Really, it's OK to like Calgary
Boosterism eases in city exploring its potential
Todd Babiak, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Tuesday, June 12, 2007
A young man in a white muscle shirt, giant sunglasses and a baseball cap floats silently down the Elbow River. He has a burning cigarette in one hand and a can of Kokanee in the other.
His baby blue dinghy is of the cheap Canadian Tire blow-up variety, with cartoon dolphins. He passes under the bridge and another dinghy appears upriver, this one carrying two young men. One is talking excitedly on a cellular phone, about dinner.
Elbow Drive is already crowded with convertibles, driven by the lucky ones who sneaked away early.
In lovely old neighbourhoods such as Kensington, above, Calgary feels remarkably similar to Edmonton.
Twenty blocks north, in the shiny office towers, the day's last few theoretical millions are being sucked out of Alberta's crust. On the banks of the river, not far from a cluster of hungry geese, three destitute men lie in the grass with their eyes closed, their two overflowing shopping carts parked in the shade of an elm tree.
This must mean something.
For more than 100 years, Edmontonians and Calgarians have become experts in making superficial observations and ridiculous judgments about each other. The rivalry between the cities, as fun as it can be in its sporting incarnation, has become tired and pathetic.
Calgarians see what they want to see in Edmonton, and vice-versa. Usually it's something doleful, which makes everyone feel better about their own hometowns and ultimately prevents them from engaging in a healthy dialogue about the possibility of urban renewal in Alberta. It also prevents them from travelling to each other's cities, just for fun.
For an Edmontonian to admit that Calgary's downtown is more attractive, its restaurants more elegant, that its zoo is amazing and its view of the Rockies enviable, would be an admission of failure.
The truth is, Edmonton and Calgary are both extraordinary and frustrating boomtowns of one million people, both ugly and pretty, both rich and poor, both redneck and sophisticated, separated by 275 kilometres.
An Edmontonian in Calgary can't help noticing that once you're in the core, in the lovely historic neighbourhoods north and south of downtown, the cities even feel remarkably similar.
Of course, there are fundamental cultural differences. Irony, neurosis and even self-loathing are stitched into the great bosom of Edmonton. Calgary, by contrast, has a marketable cowboy theme and a spanky slogan in Heart of the New West.
Without passing any city ordinances or doping the water supply, it has become perfectly acceptable to claim that Calgary has the best theatre scene, the best wine merchants, the best opera, the best restaurants, the best blue jeans, the best buskers, the best cupcakes and the best-looking people on Earth.
Calgarians point out the new German imports on their streets with a tone of astonished pride, as though every new millionaire were a shared success. It's not possible to get through a day without hearing that building cranes are "the official bird of Calgary."
Bad traffic, horrible service and wacky real estate prices have become folk tales, proof that Calgary is a big city now, even when it all doesn't seem nearly so extreme when you're actually on Memorial Drive or looking at a house in Kensington.
But something new and exciting and distinct is happening in Calgary today.
Aggressive boosterism is on the wane, along with the city's automatic tendency to vote against its interests in a block with rural Alberta. Real Calgarians, the ones who aim to stay after the boom, sense an opportunity that reaches beyond personal wealth. They're testing what they mean by "world class."
Since November, a retired oil executive named David Matthews has been holding informal lunch-hour think-tanks at La Chaumiere, a classic French restaurant on 17th Avenue.
Matthews goes through the newspaper and the phone book, and invites smart and influential people -- politicians and writers and business leaders, academics and architects and planners.
"I do sometimes think: what am I doing in this city?" he says, with a hint of a British accent, during one of his pleasant mini-salons. "Especially after having been to Europe on vacation, say.
"But the place grows on me. The city has so much potential, enormous potential, but we keep screwing it up. We need to get beyond roads and interchanges and potholes and garbage."
Matthews hopes the think-tank will transform into action at the end of June, to help elect a "few visionaries" to city council in October. He says people sometimes accuse him of being insane, as he always pays the bill at the end of the meal. "Calgary's been very good to me, and I'd like to give something back," he says. "I think we can make a very special town of this."
One of Matthew's regular guests is Bob van Wegen, a soft-spoken community activist and board member of the Calgary Heritage Initiative. He laments Calgary's No. 1 challenge, that too many people come to the city hoping to make a pile of dough and leave.
"They aren't necessarily coming here for an urban experience," he says. "They'll arrive from rural places in Saskatchewan or the Maritimes, or from similar cities like Dallas or Houston, and they're happy to buy a ranch house in the 'burbs. And a lot of people, even lifelong Calgarians, are attracted to the natural but not the physical environment.
"Why do you live in Calgary? To be close to the mountains."
This is vexing to a growing number of Calgarians focused on planning and sustainability and architecture and the arts. The constantly expanding fringes of the city suck money and energy from the city, as a reality and as a concept, and prevent Calgarians from engaging in a meaningful way with Calgary.
"Summer weekends in Kensington are the worst time of the year for the locals," says Marcello di Cintio, an award-winning travel writer who grew up in Calgary and remains here. "The tourists from the suburbs are in to see what a real neighbourhood looks like."
Di Cintio is part of a bright new generation of writers and thinkers desperate to rethink and remake Calgary, to discover what they love best about the city -- neighbourhood funk, puppet theatre, a spirit of experimentation, sandstone -- and explode it.
Not that there isn't momentum to go along with the constructive criticism. One of the greatest urban developments in recent Canadian history, Garrison Woods, transformed an abandoned army barracks into a central village of condominiums, brownstone-style townhomes, duplexes and houses.
On June 1, the city unfurled its plans for a brave and transformative 14-block downtown cultural district.
Kensington, Inglewood, Bridgeland and other inner-city neighbourhoods provide dense, colourful, authentic and tree-lined alternatives to freeways, manicured lawns and vinyl siding.
The Bow, a spectacular office tower to be built by EnCana, has sparked a renewed interest in downtown and the ways in which an architectural project can represent the hopes and dreams and shifting identity of a city and its people.
On their dinghys, the young men float through Calgary-Elbow, Ralph Klein's former riding, adjacent to the Mercedes convertibles and the men who live out of shopping carts. Today's byelection in the riding could be a political catalyst in the city's social, cultural and physical transformation. Or not.
Either way, for the first time in a generation, Calgary is fully awake to its potential. Edmontonians must stop skipping the city on their way to Kananaskis and Banff.
Really, it's OK to love Calgary.
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Go to www.edmontonjournal.com
for Todd's audio slideshow of Calgary, Calgary Herald columnist Val Fortney's column on Edmonton, and a reader poll.
© The Edmonton Journal 2007