By Richard White / October 31, 2013
This blog is from my White House column in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours section. It was published on October 31, 203.
Upon returning from a recent trip to Chicago and Portland, where I explored several urban villages including Wicker Park and Bucktown (Chicago) and Pearl District (Portland), considered two of the best hipster communities in the USA (Forbes, September 2012), I couldn’t help but reflect upon Calgary’s Beltline community. Shouldn’t it be on the list of best hipster communities in North America? I might even venture to say it may be THE best!
If you don't believe me, perhaps you will believe Josh Noel travel writer for Chicago Tribune who recently wrote: "Calgary pedal to the metal."
Eight High Streets
For one thing, the Beltline has not just one, but eight pedestrian streets. First, Fourth, Eighth, Eleventh and Fourteenth Streets all have funky local shops, cafes, pubs, galleries and restaurants as do 11th 12th and 17th Avenues.
And numerous ones are signature spots - O’Connors (First Street), Rose and Crown, REDS, Boxwood and Sony Store (4th Street), Bonterra, Trepanier Baer Gallery, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Modern Jelly Donut and Kawa Café (8th Street), Gallaxy Diner, Good Earth Café and Katmandu Grocery (11th Avenue) and Heritage Posters and Music and Boyd’s Lobster Shop (14th Street).
Each of these streets has a very Jane Jacobs (1960s champion of urban street life) feel - lots of little shops, owned and operated by locals.
In addition, the Design district along 10th and 11th Avenues with Bo Concepts, Heavens Fitness, Herringer Kiss, Paul Kuhn and New Zones galleries, Metro Vino and Cookbook Company as its anchors.
The district also is home to three grocery stores – Calgary Co-op, Safeway and Community Natural Foods (a magnet for hipsters). Lastly, Calgary’s premier urban street, 17th Avenue the Beltline’s southern boundary, is home to Calgary icons like Ship & Anchor pub, Brava Bistro, Café Beano, Rubaiyat and Reids Stationers.
Walk 2 Work
There are very few urban villages in North America where you can walk to 160,000 jobs as easily (10 to 15 minutes) as you can from the Beltline. Separated from Calgary’s dense downtown office core by the Canadian Pacific Railway’s main TransCanada tracks, Beltliners make the grungy trek through the underpasses to and from work.
While plans are in place to beautify the underpasses, part of the charm and history of the Beltline is the urban grit and patina that comes from decades of use.
New Condos On Every Block
It seems like every block in the Beltline these days have a new condo being built. However, if you walk the streets, you find there is an amazing array of different types of housing – high, mid and low-rise condos, townhouses and single-family homes.
Every street is a patchwork quilt of old and new, small and large residential structures of different designs and materials, combining to create a rich, residential visual impact. In addition, most of the avenues are lined with mature trees, creating a delightful canopy that is synonymous with quality residential communities in North America.
One of the benchmarks of a good urban community is diversity of housing which in turn attracts a diversity of people of all ages and backgrounds.
Density & Diversity
Today the Beltline is home to 20,000 Calgarians, 40% of whom are between 25 and 34 years of age (more than twice the city average) and 60% have never been married. Unquestionably, the Beltline is where Calgary’s young hip professions “live, work and play” (36% have a university degree or higher vs. 25% city-wide).
At the same time, it is also home to two of Calgary’s major social services agencies (Mustard Seed and Alpha House) and a smattering of seniors’ residents. The net result is the Beltline has a wonderful mix of people of all ages and backgrounds who call it home - exactly what an urban village should be!
The Beltline is one of Calgary’s newest communities formed in 2003, when the Connaught (west of 4th Street) first established in 1905 merged with the Victoria Park (east of 4th Street) established in 1914. As such, it lays claim to some of Calgary’s best heritage sites - Central Memorial Library, oldest library in Alberta, Haultain School, Calgary’s first school, Memorial Park, one of the oldest urban parks in Canada and Lougheed House one of Calgary’s first mansions.
The Beltline name comes from the No. 5 trolley which in the first half of the 20th century circled back and forth on the avenues the Beltline and connected it to downtown in belt-line like manner in the first half of the 20th century. For more information on Beltline history go to www.beltline.ca.
Calgary’s hipsters are unique as they are more likely to be clean shaven, Armani suit wearing, geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers, than bearded, skinny jeans and plaid shirt artists, writers and musicians.
But let it be understood they definitely love their Saturday music jams, bowling alley, craft beer drinking, gallery strolls, food trucks and festival fun as with any hipster. Perhaps we need to coin a new term “GABEsters” (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers/Brokers and Engineers).
HH writes: "I like the way you describe the beltline but here is a question for you- why doesn't this area have the reputation some similar areas have in other cities? What does it need to have a place identity that attracts visitors? The Red Mile was developing that kind of identity but then of course they shut it down because it was too uni-dimensional. What is needed to make it a true gathering place and destination for residents elsewhere in the city or tourists? I think you uncover very interesting stuff that most Calgarians either take for granted or do not even recognize but the place has no identity that is widely recognized. We need more people like you to point all this out to us."
JM writes: "Great read! It's got some interesting perspective to it, one that probably eludes lots of folks."
CW writes: "I remember Beltline when I moved to Calgary from Ontario in '81: there was a diner intact from the 40s, but not celebrated as retro, called the Lido, I think; a couple of used record shops; the IODE thrift shop that sold vintage western clothing that I could no longer fit into (if I still had the items); the Muttart Gallery, of course; and a bit later an artists' co-op where they showed godawful art videos, as well as a folly of a record store 100% devoted to jazz. It was all good enough for me to buy a condo alongside the Beltline three years later.
I don't know if you're correct to say that Beltline doesn't have the past of the Chicago district, it would be correct to say that a good part of it has been diminished - the folly part of it. I think your column nails it when it says the it's professional population distinguishes this district. There's no reason that Calgary should be the same as Chicago or Portland, and I am looking forward to seeing the "place identity" (sought by the commentator) that this population produces."
GG writes: "I like the term Gabesters."
ST writes: "Not sure about Beltline being the hippest in N. America, but it feels good when I read your stuff...and yes, most people do not have a clue what good stuff we have, so keep reminding the public with your good blogs.