, if you have someone in your life with an interest in sport heritage, gift buying can be difficult and quite expensive.  Of course, there are many gift options in terms of memorabilia, autographs, and the like – though, often times, these can be costly and sometimes difficult to obtain depending on the item. Other sport heritage-related gifts – such as attending a fantasy camp or an historic event like the Masters golf tournament or Wimbledon – can be equally expensive and inaccessible to all but a wealthy few.

Not to fear, however, as we have some gift suggestions for the sport heritage person in your life to suit both your budget and their interests!

Art

Though there are many options in the art/sport heritage landscape, the work of Paine Proffitt is particularly notable. I first encountered his work in the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham Stadium back in 2007 when on a research project, and I was thrilled to see that he is still producing magnificent artwork. Although much of his current work is based in English football, as an ex-pat American he also covers North American sports such as baseball and ice hockey. Visit his website at www.painproffitt.com – you’ll be pleased you did.

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(Some examples of Paine Proffitt‘s outstanding artwork.)

Apparel 

Retro and throwback sports jerseys and apparel are fairly common now, but weren’t always so. Several companies – most notably Ebbets Field Flannels and the Old Fashioned Football Shirt Company (or TOFFS) – now produce sports apparel from bygone eras, or from long forgotten teams, often in era-specific fabric (I have a replica 1950s canvas football jersey from TOFFS). I was amazed at some of the replica items of truly quirky teams and eras that these companies reproduce. For example, Ebbets Field Flannels, though mainly reproducing baseball apparel from various minor league teams from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, produced a replica jersey from the Edmonton Flyers – a  semi-pro hockey team that most people in my hometown of Edmonton had probably long forgotten existed. Much like Paine Proffitt’s artwork, people interested in throwback sports apparel would have a field day looking at all of the reproduction items available.

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Books and other reading material 

There are many, many, many sport history books released during the holiday season, as books are an easy fall-back as gifts. Of course, there are also several academic sport heritage books as well, some of which were covered in a previous post. However, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the holiday season is the best time to dream about the spring and summer to come. Few things are more enjoyable to think about during the cold winter months than a perfect day at the cricket ground and, for that, Wisden is your spot. This time of year, there are many cricket books on sale at Wisden – not the least of which is the famous Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Memberships

Memberships to sports museums, halls of fame, and sports clubs make some of the best gifts. Even if the recipient is not living near the museum or club, it provides an opportunity to both provide support as well as give a sense of being a part of the organization. Most museums and halls of fame provide various levels of membership – including the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – while some sports clubs have memberships for patrons living away or abroad, such as Kent Cricket’s affordable “13th Man” club membership.

Donations

For the sport heritage aficionado who has it all, donations to organizations involved in the preservation and interpretation of sporting heritage make wonderful gifts. The International Sports Heritage Association has a list of member organizations – perhaps find one in a local area and provide a one-time or on-going donation as a gift. Another possibility are donations to organizations – such as the excellent Sporting Memories Network – that use the sporting past to tackle major health issues such as dementia and depression.

Letting Go: The De-heritagization of the Sporting Past

One of the topics that has occupied heritage studies research lately is the process of heritagization; that is to say, the process whereby various pasts are constructed in the present to address a contemporary need, issue or circumstance.  As any heritage studies scholar will (or, perhaps, should) know, heritage is about the present and an imagined future – it is never about the past.  We leave the past to historians and archaeologists to critically assess.

What we don’t often talk about is de-heritagization; that is, when a heritage is no longer useful in the present and becomes part of, to employ an overused phrase, “the dustbin of history.” We talk of heritages changing, or heritages being malleable, but rarely of heritages simply becoming, for lack of a better term, “not heritage.” Perhaps in some cases – such as when a post-colonial regime looks to new national symbols, for example – heritage truly does transform into materials reserved for the historian or archaeologist. In any event, they are no longer part of our contemporary needs – we no longer use them and, as such, they are no longer heritage.

These thoughts came to me recently when I began to consider aspects of my personal sporting heritage and, in particular, how they became simply a part of my personal history and not my contemporary identity.  The first was when I was in my hometown of Edmonton recently shopping for a used pair of hockey skates.  I was a goaltender for most of my life, including through all of my adulthood, and made certain I brought my goaltending equipment with me to South Carolina seven years ago.  However, the lack of local hockey opportunities coupled with a busy career and home life meant that continuing to play goal – a central part of my identity throughout my life – was not an option.  I certainly thought about playing at times, to the point that I found out my goalie skates had fallen into disrepair and were no longer useable. When I looked for a replacement pair of skates a few weeks ago, I immediately went to the goalie skates when it dawned on me: I am no longer a goaltender, and will never be again. Most of my equipment – and not just my skates – have fallen into disrepair, I have little desire to replace my equipment and, though I might occasionally pine for another game in net, I am quite alright with that part of my sporting life being over.  Simply put, being a goaltender is no longer part of my contemporary identity and has ceased (for the time being) to be part of my heritage.  This is not to say that it won’t be resurrected as heritage at some point – if my son takes up goaltending, for example, we’ll probably talk about our family’s goaltending heritage.  But, for now, it is simply a part of my past.

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Similarly, I was recently in Winnipeg, Manitoba when I came across the many advertisements for the city’s NHL hockey team, the Jets.  The Jets were, of course, the Atlanta Thrashers at one point – and I was a Thrashers season ticket holder. The franchise’s move to Winnipeg was personally quite difficult. I had come to strongly identify myself as a Thrashers fan, and going to games in Atlanta was one of the ways I came to embrace my new Southern home. I felt quite bitter towards the sport, league, and fans of the Jets for some time. Being in Winnipeg, however, and seeing all of those Jets banners didn’t really hurt anymore.  While I can’t say I’ll ever become a fan, they became just another team, and my Thrashers fandom became simply part of my biography and, again, not my identity.

These two personal examples, though hardly earth-shattering, made me think not just about how something becomes heritage, but how we let particular heritages go.  Again, we see the letting go of heritage all the time – and it can frequently be a painful and divisive process.  And, certainly, some heritages must change and become “history” – for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons. However, I think it is worth investigating the de-heritagization process, particularly in sport. Sport heritage no longer used is not heritage – by definition, it cannot be. I would like to say that there are, for example, Olympic cities in the act of forgetting or “de-heritagizing” – perhaps through neglect, or simply through a new generation not being tied to the symbols of the old. Obviously, each generation creates its own sporting heritage and, perhaps, through the ephemeral creation and consumption of heritage, particular sporting legacies aren’t as durable as they once were.  In any event, my two recent personal examples highlighted to me that the idea of letting go of particular heritages is as important to understand as why we created them in the first place.

Me, Lee, and Stories as Sport Heritage

Sport heritage, like most any form of heritage, has many ingredients.  One of the more important aspects are personal memories, where we contextualize our own recollections in terms of broader contexts.  Sometimes this takes the role of a “where were you?” during an important event or moment, but often it is on a much smaller scale, where the heritage is much more at the family or community level.

In any event, a few months back the folks at the Edmonton City as Museum Project (ECAMP) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada asked me to contribute a submission to their website. ECAMP’s role, at present, is to act as a repository for the city’s intangible heritage – the histories, stories, memories, and lore that tell the city’s story – from the infamous to the intimate. I was born and raised in Edmonton and, as such, they felt I might be able to add something sport-based to their collection, particularly as I have been away from the city for a number of years.  Edmonton’s sporting heritage is vast, covering many different sports, athletes, and events throughout its history.  Some of this history, particularly those from the late 1970s through early 2000s are a part of my own story and heritage as well.  And, though I thought about doing a “where were you?” piece – or even a more objective heritage “moment” (such as recapping and recalling particularly famous sporting moments or events), I elected to go with the more community level heritage, and perhaps capture a time when the gulf between professional athletes and working class families wasn’t great at all.

My story, called Me and Lee, is unabashedly sentimental and, as a few former classmates have reminded me, may have happened differently or perhaps not even at all.  I have a strong memory of this particular piece of community lore and my reaction to it and, as a good friend reminded me, memory isn’t subject to facts (nor, often, is heritage).

If you would like to have a read (ECAMP’s website is open access and does not require subscription), please click the link here.

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Heritage and the Empty Stadium

There was an interesting blog post written by Dave Cournoyer at his site daveberta.ca recently about the future of Rexall Place in Edmonton, Canada.  For the initiated, Rexall Place (as it is currently named) was opened in the mid 1970s and, though it has hosted numerous concerts, performances, and sporting events in its 40 year history, it is most famous for being the long-time home of the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League (NHL).  In particular, the arena housed the Oilers during their “Glory Years” in the 1980s and early 1990s when, led by hockey superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and others, the team won five Stanley Cup championships in seven seasons.  The arena, arguably, has significant heritage value, in large part because of the Edmonton Oilers, though perhaps to a lesser extent because of aspects such as its architectural value, it role in other sporting events such as the annual Canadian Finals Rodeo, and its historical connection to the Northlands fair grounds.

From a individual view, Rexall Place has significant personal heritage value to me.  For decades, it was the place I went to see hockey games with my family.  In fact, I actually witnessed two of the Oilers Stanley Cup championships – in 1984 and 1988 – from our family’s season tickets in Section K, Row 14.  A number of years ago, while completing my doctorate at the University of Alberta, I got to play hockey on the “hallowed ice” of Rexall Place – which was exciting and thrilling and wonderful, even to a grown man.  Rexall Place was also where I went to concerts with friends, saw wrestling cards as a teenager, and had my father take me to an occasional monster truck show.  Simply put, the arena was part of the landscape of my growing up and living in Edmonton, and I suspect it has become an integral part of many Edmontonians’ personal heritage narratives over the past forty years.

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In 2016, the Edmonton Oilers will be leaving Rexall Place and moving to a brand new downtown arena. Cournoyer’s blog post explores some thoughts and issues associated with what happens to Rexall Place after the Oilers move.  As Cournoyer points out, there hasn’t been much thought about this issue, and argues that local residents have not been consulted as to the arena’s future or how the arena might be used after the Oilers leave.

I would add that, part of the consultation about the future of Rexall Place ought to address and assess it’s heritage value, in particular whether the arena’s heritage ought to be recognized and how this heritage recognition would take place.

Empty stadiums and arenas, particularly those with a clear heritage value, pose some very interesting challenges.  I argued, in my recent paper “Sport, heritage, and Tourism” in the Journal of Heritage Tourism that, perhaps what makes sport heritage unique is its link to a sense of perpetual play and performance:

…sport heritage appears to be a very distinct form of heritage, perhaps because of its broad dissemination and consumption, though perhaps more because of its corporal nature.  We have to continue to play sport, or support those who play, in order to create future sport heritage. The fact that sport heritage often does not fossilize, that it must continue to be made and remade through play and performance, is perhaps what gives it a distinctive place in the heritage and heritage tourism landscape.”

What this may mean for empty stadiums, in fact, is that they are essentially dead landscapes; that perhaps the heritage isn’t in the building itself but the relationship between the building/landscape, the spectators, and the game/performance.  Without games being played – in essence, generating new heritage – the buildings themselves may have limited heritage value.

Recognizing the heritage value of empty stadiums and arenas has taken different forms, with different levels of success.  In situ preservation is probably the least feasible option. Leaving aside ancient sporting monuments, such as the Colosseum in Rome, preservation for preservation’s sake would appear unlikely for any stadium.  There are places like Rickwood Field – the oldest baseball stadium in the United States – in Birmingham, Alabama which does not have a core tenant and is probably the best example of preservation for preservation’s sake.  That said, the stadium hosts dozens of events each year, from college baseball games and tournaments to memorabilia shows, so it is hardly a “mothballed” stadium.

Adaptive reuse of heritage stadiums and arenas is a popular option.  Both the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens have incorporated numerous heritage elements of the old arenas into new retail, real estate, and education spaces.  However, adaptive reuse is not always an option.  Tiger Stadium in Detroit was slated for a real estate redevelopment that would have incorporated the old stadium in the development, but plans fell through and the stadium was demolished.  Frequently, the old stadium sat adjacent to the new stadium, so some form of heritage markers were often used to denote where the previous stadium was after demolition. The “old” Yankee Stadium in New York is now a park next to new Yankee Stadium, and Fulton County Stadium is parking for the new Turner Field in Atlanta, with both examples denoting important markers from the old stadium in the new space (e.g.: location of home plate, etc.)  Sometimes, artefacts from the old building are incorporated into the new building.  The scoreboard from the old Omni Coliseum in Atlanta is situated in the foyer of the new Phillips Arena, for example.

Of course, many old arenas simply continue on without their core tenants, or perhaps find a different – and often lower tier – sports tenant.  The Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, once the home of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, continues as a concert venue, a site for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and is the home of the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League (WHL), a junior developmental hockey league.  As such, how the venue’s heritage is preserved or recognized may change as well.

In the discussions on the future of Rexall Place, the heritage of the venue should be raised – and, depending on the future use of the building, how the heritage is recognized will be a key issue.  I also think that the heritage of the venue isn’t just the Oilers, but encompasses many different forms – including personal heritages.  I would imagine that the venue will end up in some sort of adaptive reuse project – I simply can’t imagine it being preserved in situ, nor can I see it continue without its core tenant given the population size of Edmonton.  That said, I hope the good citizens of my former hometown consider a broad range of cases in how to use the venue going forward while still recognizing and acknowledging its heritage value.