Jan Morris: Saskatoon: The Wonder, HUB, POW City?

This blog is another excerpt from Jan Morris’ 1990s book “City to City,” subtitled, Canada through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day. The book is a series of essays commissioned by Toronto’s, Saturday Night Magazine. Link: Jan Morris

The title for Morris’ Saskatoon essay is “The happy surprise” and her first sentence is “Saskatoon struck me as Canada’s best surprise,” followed by “I expected the worst.” She said her 10-day visit taught her a lesson not to jump to conclusions.  Having recently visited Saskatoon I was surprised at how her observations rung true even today. 

  I love urban surprises, we stumbled upon this street festival on a side street just off of 21st Ave.

I love urban surprises, we stumbled upon this street festival on a side street just off of 21st Ave.

Prosaic Names

Morris found Saskatoon in the early ‘90s to be “intellectually vivacious, physically it was invigorating, and aesthetically I thought it, in certain lights as least, in certain moods, very beautiful.”

She loved the name Saskatoon, loved enunciating it, but otherwise she thought Saskatoon and most Canadian cities have “too many prosaic imported names e.g. European saints names that have no reference to Canada or names inherited from Scottish estates or other European places.” She liked that Saskatoon is “allegedly derived from the Cree word for a local berry, misaskwatomin, it is as indigenous a name as one could wish for, besides being euphonious, exotic and slightly comical.” Overall, Saskatoon struck her as the “most thoroughly Canadian of Canadian cities” but doesn’t really say why.

She then lists Saskatoon’s various monikers over time – The Wonder City (in its youth), the Hub City (when the railway arrived), the Fastest Growing City on Earth (which it once claimed to be) and City of Bridges (it has seven). 

It is one city in Canada that “does not seem greatly interested in the affairs of the United States.”  

  The University Bridge is Saskatoon’s iconic bridge. You would think it would have a more meaningful name.

The University Bridge is Saskatoon’s iconic bridge. You would think it would have a more meaningful name.

Tyranny   

Saskatoon reminded her of Aberdeen, Scotland given its role as the powerhouse of the Saskatchewan hinterland, sustaining the economy of hundreds of thousands of square miles (its own terrestrial ocean) not just for the wheat fields but for potash, uranium, and gold mines. 

Morris acknowledges “while there is a majestic beauty to Saskatoon’s lonely per-eminence, there are cruel oppressions, too.  As artists in particular have observed before me, that infinite horizon is a kind of tyranny – one feels that even trying to challenge it, in soaring art or architecture….would be no more than a senseless impertinence.”

She recognized 21stStreet at an “architectural gem” where you can see a fair cross section of local society, economically and socially. The street is home to the chateau-style Bessborough Hotel, the modernist Canadian National building, the Saskatoon Club and the old Eaton’s store that is now an Army & Navy store.  

“Saskatoon is a patchwork of rich and poor, rough and smooth. Its history has fluctuated from boom to bust and back again, and its social fabric is correspondingly interwoven.”

  Bessborough Hotel, designed by Archibald and Schofield, opened in 1935 and was considered one of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

Bessborough Hotel, designed by Archibald and Schofield, opened in 1935 and was considered one of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

  The streets of Saskatoon are quite playful today.

The streets of Saskatoon are quite playful today.

 The old Hudson’s Bay Department store has become condos, but still retains its department store shape and the lovely mural.

The old Hudson’s Bay Department store has become condos, but still retains its department store shape and the lovely mural.

PhDs

“Nearly all the people, it seemed, rich or poor, scholar or scavenger, Scottish, Russian or Cree by origin, had something specifically Saskatonian in common. During my 10 days in this city, I experienced no single instance of unfriendliness – not a single annoyance.  Saskatoon claims to have more PhDs per capita than anywhere else in Canada, is full of lively theatre, and is a very hive of gifted writers.”  

  Remai Modern’s contemporary exhibition and programming is provocative and challenging, perhaps too much for some.

Remai Modern’s contemporary exhibition and programming is provocative and challenging, perhaps too much for some.

 “Saskatoon also has a powerful instinct for communal duty, communal purpose. An almost intimate sense of fellowships seems to characterize the city.

Its public institutions are often named for still living local worthies and its University Bridge built by local engineers.

The Mendel Art Gallery is not only open 363 days of the year, twelve hours a day, but attracts an annual attendance almost as great as the entire population of the city (note the Mendel is now closed having been replaced by the controversial Remai Modern which is not open 363 days of the year or twelve hours a day.)  

If you build a new house, the city gives you two free trees. And everywhere there are commemorative plaques.”  

  The University of Saskatchewan’s campus integrates the design of its new buildings with its old buildings to create an architectural harmony that is delightful.

The University of Saskatchewan’s campus integrates the design of its new buildings with its old buildings to create an architectural harmony that is delightful.

  Found these two shelves of books in a thrift store…thought this said something about Saskatoon intellectualness.

Found these two shelves of books in a thrift store…thought this said something about Saskatoon intellectualness.

  Loved these bike racks/tree grates that also tells the history of the Riversdale community in a fun way.

Loved these bike racks/tree grates that also tells the history of the Riversdale community in a fun way.

Restaurants

Morris was not big fan of Saskatoon’s restaurants saying “seldom have I eaten more depressingly” even though the city claimed to have more restaurants per capita than any other Canadian city. She thought the city was cosmopolitan, with its fertile ethnic melange and constant infusion of outsiders, but remarkably introspective.

Saskatoon’s restaurant scene has changed significantly since Morris’ visit with award winning chef Dale Mackay’s three signature restaurants - Ayden Kitchen & Bar, Little Grouse on the Prairie and Sticks & Stones. If you don’t believe me check out this link: 17 Bucket List Restaurants You Need To Try In Saskatoon.

The River

  Bill Epp’s 1989 artwork title “Tribute to Youth” which Morris references reflects the Saskatoon’s sense of play and togetherness.

Bill Epp’s 1989 artwork title “Tribute to Youth” which Morris references reflects the Saskatoon’s sense of play and togetherness.

She notes, “Physically the place depends for all of its charm upon the river, and this Saskatoon has used magnificently. The seven bridges do give a noble flourish to Saskatoon, while its river banks have been fastidiously exploited as trail and parkland, unobtrusively equipped with the standard educational displays, and mercifully embellished, as far as I discovered, by only two pieces of sculpture – one depicting a gambolling group of Saskatonian adolescents, some of them upside down, the other depicting a Metis slumped on his horse.”  

Morris observes, “almost everything seems new in this mise en scene, and this is hardly surprising, because Saskatoon is one of the most sudden of all the world’s cities….The thirty-odd blocks of downtown are like the rings of a chopped tree…the solid red-brick emporiums of the early boom years, the years of the Wonder City.

Here is the glass and steel of the 1970s, when a spurt in several of Saskatoon’s industries made it POW City, meaning the city riding the boom in Potash, Oil and Wheat.  And in between these emblems of success are the symptoms of successive relapses, stores that never quite made it, building lots never quite built upon.”  

Later she laments about the removal of the rail yards and train station from the City Centre, “To this day the absence of the yards gives the city centre a sense of lacuna and deprives it of symbolism.”  

  The South Saskatchewan River next to the downtown is a fun urban playground for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The South Saskatchewan River next to the downtown is a fun urban playground for people of all ages and backgrounds.

  Splash park along the river.

Splash park along the river.

  Kinsman Park is Saskatoon’s signature and historic downtown park is located just off the river. It has a lots of activities for families.

Kinsman Park is Saskatoon’s signature and historic downtown park is located just off the river. It has a lots of activities for families.

Verandering?

She also comments about the suburban development “thousands of houses built in the first half of the century create a ring around the city centre with hardly any two alike as they have been embellished with every kind of decorative caprice, equipped with all permutations of gabling, pillaring, shingling and verandering, ranging from mock Tudor to glimmering modernism.”

  There are lots of tree-lined streets with lovely homes just south of the University. I loved this modest house with an art installation in the front yard. It is evidence of how Saskatoon has become less prairie pragmatic and more a funky, fun and quirky place to live.

There are lots of tree-lined streets with lovely homes just south of the University. I loved this modest house with an art installation in the front yard. It is evidence of how Saskatoon has become less prairie pragmatic and more a funky, fun and quirky place to live.

Pioneer vigour 

I was surprised when she commented that the boom of the 1970s that created the sprawling malls, industrial estates and housing developments is “where one still feels a sense of pioneering vigour.”  She adds, “If you really want a sensation of the frontier in Saskatoon, probably the best place of all to go is to the big industrial zone in the northern part of town, which looks as though it has just been off-loaded piecemeal from a container train and is remarkably like photographs of pioneer Saskatoon in the earliest days of Wonder City.” 

I love Morris’ sense of urban humour. “Saskatoon is short on bravado, and, in its social being as in its contemporary architecture, seems anxious not to shock, or even surprise…while all this does not make the city feel disappointed, exactly, it does make it feel a little resigned – like a woman in middle age who, contemplating her husband across the dinner table, realizes without rancour that life’s romantic possibilities have come and gone.” 

  This conversion of an old egg plant in the downtown’s warehouse district is an example that Saskatoon is embracing contemporary urban redevelopment.

This conversion of an old egg plant in the downtown’s warehouse district is an example that Saskatoon is embracing contemporary urban redevelopment.

  While this looks like NYC this is in fact downtown Saskatoon. How cool is this?

While this looks like NYC this is in fact downtown Saskatoon. How cool is this?

  This is one of several robotic creatures found at the entrance to a scrap yard in Saskatoon’s industrial district.

This is one of several robotic creatures found at the entrance to a scrap yard in Saskatoon’s industrial district.

  This is the scrap yard where you can hunt for buried treasures.

This is the scrap yard where you can hunt for buried treasures.

  Prairie Sun Brewery can be found in Saskatoon’s industrial district next to the fun scrap yard.

Prairie Sun Brewery can be found in Saskatoon’s industrial district next to the fun scrap yard.

  I found numerous examples of how small ordinary buildings had enhanced their facades and entrances with fun contemporary urban design elements.

I found numerous examples of how small ordinary buildings had enhanced their facades and entrances with fun contemporary urban design elements.

Heroic to banal

Near the end of the essay she summarizes her feeling about the city, “But then excitement is not what Saskatoon purveys. It is part of the civic genius – part of the Canadian genius, too – to reduce the heroic to the banal.” 

  13-storey mural on the side of the First Nation’s Bank of Canada by artist Emmanuel Jarus is one of the best murals I have seen this year. It is well executed, the subject matter is appropriate for the site and it is monumental which is what murals should be. To me it is heroic!

13-storey mural on the side of the First Nation’s Bank of Canada by artist Emmanuel Jarus is one of the best murals I have seen this year. It is well executed, the subject matter is appropriate for the site and it is monumental which is what murals should be. To me it is heroic!

Last Word

I recently visited Saskatoon and found it was a great long weekend getaway, not sure how I would spend 10 days there.  I am happy to say the restaurant scene has improved, as it has in most Canadian cities since the ‘90s.  Saskatoon, like most North American cities, has caught the craft beer bug with the north industrial area providing some fun beer tasting spots. The City Centre is currently undergoing a slow renaissance with new shops, restaurants, bars, fitness studios and condos popping up everywhere. The river valley continues to be a popular public place for people of all ages with new publics spaces, trails and events.    

From an architectural perspective, the University of Saskatchewan has perhaps the best blend of old and new architecture in Canada. The new Remai Modern art gallery is a definite attempt to create a modern architectural statement with its cubist, container-like design.

The architecture and programming are diametrically opposed to what the Mendel Art Gallery used to offer.  Like it or not, it is a move away from the banal, the prosaic towards the “bravo” that Morris’ said was missing in Saskatoon’s sense of place.  

I agree with Morris that Saskatoon has a lot of commemorative plaques, statues and monuments. However, what impressed me most were the provocative murals and street art - some of the most thoughtful and appropriate images that I have seen anywhere. 

  This detail of a mural on the side of the City Centre Church which serve at-risk children and youth, single mothers, and run food programs for the homeless. It too is monumental and has a strong social/political statement that reminded me of the great Mexican muralists.

This detail of a mural on the side of the City Centre Church which serve at-risk children and youth, single mothers, and run food programs for the homeless. It too is monumental and has a strong social/political statement that reminded me of the great Mexican muralists.

  The entire mural from across the street.

The entire mural from across the street.

Hamilton: SuperCrawl is Super Fun


Hamilton’s SuperCrawl has evolved over the past 10 years into one of Canada’s biggest and best music/street festivals.  It is a great success story. 

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Grass Roots

It all started when a group of fledgling art galleries along James Street North (aka Little Portugal) decided to host an Art Crawl the second Friday of every month. This was not a particularly novel idea - most cities across North America had such event in the ‘90s and ‘00s. In Hamilton’s case, it started as an experiment to attract more people to downtown’s new arts district.  However, soon new restaurants, cafes and boutiques were popping up along James Street North and wanted to join in the fun. 

Each month, the Art Crawl grew in popularity. 

Then in 2009, as an experiment, the James Street North merchants convinced the City to close the street for their September Art Crawl so they could add stages for music and create a real street festival - hence the name “SuperCrawl!” The first year attracted 3,000 visitors; today SuperCrawl is an annual 3-day festival the second weekend in September that attracts over 200,000 visitors from across southern Ontario and beyond (i.e. more than the Tiger-Cats attract all season). 

In many ways, SuperCrawl has put Hamilton on the art scene map!  

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SuperCrawl 2018

After attending a regular Art Crawl a few years back and being impressed, I added the Super Crawl to my list of things to see.  This was the year.    

In 2018, this eight-block festival, had two major stages (75+ music and theatre performances), hundreds of artists’/makers’ tents, 15 fashion shows, a block of food trucks, several art installations and a family fun zone.

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Music

The music program is very eclectic. This year’s program ranged from Broken Social Scene to Ian Thomas with the Hamilton All-Star Blues Band in the middle. Over the years, the festival has featured groups like Hamilton’s own Arkells (in 2014), to Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings (the late Jones being called the “female, James Brown” (in 2015). Other notables over the years - Sheepdog, Sam Roberts, Tanya Tagaq and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.   

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 Found this grunge band playing in a dark back alley half a block off of James St N. Anything goes during SuperCrawl.

Found this grunge band playing in a dark back alley half a block off of James St N. Anything goes during SuperCrawl.

Fashion Shows 

One of the festival’s hidden gems is the fashion shows that showcase local designers.  I discovered this stage late on Saturday night. I loved the Cosplay Masquerade and was sorry to miss the Hamilton Vintage Community and The Thrifty Designer shows. Other interesting shows included Madjita: Indigenous Stories and Design and TroyBoy Drag Show.    

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Tents

I was surprised at the number of tents that filled up not only the street but every nook and cranny, creating a fun, flea market-like atmosphere.  From the usual artisans to people selling used records and books – there were treasures to be found.  

  By day…

By day…

  By night…

By night…

Food Trucks 

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In addition to the many restaurants along James St. North, there were 35+ food trucks.

The food trucks ranged from Hamilton’s famous Gorilla Cheese to one called The Flyin’ G’Nosh.  

I was intrigued by Buster’s Bloomin Onion Company’s truck with its huge multi-level trays each holding hundreds of whole peeled onions waiting to be battered, fried and served with Buster’s own chipotle mayo, peppercorn ranch dipping sauce or nacho cheese drizzle.  

I didn’t try them (I hate long lines) but given the long line-up, I bet they were good. 

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SuperCrawl also showcases how downtown Hamilton’s King William Street (one of the adjacent side streets) has evolved into a restaurant row with lovely patios.

In the evenings, it was like being on Calgary’s Stephen Avenue or perhaps in Montreal’s Plateau on a warm summer evening.  

And of course, there was candy floss (it wouldn’t be a street festival without it) and Tim Horton’s Coffee.  Kudos to Timmy’s for sponsoring the entire block that hosted the family fun activities.  

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Art Installations 

The art installations this year were a big disappointment.  I had seen photos of some of the past installations and was ready to be wowed.  Perhaps my expectation’s “bar” was set too high.  However, I was not alone in thinking the art installations looked junky - I overheard many people saying “this just looks like a pile of junk,” and in several cases, that literally is what they were. 

  Robert Hengeveld's artist statement reads, “Howl, a perpetual coyote-and-bunny chase races along the bright green tracks of a custom-built rollercoaster. It is never quite clear which decoy is chasing the other. Both decoys fall well short of the reality they stand to represent, and yet the spectacle of their wild and persistent action seems to make up for their lack of living breath or the occasional blemish in the stab at authenticity. Situated beneath the looping track is a vibrant landscape formed through the heaping piles of shredded paper. Accents of purple, neon pink, and red pop like wild flowers in what becomes an over-romanticized semblance of nature. The abridged world it creates is fantastical despite the ever-present reality of its modest materiality.”

Robert Hengeveld's artist statement reads, “Howl, a perpetual coyote-and-bunny chase races along the bright green tracks of a custom-built rollercoaster. It is never quite clear which decoy is chasing the other. Both decoys fall well short of the reality they stand to represent, and yet the spectacle of their wild and persistent action seems to make up for their lack of living breath or the occasional blemish in the stab at authenticity. Situated beneath the looping track is a vibrant landscape formed through the heaping piles of shredded paper. Accents of purple, neon pink, and red pop like wild flowers in what becomes an over-romanticized semblance of nature. The abridged world it creates is fantastical despite the ever-present reality of its modest materiality.”

  Most people I overheard talking about it saw it as a hodgepodge of junk thrown together, that seemed to have no focus.  There were a few laughs next to the roller coaster, not sure the artist’s message was received.

Most people I overheard talking about it saw it as a hodgepodge of junk thrown together, that seemed to have no focus. There were a few laughs next to the roller coaster, not sure the artist’s message was received.

 Male-Dominated by Vanessa Crosby Ramsay. “ using 6,000 ft of hand-knit computer cable, this piece considers historical ‘women’s work’ and our continued under-representation in fields dominated by me in the present” says the information panel.

Male-Dominated by Vanessa Crosby Ramsay. “ using 6,000 ft of hand-knit computer cable, this piece considers historical ‘women’s work’ and our continued under-representation in fields dominated by me in the present” says the information panel.

  Christopher McLeod's social art project EMERGENCY asks two simple yet complex questions of public participants: What’s the emergency? What can be done about it? Through the production of art as an instrument for change — a pillar beacon with a suggestion box-style cavity for gathering written submissions from the public — the project strives to be emblematic, participatory, and supportive.  Most people just ignored it…there were volunteers there sometimes to engage pedestrians to submit a ballot indicating “what is their emergency?”

Christopher McLeod's social art project EMERGENCY asks two simple yet complex questions of public participants: What’s the emergency? What can be done about it? Through the production of art as an instrument for change — a pillar beacon with a suggestion box-style cavity for gathering written submissions from the public — the project strives to be emblematic, participatory, and supportive.  Most people just ignored it…there were volunteers there sometimes to engage pedestrians to submit a ballot indicating “what is their emergency?”

  Bystanders by Megan Press was assembly of three temporary fixed sculptures made out of everyday materials strapped together. “Bystanders entice audiences to contemplate the familiarity of their identity and configuration as substitutes for human form, architectural structures and discrete objects” says the artist’s statement.  They looked like a smash-up of random materials to me. Most of the time people just walked by and didn’t engage with the work. But did find this impromptu moment, not sure if the young women is responding to the art or to her friends.

Bystanders by Megan Press was assembly of three temporary fixed sculptures made out of everyday materials strapped together. “Bystanders entice audiences to contemplate the familiarity of their identity and configuration as substitutes for human form, architectural structures and discrete objects” says the artist’s statement. They looked like a smash-up of random materials to me. Most of the time people just walked by and didn’t engage with the work. But did find this impromptu moment, not sure if the young women is responding to the art or to her friends.

  Members of    Flagship Gallery    (237 James St. N., Hamilton) offer a visual meditation the theme of "rest” in A Place of Rest. An outdoor installation of artwork created using church pews, dovetailed with an in-gallery exhibition, the piece invites visitors to pause and reflect. This piece seemed be the successful of the art installation as people did stop and where engaged by the piece.

Members of Flagship Gallery (237 James St. N., Hamilton) offer a visual meditation the theme of "rest” in A Place of Rest. An outdoor installation of artwork created using church pews, dovetailed with an in-gallery exhibition, the piece invites visitors to pause and reflect. This piece seemed be the successful of the art installation as people did stop and where engaged by the piece.

  One of the more interesting art experiences was provided by Kelsey Knight who would chat with you and then create a custom poem for you.   I also enjoyed the installation below in one of the permanent art galleries along James St. North.

One of the more interesting art experiences was provided by Kelsey Knight who would chat with you and then create a custom poem for you. I also enjoyed the installation below in one of the permanent art galleries along James St. North.

Circus Orange 

For the past four years, SuperCrawl has showcased Circus Orange, a local performance group that combines acrobatics and pyrotechnics into a fun family evening event. Think Cirque du Soleil up close and personal.  I was able to stand by the fence next to the performers on both nights with great views of the behind the stage warm-up and set-up, as well as watching the performance ringside.  A “front row seat” for FREE!

“It is not every company that can say they have a forensic gun expert working alongside a clown. Or, dancers who are also licensed pyrotechnicians and actors who happily dangle 80 feet in the air from industrial cranes. It is this kind of diversity that is our greatest asset and truly represents the Circus Orange company culture.” (Circus Orange website)

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Urban Renewal Spark

SuperCrawl is a good example of how festivals can serve as the catalyst for change - helping transform a tired and forgotten street and neighbourhood, to a trendy, vibrant urban playground.  

And, while James St N still has a long way to go, there is evidence of revitalization. New condos are being built; new shops and restaurants are joining the traditional Portuguese ones that have been there for many years.

There is a new fully leased WilliamThomas luxury student residence that will add 350+ students to the neighbourhood.  This 21-storey, 169-unit residence is named after the 1850s WilliamThomas building that was on the site until it had to be demolished in 2010 as it was falling down.  The four-storey façade of the original building along James St N was saved and reconstructed as part of the new student tower to enhance the pedestrian-friendliness of street.  At present, it is looking for a couple of new retail or restaurant tenants.  

  One of the reminders that James St N was once known as Little Portugal.

One of the reminders that James St N was once known as Little Portugal.

  The restored Lister Block in the foreground with the WilliamThomas student residence in the background.

The restored Lister Block in the foreground with the WilliamThomas student residence in the background.

Last Word

If you are in the Hamilton area on the second Friday of any month, check out Art Crawl.  And if you love music/art festivals, I highly recommend you plan a weekend vacation in Hamilton and take in the entire festival.  And did I mention it is FREE!

While there you can also check out the Hamilton Art Gallery and the Cotton Factory two other fun art adventures.

  There is lots of interesting architecture in downtown Hamilton, take some time to wander and you will be rewarded.

There is lots of interesting architecture in downtown Hamilton, take some time to wander and you will be rewarded.

Canada: A Country Of Prosaic Cities - Toronto!

I love flaneuring through the books in thrift stores and used bookstores to see if I might find a hidden gem.  That is exactly what happened recently at J.H. Gordon Books on King St. E in Hamilton, Ontario. 

Often, I find books I didn’t even know existed, like Jan Morris’ “City to City” which is subtitled “through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day.” I have a couple of Morris’ books in my collection but had never seen this one.   

A quick check found it was published in 1990 and the cities ranged from St John’s and Saskatoon to Yellowknife and Vancouver, as well as a few cities in between. I thought it would be interesting to see how an outsider saw Canada and our cities almost 30 years ago (a generation). Needless to say, I bought the book.  

  This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

Jan Who?

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Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.   

She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do.

Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.  Perhaps I am jealous?

By the end I was amazed at how many times she used the word “prosaic” to describe Canada, and our cities. However, that being said, she does make some very thought provoking observations.

Over the next few months I will share excerpts from her essays that were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.   

Toronto the capital of the Ice Kingdom  

Morris’ Toronto essay was written in 1984 when she visited the city for its sesquicentennial. She acknowledges the city has become more metropolitan now (i.e. 1990) more Americanized and more assertive as evidenced by….wait for it… “the increasing number of jay-walkers!” 

In her opinion, Toronto is one the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cites of the Western World.  Morris also notes she had never heard of the word “multiculturalism” or “heritage language” until she visited Toronto.  She writes “Far more than any other of the great migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite.”

She thought the word multiculturalism is to Toronto, what “ooh-la-la” is to Paris, “ciao” to Rome, “nyetto” Moscow and “hey you’re looking great” to Manhattan. 

But she also noted “Toronto was not all brotherly love and folklore, saying wherever she went she heard talk of internecine (destructive to both sides) rivalries, felt a darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism and that one could easily stumble into cafes in which plotters organized distant coups.”  

  Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Hinterland 

One of the main themes of the essays is the role of the transcontinental train as Canada’s iconic experience, as evidenced by this paragraph:

“And best of all, early one morning I went down to Union Station to watch the transcontinental train come in out of the darkness from Vancouver. Ah, Canada! I knew exactly what to expect of this experience, but still it stirred me: the hiss and rumble of it, the engineers princely in their high cab, the travel-grimed gleam of the sleeper cars…the grey faces peering out of the sleeper windows, the proud exhaustion of it all, and the thick tumble of the disembarking passengers, a blur of boots and lumberjackets and hoods and bundled children, clattering down the steps to breakfast, grandma, and Toronto, out of the limitless and magnificent hinterland.”

Oh, how Toronto and Canada HAS changed. The transcontinental train is iconic no more, and Union Station is filled with day commuters, with briefcases, backpacks and coffee cups from edge cities, not people from the hinterland.

Hard to believe the west was still thought of a Canada’s hinterland in the mid ‘80s by outsiders.

  Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Destination

I love the strange and insightful questions Morris asks of cities. In the case of Toronto, it was “What were the intentions of this city?” She then links this question to her observation of the “mural sculpture on the wall of the stock exchange ‘Workforce” by Robert Longo and she begins to contemplate its significance. The mural has eight figures, ranging from a stockbroker to what seems like a female miner, none of which look happy.” Whereupon she exclaims, “the pursuit of happiness, after all is not written into the Canadian constitution.”   She also notes, “Nor do they look exactly inspired by some visionary cause…. they are marching determinedly, but joyously, arm-in-arm, upon an undefined objective. Wealth? Fame? Security?”  Interesting contradiction here, as earlier she says they don’t look happy but later they are “joyously, arm-in-arm.”

Morris then poses the question, “Do cities have to have destinations?” And answers with “Perhaps not, but most of them do, if it is only a destination in the past, or in the ideal. Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city. It is not, like London, England obsessed with its own history. It is not an act of faith, like Moscow or Manhattan. It has none of Rio’s exuberant sense of young identity. It is neither brassily capitalist or rigidly public sector. It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are.”

Morris also perceived, “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past. In Sydney, in Melbourne, in Wellington, even in Capetown, not to mention the cities in India, where the imperial memorials remain inescapable, sometimes even dominant…

Nobody, could possibly mistake this for a British City now.” “There is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either….it is not a free-and-easy, damn Yankee sort of city – anything but,” she adds later.

  Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

  Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

  Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Nuclear Attack

Morris observes that while government authority is strong and respected in Toronto you could hardly call it “Orwellian – it seems without malevolence; but at the same time nobody can possibly ignore it, for it seems to have a finger almost everywhere (she hates the Liquor Control Board stores).”

She notes how public art is not only the work of the artist, but has to be authorized and approved by several government bodies before it is installed, or how it is the government that sells you a bottle of scotch and how well-mannered we are addressing criminals in course as “sir.”   

She postulates that if a nuclear bomb was to go off nearby, Torontonians would wait for the lights to change before running for cover.

Later she notes “Only in Toronto, I think, will a streetcar stop to allow a pedestrian to cross – surely one of the most esoteric experiences of travel in the 1980s? (Hmmmm, in Calgary cars stop all the time to let pedestrians cross the street, I wonder what she would make of that) Only in Toronto are the subways so wholesome, the parks so mugger-less, the children so well behaved.” 

She also recognizes Toronto isn’t a “provincial city” describing it as a huge, rich, splendid city, a metropolitan in power, a money centre of universal importance.

“Toronto is Toronto and perhaps that is enough….it is a city clean, neat, and ordered, built to a human scale, unhurried and polite. It has all the prerequisites of your modern major city – your revolving restaurants, your Henry Moore (today, that might be a Santiago Calatrava Bridge or a Jaume Plensa sculpture or a Norman Foster or BIG building), your trees with electric lights in them, your gay bars, your outdoor elevators, your restaurants offering deep fried pears stuffed with ripe camembert on a bed of nutmeg-scented spinach.”

Yet, by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism. 

  The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

  Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

  The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

Futuristic

She adds later “Everywhere has its galleria nowadays, Singapore to Houston, but none is quite so satisfying as Toronto’s Eaton Centre – just like one of the futuristic cities magazine artists like to depict in the 1930s.”

Morris says “Only the greatest of the world’s cities can outclass Toronto’s theatres, cinemas, art galleries, and newspapers, the variety of its restaurants, the number of its TV channels, the calibre of its visiting performers. Poets and artists are innumerable.” 

“What has not happened to Toronto is as remarkable as what has happened. It ought by all the odds to be a brilliant, brutal city, but it isn’t. Its downtown ought to be vulgar and spectacular, but is actually dignified, well proportioned, and indeed noble. Its sex-and-sin quarters, are hardly another Reeperbahn, and the punks and Boy Georges to be seen parading Yonge Street on a Saturday night are downright touching in their bravado, so scrupulously are they ignored.” 

  Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

  Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Escape Tunnels

Morris is not a big fan of the city’s street life, “Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive. The Walkman might be made for it. It swarms with clubs, cliques, and cultural societies, but seems armour-plated against the individual. There are few cities in the world where one can feel, as one walks the streets or rides the subways, for better or for worse, so all alone.” 

She likes Toronto’s underground PATH walkway better than the streets saying “Among the innumerable conveniences of Toronto, which is an extremely convenient city, one of the most attractive is the system of tunnels which lies beneath the downtown streets, and which, with its wonderful bright-lit sequences of stores, cafes, malls and intersections, is almost a second city in itself. I loved to think of all the warmth and life down there, the passing crowds, the coffee smells, the Muzak, and the clink of cups, when the streets above were half-empty in the rain, or scoured by cold winds; and one of my great pleasures was to wander aimless through those comfortable labyrinths, lulled from one Golden Oldie to the next, surfacing now and then to find myself on an unknown street corner far from home, or all unexpectantly in the lobby of some tremendous bank.” 

She adds, “But after a time, I came to think of them as escape tunnels. It was not just that they were warm and dry; they had an intimacy to them, a brush of human empathy, a feeling absent from the greater city above our heads.” 

  Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

  Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

No Joie de vivre

She later says, “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit – those interminable suburbs stretching away, the huge plane of the lake, those long grid roads which deprive the place of surprise or intricacy. Sometimes I think it must be the climate, numbing the nerve endings, or even the sheer empty vastness…Could it be the underpopulation; ought there be a couple of million more people in the city, to give it punch or jostle? Could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.” 

When Morris asked immigrants what they thought of Toronto they said the “people are cold…they just mind their own business and make the dollars…neighbours don’t smile and say hullo (sic), how’s things…nobody talks.” 

To this she adds her own observations “in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment…even the most naturally merry of the immigrants, the dancing Greeks, the witty Poles, the lyrical Hungarians seem to have forfeited their joie de vivre when they embrace the liberties of this town.”

In the end she concludes, “Your heart may not be singing, as you contemplate the presence around you Toronto the Good, but it should not be sinking either.

Cheer up! You have drawn the second prize, I would say, in the Lottario of Life.” 

  Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

  Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

  Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Last Word

Toronto the “Capital of the Ice Kingdom” is Morris’ term, not mine. However, it would seem to capture her view of Canada and our cities as cold, conservative and controlled places with little merriment. Hence the prolific use of the word “prosaic.”

I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Toronto, but then most Canadians other than those living in the metro Toronto area seem to despise the city that thinks it is the “centre of the universe.”  I am probably even more anti-Toronto than most as growing up in Hamilton we hated “Hogtown!”  I was surprised on a recent visit to Hamilton how much the anti-Toronto sentiment still exists.  

While reading the essay I couldn’t help but wonder what she might think of Calgary with our indoor +15 walkway, our brutally cold winters, beautiful icy rivers and huge parks.  What would she think of Stephen Avenue, the Calgary Tower or our iconic recreation centres? I got a sense of what she might have thought in her essay on Edmonton, entitled “A Six-Day Week!” 

  Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

City Travel: Canada vs USA

Canada: The Foundations of its future


 








Calgary: Saturday Afternoon Bike Ride Fun

I love Calgary’s summers – warm days, cool evenings, no humidity, no bugs and big blue skies.

What’s not to love? 

  River surfing on the Bow River at the 10th St Wave is not easy....but fun to watch!

River surfing on the Bow River at the 10th St Wave is not easy....but fun to watch!

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46 Minutes Took 4 Hours

Last Saturday, I took a bike ride to enjoy Calgary’s great urban outdoors along the south shore of the beautiful Bow River, to check out the reopened Harvie Passage.

 It was a lovely ride - along the way I encountered the Nat Christie sculpture park, Shaw Millennium Park, Eau Claire Promenade, Prince’s Island Park, Eau Claire Plaza, Sien Lok Park, Riverwalk, East Village Plaza, St. Patrick’s Island, Fort Calgary Park, Calgary Zoo on St. George’s Island, Harvie Passage, Bow Habitat Station and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  I am sure I missed something.

It is a 7-km ride that Google Maps says should take 23 minutes each way - it took me four hours round trip. 

Here’s why:

  The Eau Claire Plaza and the bridge to Prince's Island is still the most popular spot along the Bow River pathway from 14th St. bridge to Harvie Passage.

The Eau Claire Plaza and the bridge to Prince's Island is still the most popular spot along the Bow River pathway from 14th St. bridge to Harvie Passage.

  The new West Eau Claire park is a great place to sit, chat and catch some rays.

The new West Eau Claire park is a great place to sit, chat and catch some rays.

  The Centre Street Bridge provides a sense of history, as well as a great view of the Bow River and city skyline.

The Centre Street Bridge provides a sense of history, as well as a great view of the Bow River and city skyline.

  The Simmons Building in East Village is a popular gathering place as it is home to cafe and bakery. There is also a lovely roof-top patio. 

The Simmons Building in East Village is a popular gathering place as it is home to cafe and bakery. There is also a lovely roof-top patio. 

  There is public art scattered all along the Bow River's edge, including this one that has become home to nesting pair of Osprey. 

There is public art scattered all along the Bow River's edge, including this one that has become home to nesting pair of Osprey. 

  Found this lovely playground in Inglewood as the pathway winds its way through some century-old streets with large and small century homes and new infills. 

Found this lovely playground in Inglewood as the pathway winds its way through some century-old streets with large and small century homes and new infills. 

Shaw Millennium Park

  Millennium Park combines a mega skate park, with a concert bowl, basketball courts and beach volleyball. 

Millennium Park combines a mega skate park, with a concert bowl, basketball courts and beach volleyball. 

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Harvie Passage Fun

Harvie Passage has both a Class 2 and Class 3 rapids for public use. 

  • Eastern (river left) passage: This is considered a Class 3 passage. This passage should not be used by inexperienced or less-experienced boaters as the risk is significant. Experienced boaters should still exercise caution while navigating this passage.
  • Western (river right) passage: This is a Class 2 passage. The waters are slower moving; however, caution is still required when navigating through this passage.

There are also opportunities for less-experiences boaters to exit the river before the passage and portage the major water features.

Additional benefits of the project include the new shoreline spaces along the passage that have been developed for people wishing to enjoy the beauty of the Bow River from land. There are tree-lined walkways and pebble beach areas for the public. 

The passage recently opened up after being destroyed by the 2013 flood. 

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  Kids love climbing on Lorna Jordan's artwork that reminds me of a log jam in the river.  I am thinking all public art should be designed in a way that kids can climb on them or at least so people can touch it.  

Kids love climbing on Lorna Jordan's artwork that reminds me of a log jam in the river.  I am thinking all public art should be designed in a way that kids can climb on them or at least so people can touch it.  

  Just a few meters inland from Harvie Passage is the Bow Station Habitat which has a free fishing pond for kids.  I didn't see anyone catch anything but there were some very big trout in the pond. 

Just a few meters inland from Harvie Passage is the Bow Station Habitat which has a free fishing pond for kids.  I didn't see anyone catch anything but there were some very big trout in the pond. 

Bow River Living

Since the mid '90s new condos have been completed every few years along the Bow River from West Downtown to East Village. It is hard to believe that in the mid 20th century the Bow River's shoreline was almost completely ignored as a place to live and play - both Eau Claire and East Village were best known for their prostitute strolls. 

  Bow River looking east with West Downtown condos in the foreground.  The white dome is the old planetarium/science centre which will be converted into a contemporary art gallery hopefully by next year. 

Bow River looking east with West Downtown condos in the foreground.  The white dome is the old planetarium/science centre which will be converted into a contemporary art gallery hopefully by next year. 

  Bow River looking west with condos lining the shore and office towers in the background.  

Bow River looking west with condos lining the shore and office towers in the background. 

  Those living along the River enjoy some spectacular sunsets. 

Those living along the River enjoy some spectacular sunsets. 

  The ever changing Bow River is a very cool place summer or winter.

The ever changing Bow River is a very cool place summer or winter.

Last Word

This ride confirmed my view that Calgary has ONE of the best and most unique urban river edges in the world. I love the fact that it has three outdoor concert venues, while at the same time has numerous lovely places to be alone and just sit and relax.  I love that it is a place where locals of all ages and means can bike, skate, board, fish, surf, float and paddle. It is an urban recreational paradise.  

Yes some cities might have more touristy restaurants, bars and hotels, including floating ones along their river, but I love the fact our river isn’t “tarted-up” for tourists. 

And it is getting better every year!

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

East Village: A Billion Dollar Work of Art!

A brief history of the Bow River Islands

Calgary: Canada's Bike Friendly City

Calgary’s City Centre: One Of North America’s Best?

Ever since the Calgary Herald published my column “Does Calgary Have The World’s Most Walkable City Centre?” in March, I have been criticized by some urbanists for being a “Calgary cheerleader” who sees my city with rose-coloured glasses. 

Link: Does Calgary have the most walkable City Centre in the world?

Brent Toderian, a former City of Calgary Planner for our City Centre, then Director of Planning for Vancouver and now an international planning consultant even asked his 49,000 Twitter followers “What in their opinion is the most walkable City Centre in the world?” As one would expect cities like Paris, Barcelona and Melbourne topped the list and Calgary wasn’t included. No surprise Calgary flies under the radar for national and international urbanists.

  Rainbow underpass pathway

Rainbow underpass pathway

  The Chinese Cultural Centre is an architectural gem.

The Chinese Cultural Centre is an architectural gem.

Calgary’s City Centre is very cool

Over the past few months I have posted a number of blogs on my everydaytourist.ca website documenting why Calgary’s major City Centre communities, i.e. Beltline, Bridgeland, Downtown, Inglewood, Kensington and Mission, are all very cool places to live, play and visit. 

In each blog, I documented how over the past decade or two, our City Center with the addition of dozens of new condo complexes and thousands of new infill homes, improved public spaces, new festivals, as well as new shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs has evolved to be on par or better than what other North American cities.  These blogs were also dismissed by some national and international urbanists as simply “cheerleading.”

Here is why I think “Calgary’s City Centre is one of the best in North America” and perhaps the BEST for any city with a population under two million people.  The rationale is not based on stats and figures, but on decades of personal observation of various key elements of urban vitality in dozens of cities in North America and Europe.

  Gotta love this life-size Victor Cicansky chair at the Glenbow Museum. I have a much smaller version with a potato! 

Gotta love this life-size Victor Cicansky chair at the Glenbow Museum. I have a much smaller version with a potato! 

Shopping 

Very few City Centers in North America under two million people still have major department stores and shopping centres. Calgary boasts three department stores – Hudson’s Bay, Holts and Simons and The Core, Bankers’ Hall and Scotia Center combine to create one of the largest indoor shopping malls of any City Centre in North America. 

Our City Centre is also blessed with six major pedestrian streets (Main Streets) – Stephen Avenue, 4th St SW, 10th St NW, Kensington Road, 9th Ave SE and 17th Ave SW, as well as, four secondary ones – First St SW, 11th St SW, 11th Ave SW (Design District) and 1st Ave NE (Bridgeland).  Most City Centres are lucky to have two or three.

It also has four major grocery stores – Safeway (Kensington, Connaught and Mission), as well as Midtown Co-op.  In addition, Sunterra (Victoria Park), Community Natural Foods (Beltline), Bite (Inglewood), Sunnyside Organic Market and Bridgeland Market, Luke’s Drug Mart and Blush Lane Organic Market (both in Bridgeland) serve as niche grocers. And, while Calgary doesn’t have a year-round central market, we do have weekly summer markets in Hillhurst and Bridgeland. 

  The Core shopping centre's skylight is impressive as are the shops, if only they could get the public garden to stop leaking.  

The Core shopping centre's skylight is impressive as are the shops, if only they could get the public garden to stop leaking.  

  Calgary's City Centre has lots of pedestrian oriented streets. 

Calgary's City Centre has lots of pedestrian oriented streets. 

  17th Ave aka Red Mile is a mix of retail, restaurant and residential buildings of all sizes and shapes. 

17th Ave aka Red Mile is a mix of retail, restaurant and residential buildings of all sizes and shapes. 

  It also has great places to browse. 

It also has great places to browse. 

  Calgary's City Centre as several large grocery stores, as well as several boutique ones. 

Calgary's City Centre as several large grocery stores, as well as several boutique ones. 

  Keynote combines a market, cafe, liquor store with an office tower and two residential towers.

Keynote combines a market, cafe, liquor store with an office tower and two residential towers.

Coffee Culture

Calgary has had a strong independent coffee culture long before Starbucks was even thought of.  Kensington has been home to two independent coffee houses - Higher Ground and the Roasterie since the ‘80s.  Café Beano has been a hipster hangout since before the term hipster was popularized in the 21st century.  Mission’s Purple Perk has also been around for decades.

Recently, a plethora of Calgary-based coffee houses have invaded the City Centre – Alforno, Analog, Gravity, Monogram, Phil & Sebastian, Rosso and Vendome to name a few.  Indeed, you are never far from a café in Calgary’s City Centre.

  There are literally new coffee shops popping up ever month.  This one is in the a-mazing 20 km indoor +15 pedestrian system. 

There are literally new coffee shops popping up ever month.  This one is in the a-mazing 20 km indoor +15 pedestrian system. 

  Cafe Beano a Calgary landmark.

Cafe Beano a Calgary landmark.

Restaurants

Like most North American cities, the restaurant scene has exploded in Calgary’s City Centre over the past 20+ years.  EnRoute Magazine’s list of top new Canadian restaurants list has routinely included one or more Calgary City Centre restaurants including Bar Von Der Fels (2017), while Pigeon Hole was ranked their “The Best New Restaurant” in Canada (2015).

John Gilchrist, Calgary Herald food and restaurant writer and author of “My Favourite Restaurants Calgary and Banff,” had 49 favourite restaurants in downtown alone and over 150 in the City Center in his last book.  He points out Calgary’s City Centre offers both upscale dining -Teatro, Blink and Charcut – as well as many ethnic dining spots – Falafel King, Pure and Jonas. Gilchrist also notes Calgary’s Chinatown is small, but has some great dim sum spots, and Stephen Avenue has an abundance of pubs and restaurant patios. 

  It doesn't get much better than al fresco dining on Stephen Avenue under the Bay's colonnade. 

It doesn't get much better than al fresco dining on Stephen Avenue under the Bay's colonnade. 

  If you are into funky places Re:Grub where you can dine in a barrel...how appropriate is that. 

If you are into funky places Re:Grub where you can dine in a barrel...how appropriate is that. 

  Patio dining on the river is always an option.

Patio dining on the river is always an option.

Art & Architecture

Over the past two decades, Calgary has upped its game when it comes to urban design. Calgary’s City Centre boasts a major office tower by Norman Foster (The Bow), a mixed office/residential tower by Bjarke Ingles (Telus Sky), a bridge by Santiago Calatrava that is unlike any other he has designed (Peace Bridge) and an iconic new Central Library by Sinohetta. There is also Pickard Chilton’s two tower Eighth Avenue Place and London’s Arney Fender Katsalidis Brookfield Place office tower, both featuring cathedral-like public lobbies. 

  BIG's Telus Sky but it is quickly becoming known as The Twist. Can't wait to see Douglas Coupland's light show on the side of the building.  

BIG's Telus Sky but it is quickly becoming known as The Twist. Can't wait to see Douglas Coupland's light show on the side of the building. 

  Stephen Avenue an eclectic mix of shops, office towers, pubic art and architecture (both old and new).

Stephen Avenue an eclectic mix of shops, office towers, pubic art and architecture (both old and new).

Calgary also has an early SOM architects residential tower (Eau Claire 500 built in 1979) and a new SOM office tower (707 Fifth Street, built in 2017). SOM, one of the largest and most influential architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world designed the iconic Birj in Dubai, the tallest building in the world.

When it comes to public art, Calgary boasts 100+ artworks in its City Centre including “Wonderland” by internationally acclaimed artist Jaume Plensa. Some of Calgary’s best public art is by local artists like Ron Moppett’s huge mosaic “THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER” made up of 956,321 tiny glass tiles and Joe Fafard’s stampeding horses titled “Do Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do.”  

  New public artworks are being installed almost monthly. 

New public artworks are being installed almost monthly. 

  Giving Wings to the Dream, Doug Driediger, east wall of old CUPS building on 100 block of 7th Ave SE. This mural has held up well given it is 20+ years old.  Again I like the fact the piece relates to the site, which was home to Calgary Urban Projects Society (helping people in need) when it was first commissioned. I think it talks nicely about Calgary as a caring city. 

Giving Wings to the Dream, Doug Driediger, east wall of old CUPS building on 100 block of 7th Ave SE. This mural has held up well given it is 20+ years old.  Again I like the fact the piece relates to the site, which was home to Calgary Urban Projects Society (helping people in need) when it was first commissioned. I think it talks nicely about Calgary as a caring city. 

  Calgary also has a budding street art culture. This piece "Eyes on the Street" was done by a teenager who lives in the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community. 

Calgary also has a budding street art culture. This piece "Eyes on the Street" was done by a teenager who lives in the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community. 

Calgary’s City Center is also home to many historical buildings including dozens of early 20th Century sandstone buildings. Stephen Avenue is a designated National Historic Site with its collection of early 20th century buildings.  Atlantic Avenue aka 9th Avenue SE - Calgary’s original main street - also has an important collection of early 20th century brick buildings. Other important historical sites include the Lougheed House with the Beaulieu Garden, Reader Rock Gardens and Senator Burns Rock Gardens.

When it comes to the arts, Arts Commons is one of the larger performing arts centres in North America (3,200 seats in 5 performance spaces), Glenbow is one of Canada’s largest museums and Lunchbox Theatre is longest running noon-hour theatre in North America.  There is also Theatre Junction Grand and Decidedly Jazz dance studio offering diverse programming while two arthouse cinemas – The Globe and Plaza offer alternative and main stream films. Yes, I know we don’t have a major contemporary art gallery -  you can’t have everything!

  The Glenbow has developed a very insightful curatorial program linking past and present. 

The Glenbow has developed a very insightful curatorial program linking past and present. 

Public Spaces

Calgary’s City Centre boast an impressive best collection of parks - from the 100+ year old Memorial Park to the new St. Patrick’s Island park complete with pebble beach. Few City Centres can boast a park with an active cricket pitch (Riley Park) or one with a family toboggan hill (Murdoch Park).  Prince’s Island has been called one of the best music festival sites by many Calgary International Folk Festival performers.  

And then there is Stampede Park. It hosts not only “The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth” but also is home to a major arena (hockey, lacrosse, ice shows and concerts), a major trade and convention facility as well as numerous other buildings that host hundreds of events year-round.

When it comes to pathways, Calgary’s Bow River promenade from 14th Street Bridge to Fort Calgary is truly in a class of its own.  The enhancement of the West Eau Claire section of the promenade this year will make it truly one of the great urban strolls in North America. 

The +15 system with its 60+ bridges connecting 100+ buildings helps make our City Centre one of the most walkable in the world.  Not only does it make walking more attractive in poor weather, but it also means you can walk without worrying about crazy drivers and cyclists.

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  Calgary's Olympic Plaza is a colourful oasis in the summer.  

Calgary's Olympic Plaza is a colourful oasis in the summer.  

 Chillin' on Riverwalk in East Village.

Chillin' on Riverwalk in East Village.

  containR Park in Hillhurst Sunnyside is home to numerous planned and unplanned events. 

containR Park in Hillhurst Sunnyside is home to numerous planned and unplanned events. 

Fitness/Recreational Opportunities

The Repsol Sports Centre, opened in 1983, is one of the busiest recreation centers in North America today. It is interesting to note its pure white translucent Teflon roof – shaped like a turtle - predates the current obsession for creating strange-shaped public buildings by 20 years. 

Shaw Millennium Skateboard Park is not only one of the largest free public skate parks in the world, but also offers beach volleyball and basketball courts.  Haultain Park has a tennis courts, a playing field and popular children’s playground. 

The Bow River pathway system is a very popular running route morning, noon and night, evenings and weekends year round. 

The City Centre is also home to dozens of private fitness centers and yoga studios including the busy Eau Claire Y.

  Calgarians are good at improvising when it comes to recreational infrastructure. 

Calgarians are good at improvising when it comes to recreational infrastructure. 

  Family fun in downtown.

Family fun in downtown.

Pubs & Clubs 

Calgary, has a budding music scene with Mikey’s, Ironwood, Palomino and Blues Can offering live music seven days a week.  The new National Music Centre with the King Eddy enhances Calgary claim to be North America’s next music city.

Every Calgary City Centre community has its signature pub, from James Joyce on Stephen Avenue to Kensington Pub in Kensington, as well as the Ship & Anchor to Trolley Five on 17th Ave SW. 

  The Ironwood Stage & Grill is just one of several music venues in the City Centre. 

The Ironwood Stage & Grill is just one of several music venues in the City Centre. 

  There is a sense of authenticity at the Blues Can in Inglewood.

There is a sense of authenticity at the Blues Can in Inglewood.

  17th Avenue is lined with pubs and patios. 

17th Avenue is lined with pubs and patios. 

Festivals

Another defining element of a good City Centre is its signature festivals. Here is a list of Calgary’s major festivals that take place in our City Centre with a national or international component.

  • High Performance Rodeo (January)
  • Big Taste (March)
  • Calgary Expo (April)
  • Calgary International Children’s Festival (May)
  • Lilac Festival (May/June)
  • SLED Island (June)
  • Calgary Stampede (July)
  • Calgary International Folk Festival (July)
  • Beakerhead (September)
  • Calgary International Film Festival (September)
  • Wordfest (October)
 The Calgary Stampede is the mother of all Calgary festivals. It is more than just a rodeo, it is an agricultural fair, chuckwagon races, a midway, a music festival, a grandstand show and mega fireworks show. 

The Calgary Stampede is the mother of all Calgary festivals. It is more than just a rodeo, it is an agricultural fair, chuckwagon races, a midway, a music festival, a grandstand show and mega fireworks show. 

  Prince's Island and the Calgary International Folk Festival is a magical experience.

Prince's Island and the Calgary International Folk Festival is a magical experience.

  Calgary hosts one of the biggest and best cosplay festivals in Canada.

Calgary hosts one of the biggest and best cosplay festivals in Canada.

FFQ Elements

Great City Centers have fun, funky and quirky things to see and do.  Calgary’s offers Friday Night Drumming Circles in Inglewood, to Sunday afternoon cricket matches in Riley Park, to three Saturday afternoon blues jams Calgary’s City Centre. Family fun can be had at Canada’s second largest Zoo on an island in the middle of the Bow River and next door is the quirky looking TELUS Spark science center.  Wander the lobbies of downtown’s office buildings and you will find a real bush plane hanging from the ceiling of an office building (Suncor Centre), or a bison skeleton in the Sun Life Plaza or lobby full of masterpieces of Canadian Art by the likes of Shadbolt and Riopelle (Eighth Avenue Place).  Need I go on?

  Old school outdoor shoe shine fun in Kensington!

Old school outdoor shoe shine fun in Kensington!

  Saturday afternoon dancing in Tomkins Park anyone? 

Saturday afternoon dancing in Tomkins Park anyone? 

  Sunday afternoon fishing in the Bow!

Sunday afternoon fishing in the Bow!

Last Word

I am not alone in thinking Calgary has a great City Centre.  In 2014 the Canadian Institute of Planners chose Inglewood as “Canada’s Best Neighbourhood,” with Kensington being one of the runner-ups.  Both have gotten better since then with exciting new condo projects.

While I recognize our City Centre isn’t perfect, I stand by my observation that it is one of the best in North America. In fact, based on the City of Calgary community profiles, over 75,000 Calgarians (6% of overall city population) live in our City Centre and 5,600 (7.5%) are children under the age of 14 (based on 2014 Census). These are healthy numbers on a per capita basis and are on par with Vancouver, considered by many urbanists to be one of the world’s best places for urban living.

Every time I visit another North American city, I develop a better appreciation for Calgary’s City Centre as a clean, safe and interesting place to live. While it is hard for Calgary to compete with larger and older cities like Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, I would put Calgary’s City Centre communities up against those of Vancouver, Portland, Austin, Nashville or Denver anytime. 

Oh, and if you still want to call me a “Calgary cheerleader,” I am OK with that.

If you want to learn more about Calgary City Centre checkout these links:

Calgary's Coolest Neighbourhoods: Inglewood

Mission is marvellous

Beltline: Calgary's Hipster/Nester Community

Bridgeland/Riverside's Rebirth

Kensington: Calgary's Left Bank is cool!

Downtown Living is cooler than you think!

Downtown Living Is Cooler Than You Think!

Downtown Calgary ‘flies under the radar” for most Calgarians when is comes to being a place to live.  However, that is not true for the 9,000 people who live in what the City of Calgary calls the “Downtown Commercial Core” (i.e. from 3rd St SE to 9th St SW and from 9th Ave to 4th Ave SW.

  Anthem Properties' Waterfront project one of several new luxury condo projects built over the past 10+ years in downtown Calgary along the south shore of the Bow River. 

Anthem Properties' Waterfront project one of several new luxury condo projects built over the past 10+ years in downtown Calgary along the south shore of the Bow River. 

  It doesn't get any nicer than strolling along the Eau Claire Promenade which is part of the Bow River Pathway that extends on both side of the river from one end of downtown to the other . 

It doesn't get any nicer than strolling along the Eau Claire Promenade which is part of the Bow River Pathway that extends on both side of the river from one end of downtown to the other

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Downtown vs Beltline

While the Beltline, Bridgeland, Inglewood and Kensington get all the attention as Calgary’s urban living hot spots, when you combine Downtown West End, Commercial Core, Downtown East Village (the City’s official names for these three communities), Eau Claire and Chinatown (together they are roughly the same geographical size as the Beltline) there are over 18,000 people living downtown vs. Beltline’s 21,357 and Hillhurst/Sunnyside’s 10,345). 

While downtown's shiny office towers get all the attention – good and bad – downtown (using the broader boundaries) is definitely a cool place to live.

Here’s why!

  Olympic Plaza is a great spot to sit and watch the world go by or chat with a friend.  Downtown has some amazing public spaces. 

Olympic Plaza is a great spot to sit and watch the world go by or chat with a friend.  Downtown has some amazing public spaces. 

  Hotchkiss Gardens is also a fun place to sit and chat with friends.

Hotchkiss Gardens is also a fun place to sit and chat with friends.

  Chinatown is a   fun place to shop for groceries.

Chinatown is a fun place to shop for groceries.

  Shaw Millennium Park provides not only a unique view of downtown, but also unique recreational and entertainment experiences. 

Shaw Millennium Park provides not only a unique view of downtown, but also unique recreational and entertainment experiences. 

Festivals/Events

There is a festival or major event in downtown almost every weekend. Everything from the High Performance Rodeo to major international festivals (Children, Film, Folk and SLED) Downtown also hosts Calgary’s largest single day event - The Calgary Stampede Parade the first Friday every July. 

Major outdoor concerts and music festivals also happen at Shaw Millennium Park and Fort Calgary Park every summer.

  The Calgary International Folk Festival is just one of the many festivals that take place on Prince's Island. 

The Calgary International Folk Festival is just one of the many festivals that take place on Prince's Island. 

Shops

An amazing diversity of shopping opportunities exists in Downtown – department stores (Hudson’s Bay, Simons and Holt Renfrew) to the uber chic Core and grassroots Chinatown.

In addition there are shop at Bankers Hall, Scotia Centre and Bow Valley Square.  Calgary’s downtown shopping not only surpasses anything Portland, Nashville or Austin have, but also rivals Calgary’s Chinook Centre (one of Canada’s top malls).

There are also off-the-beaten path shops like Map World with its incredible collection of wall maps, globes, travel and topographical maps.  Or, if you are into fly-fishing, Hanson’s Fishing Outfitters in the Grain Exchange building has everything you might need. Bonus: you can walk from Hanson’s to fish in the Bow River in just a few minutes.  How cool is that?

  The Core is an amazing shopping experience with 3 floors of shops, 4th floor food court and links to shopping at Holt Renfrew, Hudson's Bay, Simons and Bankers Hall. Imagine having this in your backyard!

The Core is an amazing shopping experience with 3 floors of shops, 4th floor food court and links to shopping at Holt Renfrew, Hudson's Bay, Simons and Bankers Hall. Imagine having this in your backyard!

 Holt Renfew offers an upscale shopping experience. 

Holt Renfew offers an upscale shopping experience. 

  Power hour on Stephen Avenue Walk.

Power hour on Stephen Avenue Walk.

Cafe Culture

Downtown Calgary is blessed with an amazing array of coffeehouses. Alforno Café and Bakery is arguably Calgary’s coolest café. Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters has two locations Simmons Building and on Stephen Avenue.  Calgary based, Good Earth Café also has two locations Eau Claire Market and 7th Avenue at 5th Street. Caffe Artigiano has two locations along Barclay Mall. Calgary’s Monogram Coffee can be found in Fifth Avenue Place.  

Downtown also has a very unique Starbucks in Eighth Avenue Place with its  minimalist open design with long communal tables rather than individual small tables for two and four. 

  Simmons building is a popular meeting spot on the weekends as it is right on the Riverwalk which is part of the Bow River pathway system.

Simmons building is a popular meeting spot on the weekends as it is right on the Riverwalk which is part of the Bow River pathway system.

  Downtown is full of fun surprises like these bike cafes.  How cool is that?

Downtown is full of fun surprises like these bike cafes.  How cool is that?

Restaurants

Downtown Calgary offers both high and lowbrow dining.  It includes four signature Calgary restaurants, the rustic River Café, classic Teatros, Murietta’s West Coast Bar & Grill, and Sky 360, the revolving restaurant at the top of the Calgary Tower.  The new kid on the block is Charbar in the Simmons Building, its roof-top patio offers spectacular views of the Bow River and RiverWalk.

There is a kaleidoscope of ethnic restaurants downtown, Anatolia (Turkish), Atlas (Persian), Jonas (Hungarian), Pure Contemporary Vietnamese Kitchen + Bar to name just four.  And of course, there is no shortage of Asian restaurants in Chinatown. 

If you love Alberta beef, downtown offers five signature steakhouses – Buchanan’s, Caesar’s, Hy’s, The Keg and Saltlik.  Buchanan’s Chop House is known not only for food, but for its its selection of more than 300 malt whiskeys from around the world.

The Fairmont Palliser offers a themed afternoon tea by reservation.  The theme at the time of this blog posting was a Mad Hatter Tea Party that included Tweeledum Tweedeldee Yuzu tarts and Queen of Hearts red velvet cupcakes – very cool.

John Gilchrist, Calgary’s renowned food and restaurant critic has called downtown’s Stephen Avenue Walk one of the best restaurant rows in Canada. 

  The Guild on Stephen Avenue Walk brings the cooking to the street.

The Guild on Stephen Avenue Walk brings the cooking to the street.

  Stephen Avenue is chock-a-block full of patios.

Stephen Avenue is chock-a-block full of patios.

  Charbar's roof top patio overs great views of the Bow River and downtown skyline.

Charbar's roof top patio overs great views of the Bow River and downtown skyline.

Art/Architecture

There area few places in Canada let alone Calgary that can match downtown for its combination of architecture and public art all within a few blocks of each other.  From the historic sandstone buildings (old City Hall and McDougall Centre) to the glittering glass office towers (Bow Tower, Eighth Avenue Place, Nexen Tower and 505 7th Avenue) to the three iconic bridges (Peace, King and Centre Street) and the National Music Centre. 

Coming soon are two new architectural gems – the new Calgary Public Library and Telus Sky office/residential tower. The Library was designed by internationally renowned architectural firm, Snohetta from Oslo while Telus Sky’s was designed by the esteemed Bjarke Ingels Group from Copenhagen. 

Downtown has literally hundreds of artworks along its streets, in its parks and plazas and along its pathways.  You could easily stroll around downtown all say enjoying the art - from the Famous Five tea party at Olympic Plaza to the Wonderland on the Bow Tower plaza to the Conversation on Stephen Avenue Walk.

Did you know that there are artworks in almost every downtown office lobby?  The Eighth Avenue Place lobby includes works of renowned Canadian painters Jean Paul Riopelle and Jack Shadbolt.  There are also some fun contemporary paintings in relatively new Calgary Centre office tower.

Downtown Calgary is one huge public art gallery waiting to be discovered.

 The Chinese Community Centre is a downtown hidden gem.

The Chinese Community Centre is a downtown hidden gem.

  I always smile when I flaneur past Sadko & Kabuki by Sorrel Etrog.  Public art like this adds a nice element of fun and colour to downtown living. 

I always smile when I flaneur past Sadko & Kabuki by Sorrel Etrog.  Public art like this adds a nice element of fun and colour to downtown living. 

  Calgary Tower and Scotia Centre take on a Salvador Dali-like metamorphosis when reflected in the glass facade of another building. 

Calgary Tower and Scotia Centre take on a Salvador Dali-like metamorphosis when reflected in the glass facade of another building. 

  Tea Time in downtown takes on a different meaning at the Famous Five sculpture.

Tea Time in downtown takes on a different meaning at the Famous Five sculpture.

  Downtown's urbanscape, a rich collage of public art, heritage and modern architecture, makes for a very pedestrian-friendly experience. 

Downtown's urbanscape, a rich collage of public art, heritage and modern architecture, makes for a very pedestrian-friendly experience. 

  The lobbies of most downtown office buildings are like mini art galleries.  

The lobbies of most downtown office buildings are like mini art galleries.  

Parks/Plazas/Pathways

Calgary’s downtown is also blessed with some of the best public spaces of any city its size and age in North America.  Any city would be hard pressed to match Prince’s Island (one of the best festival sites in Canada) and St. Patrick’s Island parks.

Add Shaw Millennium Park and Fort Calgary Park to the mix and you have four major downtown urban parks. Let’s not forget about Century (soon to get a mega makeover), Devonian and Hotchkiss Gardens, as well as James Short, McDougall and Sein Lok Parks. Impressive!

Downtown also boasts Eau Claire and Olympic Plaza, both with wadding pools in the summer, with the latter becoming a skating rink in the winter.

As for pathways, downtown offers easy access to people of all ages wanting to walk, run, board, blade or bike along the Bow River pathways.  In addition, there is the a-mazing 20 km +15 elevated walkway.

  St. Patrick's Island is a special place for families. 

St. Patrick's Island is a special place for families. 

  The Eau Claire wading pool is also popular for young families. 

The Eau Claire wading pool is also popular for young families. 

  The nature walk at the east end of Prince's Island is lovely oasis as well as educational. 

The nature walk at the east end of Prince's Island is lovely oasis as well as educational. 

  Downtown is a place where you can lie back and relax.

Downtown is a place where you can lie back and relax.

  The +15 walkway is the perfect place to bump into someone you haven't seen for years.  

The +15 walkway is the perfect place to bump into someone you haven't seen for years.  

Fitness/Recreation

The Eau Claire Y has been a very popular family fitness center for decades.  Its proximity to the Eau Claire Promenade and Bow River pathway system has resulted in creating a busy year-round outdoor running track.

There is also Shaw Millennium Park's mega skateboard park and river surfing on the Bow River under the Louise Bridge. 

Downtown also has several private fitness centres – Bankers Hall, Bow Valley Club and two Good Life Fitness Centres (including one in the historic 1931 Bank of Montreal building with its gold leaf ceiling on Stephen Avenue).

  River surfing is become more and more popular on the Bow River.

River surfing is become more and more popular on the Bow River.

  The skateboard part has three separate areas - beginners, intermediate and experts. It is one of the largest free public skate parks in the world.

The skateboard part has three separate areas - beginners, intermediate and experts. It is one of the largest free public skate parks in the world.

  Downtown is a great place to walk, run, cycle or just sit.

Downtown is a great place to walk, run, cycle or just sit.

Culture/Nightlife

Downtown Calgary is home to Arts Commons with its 3,200 seats in five performing art spaces, as well as the Theatre Junction Grand, Palace Theatre, Lunchbox Theatre, Vertigo Theatre (two spaces). If you stretch the boundaries a bit, there is also the Pumphouse Theatre way on the west side.  It is also home to the Globe Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire for movie buffs. 

Live music venues include The Palomino Smokehouse and Dickens Pub, as well as three churches – Knox United, Anglican Church of the Redeemer and Central United Church.

Downtown also is home to The Glenbow Museum, National Music Centre, Fort Calgary and Contemporary Calgary, as well as several private art galleries.

Culture vultures love living downtown as theatre, concerts and exhibitions are all within easy walking distance.

  Downtown offers a variety of nightlife options. 

Downtown offers a variety of nightlife options. 

Pubs/Beer/Spirits

The James Joyce pub on Stephen Avenue is downtown’s quintessential pub, followed closely by Dickens, Fionn MacCool’s, Garage Sports Bar and Unicorn. In the summer the patios along Stephen Avenue Walk create one long beer garden.

Downtown is home to Calgary Co-op’s World of Whiskey Store with its 850 different varieties of whiskey.  It is located on the +15 level at 333-5th Avenue SW.  In East Village’s N3 condo, the Brewer’s Apprentice offers up 48 craft brews. Not only can you sample a few, but you can take home a freshly poured growler or crowler of your favourites.

I recently heard Caesar’s Lounge described as nearest thing to time travel in Calgary – think Mad Men. This family-owned Calgary institution hasn’t changed since it opened in 1972.  It is known for its “Emperor” size cocktails, i.e. 3oz of your favourite spirits.

  Downtown's East Village is undergoing a mega makeover designed to create a vibrant urban village for 10,000+ people. 

Downtown's East Village is undergoing a mega makeover designed to create a vibrant urban village for 10,000+ people. 

Fun/Funky/Quirky (FFQ) Factor

For some, POW (Parade of Wonders) is the best FFQ event in Calgary.  Every spring as part of Calgary Expo, hundreds of Calgarians of all ages get dressed up in their favourite fantasy character and parade from Eau Claire to Olympic Plaza.  It is literally a sea of vibrant colours and characters.

For others, Calgary’s Gay Pride Parade each August ranks as the best FFQ event in the City. It attracts thousands of colourful participants and tens of thousands of spectators. 

Downtown Calgary’s “Power Hour” (term coined by a former downtown Hudson’s Bay department store manager in the mid ‘90s for the thousands of downtown workers who power shop at noon hour) is like a parade as tens of thousands downtown workers parade up and down Stephen Avenue.

It doesn’t get much quirkier than having an authentic bush plane hanging from the ceiling in the lobby of the Suncor Centre.  Or does it? The Udderly Art Pasture on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade is definitely FFQ.  Here you will find a herd (10) of life-size cows with names like Chew-Choo or Moony Trader who have been put out to pasture.

  Everybody loves a parade...this is the annual POW Parade.

Everybody loves a parade...this is the annual POW Parade.

Last Word

Downtown Calgary is a hidden gem when it comes to urban living and it is only going to get better with several new residential developments in East Village, Telus Sky and the new West Village towers under construction. 

I can’t wait to see the “Northern Lights” light show on the façade of Telus Sky developed by Canadian artist, Douglas Coupland.  I have been advocating a Northern Lights inspired light show for a downtown office building for over 20 years.

  The new Vogue condo is located right in heart of downtown's commercial core.

The new Vogue condo is located right in heart of downtown's commercial core.

 Cidex Group of Companies is currently constructing the first tower of their ambitious West Village Towers project designed by NORR's Calgary and Dubai offices. 

Cidex Group of Companies is currently constructing the first tower of their ambitious West Village Towers project designed by NORR's Calgary and Dubai offices. 

Note: This is the second in a series of blogs examining what makes Calgary’s City Centre neighbourhoods so cool.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Downtown Calgary Glows With Fun

Downtown Calgary puts the PARK in parkades

Atlanta is fun, funky and quirky!

I must confess Atlanta wasn't on my bucket list of cities to visit.  But when I got an opportunity to go to Augusta, GA for a practice round of The Masters golf tournament via Atlanta, I thought why not. 

I have often said, "I can find interesting things to see and do in any city!"

  One of the things I like best about flaneuring is the surprises.  This has to be one of the best surprises I have encountered in a long time.  Note the empty bottle and piece of litter. Indeed every picture tells a story...

One of the things I like best about flaneuring is the surprises.  This has to be one of the best surprises I have encountered in a long time.  Note the empty bottle and piece of litter. Indeed every picture tells a story...

18,000 Step  Program

Everyone I asked about what to see and do in Atlanta said, "You will need a car." As everyday tourist, we loved a challenge.

Brenda and I spent 14 days in Atlanta's City Centre and found lots to see and do either on foot (averaging 18,000 steps a day, highest was 27,000+) or using the MARTA train (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Association).

  Brenda found this strange and quirky gravestone at the Oakland Cemetery. 

Brenda found this strange and quirky gravestone at the Oakland Cemetery. 

Game on!

We found great vintage, antique and thriftshops along Chamblee's Antique Row and a great craft brewery HopStix. Living across the street from Piedmont Park (Atlanta's equivalent to NYC's Central Park) was a delight. While Atlanta's City Centre doesn't have any streets with contiguous retail and restaurants we did find some hidden gems. 

We loved the buzz at Ponce City Market a repurposed Sears Roebuck Co. store and distribution centre. It made me rethink, "Why Calgary's Eau Claire Market didn't work? Would it work today?

Atlantic Station a reclaimed steel factory on the other side of the interstate highway from Midtown was also enlightening.  Its grid of mid-rise brick condos with street retail and restaurants mimicking an early 20th century warehouse district was a very pedestrian friendly. It has many of the elements of Calgary's University District and West District. It made me wonder, "if East Village shouldn't of had more midrise buildings with street retail to create a more human scale?"

Beltline was bustling

I was gobsmacked by the number of people strolling Atlanta's Beltline a reclaimed railway line that has become a multi-use trail modelled after NYC's High Line without all the fancy furnishing and finishings.  I bet there were 50,000+ people of all ages strolling the promenade on the 10km stretch that I experienced on a warm Saturday afternoon.

I was surprised they allowed cyclists (probably about 5% of the users) to use the concrete pathway when it was so busy.  I can't believe how aggressive and inconsiderate many of the cyclists were. Brenda headed home early as it was too unpleasant for her liking.  

After spending 14 days in Atlanta's City Centre, I am pleased to say the city was more fun, funky and quirky (FFQ) than I could have hoped for. 

Check out this FFQing photo essay and let me know what you think.  FYI. I have saved the best for last....

  Found this strange dude hanging out at the Antique Factory (huge warehouse of mid-century modern artifacts) in Chamblee's Antique Row, which is easy to get to by MARTA (transit train).

Found this strange dude hanging out at the Antique Factory (huge warehouse of mid-century modern artifacts) in Chamblee's Antique Row, which is easy to get to by MARTA (transit train).

  Found "Dolly" in the American League thrift store in Chamblee's Antique Row. 

Found "Dolly" in the American League thrift store in Chamblee's Antique Row. 

  Everywhere we went we kept running into funky shops like this one. Around the corner was a fun little printing studio.  While Atlanta has no main streets (i.e. streets with continuous shops on both sides of the street), it does have fun off-the-beaten path shops.

Everywhere we went we kept running into funky shops like this one. Around the corner was a fun little printing studio.  While Atlanta has no main streets (i.e. streets with continuous shops on both sides of the street), it does have fun off-the-beaten path shops.

  If you are looking for curated funky mid-century modern furnishings and artwork you have to go to   Decades Antiques and Vintage   at 1886 Cheshire Bridge Rd NE.  There are several antique and thriftstores in the area. 

If you are looking for curated funky mid-century modern furnishings and artwork you have to go to Decades Antiques and Vintage at 1886 Cheshire Bridge Rd NE.  There are several antique and thriftstores in the area. 

  Little Five Points is like walking into a "magical mystery tour" as all of the building facades are colourful and playful. It reminded us of Berlin.

Little Five Points is like walking into a "magical mystery tour" as all of the building facades are colourful and playful. It reminded us of Berlin.

  On Easter Sunday, there were lots of outdoor celebrations like this adult only party that included an egg toss on the front lawn.

On Easter Sunday, there were lots of outdoor celebrations like this adult only party that included an egg toss on the front lawn.

  Even the cement trucks are works of art in Atlanta! 

Even the cement trucks are works of art in Atlanta! 

  Aren't these folk art portable toilets at the outdoor science fair in Piedmont Park quirky?

Aren't these folk art portable toilets at the outdoor science fair in Piedmont Park quirky?

  Thought this was a Claes Oldenburg sculpture in   Centennial Olympic Park  , but it turned out to be an information booth in front of the World of Coca-Cola building.  Too much fun!

Thought this was a Claes Oldenburg sculpture in Centennial Olympic Park, but it turned out to be an information booth in front of the World of Coca-Cola building.  Too much fun!

  Another fun, funky, quirky facade...but with a social and political statement. 

Another fun, funky, quirky facade...but with a social and political statement. 

  Atlanta is known as a auto-centric city, but we found using transit was a viable option.  This fun sculpture titled "Autoeater" by German artists Julia Venske and Gregor Spanle is located at an intersection that is busy with cars and pedestrians in Midtown

Atlanta is known as a auto-centric city, but we found using transit was a viable option.  This fun sculpture titled "Autoeater" by German artists Julia Venske and Gregor Spanle is located at an intersection that is busy with cars and pedestrians in Midtown

  It would have been easy to miss this sun dial at the Inman Middle School in the Virginia/Highland community. It took me two trips to realize it wasn't just a clock.

It would have been easy to miss this sun dial at the Inman Middle School in the Virginia/Highland community. It took me two trips to realize it wasn't just a clock.

  Found this Jetson sculpture in the lobby of the luxurious student study hall/library lobby with roof top garden that is on par with what you might find at a luxury urban hotel.  The Starbuck stays open until 2 am Sunday to Thursday!

Found this Jetson sculpture in the lobby of the luxurious student study hall/library lobby with roof top garden that is on par with what you might find at a luxury urban hotel.  The Starbuck stays open until 2 am Sunday to Thursday!

  How fun is this three storey bench in the lobby of the Georgia Tech School of Architecture building?

How fun is this three storey bench in the lobby of the Georgia Tech School of Architecture building?

  Stairs as sculpture? This quirky staircase it at the King Memorial MARTA Station.  The entire station is an interesting brutalist / modernist design. 

Stairs as sculpture? This quirky staircase it at the King Memorial MARTA Station.  The entire station is an interesting brutalist / modernist design. 

  This wall of axes was just part of the fun of exploring the   Highland Woodworking   store at Highland and Virginia.  Think Lee Valley but bigger and totally focused on woodworking tools and material s.   It is a must see for any woodworker....

This wall of axes was just part of the fun of exploring the Highland Woodworking store at Highland and Virginia.  Think Lee Valley but bigger and totally focused on woodworking tools and materials.  It is a must see for any woodworker....

  One of my favourite things to do is porch sitting.  Our Airbnb in Atlanta was just across the street from   Piedmont Park   with a lovely big porch.  It was a great place to people watch as there was an endless parade of joggers, dog walkers, cyclist and people just strolling along the edge of the park.  

One of my favourite things to do is porch sitting.  Our Airbnb in Atlanta was just across the street from Piedmont Park with a lovely big porch.  It was a great place to people watch as there was an endless parade of joggers, dog walkers, cyclist and people just strolling along the edge of the park.  

  Found these fun doors in various spots in   Ponce City Market,   telling the history of this old Sears Roebuck & Co store and distribution centre.  Who knew Sears used to have an Animal Department that sold a Spider Monkey for $31.39 or 25 day-old Farm Master While Leghorn chicks for $1.90!  They also sold baby alligators but didn't give a cost.   Urban living was very different in the 1940s.

Found these fun doors in various spots in Ponce City Market, telling the history of this old Sears Roebuck & Co store and distribution centre.  Who knew Sears used to have an Animal Department that sold a Spider Monkey for $31.39 or 25 day-old Farm Master While Leghorn chicks for $1.90!  They also sold baby alligators but didn't give a cost. Urban living was very different in the 1940s.

  Beltline midweek, with its funky whirligig artworks. 

Beltline midweek, with its funky whirligig artworks. 

  No idea who create this troll or why, it is guarded one of the many underpasses along the Beltline.  Kids loved climbing up the hill to the troll.

No idea who create this troll or why, it is guarded one of the many underpasses along the Beltline.  Kids loved climbing up the hill to the troll.

  Found this evil winged gargoyle on a post in the front yard or a house behind our Airbnb. I loved it but can't imagine many would. 

Found this evil winged gargoyle on a post in the front yard or a house behind our Airbnb. I loved it but can't imagine many would. 

  Several vendors a the City Market offered whole pigs for sale.  How much fun would it be to order a pig from "Porky Pig?" 

Several vendors a the City Market offered whole pigs for sale.  How much fun would it be to order a pig from "Porky Pig?" 

  Found this handmade swing on an island space in the middle of a busy intersection.  I had to give it a try.  It was a great way to pass the time waiting for the light to change. 

Found this handmade swing on an island space in the middle of a busy intersection.  I had to give it a try.  It was a great way to pass the time waiting for the light to change. 

  Atlantans love bean bag tossing saw these in several locations from parks to outside offices.  I was amazed when Brenda stepped and landed two of her four blue bean bags in the hole from 30 feet. I made none.

Atlantans love bean bag tossing saw these in several locations from parks to outside offices.  I was amazed when Brenda stepped and landed two of her four blue bean bags in the hole from 30 feet. I made none.

  Atlanta has lots of funky art, like this piece hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park near the dog park. 

Atlanta has lots of funky art, like this piece hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park near the dog park. 

 This piece of art was in the front yard of a modest house. I would love to have one for my garden. It is no wonder we didn't go to the High Art Museum, given all the art along the streets and parks of the city.

This piece of art was in the front yard of a modest house. I would love to have one for my garden. It is no wonder we didn't go to the High Art Museum, given all the art along the streets and parks of the city.

  Found these origami pieces lined up on the counter a Java Jive a funky diner with great midcentury furnishings. We were told there were made by a 9-year old customer.  

Found these origami pieces lined up on the counter a Java Jive a funky diner with great midcentury furnishings. We were told there were made by a 9-year old customer.  

 You can find the strangest things at antique stores.  This totem was found at Antiques & Beyond a huge antique market on Cheshire Bridge.

You can find the strangest things at antique stores.  This totem was found at Antiques & Beyond a huge antique market on Cheshire Bridge.

  I wonder why these New Era scientifically process potato chips aren't still available? Treasure hunting in thrift, vintage and antique shops in Atlanta is just too much fun.

I wonder why these New Era scientifically process potato chips aren't still available? Treasure hunting in thrift, vintage and antique shops in Atlanta is just too much fun.

    Paris on Ponce   is an eclectic market with 83 vendors offer mostly vintage treasures.  There is an amazing lounge that they use for special events.  Unfortunately they didn't have any events happening while we were there. This art installation is at the entrance to the lounge. 

Paris on Ponce is an eclectic market with 83 vendors offer mostly vintage treasures.  There is an amazing lounge that they use for special events.  Unfortunately they didn't have any events happening while we were there. This art installation is at the entrance to the lounge. 

  One of the first quirky things I notice about the Atlanta streets were all the utility markings on the sidewalk.  It wasn't just one or two streets it was everywhere in the downtown and midtown.  I mean everywhere.  I even ran into a guy who was repainting the lines.  

One of the first quirky things I notice about the Atlanta streets were all the utility markings on the sidewalk.  It wasn't just one or two streets it was everywhere in the downtown and midtown.  I mean everywhere.  I even ran into a guy who was repainting the lines.  

  Good food and great chandeliers can be found at   Amelie's Bakery  .  Loved this pots and pans chandelier, but it was only one of a dozen very quirky chandeliers in the store. Note the sign saying "dessert first." This was my happy place.

Good food and great chandeliers can be found at Amelie's Bakery.  Loved this pots and pans chandelier, but it was only one of a dozen very quirky chandeliers in the store. Note the sign saying "dessert first." This was my happy place.

  Found these amazing tree shadows on the sidewalk the evening I walked to Blind Willies blues bar on Highland.  This was on my way there, not back and the photo has not been enhanced.

Found these amazing tree shadows on the sidewalk the evening I walked to Blind Willies blues bar on Highland.  This was on my way there, not back and the photo has not been enhanced.

 We saw a lot of FFQ work spaces during our Atlanta walkabouts but nothing better than  Matchstic . We were peeking in the doorway when the President happening to be leaving and he invited us in. We commented on how much we like the playful mural and then he showed us a wall of small drawings on small clipboards by staff members similar to the mural. We loved them and he told us to take a couple.  We are now proud owners of three Matchstic drawings! 

We saw a lot of FFQ work spaces during our Atlanta walkabouts but nothing better than Matchstic. We were peeking in the doorway when the President happening to be leaving and he invited us in. We commented on how much we like the playful mural and then he showed us a wall of small drawings on small clipboards by staff members similar to the mural. We loved them and he told us to take a couple.  We are now proud owners of three Matchstic drawings! 

  This reflective angular block serves as both an artwork and an ATM machine on the AECOM plaza.  It was a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by even on a Sunday when the building was closed.  Went back the next day to take some more photos of the intriguing artwork in the lobby and was told no photos.  

This reflective angular block serves as both an artwork and an ATM machine on the AECOM plaza.  It was a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by even on a Sunday when the building was closed.  Went back the next day to take some more photos of the intriguing artwork in the lobby and was told no photos.  

  We passed by this fun artwork almost everyday. I love it when art is both fun and makes a social statement. 

We passed by this fun artwork almost everyday. I love it when art is both fun and makes a social statement. 

Last Word

As you can imagine Atlanta has been very fruitful when it comes to ideas for blogs. Over the next month you can expect blogs comparing Calgary's City Centre to Atlanta's, a piece on Ponce City Market, Atlantic Station, Piedmont Park, Oakland Cemetery and the Beltline Trail. 

If you liked this blog, you will like: 

FFQing in Montreal

Nelson: Fun, Funky, Quirky

FFQing in Tri-Cities (Kennwick, Pasco, Richland)

 

Calgary: The World's Most Walkable City Center?

Note: After posting this blog on Twitter I got a lot of flak from a few of Calgary's urban advocates - perhaps a dozen or so.  But I also got lots of support via email and personal conversations. 

While I appreciate the statement is a bit of stretch it is in the form of a question. And while the naysayers had some good points, they didn't convince me that my statement isn't true.  While some thought European cities were more walkable and asked if I had been to Paris, Berlin or Dublin - yes I have. I would counter in Paris cars park on the sidewalks and the roads are often grid-locked with cars, buses and taxis creating a very hostile environment.  Yes Paris has great parks, but nothing better than Calgarians and I love our river pathways better than theirs.  I love that our rivers are still natural and not canal-like as they are in most European cities. 

Berlin and Dublin are nice but the streets are chaotic with pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses, trams etc. Calgary's City Centre is very civilized.  I also find our grid street system much easier to navigate than European cities.  

Have a read and let me know what you think....

 The area inside the red oval is what I approximate to be Calgary's City Centre. 

The area inside the red oval is what I approximate to be Calgary's City Centre. 

One of the best things about Calgary’s City Centre is its walkability.  I have visited dozens of cities around the world from Hong Kong to Amsterdam and I haven’t found a city more pedestrian-friendly than Calgary. 

Here are eight reasons why I think Calgary’s City Centre is one of the most walkable urban places in the world.

  Even streets in the middle of Calgary's CBD are pedestrian friendly. 

Even streets in the middle of Calgary's CBD are pedestrian friendly. 

  Even the back alleys are pedestrian friend in the City Centre.

Even the back alleys are pedestrian friend in the City Centre.

#1 Drivers stop for pedestrians!

If you are new to Calgary or visiting, don’t be surprised if a driver stops in the middle of the road to let you cross the street. It won’t happen on busy downtown streets, but will definitely happen on side streets.

Pedestrians will also find our downtown streets (outside of rush hour) are not nearly as chaotic as European streets where pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trams and bus all compete for the same space.

  This car stopped to let these pedestrian cross the street.  Calgary has the most pedestrian friendly drivers I have encountered anywhere.  

This car stopped to let these pedestrian cross the street.  Calgary has the most pedestrian friendly drivers I have encountered anywhere.  

#2 Flat  & Compact

Calgary’s City Centre is a flat as a Stampede pancakes, making it easy to walk everywhere.  With our City Centre only about 4 km (from east to west and from north to south), you can walk from one end to the other in an hour.   

Our City Centre included several distinct neighbourhoods Beltline, Bridgeland/Riverside, Chinatown, East Village, Eau Claire, Inglewood, Kensington and Mission, each with their own main street, and each within walking distance of the downtown.

  This is probably the biggest elevation change in Calgary's City Centre. 

This is probably the biggest elevation change in Calgary's City Centre. 

#3 Pathways

Calgary’s City Centre has amazing pathways along both sides of the Bow River, with numerous pedestrian bridges allowing pedestrians to crisscross back and forth as desired.  You can walk the entire length of the City Centre, east to west without ever encountering a car.  The historic Centre Street Bridge with its iconic lions offers a postcard view of the Bow River and the City skyline, as do the Peace and King pedestrian bridges.

The downtown office core’s network of 60+ above ground pedestrian bridges (called +15 bridges as they are 15 feet above the street) link 100+ buildings to create an a-mazing 20 km walkway.  It is the longest in the world.

As well, during the day, Stephen Avenue (aka 8th Ave SW) is a pedestrian mall for the five blocks between Macleod Trail and 3rd Street SW.  Strolling along it at noon hour (aka power hour) when tens of thousands of office workers come out to stretch their legs offers great people watching.  

Barclay Mall (aka 3rd Street SW) is a very pedestrian-friendly connection to the Bow River pathway with its wide and winding sidewalks, planters and public art.

  Stephen Avenue can be busy even in the middle of winter. 

Stephen Avenue can be busy even in the middle of winter. 

  Stephen Avenue is one of the best pedestrian malls in Canada.

Stephen Avenue is one of the best pedestrian malls in Canada.

  RiverWalk in East Village has lovely places to stop and enjoy the majestic Bow River on your way to St. Patrick Island Park via the King Bridge. 

RiverWalk in East Village has lovely places to stop and enjoy the majestic Bow River on your way to St. Patrick Island Park via the King Bridge. 

  Moms living in the City Centre love to take the kids for a walk along the Bow River. This photo was taken in February i.e. the middle of winter. 

Moms living in the City Centre love to take the kids for a walk along the Bow River. This photo was taken in February i.e. the middle of winter. 

 Calgarians loves how the winter sun floods the +15 walkway connecting over 100 buildings via 60+ bridges in the downtown. It creates a lovely pedestrian experience with cafes, shops, food courts and amazing atriums. 

Calgarians loves how the winter sun floods the +15 walkway connecting over 100 buildings via 60+ bridges in the downtown. It creates a lovely pedestrian experience with cafes, shops, food courts and amazing atriums. 

#4 Parks & Garden Strolls

Calgary’s City Centre offers one of the best collections of urban parks in the world.  There’s Central Memorial Park, Calgary’s oldest park, opened in 1912. And Stampede Park with its numerous murals and sculptures, Parade of Stampede Posters along the pedestrian corridor from the LRT Station to the historic Coral arena, is a fun place for a walk-about.

At the west end lays Shaw Millennial Park, one of the world’s largest skate parks as well as popular festival site. Prince’s Island Park has lovely nature walk around its ponds at the eastern edge and small sculpture park, as well as boasting one of the best restaurants in the city – River Café.  St. Patrick’s Island Park, our newest urban park with its pebble beach has become a very popular family destination.

In the summer, you can also walk to Reader Rock Garden near Stampede Park, Beaulieu Garden at Lougheed House and Senator Patrick Burns Memorial Rock Gardens near Riley Park.  Speaking of Riley Park it is home to Sunday afternoon cricket matches in the summer and a popular wading pool making it a popular walking destination.

  Calgary's City Centre parks like Memorial Park offer lots of pathways for pedestrians to spread out. 

Calgary's City Centre parks like Memorial Park offer lots of pathways for pedestrians to spread out. 

  Stampede Park pathway stroll.

Stampede Park pathway stroll.

#5 Tour de Cafe

Pedestrians need their caffeine fixes, be that at the beginning, middle or end of the walkabout.  Calgary has a plethora of independent cafes; in fact one could easily take a day and just tour from one café to the next.  Some of the hot spots include: Gravity (Inglewood), Phil & Sebastians (Stephen Avenue Walk), Bumpy’s and Kawa Espresso Bar (Beltline), Purple Perk (Mission) Analogue and Café Beano (17th Ave SW), Vendrome (Sunnyside), Roasterie, Higher Ground and Regal Cat Café (Kensington), deVille, Monogram and Caffe Artigiano (downtown) and Alfrono Bakery Café (Eau Claire).

  Sidewalk cafes are scattered throughout the City Centre. 

Sidewalk cafes are scattered throughout the City Centre. 

  Even in winter you can still enjoy your coffee outside. 

Even in winter you can still enjoy your coffee outside. 

#6 Take An Art Walk Everyday

Art is everywhere in Calgary’s City Centre, from murals to memorials, from statues to street art – even on utility boxes.  Make sure you pop into the lobbies of the office towers as most have artworks on the main floor – Bankers Hall, Eighth Avenue Place and City Centre towers are perhaps the best.  An entire day can be spent wandering to look at the art and still never see them all.

The “temporary” abstract paintings on the façades of our glass towers, created by the reflection of one building on the façade of another are both spectacular and ever changing.  It is a bit like the northern lights.

Being able to enjoy art as you walk always enhances the pedestrian experience.

  The Famous Five sculptures on Olympic Plaza is a popular place to stop and take a photo. 

The Famous Five sculptures on Olympic Plaza is a popular place to stop and take a photo. 

#7 Window Licking While You Walk

One of my favourite things to do as a pedestrian is “window shop” or as the French say “faire du leche-vitrines” which translates to “window licking.” Calgary’s City Centre has several great pedestrian oriented streets for “window licking”  – 11th and 17th Avenue SW; 9th Ave SE; 10th Ave NW and Kensington Road NW.   Some of the windows are like mini art exhibitions.

  Window licking fun along 17th Avenue. 

Window licking fun along 17th Avenue. 

#8 Entertainment

You can easily walk to two art house cinemas (Plaza and Globe), two museums (Glenbow, National Music Centre), theatres (Big Secret, Engineer Air, Max Bell, Martha Cohen, Lunchbox, The GRAND, Vertigo) concert halls (Jack Singer, The Palace, Festival Hall), DJD Dance Centre, Convention Centre, BMO Centre, Saddledome and dozen of live music venues. 

No matter where you are in the City Centre, you can literally walk to dozens of restaurants, pubs and lounges within 10 minutes and probably 50+ in 20 minutes.

  You never know where you might find some entertainment along the streets of Calgary's City Center.

You never know where you might find some entertainment along the streets of Calgary's City Center.

Last Word

I would be remiss if I didn’t add the streets of Calgary’s City Centre are some of the cleanest and safest I have encountered.  At the same time there is lots of work to do to make our City Centre streets more accessible and barrier free. As well we need to do a better job of snow removal in the winter.  That being said, our City Centre is one of the most pedestrian friendly places I have ever visited.

  Even in the middle of winter, Calgarians love to bundle up and go for a walk.  

Even in the middle of winter, Calgarians love to bundle up and go for a walk.  

David Peyto wrote:

I have completed 530 walks, totally almost 4,100 km so far in my attempt to walk all of the sidewalks in Calgary. There is still quite a bit to walking yet to do as I decided with all the snow on the residential streets this winter to start walking in the industrial areas where the streets were better.

I agree with your comments about Manchester being a very interesting area. I was surprised how many small older houses are still in that area.

I find Calgary's sidewalks are usually in good condition in the winter. Sometimes I wait until the ice formed overnight from the previous day's thawing melts again.

I find the drivers to be very good. I have noticed that many are careful not to splash pedestrians when passing especially when walking along roads without sidewalks.

Overall I have found the city to be very walkable. There have been very few areas where I have found any problems. Once in awhile there are two adjacent communities where it is a bit of a challenge to walk from one to the other. A good example of this is crossing Shaganappi between Hidden Valley and Hamptons.

I read your article about the overpass by Hillhurst School being in poor shape. I think the city needs to replace some of the older ones such as the two over Crowchild near your home although they will probably be replaced when Crowchild is widened.

There are also some others in that aren't great such as on 16th Avenue NE by 19th Street and on Crowchild Trail near Garrison Green.

I don't know enough about walking in other cities to offer comments in comparison to Calgary.

Flaneuring Fun in Hamilton!

Regular readers of the Everyday Tourist blog know I love to flaneur i.e. wander aimlessly the streets, alleys, parks and pathways of Calgary or any other city where I might be.  

Recently I was in Hamilton, visiting my Mom and found some time everyday  to flaneur the streets of what use to be Steel Town but is now affectionally known as The Hammer.  

As I wandered, I was surprised at how often I felt like I was back in Dublin, Nashville, Memphis, Leipzig (Germany) or Kreuzber (Berlin).

  I love shop owners who extend their stores out onto the street. Kudos to Vintage Soul Geek, International Village. 

I love shop owners who extend their stores out onto the street. Kudos to Vintage Soul Geek, International Village. 

Streets of Hamilton 

While visually you couldn't get two City Centres more different than Calgary with its glittering glass office and condo towers and Hamilton with its redbrick low-rise buildings, surprisingly there were lots of similarities. 

  • Hamilton's Locke Street had many of the elements of Calgary's Inglewood, before it became gentrified.  
  • Hamilton's Durand with is charming brick mansions reminded me of Calgary's Mount Royal, without the new mega homes.  
  • Hamilton's Corktown with all of its live music venues had many elements of Calgary's Inglewood.  
  • Hamilton's International Village with its colourful storefronts reminded me of colourful facades and a doors in Dublin.
  • Hamilton's James Street North had elements of Calgary's 4th Street and  Kensington Village, as well as urban grit of Kreuzberg. 

I thought since I had so much flaneuring fun I would share it with you as a photo essay.  

Streetscapes 

  Fun sandwich boards are a great way to enhance the pedestrian experience. Kudos to House of Java on James St. S.

Fun sandwich boards are a great way to enhance the pedestrian experience. Kudos to House of Java on James St. S.

  There should be awards for stores with the best names and signage. Into the Abyss is a record store on Locke Street. 

There should be awards for stores with the best names and signage. Into the Abyss is a record store on Locke Street. 

  Dr. Disc was a great find...loved the fun display in the stairwell...be sure to leave some time to search the 3 for $1 records. 

Dr. Disc was a great find...loved the fun display in the stairwell...be sure to leave some time to search the 3 for $1 records. 

  Empty storefront becomes an exhibition space on James St. N. Why doesn't every landlord with an empty window space do this? 

Empty storefront becomes an exhibition space on James St. N. Why doesn't every landlord with an empty window space do this? 

  Jane Jacobs would love the urban clutter along Locke St.

Jane Jacobs would love the urban clutter along Locke St.

  One of the strangest things about Hamilton's City Centre is the number of scooters you encounte r.   They replace the mega strollers of cities like Calgary. 

One of the strangest things about Hamilton's City Centre is the number of scooters you encounter.  They replace the mega strollers of cities like Calgary. 

  Somehow it seemed ironic that there were all these signs saying "Stop For Pedestrians" but there wasn't a pedestrian (other than me) anywhere in sight. 

Somehow it seemed ironic that there were all these signs saying "Stop For Pedestrians" but there wasn't a pedestrian (other than me) anywhere in sight. 

Window Wonderland 

  I was surprised at how many great window displays there were in downtown Hamilton stores.  

I was surprised at how many great window displays there were in downtown Hamilton stores.  

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 8.36.36 AM.png
  I was also surprised at the number of independent used bookstores in Hamilton's City Centre -  another sign of a healthy community.

I was also surprised at the number of independent used bookstores in Hamilton's City Centre -  another sign of a healthy community.

  Inside I found intriguing vignettes. 

Inside I found intriguing vignettes. 

  Hamilton's City Centre is full of funky coffee shops with great windows for people watching.  

Hamilton's City Centre is full of funky coffee shops with great windows for people watching.  

  This could easily be in Dublin or Berlin.

This could easily be in Dublin or Berlin.

  I want a craft beer kitchen in my neighbourhood. 

I want a craft beer kitchen in my neighbourhood. 

  Hamilton's City Centre is full of small boutiques.

Hamilton's City Centre is full of small boutiques.

Corktown: Hamilton's Music District

  If you are in Hamilton on a Tuesday night, be sure to check out the Irish Jam at the Corktown Pub. It was as good as anything I experienced in Dublin. At one point I counted 23 musician jamming at the same time.

If you are in Hamilton on a Tuesday night, be sure to check out the Irish Jam at the Corktown Pub. It was as good as anything I experienced in Dublin. At one point I counted 23 musician jamming at the same time.

 The Corktown pub also has great blues jam on Sunday afternoons. It reminded me of being back in Memphis at the International Blues Competition.  

The Corktown pub also has great blues jam on Sunday afternoons. It reminded me of being back in Memphis at the International Blues Competition.  

  Hamilton's Mississippi Queen aka Connie (FYI: she owns the Mississippi Queen restaurant in Hamilton and is from the delta) was at the Blues Jam entertaining everyone with her dancing. 

Hamilton's Mississippi Queen aka Connie (FYI: she owns the Mississippi Queen restaurant in Hamilton and is from the delta) was at the Blues Jam entertaining everyone with her dancing. 

  If you are into guitars you will want to check out The Acoustic Room on James St. N, near St. Joe's Hospital.  Yes, they only sell acoustic guitars.  It is like an art gallery for guitars. 

If you are into guitars you will want to check out The Acoustic Room on James St. N, near St. Joe's Hospital.  Yes, they only sell acoustic guitars.  It is like an art gallery for guitars. 

  The Cat "N" Fiddle reminded me both of Dublin and Nashville. Dublin because of the architecture and colours, Nashville because the bands playing in the front window.

The Cat "N" Fiddle reminded me both of Dublin and Nashville. Dublin because of the architecture and colours, Nashville because the bands playing in the front window.

  I am thinking Hamilton must be the neighbourhood pub capital of Canada.  

I am thinking Hamilton must be the neighbourhood pub capital of Canada.  

  In Hamilton any house can become a pub. 

In Hamilton any house can become a pub. 

Night Walks

  Ever since the two-year old new door introduced me to the joy of "night walks" I make a point of flaneuring at night when I am in a new city.  

Ever since the two-year old new door introduced me to the joy of "night walks" I make a point of flaneuring at night when I am in a new city.  

  Brightly coloured rooms are all the rage at trendy contemporary art galleries today.  In the past year I have seen "Colour Room" exhibitions at the Esker Gallery, Calgary; Palm Springs Art Museum and one of the galleries at Leipzig's Spinnerei.  In Hamilton, you don't need to go to an art museum to see contemporary art just wander the streets.  

Brightly coloured rooms are all the rage at trendy contemporary art galleries today.  In the past year I have seen "Colour Room" exhibitions at the Esker Gallery, Calgary; Palm Springs Art Museum and one of the galleries at Leipzig's Spinnerei.  In Hamilton, you don't need to go to an art museum to see contemporary art just wander the streets.  

  There is an interesting narrative here, as all of the chairs are faced to look out onto the street. It is as if they are starring at you.  

There is an interesting narrative here, as all of the chairs are faced to look out onto the street. It is as if they are starring at you. 

  Hommage to Edward Hopper.

Hommage to Edward Hopper.

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 8.24.02 AM.png
  I passed by this alley many times during my stay. Something about it fascinated me. 

I passed by this alley many times during my stay. Something about it fascinated me. 

Colourful Store Fronts

   The note on the door says "you won't know unless you come it." Inside, you will meet Pat who sells everything from vintage typewriters to books, from pens to rubber stamps.  It is a hidden gem.  

 The note on the door says "you won't know unless you come it." Inside, you will meet Pat who sells everything from vintage typewriters to books, from pens to rubber stamps.  It is a hidden gem. 

  Perhaps Hamilton's best one two combination...a great bookstore beside funky cafe...it doesn't get any better. 

Perhaps Hamilton's best one two combination...a great bookstore beside funky cafe...it doesn't get any better. 

  Unless it is the Thrifty Designer and a flower shop.

Unless it is the Thrifty Designer and a flower shop.

  The Burnt Tongue has great soups (as well as a great name). Next door is Smalls cafe (it has just one seat to sit at the window).  

The Burnt Tongue has great soups (as well as a great name). Next door is Smalls cafe (it has just one seat to sit at the window).  

 Choises Musicales aka Musical Chairs is a fun vintage boutique. 

Choises Musicales aka Musical Chairs is a fun vintage boutique. 

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Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 10.10.08 PM.png

Art & Architecture 

  All along the sidewalks of Lock Street are fun word plaques that make you stop and think.   Wow -  fun, clever and inexpensive - public art! 

All along the sidewalks of Lock Street are fun word plaques that make you stop and think.   Wow -  fun, clever and inexpensive - public art! 

  Thought Hamilton's downtown there are amazing relief artworks form the early to mid-20th Century. I am thinking we need to bring this kind of public art back. 

Thought Hamilton's downtown there are amazing relief artworks form the early to mid-20th Century. I am thinking we need to bring this kind of public art back. 

  This brutalist parkade comes alive at night with light and colour.  How simple, effective and affordable is that.  

This brutalist parkade comes alive at night with light and colour.  How simple, effective and affordable is that. 

  Love this collage of old and new architecture. 

Love this collage of old and new architecture. 

  Hamilton's Gore Park is an eerie spot at night. This artwork/signage seems surreal in the deserted space.

Hamilton's Gore Park is an eerie spot at night. This artwork/signage seems surreal in the deserted space.

 This barn-like sculpture outside of the Hamilton's Farmers' Market adds a sense of playfulness to the pedestrian experience. I love contrast between the chaotic lines of artwork and the ordered linear lines of the market windows.  A nice metaphor for entropy of urban living.

This barn-like sculpture outside of the Hamilton's Farmers' Market adds a sense of playfulness to the pedestrian experience. I love contrast between the chaotic lines of artwork and the ordered linear lines of the market windows.  A nice metaphor for entropy of urban living.

  I don't know if it is true, but it seemed to me that there are more churches per block Hamilton's City Centre than an other city I have visited. 

I don't know if it is true, but it seemed to me that there are more churches per block Hamilton's City Centre than an other city I have visited. 

  When I first saw this piece I thought it was a real person sleeping on the bench. This is outside St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church.  

When I first saw this piece I thought it was a real person sleeping on the bench. This is outside St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church. 

Hamilton vs Kreuzberg & Leipzig 

  This could easily be in Kreuzberg a neighbourhood in Berlin that has been called the best hipster community in the world even though it is the dirtiest community (graffiti and litter everywhere) I have ever visited, that wasn't a slum.  It is a haven for artists from around the world who love the bohemian lifestyle. The same is true for parts of Leipzig, two hours from Berlin that is also a haven for artists.  

This could easily be in Kreuzberg a neighbourhood in Berlin that has been called the best hipster community in the world even though it is the dirtiest community (graffiti and litter everywhere) I have ever visited, that wasn't a slum.  It is a haven for artists from around the world who love the bohemian lifestyle. The same is true for parts of Leipzig, two hours from Berlin that is also a haven for artists.  

 Found this on the window of a door along James St N.  How cool is this as an artwork?

Found this on the window of a door along James St N.  How cool is this as an artwork?

  Found this on the hoarding (plywood walls) at construction site, it too could be in a contemporary art gallery exhibition.  

Found this on the hoarding (plywood walls) at construction site, it too could be in a contemporary art gallery exhibition.  

 Another doorway artwork that would be at home in Kreuzberg or in a contemporary art exhibition.  

Another doorway artwork that would be at home in Kreuzberg or in a contemporary art exhibition.  

  I wonder what is the connection between Hamilton and Franz Liszt? 

I wonder what is the connection between Hamilton and Franz Liszt? 

Last Photos

  This looks like a checklist of what any urban planner would tell you a City Centre needs to be vibrant place. And yet, Hamilton's City Centre struggles to attract the right mix of live, work and play elements to foster urban vitality. It is obviously not for a lack of trying. 

This looks like a checklist of what any urban planner would tell you a City Centre needs to be vibrant place. And yet, Hamilton's City Centre struggles to attract the right mix of live, work and play elements to foster urban vitality. It is obviously not for a lack of trying. 

  And yes, Hamilton (home to Tim Hortons) has a trendy boutique donut maker. Monster is located at the south end of Locke Street. 

And yes, Hamilton (home to Tim Hortons) has a trendy boutique donut maker. Monster is located at the south end of Locke Street. 

Wanted: Artist-Friendly Downtown Office Building Landlords

On Sunday February 18, 2018, CBC Calgary posted as part of their Road Ahead initiative my opinion piece suggesting some of the 15 million square feet of vacant downtown office space could/should be rented out to artists and other creative individuals.

  There is over a million square feet of empty office space in various older buildings that could be used by artists as work spaces, exhibition spaces etc....

There is over a million square feet of empty office space in various older buildings that could be used by artists as work spaces, exhibition spaces etc....

  Many of the smaller, older office spaces in downtown Calgary have vacant space that could be converted into affordable and attractive work space for artists and other creative individuals. 

Many of the smaller, older office spaces in downtown Calgary have vacant space that could be converted into affordable and attractive work space for artists and other creative individuals. 

Sunday Blogs

While I post a new blog every Sunday morning, I have never had such a tremendous response. Almost immediately the piece was being read by thousands of people, some times more than 500 at the same time. 

Soon I was receiving retweets from places like Madrid and Linkedin comments from New Zealand and personal emails from artists about their experience of leasing office space in other cities.  

Here are some of the comments, and for those of you who didn't see the CBC post titled: Why we should turn Calgary's empty office space over to the creative economy? 

David Alexander wrote:

I am an artist who lives in Lake Country, B.C. but originally from Vancouver and worked out of repurposed office buildings for years. I also lived in Saskatoon where I rented in the downtown for 9 years in a building that would have stood empty until it became economical to knock down for new and bigger towers for higher rent. We always worked in reused spaces in cities.  

I know Calgary artist Chris Cran and think Calgary would be a perfect place for an artist in the towers project. My artist friend in NYC had a studio on the 91st floor of the twin towers before their destruction. There are many empty office towers in every city and they would make great temporary studios of all kinds. New York city hall lets artists use them as studios as it takes months years to sell and renovate to suit a new renter. My friend was in the twin towers for 3 years.

Artists are adaptable to most spaces and you realize they can add to the advance of culture in a meaningful way. This could be a win win situation in Calgary.

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Blog: Wanted: Artist-Friendly Downtown Office Building Landlords 

Could some of the 15 million square feet of vacant downtown Calgary office space (the equivalent of 7,500 suburban homes) be converted to studio/work space for creative individuals (painters, writers, musicians, sculptors, architects, 3D animators, fashion designers).

This was one of the ideas suggested by an Everyday Tourist reader a few weeks ago after I posted the blog on how the City might spend $100M to help fill up vacant downtown office space.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought “Why not?”

Artists as catalysts

For centuries, artists have moved into vacant buildings, especially old warehouses, converting them into studios and lofts. Why not office buildings? In cities like Berlin, New York, London and Paris, artists have been the catalyst for urban renewal of hundreds, if not thousands of buildings.

Why not Calgary?

Speaking of Berlin, last year I saw firsthand how artists routinely transform vacant buildings into funky workspaces for various artistic endeavours. For the past 20+ years, artists from around the world have flocked to Berlin to make art – including my 20-something nephew (an oil patch engineer turned electronic music composer – sidenote: his idea, not the result of layoffs) partly because of affordable studio/living space. 

Today, Berlin is one of the world’s leading art cities with hundreds of art galleries and thousands of artists creating a vibrant city 24/7. In Berlin, the arts are a major economic engine.

And, in Leipzig, Germany (2 hours from Berlin)I  toured Spinnerei, a 10-hectare old cotton mill industrial site transformed into 10 galleries, a huge art supply store, a communal arts centre and studio spaces for 100+ artists.  It was a wonderful place for the public to explore, experience, learn and buy art.

  Entrance to Spinnerei an artists colony with dozens of galleries, studios and other related small businesses in a former cotton factor in Leipzig, Germany.  

Entrance to Spinnerei an artists colony with dozens of galleries, studios and other related small businesses in a former cotton factor in Leipzig, Germany. 

Demand

Currently, Calgary is home to a number of co-operative artists’ studios in off-the-beaten-path older buildings – including Burns Visual Arts Society (Ramsay) and Artpoint Gallery & Studios (Inglewood) and Untitled Art Society (Beltline). Each has a waiting list.

In 2004, Art Central (at the corner of 7th Ave SW and Centre Street) David Neill, President of Encorp converted an old two-storey building into a funky mix of commercial galleries and studio spaces.  In its heyday, it was a bustling place and home of the first Deville Café. It was torn down in 2016 to make way for Telus Sky office/residential tower.

Recently, the $30 million cSPACE opened in the former King Edward School in South Calgary with its gallery and performance space, as well as 30-luxury studio spaces, which were all quickly snapped up. 

The demand for studio space is not surprising given 100+ students graduate from the Alberta College of Art & Design each year with the dream of becoming an artist.

  Along Chabanel Street in Montreal several older office buildings have become home to fashion designers and warehouse outlet stores. 

Along Chabanel Street in Montreal several older office buildings have become home to fashion designers and warehouse outlet stores. 

The Economics

Given the 15 million square feet of downtown office space is not likely to all get filled up for 10+ years perhaps there is an owner(s) willing to lease some of their space to artists and creative individuals to cover their operating costs. Operating costs for older buildings are in the $15 per square foot range so a 250 square foot studio would cost $3,750/year or $315/month (including utilities). A quick chat with a few artists indicated this would be attractive to them. 

Some of the open office concept space also might be leased to commercial galleries and/or small architectural/design firms or other creative types who don’t need or want walls.

  Did I mention there is millions of square feet of empty office space in downtown Calgary, that will probably be empty for many years? 

Did I mention there is millions of square feet of empty office space in downtown Calgary, that will probably be empty for many years? 

Feasibility

Architect Tom Tittemore, responsible for the retrofitting of the 8th and 8th Medical Center into the University of Calgary’s downtown campus, thought the idea of converting vacant office space to studios/workspaces was an excellent proposition.  Here are some of his thoughts:

  • Art studios are ideally located in simple spaces, with high unadorned ceilings (i.e. not T-bar as in office space) and exposed sealed concrete floors;
  • Exposed mechanical, electrical and structural systems are usually appreciated and provided in unfinished office towers;
  • The views from all directions could serve as an inspiration to any artist;
  • Corners usually allocated for “higher-food chain” employees would make excellent exhibition areas, as would the wall spaces comprising the central service cores.

Gord Menzies, former General Manager of Eighth Avenue Place and huge supporter of the arts, loves the idea but warns that “any artist working in oils is going to be impacted by the quality of the building’s HVAC system as other tenants are notoriously touchy about smells and fumes. It would require visionary ownership.”

James Midwinter recently retired, Executive Vice President at GWL Realty Advisors, in Calgary thought it would work best if an artists’ cooperative or non-profit umbrella organization committed to leasing a floor at a time and then offering it to artists.  

Calgary Arts Development (CAD) also identified the need for a key space operator or key leaseholder to manage a multi-tenant arts space way back in their 2007 “Arts Space Strategy & Capital Plan” study. Joni Carroll, Arts Spaces Consultant with CAD says, “in 2018 we will be sharing information with people who are interested in taking on spaces and then subletting those spaces to create multi-tenant arts hubs. And downtown office space at low rates with a suitably long lease length will likely be really attractive to people looking to start these hubs.”

And lastly chatting with a few experienced property owners, they thought one barrier might be when the economy recovers and rental rates go up or the owner wants to redevelop the building, there would be a backlash about kicking out the artists.

Reid Henry, the founding President and CEO of cSPACE  points out, “artists’ studios are not a one-size, fit-all scenario. Designer-makers, painters, photographers, musicians, dancers all require different spaces based on floor-to-ceiling height, ventilation, natural light, access to the public, sound attenuation, floor area configuration and loading and robust interior materiality.” 

Henry also thinks there could be a bit of a culture clash, saying there isn't exactly a shared world view between the artistic community and Calgary's downtown corporate culture.

So, if you surround 'art' types with 'suit-and-tie' types, Henry says, “keep in mind the nature of artists is to question the status quo, challenge our thinking, engage us in critical dialogue. I'm not convinced embedding them in our corporate office towers would provide an environment to nurture that role successfully.”

“Attracting artists isn’t solely about cheap space,” he says. “It has to have the qualities that support creation in all its complexity and provide a canvas creatives can 'imprint' their values onto, and feel empowered to build community within.”

While Henry is obviously not a big fan of the office-to-studio conversions, former landlord Gary Nissen and artist Chris Cran are.

Been There, Done That

Renting vacant downtown office space to artists can be a win-win in the mind of Gary Nissen who owned Sierra Place (a 10-floor office building at 706 - 7th Ave SW) in the early ‘90s (when office vacancies were at an all time high) and rented out vacant space to several Calgary artists including Chris Cran who recently had a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. 

“I did exactly what you are describing and it worked well for a few years to recover costs.  Small floor plate, class C buildings likely work best for this concept” said Nissen.  “I would look at it again if I still owned property with vacant space. I felt like I was helping the arts community, met lots of cool people and covered some of my costs.” 

Ironically, I recently ran into Cran at an art gallery opening and he fondly remembers having a whole floor (8,000 square feet) that was a perfect studio for making art for several years, including some of the work in his National Gallery exhibition.

  Huge art supply store located at Spinnerei art campus, Leipzig, Germany

Huge art supply store located at Spinnerei art campus, Leipzig, Germany

Imagine

Imagine the impact on Calgary’s downtown if 100,000 square feet (less than 1% of the current vacant office space), which is likely to still be vacant five even 10 years from now, was converted into studio/work space for creative endeavours over the next year.

Imagine hundreds of creative types invading the downtown seven days a week at all times of the day.

Imagine the publicity Calgary would get if we launched a national or international ”We Have SPACE for YOU!” campaign, inviting creative individuals of all types to move to Calgary for affordable studio space. 

  Imagine if downtown Calgary had thousands of artists calling it home. The Burns Visual Arts Society started downtown in the Burns Building, but has to move outside of the downtown as the result of the building being redeveloped. 

Imagine if downtown Calgary had thousands of artists calling it home. The Burns Visual Arts Society started downtown in the Burns Building, but has to move outside of the downtown as the result of the building being redeveloped. 

Last Word

This is not as far fetched as one might think.  In Montreal, Chabanel St (aka the Garment District) is home to many fashion importers, designers and outlet shops located in old office buildings. 

What is needed is a landlord who can “think outside the office.” Someone who would allow the artists some liberty to use their sweat equity to transform the space into viable studio space.   We are not talking about hiring interior design firms to create luxury spaces; this is going to be guerrilla spaces – a “Halt & Catch Fire” space.

Perhaps some of the City of Calgary’s $100M Downtown Help Fund could be used to hire a coordinator to work with landlords to market and facilitate the conversion of office space that is past its due date to become work spaces for creative individuals and organizations.

Perhaps Calgary should be fishing for creative individuals and not just corporations to fill its vacant downtown office space.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Calgary's CBD is unique!

Save Downtown: Office To Residential Conversion Won't Work

Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town

 

Downtown Calgary: $100 Million Help Fund

In a recent blog, I discussed why the City of Calgary’s approval of $100 million to help fill up downtown office space was not a good idea. However, given it is a done deal, it will be interesting to see what plans Calgary Economic Development and the downtown property owners come up with for the approved monies - even the Mayor admitted was an “arbitrary number.” 

Link: Not The City's Role To Help Fill Up Vacant Downtown Office Space 

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Pitch other HQs

While Calgary is out of the running for Amazon's HQ2, Calgary Economic Development and all of its partners learned what we need to do to retool our City (not just the downtown) for the 21st century.  That being said there are lots of other corporations who could be approached to move to Calgary or use our downtown as a Canadian or North American headquarters.  

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American cities are big on providing incentives for corporation to move to their city, but Calgary isn't allowed to provide incentives so we will have to entice them to locate in Calgary based on economic rationale.

FYI: Providing incentives for businesses to relocate is a fool’s game.  Businesses should only locate in downtown Calgary if it is economically viable based on current market conditions and conservative future market projections. 

The cost to create Calgary’s Amazon HQ2 bid was $500,000 (supplemented by a significant amount of in-kind research and volunteer hours), was  one of the most intensive and complex bids any economic development agency would ever have to produce.  At best, there are probably a dozen major bids for corporate relocation or expansion to Calgary, but they would be only a fraction of the work of the Amazon bid and much of the baseline information has already been collected.  So that doesn't account for the need for $100M.

Link: Don Braid: Lessons Learned from Calgary's Amazon Bid

  There a numerous older office buildings in downtown Calgary that could be converted into an arts hub, innovation centre, youth hostel, affordable housing and other uses.   

There a numerous older office buildings in downtown Calgary that could be converted into an arts hub, innovation centre, youth hostel, affordable housing and other uses.  

“Out Of The Office” Ideas

Perhaps it would be wise to use the $100M to fund feasibility studies and incentives to help diversify our downtown away from corporate offices. 

Here are some ideas I have heard suggested by various urban development professionals:

  1. Convert office space to enable the Alberta College of Art & Design to relocate downtown, build a public art gallery in the same building as well as spaces for commercial galleries and artists’ studios. In other words, create a downtown arts hub. Note: The City spent $30 million to create cSPACE in the former King Edward School.
  2. Convert older downtown office buildings into student or affordable housing, maybe a youth hostel or a boutique hotel.
  3. Study the feasibility of attracting a major international university, medical center or NGO (non government organization, e.g. health, humanitarian agency) to locate in one or more of our downtown office buildings. 
  4. Lobby the Federal government and Larco Investments Lid who own the Harry Hays Building to relocated Calgary's Federal government offices to a downtown office space. A location on or near the 7th Avenue Transit corridor would be much more convenient for customers/clients and employees. Perhaps we can lobby the Federal Government to relocated one or more other major offices/agencies to Calgary. The Harry Hays site would make for a great mixed-use condo development. 
  5. Earmark some of the money to help convert an office building into an Innovation Hub – a current hot button for economic development. FYI: This is already happening with the old 30-storey Pan Canadian/Encana Tower, which was recently renamed The Edison by Aspen Properties – with no government help.  They have plans to renovated the space to create a unique work place they hope will be attractive to young entrepreneurs.  Amenities include: exclusive tenant lounge with board games and library, fitness facility, dog-friendly patio, dog spa area, basketball half court, golf simulator, third floor outdoor patio, rooftop patio, conference facility, multi-purpose game room, bike sharing program and bike storage. Hmmmm…is this a place to work or play? (See photo below for information on the East Village Parakade /Innovation Centre recently annoucned)
  6. Renovate Stephen Avenue Walk to create an attractive 21st century street that can better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, vendors, deliveries, taxis and events.  A vibrant main street (weekdays, evenings and weekends) is a key element in attracting major IT and Tech firms to locate in downtown Calgary.
  7. Improve Calgary's cycling infrastructure. Perhaps, pilot an inner-city bike share program. Being cycling friendly is important when competing with other cities for young creative entrepreneurs.
  With much fanfare, the City of Calgary, Calgary Parking Authority and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation announced on Jan 23, 2018 that East Village will be home to a new $80 million, 5-storey parkade with 50,000 square feet space for Platform.    Platform will be "a multi-use space for learners, projects, makers and community. Platform is a The Innovation Centre for Everyone, " states CMLC's news release.      One has to question, "why the City (aka Parking Authority/CMLC) is building space for a tenant like Platform when there is a glut of space in the downtown?"     Link to Yeldin's answer:   Calgary Takes Big Step Forward With Platform

With much fanfare, the City of Calgary, Calgary Parking Authority and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation announced on Jan 23, 2018 that East Village will be home to a new $80 million, 5-storey parkade with 50,000 square feet space for Platform.  Platform will be "a multi-use space for learners, projects, makers and community. Platform is a The Innovation Centre for Everyone, " states CMLC's news release. 

One has to question, "why the City (aka Parking Authority/CMLC) is building space for a tenant like Platform when there is a glut of space in the downtown?" 

Link to Yeldin's answer: Calgary Takes Big Step Forward With Platform

  Aspen Properties has created Calgary's first dog-friendly office building - expect more of this "out of the box" thinking as  building owners look for creative ways to fill up their empty office space.

Aspen Properties has created Calgary's first dog-friendly office building - expect more of this "out of the box" thinking as  building owners look for creative ways to fill up their empty office space.

Let’s not…

I hope none of the $100 million is earmarked for marketing and brand campaign. Do we really want another “Be Part Of The Energy” or “Heart of the New West” campaign?  Trying to contrive a new brand for a city is another fool’s game. The best brands grow organically based on authentic attributes of the city. No major corporation is going to relocate to Calgary because we have a new brand with a sexy marketing campaign.

Backstory: Tourism Calgary has already spent a significant amount of time and money researching Calgary’s global brand and reputation over the past year.  Look for an announcement shortly on how they intend to revise Calgary’s brand and market our city to the world.  

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Last Word

As one Calgary developer/office manager who works for a major International property management company said to me “We lack big ideas on how to dramatically evolve our downtown to thrive in the economic reality of the early 21st century.” 

However, others think rather than waiting for the big idea or chasing the big saviour (Amazon HQ2), what Calgary needs are several smaller initiatives each designed to diversify our downtown core from being a corporate office ghetto into a vibrant mixed-use “work, live, play” community.

Indeed, successful cities continually adapt to local, regional, national and global economic changes; unsuccessful ones cling to old economic paradigms.

Can Calgary adapt to the 21st century? 
  Filling up Calgary's downtown vacant office space is going to require some innovative thinking property owners, the City and the cooperation of Provincial and Federal governments.

Filling up Calgary's downtown vacant office space is going to require some innovative thinking property owners, the City and the cooperation of Provincial and Federal governments.

Not the City's role to help fill vacant downtown office space?

OK I've said it - "it is not the City of Calgary's role to help fill-up downtown's empty office space."  I can't believe nobody else has said this publicly. 

Regular readers will know I am a big supporter of our downtown and the important role it plays economically and culturally in defining our city. However, I strongly feel it is not the City's role to spend tax dollars to help fill empty office spaces.  

While I questioned the City's approving $10 million to help building owners  and managers look for ways to fill up their excess office space, I thought the additional $90 million approved in December was excessive.

As the the Executive Director of the Downtown Association, (which represents the 3,500+ downtown businesses) from 1995 to 2006, one of the things my Board of Directors were always adamant about was "you have to let the market decide."    

I hope the following helps put the current downtown office ghetto issue into perspective.

  The Conversation by William McElcheran, on Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown Calgary is Calgary's signature piece of public art. It epitomizes the importance of Calgary's downtown as one of North America's leading corporate headquarter centers. 

The Conversation by William McElcheran, on Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown Calgary is Calgary's signature piece of public art. It epitomizes the importance of Calgary's downtown as one of North America's leading corporate headquarter centers. 

Office Vacancy In Perspective

Is the downturn in the fortunes of Calgary’s downtown really as bad as we think? 

While the media often paints a bleak picture using the “one in four downtown office buildings are empty” descriptor, in reality there are actually no empty downtown office buildings. The 15 million square feet of vacancy is spread out over 100+ office buildings.

And in fact, there is very little risk any of Calgary’s major office property owners will go bankrupt as most are owned by large pension funds or large real estate corporations with deep pockets and diverse portfolios. 

  Historically Calgary's downtown has absorbed about 500,000 square feet of office space annually, which means if the economy returned to historical norms it will take 30 years to fill up the 15M sf of empty office space.   

Historically Calgary's downtown has absorbed about 500,000 square feet of office space annually, which means if the economy returned to historical norms it will take 30 years to fill up the 15M sf of empty office space.   

The current dilemma of too much vacant office space is the result of the investment and development community building 10 million square feet of office space over the past several years assuming continual growth of Alberta’s energy sector.  

Though it was an educated gamble that hasn’t worked in the short term, remember pension funds are long-term investors.

As they like to say, “It is a long-term game!”

In the meantime, Calgary's business community is enjoying some of the most affordable downtown office rents in years and it looks like they will continue to do so for many years into the future.  

And yes, there are fewer downtown workers and less tax revenue generated by downtown businesses than at the peak in 2014. However, our downtown remains relatively healthy, generating more tax revenue from downtown offices than perhaps any city in North America with a population under two million. 

In fact, there are significantly more people currently employed in Calgary’s downtown offices today than in Austin, Vancouver or Portland, all cities with healthy downtowns. Let's not blame all of downtown's woes on the empty office space.

Any city our size would love to have 30 million square feet of occupied downtown office space that we have.  

$100M City Help Fund

In June 2017, the City of Calgary approved $10 million dollars for Calgary Economic Development to help fill empty downtown office space. Then in December it approved another $90 million. In all, that’s one-tenth of a billion dollars to help fill up empty office space owned by investors with deep pockets!

  The dark side of Calgary's plethora of highrise office buildings is the City has became too dependent on downtown as a cash cow.  

The dark side of Calgary's plethora of highrise office buildings is the City has became too dependent on downtown as a cash cow.  

Calgary has several major commercial real estate brokerage firms with access to global market research and contacts to pitch Calgary’s downtown and its very affordable vacant office space as a place to open up an office.

It is their job to find tenants for the empty office space, not the City's.

These seasoned professionals knew there would be a gut of downtown office space with the new buildings coming on stream and have been researching globally for the past few years to identify and pitch Calgary’s downtown to new corporations of all sizes and in all sectors.

I am confident Calgary's real estate brokerage community has left "no stones unturned." 

More Business-Friendly

What I have heard from the business community is the City should be focusing on is creating a business-friendly culture at City Hall, where regulations are manageable and minimized, where the bureaucracy operates with a focus on getting things done and where the relationships with the business community are fair to everyone. 

  Calgary need to retool and reinvent our downtown for the 21st century.

Calgary need to retool and reinvent our downtown for the 21st century.

The City must become a better facilitator and collaborator rather than a barrier to business development and establish tax rates that are stable and viewed as fair for all businesses. 

In the minds of most business people today, the City fails on too many of these issues and is dysfunction in some.  

While the large corporations and property owners get all of the media attention small and medium size businesses are critical to Calgary's future wellbeing. 

Of Calgary's total businesses (58,870) in 2016, small business (businesses with less than 50 employees) accounted fro 95% (or 55,972). Calgary Economic Development website. 

RED Flag

Even before the drop in the price of oil and natural gas, major corporations were moving out of the downtown because of high rents, parking costs and better access to employees who lived mostly in the suburbs. 

In 2012, Imperial Oil announced it was moving its 3,000 employees to a new headquarters in Quarry Park and vacated its 850,000 square feet of downtown office space. 

In the same year Canadian Pacific Railway announced it was relocating its 1,000 employees to its Ogden Yards where it created a new 225,000 square foot head office.

Currently, ATCO is looking to move out of its 300,000 square feet in the Beltline to its new Lincoln Park campus. 

Backstory: In the late '90s, PanCanadian before it merged with Alberta Energy to become Encana was seriously looking at moving to Lincoln Park before deciding to build the Bow Tower.  Today Lincoln Park has become an attractive inner-city office park with anchor tenants like Brookfield Residential and ATCO. 

In fact, the Calgary GoPlan approved in the mid '90s actually called for the creation of mini-downtowns in the suburbs. The rationale was these downtown would be employment centres would allow more Calgarians to live closer to work and reduce the congestion on city roads and transit. 

Developments like Quarry Park, SETON, Currie/Lincoln Park University District/UofC/Foothills Medical Centre were all encouraged as part of decentralizing Calgary's employment base to help reduce traffic congestion and over crowding on transit. 

Jennifer Keesmaat, one of Canada's leading urban planners just last week tweeted "to reduce congestion we need to create a multi-centred city. We need to shorten the long commute by creating destinations closer to where people already live. Creating true urban place in the heart of the suburbs."     

This is exactly what Calgary began doing 20 years ago, unfortunately somewhat to the detriment of our downtown.  

  Imperial Oil moved its head office to Quarry Park a new 21st century master planned community in SE Calgary that includes 2 million square feet of prime office space, along with residential, retail and recreational amenities.  

Imperial Oil moved its head office to Quarry Park a new 21st century master planned community in SE Calgary that includes 2 million square feet of prime office space, along with residential, retail and recreational amenities.  

Last Word

While it is understandable that the Mayor and Councillors want to help fill up the empty downtown office buildings (they want the cash cow healthy again), in fact what they should be focused on is creating a more business-friendly culture at the city for all sectors of Calgary business community.

Calgary is facing a new economic reality that doesn’t warrant the City spending $100 million of tax payers dollars to help fill up vacant downtown office space.

As one senior downtown property developer and manager said, “You can’t fight the market!” 

Note: Given the $100M "Downtown Help Fund" is a done deal, my next blog will look at how it might be used to find other uses for downtown office space. 

If you like this blog, you will like these links: 

All Downtowns Must Reinvent Themselves

Calgary: Are We Too Downtown-Centric?

Calgary's CBD is unique?

Historic Downtown Calgary Postcards