Purple City: an Edmonton tradition no one tells you about
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.
So it was for for Jay Rocque, 31, who moved to Edmonton in December and was recently strolling home from Old Strathcona with friends across the High Level Bridge. The group made their way south on the top of the bridge where the streetcar rails run and were confronted by the police when they reached the end. (The police let them go and told them not to walk on the top of the bridge again.)
They were near the Legislature at that point, so Rocque’s friends suggested they cut through the grounds to play “Purple City.” He had no idea what they were talking about. “Everybody else had done it and I hadn’t. So I thought I’d give it a whirl,” Rocque says.
“It worked. As soon as I looked up, all the lights were purple.”
“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.
This could possibly be due to the fact that drugs are sometimes involved.
Neil Lemay of the provincial sheriff’s office, whose officers patrol the Legislature grounds, says there were a number of people who took ecstasy and played “Purple City” a few years back when the drug was more popular. He says they freely admitted to tripping when approached by officers, who he says politely tell “Purple City” players that staring directly at the lights is probably not good for their eyes.
As often as not, though, the “players” are drug-free.
“It doesn’t break any laws other than the laws of common sense,” Lemay says. “Those lights are bright. I think you’d get a sunburn off them.”
You won’t. Young people also get told a number of things they like will make them go blind, but playing “Purple City” likely isn’t one of them.
“I don’t think it’s dangerous,” says Murray Scambler, a lecturer and optician with the University of Alberta Department of Opthalmology. “After all, it’s not like they’re standing two feet away from the light.”
When it’s explained to Scambler that “Purple City” players are standing that close, Scambler pauses, but sticks with his position. It’s still safe, he says. Probably.
Holly Ridyard, the administrator for the opthalmology department, even played it herself when she was a student at Queen Elizabeth Composite High in the 1970s. She and her friends used to pile into a Chevy Nova and head to the Legislature. They did it several times, and she can still see.
“There were no drugs, though,” she notes.
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.
“There are other illicit activities that happen there,” Korn says, noting there’s hope the brighter lights are discouraging to drug dealers.
“Purple City” is such an innocent activity by comparison. 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.