By Richard White, June 26, 2014 (An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours feature titled "Eclectic International Avenue is changing.")
For many Calgarians, International Avenue (17th Ave SE) is on the wrong side of the “Deerfoot Divide” i.e. they never go east of Deerfoot Trail. Too bad. They don’t know what they are missing.
International Avenue has 425 businesses along its 5-km stretch of 17th Avenue SE between 26th and 61st Streets. Under the leadership of the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ) formed in 1993, these small independent businesses have continued to thrive - some for over 40 years – Gunther’s Fine Baking, Illichmann’s Deli, Harmony Lane, Totem (now Rona) and Calgary Co-op to name a few. Over 30% of the businesses are food-related, with many wholesaling to Calgary’s upscale restaurants, hotels and food trucks.
To some, International Avenue is a hodgepodge of one to three storey buildings from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. There are few chain stores (Target picked International Avenue for one of its first Calgary stores) mostly local “mom and pop” shops. It’s also a place where you are likely to hear a dozen different languages spoken within a few blocks. In the words of Executive Director Alison Karim-McSwiney, “it has a small town feel with a global marketplace.”
John Gilchrist, Calgary’s foodie guru and author of “My Favourite Restaurants Calgary, Canmore and Banff spends a lot of time on International Avenue. Why? “On this strip, you find food cultures as close as they come to their native lands. It lives up to its name ‘International Avenue’ with great restaurants like Mimo (Portuguese), Fassil (Ethiopian), Pho Binh Minh (Vietnamese) and many other favourites of mine,” says Gilchrist.
Similarly, Mike Kehoe, Fairfield Commercial thinks International Avenue is “an eclectic commercial strip where ‘the world meets the wild west.’ I love the mix of ethnic tastes with dining options from around the globe and the interesting retail diversity along 17th Avenue SE where it seems anything is commercially possible.”
International Avenue is at the “tipping point” of change with many major new projects in the works. One example is artBox, a 5,4000 square foot multi-purpose art space located in the old Mill’s Painting Building (1807 – 42nd ST SE) with studios and performance space for local artists. Almost anything goes at artBox from Aboriginal to African art. It is quickly becoming a meeting place for artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds and anyone interested in art.
International Avenue is also home to an active mural program initiated in 2001; the murals capture the ethnic diversity of the community. In 2014, two new murals will be added to the collection, one celebrating the community’s African cultures and the other its Italian heritage.
In 2010, the City of Calgary working with the communities and the International Avenue BRZ, approved the Southeast 17 Corridor Land Use and Urban Design Plan that recognized International Avenue as one of the City’s important urban corridors. As a result Land Use changes to allow for more mixed-use developments will result in the addition of 13,000 new residents and 9,000 new jobs to the community over the next 30 years.
The International Avenue BRZ also successfully lobbied the City to designate land for new 1,000-seat arts and culture performance space. City funding is also in place to create a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) route along 17th Avenue SE as part of its Green Line that will provide better east/west transit connectivity.
International Avenue is home to not one, but two signature events – “Around the World in 35 Blocks” and “Global Fest.” Initiated in 1997, “Around the World in 35 blocks” is a food tour that happens 14 times a year and everyone is sold out. The June 28 tour is already sold out, so reserve your tickets now for the August 23 or September 27 tours. These fun bus tours (35 people) take you to five different continents, sampling food from places like Asia, Africa, Middle East, Portugal and the Caribbean.
Global Fest is an international fireworks festival as well as the “One World” multi-cultural festival. The fun and festivities take place at Elliston Park, with its 20-hectare pond (the size of Prince’s Island). This year’s festival takes place August 14 to 25.
While Calgary’s “other 17th Avenue” doesn’t have the cache of 17th Avenue SW, to those in the know, it is one of Calgary’s hidden gems – especially if you get out of your car and explore.