Omar Mouallem was the founding editor of The Yards magazine–he worked with the initial team to create and put in place many of our magazine’s well-known features: Best in the Core, Front Yards, and our focus on accessible urbanism.
Since his days with The Yards, Mouallem has been busy. He has edited numerous magazines in Alberta while contributing stories to The Guardian, WIRED, and NewYorker.com while co-authoring the national bestseller. As editor, Mouallem brought to The Yards his vision for what a magazine covering life in central Edmonton could become and what stories it could tell.
I met with Mouallem in the sleek new JW Marriott hotel lobby in the heart of Ice District. Five years ago this was a construction site sitting on top of a recently demolished Staples big-box retail store and its surface level parking lot. As Edmonton’s media has evolved over time, so has the city landscape that we cover.
Mouallem told me how his vision for the magazine was conceptually birthed from an article he wrote for Vue Weekly about the controversy surrounding the Brewery District development. The community’s push for a higher-density, transit-oriented urban development seemed to be running up against an immovable wall.
“It was kind of the first Yards piece, in a way,” Mouallem explained. “That story showed people in Oliver what they were up against, because here was something that seemed like a slam dunk – neighbours, residents were all for it one way, and pushing for it one way, and yet that formula for how we develop in Edmonton which was created and set into motion 20 years or so ago was too strong.”
“Administration went out of their way to demote the opinions of high-density urbanists and promote the opinions of the status quo.”
There was a clear need for a new voice to speak out on behalf of core residents. Mouallem explained how he set out to ensure every issue of the fledgling publication had an article exploring an urban issue issue impacting our neighbourhoods, bringing accessible urban planning discussions to residents for developments like the Brewery District.
“That article, I think it showed the kind of voice that the community can have in journalism if the time is taken to write it,” Mouallem explained.
“The Edmonton Journal cannot justify putting one journalist on that story for one week to investigate and interview, the stakes aren’t high enough. But a publication whose only stakeholders work and live in that area can and should.”
Mouallem noted with approval that there has been a consistency in the magazine’s structure, yet a gradual change in focus since Winter 2014, responding to shifts in both local and global trends.
“It’s cool to have been a part of inventing, with the team, institutions such as Best in The Core – but the essence of the stories now have become more human focused and less about architecture, design and urbanism, and more about things that people are concerned about today, post 2016,” Mouallem said, highlighting some of the issues that he felt really resonated with the current socio-political climate.
He noted a number of articles managed to take larger issues and localize them – the Frank Oliver article as a story on reconciliation and about rethinking our icons, an article on Me Too in the core, a historical story about racial segregation. Mouallem pointed out that the power of a hyper-local magazine can be seen in how you tackle these large issues, such as with the climate change article in Fall 2019, and make them relevant to people in their communities.
“I think it is the kind of story that you really need to publish in 2020 to keep people interested. That’s what people are thinking about, and there’s this anxiety and dread about the future of the planet. Even though it’s this hyperlocal magazine, you can take those global issues and localize them – and you should, because then it makes these really big and abstract, intangible issues suddenly concrete and in front of you and maybe even resolvable, manageable.”
In naming this magazine, the moniker had to advocate for those living here, while speaking to Edmontonians from every corner of our exploding city that rely on the city centre for work or leisure. It had to portray the positive changes and the new faces of downtown, without abandoning the inner city’s seniors, families, working poor and homeless. It had to look ahead, but it couldn’t ignore the past. That’s how we landed on “The Yards.” It harkens back to the old Canadian National rail yards along 104 Avenue, while symbolizing what downtown is to us: a place that you invite people into, but also must protect and maintain.Omar Mouallem, Winter 2014 Issue