Postcard Willie

It all started at age 12 when his parents took him on a vacation from Calgary to Austria -  the family’s homeland. Without any encouragement from his parents, wee Willie decided to send postcards back to his family and friends in Calgary. That was 43 years ago. Today Postcard Willie sends photos to over 300 family and friends from around the world, sometimes as many as 25 in one day.  To date, he estimates he has sent several thousands of postcards from over 50 different countries. Yes Postcard Willie is well travelled.

Depending on the length of the trip, Postcard Willie can send as many as 300 postcards on single trip costing him $500+ in cards and postage. One day while on our Ireland golf trip, Willie found time to find, write and send 12 cards in the hour between the end of the day’s round and getting on the bus back to the hotel.

“Everyone loves to get postcards; some love the images, some the stamps he says. They call it ‘happy mail. People often tell me they keep them for many years.” Needless-to-say, many of the postcards end up on fridges and he estimates that half of the recipients have several shoeboxes full of Willie’s postcards.

Willie doesn’t just buy any postcard either. He looks specifically for cards with lots of information about the place (city, province, country), maybe with some history. He also looks for postcards that relate to each person’s specific interests (for example, if a buddy likes beer he will look for a postcard of a local pub or brew; for another person who likes churches, he will send them a church postcard.

In one case, he knew a person really liked tea so he found a postcard about tea and put it in an envelope with a few local tea bags and mailed to his friend. He also makes a point of sending postcards to people he knows whose homeland he is visiting.  And he likes to use postcards as a thank you to people who have travelled with him and his wife.  Willie prides himself on being creative with his postcard selections.

Over the years, many of his family and friends have also taken up the habit of also sending postcards when travelling. Some, in fun, even send cards to Willie from exotic tourist places like Canmore and Banff, just a few kilometers from Calgary his hometown.

  A beer and some postcards at the Bunratty Castle in Ireland.

A beer and some postcards at the Bunratty Castle in Ireland.

Over the years, Postcard Willie has some interesting observations and recommendations:

  • The most expensive stamps are in Austria, where it takes 1.75 euros to send a postcard (over $2.25 CDN).
  • The slowest postal service is in India where it can take a couple of months for a postcard to get to Canada.
  • He recommends to always dating your postcard so recipients can tell how long it has taken to get to them.

He also likes to research the stamps that are available and if possible make sure people get new stamps or stamps that have some significant meaning, as many of his recipients have become stamp collectors.

He also buys postcards for himself as they often have images the average photographer could never capture. His personal collection is well over two thousand postcards.

Postcard Willie writing postcards on the Dunbar Golf Tour bus between rounds. 

Flying out of Frankfurt Airport so often (it is his jumping off point for European adventures), Postcard Willie is on a first name basis with Reinhard the shopkeeper at his favourite postcard kiosk that he has been frequenting for over 20 years. He is often greeted with “Back again? Why don’t you move here?”  The same is true at the Munich Train Station where he is also a  frequent buyer.

In 2007 and 2008, Willie was working in India and so was sending lots of postcards home to his wife in Calgary.  One day when he was picking up his mail at the supermail box in the community of Panorama Hills he noticed a guy loitering around the boxes.  When he opened his mailbox the man he approached him asking “are you the guy who sends all the postcards from India?” Turns out he was the postal carrier for the area and his family was from India.  Long story short, he and Willie became friends, with Postcard Willie taking things to his family in India and bringing back things from India to Calgary - including a bolt of fabric, which was used to make a shirt and pants for Postcard Willie.

  Postcard Willie writing some postcards in Casablanca, Morocco. And, yes Postcard Willie is always smiling, maybe there is something to sending people postcards and being happy, or perhaps it is because he is on vacation! 

Postcard Willie writing some postcards in Casablanca, Morocco. And, yes Postcard Willie is always smiling, maybe there is something to sending people postcards and being happy, or perhaps it is because he is on vacation! 

Last Word

Over the years, Postcard Willie estimates he has mailed over 10,000 cards to family and friends. His motto is “if they have a postcard, I will find it.”

  While exploring the streets and alleys of Florence happened upon these girls writing a bunch of postcards. Thought Willie would be happy. 

While exploring the streets and alleys of Florence happened upon these girls writing a bunch of postcards. Thought Willie would be happy. 

  Mass postcard writing by students in Florence. 

Mass postcard writing by students in Florence. 

Vegas' Crazy Container Park

By Richard White, May 15, 2014

What would you do if you had a spare $350 million? In 2008, after selling Zappos, an online shoe and clothing site, to Amazon for $1.2 billion, Tony Hsieh (Zappos’ CEO) decided to undertake his own urban renewal project. He bought up land in Las Vegas’ east end and created Container Park.

Container Park is perhaps the most exciting and unique urban development project I have ever seen.  Though currently it is just one entire block (at the east end of Freemont Street), there is lots of room to expand.  Using 40+ old shipping containers, some stacked on top of one another, Hsieh effectively transformed the once - empty block into an attractive, animated urban village.

Half of the block is a vibrant entertainment center with boutiques, restaurants, lounges, a huge children playground with its three-story tree house (young adults also love the playground at night). There is also an outdoor concert venue for the likes of Sheryl Crow (who we missed by a few days) and indie bands. 

Container Park, in sharp contrast to the adjacent Old Vegas’ Freemont Experience and the Strip is focused on being an incubator for small-scale start-ups in the fashion, art, food and music industries rather than mega international players. To date, over 50 small businesses have joined the party so to speak.

The other half of the block is a quiet learning campus with several containers positioned to create a campus (kind of like the old portable classrooms of the ‘60s). Here, the Container Park community, as well as others meet and share ideas to help germinate new ideas or expand existing ones.

Hsieh’s vision is to “create the shipping container capital of the world, while at the same time becoming the most community-focused large city in the world.”  Judging by the number of people hanging out when we visited (both day and night), he is well on his way in turning his vision into reality.

It is amazing what Hsieh has been able to accomplish in a few years, given the decades it has taken Calgary to get the East Village revitalization off the ground. Container Park opened in the Fall 2013 and is currently the toast of the town. However, the real test of success is best determined in 5 or 10 years when the “lust of the new” has worn off.

At night the entrance to Container Park is very dramatic with a fire breathing grass hopper that is like something out of Burning Man. 

Once inside it is a place to dine, have a drink and hang out with friends.  It is like a patio or back deck party. 

NEOS is a fun playground game that everyone seemed to enjoy. 

During the day it was the kids enjoying NEOS with the adults watching on. 

  The three storey tree house was popular during the day.  Who would have thought of a playground as the central element of an urban village. BRILLIANT! 

The three storey tree house was popular during the day.  Who would have thought of a playground as the central element of an urban village. BRILLIANT! 

Container Park by day with downtown Las Vegas in the background.

Container Park is like one large patio, with wonderful soft seating.  I took this picture quick as one group left and another was about to grab it. 

The learning campus is quiet more contemplative place. I took this just after a group had finished some sort of meeting workshop. 

Footnotes:

As a Calgarian I am totally jealous of Vegas' Container Park.  It would be a great way develop some parking lots or vacant sites along a major transit route with retail, residential or office buildings.  Perhaps it could be the model for a mixed-use development of the land around an LRT station.   

I encourage everyone to check out Container Park when you are next in Vegas!

 

I wonder if the dogs are intimidated by this fire hydrant. This is actually a private dog park, - you have to be a Hydrant Club member to access it.  Dog owners pay a subscription fee for obedience training, doggie day care and access to this grass oasis in a sea of gravel parking lots. 

The importance of entrepreneurship in city building!

By Richard White, May 12, 2014 (an edited version of the blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on May11, 2014, titled "Civic innovation a breath of fresh air)

Recently, a 6-week, 8,907 km road trip took me to many cities (big and small) including Salt Lake City, St. George, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Colorado Springs, Denver, Billings, Bozeman and Helena.  Most of the time was spent flaneuring downtown streets, plazas, parks and alleys looking for new ideas on urban living.  Three projects stand out for their entrepreneurship and relevance to Calgary’s contemporary urban culture.

Container Park, Las Vegas

What would you do if you had a spare $350 million? In 2008, after selling Zappos, an online shoe and clothing site, to Amazon for $1.2 billion, Tony Hsieh (Zappos’ CEO) decided to undertake his own urban renewal project. He bought up land in Las Vegas’ east end and created Container Park.

Container Park is perhaps the most exciting and unique urban development project I have ever seen.  Though currently it is one entire block (at the east end of Freemont Street), there is lots of room to expand.  Using 40+ old shipping containers, some stacked on top of one another, Hsieh effectively transformed the once - empty block into an attractive, animated urban village.

Half of the block is a vibrant entertainment center with boutiques, restaurants, lounges, a huge children playground with its three-story tree house (young adults also love the playground at night). There is also an outdoor concert venue for the likes of Sheryl Crow (who we missed by a few days) and indie bands. 

Container Park, in sharp contrast to the adjacent Old Vegas’ Freemont Experience and the Strip is focused on being an incubator for small-scale start-ups in the fashion, art, food and music industries rather than mega international players. To date, over 50 small businesses have joined the party so to speak.

The other half of the block is a quiet learning campus with several containers positioned to create a campus (kind of like the old portable classrooms of the ‘60s). Here, the Container Park community, as well as others meet and share ideas to help germinate new ideas or expand existing ones.

Hsieh’s vision is to “create the shipping container capital of the world, while at the same time becoming the most community-focused large city in the world.”  Judging by the number of people hanging out when we visited (both day and night), he is well on his way in turning his vision into reality.

It is amazing what Hsieh has been able to accomplish in a few years, given the decades it has taken Calgary to get the East Village revitalization off the ground. Container Park opened in the Fall 2013 and is currently the toast of the town. However, the real test of success is best determined in 5 or 10 years when the “lust of the new” has worn off.

Container Park by day is full of families and hipsters.  It is a happy place!

At night Container Park the children are gone, but the fun continues.

Adults using the children's playground. at night.

Ivywild School, Colorado Springs

Another example of good old American entrepreneurial spirit is evident at the Ivywild School in Colorado Springs (COS), Colorado. Two years after this 1916 yellow brick, elementary school closed in 2009, two neighbouring businessmen - Joe Coleman (Blue Star restaurant) and Mike Bristol (Bristol Brewing Co.) negotiated the purchase of the school and converted it into a mixed-use community hub.

In the spring of 2013, the “school” reopened as a bakery, cocktail lounge, coffee house, charcuterie, bike shop, art school and of course brew pub.  In addition, it hosts numerous events and a farmers’ market.  We visited twice and it is clear that it has definitely become a hub for hipsters.  I understand the funding for the renovations was totally the responsibility of the individual tenants.  The washrooms and hallways have been left untouched, so there is still an elementary school atmosphere about the space. We loved the children’s murals on the walls and the old water fountains.

Its positive impact on the inner city community of Ivywild is already being felt.  Millibo Art Theatre has bought and renovated an old church across the street, converting it into a performance space and theatre school. We attended their Six Women Play Festival, which proved to be both entertaining and thought provoking for the full house audience.

I couldn’t help but compare this renovation to Calgary’s King Edward School repurposing project, the latter which has taken many, many years and $31 million dollars of public funding to make happen.  Ah, the power of private funding! I also couldn’t help but think maybe a brew pub would make a great addition to the King Edward School.

Yet, perhaps a better comparison would be with the Simmons building in East Village with its similar indie foodie focus.  It will be interesting to see how it is received when it finally opens in the spring of 2015.

The Boys washroom still has all the charm of elementary school. 

It wouldn't be a hipster hang-out without a bike shop.

The thought behind the Iveywild School project.

 Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix

I had no idea that the world’s largest museum of musical instruments (15,000 instruments from over 200 countries) was located in Phoenix.  What is most impressive though is that Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and Chairman of Target Corporation, was able to accomplish the feat of building this world-class museum in just five years from its inception. 

The story goes (according to one of the museum’s gallery educators) that Ulrich was in Europe looking to purchase some major artworks when he got the idea to create a major new museum focusing on musical instruments.  Using his Target store opening experience, he set a very ambitious goal of having the museum open in five years.  This is unheard of in museum circles where even planning and fundraising for a museum expansion or renovation can take decades, let alone one that had no land, no collection and no staff.

Ulrich immediately hired Rich Varda (who oversees Target’s team of store designers) as the main architect to create the building and exhibition displays.  He also hired Bille R. DeWalt, a cultural anthropologist (University of Pittsburgh) as the founding president and director to guide the development. 

True to his word, the museum did open five years later, in April 2010. The $250 million dollar museum has five huge galleries devoted to Africa and Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, and the United States and Canada. There are almost 300 vignettes, each with historical instruments from the country, related artifacts and a short video about the people and the instruments.

With the videos using the latest Wi-Fi technology, you don’t have to press any buttons. As soon as you get near the videos, the headphones you are provided with pick up the sound and all you need to do is listen. The museum also has a theatre for concerts, a conservation lab and an “experience gallery” where visitors can play the instruments.  You could easily spend all day there. They even have a two-day pass to allow you to come back if you haven’t given yourself enough time to digest everything in one day.

My only complaint is the museum is located at the edge of the city, making it accessible only by car. It’s unfortunate it wasn’t designed as an anchor for a new urban village.

The five gallery space are like five Target stores!

Some of the instruments are very simple like this Grater.

The conservation lab.

Last Word

While Calgary takes pride in its ambitious, entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit, I can’t help but wonder why the Glenbow struggles to survive, why the National Music Centre still isn’t fully funded and why are we still talking about a contemporary public art gallery 50 years after the idea was first debated. Why do things take so long in Calgary?

If you like this blog, you might like:

King Edward Village?

Eau Claire Market Mega Makeover

Calgary's newest urban village

 

Postcards: "Off The Beaten Strip" in Vegas

Richard White, April 1, 2014

Most visitors to Vegas spend all their time on The Strip (aka Las Vegas Boulevard South from Sahara Avenue to Harmon Avenue) or on Fremont Street from Main Street to 5th Street in downtown. However, there is much more (and much more interesting) to Vegas than the glitz and glitter of these two streets.

As seasoned urban explorers, we love to look beyond the obvious. Recently, we spent three days in Vegas almost exclusively pursuing off the beaten strip gems and hanging with the locals. 

We even booked a room at the LVH (aka Las Vegas Hotel and Casino), which is located just off The Strip. It turns out the LVH is full Vegas history including being the first place that Elvis performed in Vegas, as well as being the largest hotel in the world when it was built 50 years ago.  It was a great jumping off point for exploring Vegas' Arts District, Antique Alley, Container Park and thrift stores.

We find that one of the best ways to get off the beaten path and hang with the locals is to head to the thrift stores as they are often in interesting places and full of colourful characters. Like, for example, the Vegas Goodwill where we (and everyone else) were greeted with a loud and enthusiastic  "Welcome to Goodwill," not your robotic "Welcome to Walmart" or the half-hearted "can I help you?" While in Vegas, we often had other thrifters giving us tips on other stores and places to check out (e.g. Container Park). 

Here are a few postcards of the real Vegas you will never find in the tacky tourist shops. We hope you enjoy them.  

This surrealist artwork was found on a warehouse wall in Vegas' Arts District.

This graffiti mural was found in an area with numerous street artworks that reminded us of Freak Alley in Boise, Idaho.

One night we wandered Freemont Street past Container Park and found this oversize fire hydrant. It was the gateway to the neighbourhood dog park.  We love fun things like this; too often urban spaces are too minimal, too subtle and just plain too serious. 

Along Main Street South there is a bohemian district with quirky art galleries, antique stores and tattoo parlours.  We found this guy in the back room of an art gallery. 

Container Park has dozens of repurposed containers (rail cars) which have been constructed to create a Learning Village on half a block and a urban playground with shops, pubs, restaurants, concert and playground areas on the other half. It is located on Freemont Street at 7th Avenue.  It is a funky place for people of all ages. This is a single container that is like a sky bridge or +15 (Calgarians will know what that is) that links two separate container buildings. 

Retro Vegas (aka Vegas' other pink flamingo) is one of the best vintage stores we have visited in the past few years. 

Not sure this is the finest thrift store in Nevada, but what the h%#@, Vegas is all about bragging rights.

Found this old cross neon light in the Arts District, to me this was more interesting than all of the huge glitzy neon lights on The Strip or Freemont Street. 

Adults enjoying the playground in Container Park at night.

Children enjoying the playground at Container Park during the day. 

JJC Clocks & Antiques on south Main Street is like a mini-museum.  

These repurposed chairs with their colourful duct tape seats were found outside a recycle DIY store in the Arts District. 

Found these ladies just outside the LVH (Las Vegas Hotel and Casino) at 10 am.  Asked if they were heading to work and they said "No, just finished!"