Blast from the past: New app blends old and new in Edmonton

Taking a stroll down memory lane is taking on a new lens in Edmonton. 

On This Spot app includes 200 historic photos and 2 virtual walking tours

The Low Level Bridge and Hotel Macdonald are classic landmarks in Edmonton, seen here with modern high rises now in the backdrop. (Andrew Farris)

Taking a stroll down memory lane is taking on a new lens in Edmonton.

Two entrepreneurs from Vancouver worked with the City of Edmonton to develop a new app offering virtual walking tours of two historic areas. 

On This Spot app includes 200 photos of historic Edmonton and gives users the ability to superimpose their modern photos over the older ones. 

Andrew Farris and Christopher Reid created the app, the 15th version in Canada since the pair developed their first for Vancouver in 2016.

Farris said he wanted to find a way to share his passion for history, combining "then and now" photos to "get young people and people who aren't typically interested in history to get more engaged with it."

The photos include buildings that are still standing such as the McLeod Building and the Hotel Macdonald downtown. 

Others are structures that were destroyed or demolished such as the King Edward Hotel and the old courthouse.

The photo album includes views of 99th Street, 100th Street facing south and scenes of the Low Level and High Level bridges. 
A photo of modern-day Whyte Avenue is superimposed over a historical photo of a horse and buggy with the Dominion Hotel, still standing, in the background. (Andrew Farris)

Robert Geldart, a senior planner with the Heritage Planning Unit, was the city's point man on the project, helping provide written background on the sites. 

Geldart described the project as a unique, visual journey showing how Edmonton has changed. 

"We wanted to try something new to reach out to a different demographic — perhaps a younger demographic who do use the apps — and to tell a story in a different way and to spark interest in our heritage." 

The app includes two virtual walking tours, featuring the John Walter Museum and the early history of Strathcona.

Geldart said the goal is to show what this part of the city was like at the turn of the century. 
Completed in 1905, the provincial courthouse on 100th Street and 102nd Avenue was demolished in 1972 to make way for what is now the City Centre Mall. (Library and Archives Canada)

"Going to the Strathcona Hotel, seeing what the city looked like in the 1900s before it's paved, horse and buggy — a whole different kind of lifestyle." 

Geldart noted that Strathcona was its own city before it became part of Edmonton in 1912. 

"It's important to show Edmontonians where we came from — that's part of our history, it's part of our story, it's part of our DNA." 

He said if the app is successful, the city plans to expand the virtual walking tours to include downtown, Oliver and Highlands. 

David Ridley, executive director of the Edmonton Heritage Council, said the app could be used to raise more awareness about the city's history but noted the limitation of the walking tours to the settlement area. 

He said he'd like to see more complexity in the stories attached to the photos. 

"I think the possibilities here are fantastic for future additions," Ridley told CBC News Monday. 

For example, he said stories like protesters preventing a freeway from being built through Old Strathcona in the 1980s and the origins of the Fringe Festival would create a larger historical snapshot.

"If it works as a kind of doorway or a portal — a way to come into the experience and think about it, then there's always more work to be done to take people further along the road and how we can do a better job of preserving these resources and these stories."

Farris and Reid have created the app for 15 cities already and are working on 10 more, including Montreal and Saskatoon and Okotoks, Alta. 



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