Purple City: An Edmonton Tradition

If you went to high school in Edmonton, you almost certainly know about “Purple City.”

It’s the name for the nighttime game that involves staring at the floodlights at the Legislature for about a minute, looking up and seeing everything turn purple.

Everything. The lights of the Legislature, the office towers nearby, the Centennial flame on the south side of the grounds. For about half a minute, everything looks like it rained Welch’s.

But if you aren’t from Edmonton and no one from this city has taken you to do it, you’ve probably never heard of this decades-old tradition. What’s more, your Edmonton friends will be surprised you’ve never heard of it, because for them it’s just something they assume everybody knows about.

“Purple City” is so common here that it has an entry on the Urban Dictionary website. It’s not the first entry — that honour goes to a rap crew which took its name from a Harlem neighborhood that’s also nicknamed Purple City. But the entry that follows describes the process of staring at lights and notes that it’s done at the Alberta Legislature.

Very little else has been written about, though. And any time it’s mentioned in a newspaper article, interview, or blog, it’s never really explained what “Purple City” is. You’re just expected to know, almost in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way.

Perhaps the most curious thing about “Purple City” is that it’s really just an Edmonton thing. Aside from Winnipeg, where Google notes a mention or two of it being done at the Manitoba Legislature, it’s not a common activity at any other provincial building or historic site in Canada.

In Halifax, the legislature has floodlights, but both they and the building are behind a gate that’s locked at night. The city’s Citadel is open after hours and offers beautiful views of Halifax and its harbour, but it lacks lights.

The Newfoundland and Labrador legislature building has floodlights and the grounds aren’t fenced, but the building itself dates from 1959 and wouldn’t be pretty to look at even if it was purple. (Think of our former Federal Building as a ziggurat made of tan bricks with a pointy top.)

Cabot Tower on Signal Hill in St. John’s is pretty, historic, and is lit by floodlights. But it’s a long, steep, windy hike to the top, and the people who drive there in the evening usually park their cars and, well, park.

Calls to the security desks at all these facilities about “Purple City” were met with surprise, bemusement, and slightly smug airs that the youth of their cities were a tad more sophisticated than Edmonton’s. The lone exception to this is was a call to Mount Royal Park in Montreal, which is a place so popular with young people at night that in the 1950s Mayor Jean Drapeau ordered trees and bushes cut so amorous couple would stop having sex there.

Gabrielle Korn, with the Friends of Mount Royal Park Society, says brighter floodlights were recently installed at the park’s monument to George-Etienne Cartier, but no one seems interested in staring at them.

The Legislature grounds are pretty in the Summer and winter, and the security guards are polite to you even if you’re stoned. You can almost see why Nils Edenloff, an Alberta songwriter living in Toronto, penned the following lyrics about homesickness for his band Rural Alberta Advantage’s 2008 song “Edmonton”:

Baby then again,
Under the lights at the lights at the Leg,
And we will burn our eyes,
Seeking out these purple nights.

Story by Rob Drinkwater, excerpted from GigCity, used with permission.

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