In Calgary, communities are defined by their playgrounds. There is even a website devoted to reviewing and ranking Calgary’s playgrounds (Calgary Playground Review). Given there were new playgrounds all around Grand Trunk Park – Helicopter Park, Westmount Park, West Hillhurst Recreation Centre Park – the neighbours living near the Park with its ‘80s playground were silently suffering from a serious case of “playground envy.”
I have lived across the street from West Hillhurst’s Grand Trunk Park (west side of 23rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues NW) for over 25 years. For many of those years, I didn’t even know it was called Grand Trunk Park as there was no sign a few years ago, then a one magically appeared a few years ago. I began doing some research and realized the old house next to the park (which was the Maritime Reunion Hall in the ‘80s and ‘90s) began its life in 1911 as the Grand Trunk Cottage School. I have a sneaking suspicion that 100 years ago the park served as the schoolyard for its students.
Fast forward to 2016. Grand Trunk Park is getting worn out and tired looking. This is not surprising as the streets around the park are literally being taken over by young kids playing street hockey, skateboarding and shooting hoops. I am told the 2300 block of 6th Avenue alone has over 25 children under the age of 16.
Over the past year or so, the park has become a wonderful gathering place for the neighbours and the parents whose children go to the Honey Bee Daycare located on the northwest corner of the Park. Families from blocks away mix and mingle at the park, getting to know each other while older kids play in the park unsupervised, just like in the 50s and 60s. No helicopter parents here!
We have never seen the Park used by more people for more activities. One day I counted eight different activities in the park - everything from kite flying to lacrosse, to some guy doing sprints. There were even some young adults throwing wooden blocks at wooden blocks - a poor man’s version of bocce perhaps? When I asked what they were playing, they said “Kubb.” Turns out it is a Swedish lawn game where the object is to knock over wooden blocks by throwing wooden batons at them; kind of a combination of bowling and horseshoes.
And I have seen as many as five different activities in the Park at one time – a mother hitting a baseball to her son, two young boys taking shots on each other using the soccer goal posts, young families playing in the playground, a dad and his son kicking the soccer ball around and me practising my chipping by hitting golf balls from one tree well to another.
Like Kubb, some other activities have me puzzled. A couple of times I ventured out into the park to ask people what they are doing. In March, three people with long, large ropes attached to the soccer posts with a backpack attached to the ropes told me they were practising mountain rescues. Not sure if I should believe them but they came back a few times, so who knows. Another time, a guy also with huge ropes also attached to the soccer posts (yes, the posts are used for soccer too) was waving them up and down practising for some iron man competition.
Grand Trunk Park Happy Hour
At about 10 o’clock on weekdays, the preschoolers attending the adjacent Honey Bee Daycare make a beeline to the playground. At about 4 pm on weekdays, Grand Trunk Happy Hour starts - parents pick up their children and many head to the playground, break out the juice boxes and snacks. The Park again becomes animated. At Happy Hour, the 2400 block of 6th Avenue becomes a gridlock with cars; we love it.
Where is this going you ask? Well, late in 2015, the City contacted the West Hillhurst Community Association informing them that they were going to replace the playground equipment (it had come to the end of its lifespan) and wanted to engage the neighbours. Word spread like wildfire (a “good” wildfire) - you would have thought we’d won the lottery.
A neighbourhood meeting was quickly called. Enthusiasm for making Grand Trunk Park the envy of the inner city was high. But wait, we had no time to fundraise; no time to create a grand plan for our historic park as the City wanted to replace the playground equipment in June and so we had just over a month to “hurry up and agree on what equipment we wanted and get it ordered.”
It’s unbelievable how the City’s decision to replace the aging playground equipment has been a catalyst for creating a real sense of community for families for blocks around the park. Some families are even from the other side (west) of Crowchild Trail (CT), which surprised us as most people think of CT as a barrier.
The outpouring of support for the playground revitalization was amazing. When the equipment quote came in higher than expected, a quick email soliciting donations exceeded expectations. When a call went out for volunteers to help with the two-day installation, there was no problem getting the bodies needed.
Even the Park & Play installation supervisor said we were great – in fact, the second best group of volunteers he said he had ever worked with on the 200+ playgrounds he has done! (A group of Martindale volunteers were “best” because of special circumstances associated with their playground.) No big egos; no bickering when we had to re-dig the hole for the swings on Day 2 (it was two feet too high). No panic or annoyance when we figured out late on Day 1 (after we re-dug the hole for the slide thinking the hole dug by the backhoe was in the wrong place) that they had sent us the wrong slide.
Perhaps the funniest thing about Day 1 of the installation was that while everyone really craved a cold beer by mid afternoon, we all quite happily settled for freezies. The sight of 15 adults all eating freezies was very humourous. On the second day, we settled for watermelon as our refreshment. Oh so appropriate for a children’s playground install!
Ironically, the second (final) day of the installation was Neighbours Day in Calgary so once done, we gathered for an old fashioned house party hosted by one of the neighbours. Dozens of kids and adults had a grand time on the street in front of the house (using the basketball net bought by a neighbour who has no kids but thought a street with 25 kids needed a basket net), on the front porch (which was turned into “buffet central”) and in the big enclosed backyard that became a sports field.
I overheard one parent say, “I imagine this must have been what it was like in the ‘50s when neighbouring families played together.”
Calgary has over 5,200 parks, big and small. I am pretty sure Grand Trunk Park will never be the best park in the city, but already the proud Grand Trunkers (what we are now calling ourselves) are talking about plans for more improvements.
In the meantime, we are working to expand our informal Tuesday Night “Drop By The Park to Play” and “Sunday Morning Madness” drop ins. A park toy box is now on our front porch so families can borrow balls, Frisbees, a tug of war rope and limbo stick as desired.
It’s back to the future in Grand Trunk Park this summer.
A Big Thank You To:
- City of Calgary
- Parks Foundation Calgary
- Park & Play
- Leigha Pidde
- Grand Trunker Voluteers