Understanding Calgary's DNA

By Richard White, October 16, 2013

Recently, a neighbour lent me an old, tattered book titled “Calgary,” thinking I might enjoy reading it.  There was no date or author’s name in the book, just the name of the general editor, S. L. Bensusan.  However, a bit of web research turned up that the book was published in 1912 and that Samuel Levy Bensusan (born in London, 1872 to 1958) was probably the author too given he had written similar books on life in Spain, Paris and Morocco.  The cover has a foreshadowing illustration (no credit given) of Calgary complete with high-rises, smoke stacks, railway bridge and street-car that paints a picture of Calgary as a modern, industrial commercial city.  At the bottom of the cover is a reference to “Twentieth Century Cities” so I am thinking this book was part of a series on different cities at the turn of the century.  However, I was unable to find out if this is true.

I quickly found this book to be a fascinating read about what Calgary was like 100 years ago, from the perceptive of an outsider.  The book is written I suspect as a propaganda piece to entice Brits to immigrate to Calgary.  It is not unlike what Tourism Calgary and Calgary Economic Development are producing today to attract tourists and workers to Calgary.  However, recent monikers like “Calgary: The New West” and “Calgary: Be Part of the Energy” pale in comparison to the bold statement “Calgary The Phenomenal” which is how the 1912 book brands Calgary.

Though full of interesting factoids, what makes it really interesting is that many of the characteristics that define Calgary today existed or were being ingrained into our collective psyche a hundred years ago.  For example, there are constant references to Calgary being a place where a strong work ethic and individuality prevail, a sense of freedom exists for everyone and opportunities are abundant.  Comments like “all are free”, “captain of his own fate” and “master of his own soul” are found throughout the text.

As well, comments similar to former Mayor Klein’s infamous 1982 “creep and bums” comments are present in the book.  “He who will not work shall not eat, and he whose favourite task is to watch the toil of others will look in vain for a job, until he feels the contagion of endeavor and enter the ranks of the men who matter.”  Or the observation, “for the shirker, the idler and the man who was born tired, there is no place…”  

Cover photograph shows downtown Calgary in 1912 as a bustling place with street car, passenger train, smoke stakes and high-rises.  

This is an early postcard of the First Baptist Church and an early 20th century mansion on 13th Ave. SW. 


Stephen Avenue: Piccadilly Circus on the Prairies

Even 100 years ago, Calgary was being touted as “the city most progressive and up-to-date of the Western Canadian Plains.”  There are several references to Calgary’s multi-cultural population; “streets are full of Englishmen, Yankee, Hindu, Indian, Chinese and Japanese.  There is even an observation that the “Eighth Avenue shopping street is as congested as Piccadilly Circus on Saturdays.”  Further on, Stephen Avenue is described as an “ever-changing kaleidoscope throng of human beings from all over the world.” I am not making this stuff up!

Bensusan is quick to point out Calgary boasts “more automobiles in proportion to its population than any other city on the continent,” as evidence of the city’s prosperity and modernity.  He says he was “astonished at the sight of so many smart and luxurious private cars, ” noting that 1,000 cars were registered in Calgary on January 1, 1912.

He also states Calgary is a very cosmopolitan modern city with police and fire departments, schools, hospitals, shops, a great public library, as well as excellent waterworks and lighted streets.  Calgary with its four theatres and eleven motion picture houses, “insures to Calgary the opportunity of seeing the best class of theatrical entertainments…there shall be no lack of variety.”

Particular note is made of Calgary having 40 places of worship, obviously seen as a key to attracting new immigrants back then.  “Religious animosities are unknown, and nobody asks what a man believes in or fails to believe in, nor even what he has been, or who his father was. If he be a good citizen, the rest does not matter.” He goes on to say “the countries that have welcomed good citizens of whatever faith have lived and thrived, while those that have indulged in violent religious persecutions have failed signally to progress.”  Sounds a lot like Richard Florida’s observation that prosperous cities are tolerant places, welcoming creative young people from all walks of life.  It has always struck me when flaneuring our city centre how many churches there are; I had no idea there were 40.

Bensusan also tells readers Calgary is “not a winter city” as the warm Pacific Ocean winds called “Chinooks” moderate the temperature and keep the snow away. There are also many many references to the fact that Calgary gets over 300 days of sun, deemed I suspect very appealing to those living in Britain with its cool, damp and drab winters.  No mention is made that the temperature can get down to -30 degrees or that spring blizzards are very common.  But why let the facts get in the way of a good story!

Today Stephen Avenue is a pedestrian mall by day and a narrow one way street by night.  It is home to some of Calgary's tallest buildings and links the Financial District with the Cultural District.  It is one of North America's best restaurant rows.  

Stephen Avenue at night in the winter is a special place with lighting effects like this on the block with The Core shopping centre, Bankers Hall and TD Square complex and Devonian Gardens.  With over 200+ floors of offices and 200+ stores and restaurants it is one of the most dense mixed-use blocks in North America. 


Mansion Mania

Even in the early 20th century, Calgarians already loved their big homes.  One of the photographs shows 20th Ave SW in Mount Royal with a parade of large homes all sitting high above the road with a rock wall.  There is not a tree in sight.  It looks very much like a scene from a new estate community in today’s suburbs – think Aspen Woods or Riverstone.  As I have said before, don’t judge a community before the trees are taller than the houses.  It is amazing the effect larger trees can have on softening and enriching the streetscape over time.  

This is an image of the Lougheed House the first grand mansion built in Calgary and the beginning of the southwest quadrant as the preferred home to Calgary's rich and famous. 

Bushels to Barrels

From an economic development perspective, “bushels to the acre” was the benchmark of prosperity in early 20th century, similar to how barrels of oil serve as a key benchmark today. The development of the Western Irrigation project was the “oil sands” of its time, with CPR being the corporate giant investing millions in the city with their new Natural Resources building on 9th Avenue and new locomotive repair shop in Ogden which was touted as going to employ 5,000 people. It is interesting to note that CPR eventually moved its headquarters to downtown Calgary in the ‘90s, with plans now to relocate it to soon to be complete building in at its Ogden yards.  

The grain elevators along the CPR tracks were to downtown Calgary 100 years ago as the office towers are today.  Calgary companies controlled practically all of the elevators in Alberta says Bensusan.  Indeed, Calgary was already well on its way to becoming a corporate headquarters city, citing it being ranked fifth in Canada as a commercial centre.

There is even reference to the fact the City purchased most of the land around the CPR railway to develop a manufacturing and industrial district.  This was the beginning of the City of Calgary being a land developer, a role which continues today. 

However, one thing has changed, in 1912, labour was well organized with 90% of Alberta’s workers being members of trade unions (today, only about 20% of Calgarians belong to a union).  Bensusan notes in Calgary labourers often start their own businesses and become employers, which in turn make demand for labour almost always exceed supply.  Sound familiar? Calgary, it appears, has been fostering entrepreneurs for over 100 years.


Pittsburg of Canada

Bensusan predicted Calgary would become the “Pittsburg of Canada” because of its abundance of natural gas, coal and electricity nearby and the strong network of 20 railway lines.  He envisaged the population west of the Great Lakes would equal that of Great Britain and Ireland someday, with Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver becoming the three greatest cities of the continent.  (Note: In 1911, Winnipeg’s population was 136,000, Vancouver’s 121,000 and Calgary’s 44,000.)

He points out Calgary enjoys three postal deliveries a day, has 5,000 telephone subscribers who have unlimited calls for $30/yr  – something even London the capital of the British Empire, cannot compete with.  Calgary was also said to have 50 miles of street railway track accommodating 8,838,057 passengers per year and making a $100,000 profit (this is not a typo).  He goes on to say the expectation is that, in time, “public services will cover civic expenses and that a general tax levy will become a thing of the past.” We wish!

The early 20th century was a time when the British Empire was still strong and many young men left to seek their fortune in one of the many countries controlled by Britain.  Bensusan notes that, in the case of Calgary, “people move there to make money and establish homes, not abandon it “as they do in South Africa where new immigrants make what they can and get out.”

In many ways, that remains true today.  Young people flock to Calgary from across Canada and around the world, often thinking they will take advantage of the career opportunities the city presents and then return home or move on.  However, more often than not, newcomers stay, raise a family and retire here.  Bensusan observes,  “Calgary’s charm must be felt to be appreciated, and once felt, you become a Calgary enthusiast like those who live there.” So true!

Already in 1912 Calgary is referred to as a business centre, industrial centre, agricultural centre, sporting centre and rapidly becoming an educational centre.  Plans were already in place for the establishment of a university with a McGill College affiliation.  

While this photo is older it captures the tremendous growth of Calgary as one of North America's economic engines with one of the greatest concentrations of corporate headquarters in the world.  It also captures the city's beauty, its parks, trees and beautiful blue sky.  Calgary has come a long way from a being bald-ass prairie land. 

This photo juxtapositions the old and the new. The downtown Hudson Bay store was the icon of Calgary's position as a major commercial center in the early 20th century.  The Scotia Tower represents the late 20th and early 21st century economic engine that includes banking, oil & gas and other office tower based businesses. 



While Bensusan didn’t use the current popular moniker “live, work and play” in the book, these three elements of urban life were the focus of his discussion.  Banff and the Rockies are referred to as “Calgary’s Sunset Playground.” He notes Canada’s Alpine Club was very important to the “pleasure-seekers” of the time and that Calgary’s proximity to the Rockies was a huge asset. 

“Calgary has an added claim, for no city is quite so pleasant to work in as that which can offer, in return for a few hours’ journey, access to one of the finest health resorts known to mankind.”

He chronicles the development of Calgary as an urban playground, beginning in 1908 with the $50,000 Carnegie’s donation to build the Memorial Park Library at a cost of $70,000.  At the time, Calgary also had 10 parks totally 500 acres.  The city was home to the Turf Club (horse racing), Hunt Club (coyote hunting), Calgary Golf and Country Club and the Calgary Amateur Athletic Association with 50 clubs and several thousand members. 

This is the 2012 Blues Festival in Shaw Millennium Park. Today Calgary offers one of the most comprehensive festival schedules of any city of its size in North America.  


Calgary the phenomenal

Bensusan concludes it is ultimately the hopes, enthusiasm and ideals of its people and the fact that every man/woman/child has a fair chance that is the “vital matter of measuring a city.”  While these benchmarks are hard to measure, I think most intuitively figure this out when we visit or move to a new city.  Ultimately, these are the reasons we stay or move on!

One of the most touching stories Bensusan tells is about Calgary’s strong sense of community, specifically how Calgarians support the YMCA. The YMCA functioned in the early 20th century much like United Way does today, helping those who are less fortunate.  Calgary’s YMCA fundraising goal was 7,000 pounds, which the community raised in one day. At the same time in London, England, the YMCA’s goal was 100,000 pounds, but after two weeks the city with 100 times the population of Calgary, had only raised half of that.  Fast forward 100 years - today, Calgarians donate more money per capita to United Way than any other Canadian city.  Clearly, Calgary’s sense of community has had a long history! 


Last Word

The book ends with “For we can but regard Calgary as one of the most significant cities of our twentieth century, and its triumphant endeavor as one of the most hopeful signs of the old order changes, giving place to the new.  It is with good and sufficient reason that it has chosen for title the proud name of ‘CALGARY THE PHENOMENAL’.”  Guess that says it all!

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's Condo Living section as a two part column.  Part one was titled "Calgary's attitudes have century old roots" on September 28, 2013 and part two titled  "Calgary's Work/Play culture part of the City's DNA" on October 5, 2013. This is the unedited version with my own photos to illustrate some of the ideas discussed. 

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