November 14th, 2007

Calgary’s Missing Street Names

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I’ve always resented the fact that Calgary’s streets are numbered. Not just numbered, but numbered according to quadrant, so that streets are known as 4th Street SW or 36th Avenue NE, and 4th Street and 4th Avenue intersect not just once, but four times, in each corner of the city. What makes this even worse is that nearly all streets in Calgary are numbered. Except in recent subdivisons, or in rare cases, there are no names to break up the monotony. It lends the city a certain soulless, anonymous air.

That wasn’t always the case. When Calgary was just a young city, a town really, all of its streets were named. Look at an old map and the history of Calgary is revealed in its street names. In the downtown area, straddling the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks, many streets were named after CPR executives: Stephen Avenue, for the company’s first president; Van Horne Avenue, after the man who oversaw construction of the transcontinental railway; McIntyre Avenue and Angus Avenue, after two of the CPR’s investors. In Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Avenue, which ran along the north and south side of the railroad tracks, there was a certain sweet harmony.

Even more interesting was Rouleauville, an old French-Canadian village located just south of Calgary, around St. Mary’s Cathedral, in what is now known as the Mission. Here, the street names honoured prominent Franco-Albertan religious leaders like Lacombe, Doucet and Grandin. Rouleau Street enshrined the name of the two brothers who promoted the idea of a French village near Calgary and secured a land grant from the federal government. Other streets testified to Rouleauville’s Catholic faith, like Notre Dame Road, St. Jean Baptiste Street and St. Joseph Street.

Calgary lost its street names in 1904, when it adopted a numbering system that saw the city divided into quadrants, with Centre Street — formerly McTavish Street — dividing east from west. Rouleauville, a separate municipal entity, retained its street names until 1907, when it was annexed to Calgary. Not only did its French-speaking character eventually erode, it lost the only overt reminder of that French-Canadian heritage: its street names.

I can’t help but wonder Calgary’s the loss of its street names at such a formative time in its history planted the seed of an ahistorical city. For years, Calgary’s relationship with its own history has been one of complete ignorance. Its politicians and developers have long been eager to do away with what few old buildings it has and it could be said, at least until recently, that Calgary has lacked a sense of self. Much of its identity revolves around traditions invented for the purpose of tourism and economic investment, like the white cowboy hats that have come to symbolize the city.

Beginning the 1960s, Calgary started to move away from its numbering system. New highways and arterials were given names that evoked, with a certain condescending exoticism, the area’s aboriginal heritage: Sarcee Trail, Deerfoot Trail, Crowchild Trail, Shaganappi Trail. Those names at least made sense. Property developers, for reasons that are beyond me, adopted an absurd tradition of giving every street in new subdivisions names that sounded alike. The subdivision in which I grew up, had a nice, meaningful name — Strathcona, after Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a military regiment headquartered in Calgary. But its street names were entirely contrived: Strathclair Place, Strathbury Bay, Strathlorne Crescent.

The absurdity is taken to even greater heights in new suburbs like Tuscany, where people live on streets like Tuscarora Circle and Tuscany Springs Heights. When you live in a place named after an Italian province for no real reason, where the loopy streets and cul-de-sacs are given empty, meaningless names, do you really live in a place at all?

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Where are we? Street sign in Tuscany

Back in inner-city Calgary, there is a movement to restore old street names. It started in the 1970s, when Calgary’s main shopping street, 8th Avenue, was converted into a pedestrian mall and rebranded with its original name, Stephen Avenue. The pedestrianization was initially a failure, but a renovation in the mid-1990s sparked a renewal, and “Stephen Avenue” suddenly became a prime shopping and dining destination. Community associations and business improvement districts in Sunnyside, Inglewood, the Mission and Victoria Park lobbied for new street signs that reflected their streets’ original names.

Now, in many parts of Calgary, you’ll come across signs reading, “1st Street SW, formerly Scarth Avenue” or “9th Street SE, formerly Atlantic Avenue.” It’s entirely symbolic, and some might find it a bit gimmicky, but it’s a reminder that Calgary does, after all, have a real history.

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Original street names restored in Inglewood


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16 comments

  1. Desmond Bliek says:

    Chris,

    I fully concur, but easy pickings, no? I’d keep in mind that numbers can take on significance over time; Fifth Avenue or 42nd Street in New York have done just fine without a name. It makes me laugh sometimes when my father refers to 42nd Avenue (an industrial strip between a semi-freeway (Blackfoot Trail) and an automobile-oriented main drag (MacLeod Trail) as 42nd Street, because the same number evokes something completely different and largely alien. Perhaps, given the use of such a rational grid system, numbers might actually be in some sense more honest than names.

    And think of the appeal such systems must have had for real estate speculators in the early 20th century, particularly in places like Edmonton, Red Deer, or Grande Prairie, which put the corner of 100th and 100th or 50th and 50th at the centre of town: a parcel advertised at the corner of 50th and 43rd in downtown Red Deer must have sounded pretty impressive… had to have been a big town to have so many streets.

    Fundamentally, such an up-and-down process of speculation and rapid settlement/colonisation is Calgary’s real history (moreso than the cowboys), and it’s one of numbers and places as exchangeable commodities, though the names behind it are certainly interesting.

    Tuscany, though, I must admit, is a different beast, and completely inexcusable. Perhaps the Florentines should be considering a place-based intellectual property protection strategy…

    November 14th, 2007 at 10:40 pm

  2. Evan says:

    The naming conventions of the local suburban developments just give more credence to my theory that Calgary is not, in fact, a Canadian city, but is the northernmost outpost of the American sunbelt. Street names in most Canadian cities have a genteel uniqueness to them, and reflect many facets of the city’s history. First Nations names like Kamloops and Lillooet sit alongside the ultra-British Granville, Jervis, and King Edward in Vancouver, while Sherbrooke and Van Horne share a map with Papineau and Saint-Urbain in Montreal. In Calgary, however, we have the faux-Tuscany trend imposing itself on the new suburbs just as it does in Phoenix or Orlando, with streets named things like Siena Hills Terrace and Chianti Ridge Drive. Add that to the combination of numbered streets in the city and frighteningly similar names in the suburbs, and you’ve got the makings of one hell of a feeling of alienation.

    December 20th, 2007 at 4:33 pm

  3. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Well, to be fair, Calgary does have unique street names. Most of its major postwar roads take their names from local First Nations: Shaganappi Trail, Crowchild Trail, Deerfoot Trail, Sarcee Trail, etc. (The use of “trail” as a generic is a purely local contrivance, too.) At least one new development, an infill New Urbanist project built on a former military base, evokes Canada’s military history with names like Ypres Lane and Passchendaele Road.

    Finally, and most interestingly in the context of your argument, Mount Royal has a bunch of nationalistic Canadian street names (Durham, Montcalm, Valois, Dorchester, Champlain, Frontenac, Wolfe, Quebec, Montreal) that came as a response to an effort by local American expats to name the district’s streets ater US presidents. I wrote about this back in September.

    You’re right that Calgary’s suburban street names are as vacuous as any in the American sunbelt. Looking at a map of the city, though, I can see that the city’s suburban naming tradition is actually quite old. Scarboro, a subdivision built in the 1910s and 20s, is filled with similar-sounding street names like Sunderland, Superior, Scotland, State and Sunset.

    December 20th, 2007 at 5:15 pm

  4. Jay says:

    Interesting coversation folks!

    I just moved in to old Rouleauville (if you will allow) and I’ve been having a fun time learnig about the history of the erea and all the namesakes of its streets. Can you imagine if the intersection of 4th Street and Red Mile was still called Broadway and La Rue de Notre Dame de la Paix? The world would be a better place for sure!

    I will also have to defend my old childhood turf Triwood (comprised of Brentwood, Charleswood, and Collingwood in the NW). There, although the names still stuck to the aforementioned first letter sceme, the street names made thematic sense and honoured Canadian and even Calgarian heritage. I grew up on Conrad Drive, which I believe was named after a group of brothers who were early entrepreneurs in the Calgary area. We also had some very elegant street names with obvious historial significance: Cheltenham Road, Cromwell Avenue, Cavanaugh Place, and Brisbois Drive ( let’s not forget the whole city could have ended up with the name Fort Brisbois!) Then again, we were also home to Chippendale Drive. Ouch!

    Nevertheless, of all the idiot street names in Calgary, I think I have to say that Whispering Water Way – in Elbow River Estates – easily takes the cake.

    December 22nd, 2007 at 4:03 am

  5. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I think that subdivisions with the really silly names are still the exception, thankfully. The three suburbs in the area I grew up had perfectly relevant names: Coach Hill, after Old Banff Coach Road; Strathcona, after Lord Strathcona’s Horse; Christie, after a prominent landowning family; and Signal Hill, after the regimental IDs that were laid in white stones on a bare hill face by departing WWII soldiers (they’re still there).

    December 22nd, 2007 at 12:59 pm

  6. Evan says:

    Yes, Chris, the tradition of naming streets with a common LETTER (or alphabetically) predates our modern notions of suburbia. Although William Levitt is most famous for doing it in the prototypical Levittown, Pennsylvania, the antecedents are seen much earlier in places like Radburn, New Jersey (an early garden suburb 15 miles from New York City) and Chicago, where the north-south streets of the entire western half of the city are named in series with K (Karlov, Keeler, Kostner) through P (Pacific, Panama, Pittsburgh). I believe this happened in the late 1890s-early 1900s when Chicago began annexing areas not on the immediate lakefront. So same-letter subdivisions are pretty old, but same-first-syllable seems to be a more recent, Calgary/American-sunbelt phenomenon.

    Also, “trail” is used as a generic elsewhere, albeit in a different sense than in Calgary. Where I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, there is a large, upscale subdivision called Urban Farms built in the 1960s where a majority of streets carry the generic “trail.” It seems to be used as a more “rustic” alternative to “drive” or “lane” and is most commonly associated with non-local First Nations names (Aztec, Shinnecock, Dakota). Other area suburbs use it in a similar fashion.

    December 26th, 2007 at 11:07 am

  7. Evan says:

    If you wanna talk strange generics, I can think of a few… let’s see if anyone can tell me if they’re attested anywhere else:

    “cove” in Memphis, TN designating a cul-de-sac (neither the common generic for this type of street, “court” nor “cul-de-sac” are ever used here)

    “stravenue” in Tucson, AZ designating a diagonal street: Tucson’s streets follow a grid pattern with “street” being the east-west generic and “avenue” being the north-south. “Stravenue” is something of a compromise.

    Numbered streets with a non-directional prefix in New York City: “Beach 34th Street,” “Bay 8th Street,” “Paerdegat 3rd Street.”

    The different use of “Way” in Washington State relative to the rest of the country. In most places it’s a suburban street that ends in a cul-de-sac, while in Washington State (especially Seattle) it’s a main arterial street. Influence, perhaps, from the Swedish “väg”/Norwegian “vei”?

    December 27th, 2007 at 6:11 pm

  8. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Very interesting. Stravenue is fun. Bay 8th Street, etc. in New York reminds me of London, where streets in different areas that share names are distinguished by adding the borough name as a prefix, like Islington High Street or Ealing Broadway.

    Cove reminds me of the name used for cul-de-sacs in Calgary, which is Bay. Do you know if this is used anywhere else?

    December 27th, 2007 at 7:57 pm

  9. Evan says:

    Looking at a map of Calgary, it seems to me that “Bay” is just one of many generics used for cul-de-sacs, along with Crescent, Close, Place, etc.

    Unless, however, you mean that “bay” is used not as a generic but as a common noun. Growing up in Memphis, we played “in the cove,” rather than in the cul-de-sac. Do Calgarian kids play “in the bay”?

    Interesting idea about the reasoning behind the non-directional prefixes in New York. Of course, it doesn’t help things much, seeing as there are at least 20 different sub-grids of numbered, named, and lettered streets operating throughout the city. In fact, it only serves to make things more confusing. Tourists and locals alike find themselves confused in Greenwich Village, where West 4th Street intersects West 11th Street, but some neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens can drive even the most expert navigator to madness. In Bensonhurst, the north-south streets appear in this sequence: Bay 31st St, Bay 32nd St, 23rd Ave, Bay 34th St, Bay 35th St, 24th Ave, Bay 37th St, and so on. And in Queens, 76th Ave runs parallel to 76th Rd, 76th Terrace, and 76th Dr, but 76th St and 76th Pl are perpendicular.

    Now there’s a city that could benefit from a Québec City-style “harmonisation des noms de rue.”

    January 4th, 2008 at 2:46 am

  10. Jim Evans says:

    I certainly agree with your point about meaningless, repetitive names being used for subdivisions. I really do believe that property developers require some sort of therapy to relieve the rest of us of their madness.

    There are some interesting, and legitimate, uses of the word “trail” in the naming of Calgary roads, however. EG:Edmonton Trail really was the road north out of town. Even more interesting is why Deerfoot Trail is named as it is. The person who’s name they were going use translated as “Scabby Dried Meat. I am thankful, in this case, that they didn’t stick to historical accuracy.

    One bit of weirdness I haven’t been able to figure out yet is the name of my parent’s street. They live in Penbrooke, where everything is named “pen-something or other”

    The name of their street is Valentine Crescent. There has to be a story there. I haven’t found it yet.

    Jim

    April 11th, 2008 at 9:56 am

  11. Bob says:

    MARQUIS OF LORNE TRAIL
    There seems to be some confusion about the title, spelling and pronunciation of the Marquess of Lorne (AKA John Campbell, former Gov. General of Canad). I assume that he is the person after whom the Marquis of Lorne trail was named.

    If so, I think (1) it’s not the Marquis de Lorne Trail, (2) Marquis should really be Marquess to distinguish the title from the similar French title, Marquis, and (3) it’s pronounced markwis in English (see Oxford Canadian dictionary), not marquee, no matter how you spell his title.
    Now, how do we get the city to change the name???

    October 22nd, 2008 at 4:58 pm

  12. Andreas says:

    Having grown up in Calgary, but also having visited lots of other cities, I find Calgary’s street naming conventions quite useful. Given an arbitrary street address in Calgary it is possible to guess with fair accuracy where in the city the street is located.

    For numbered street/avenue addresses this is of course trivial because the building address lines up with the street/avenue numbering. Even with the named residential streets the use of the common prefix isolates the location of the street to a particular community within the city.

    In contrast, named streets in most other cities are assigned in a completely haphazard manner, and the only way to know where a particular named street is located is to consult a huge tome of a map that lists every single street name.

    Often in old cities a street will change its name from one block to the next, or in contrast the same street name will persist through several different boroughs and have duplicate building numbers on different parts of the cross-borough street.

    In some cities (e.g. Vancouver) the building addresses do not correspond to the numbered streets at all. In other cities there are building numbers on one side of the street that have no relation to building numbers on the other side.

    I’ll take Calgary’s easy-to-find addresses over those kinds of confusion any day.

    June 30th, 2009 at 5:15 pm

  13. Christopher DeWolf says:

    It’s definitely convenient. But every city has its tricks for finding addresses and it’s part of the charm of a place to figure out exactly how to get around. Of course, I have a bias, since I find messy, confusing cities to be innately more interesting than logical and well-organized ones.

    July 1st, 2009 at 10:56 am

  14. The Odd History of Calgary's City Streets says:

    [...] and friends will get used to it and finding places will become easy.  Eventually. SourcesUrbanPhoto.com: Calgary's Missing Street NamesCalgaryHeritage.org: Pre-WWI Street Names in Calgary Residential DistrictsWikipedia: Dominion Land [...]

    May 19th, 2010 at 3:30 pm

  15. Kim says:

    I have to disagree a bit about the weird new suburban names being a Calgary/American only phenomenon. I think it really is more just a normal new suburb phenomenon. Look at places like Brampton, which, though it does not have names that all start with the same letters, is just as nonsensical ex:Rattlesnake Road, Sahara Trail, Arid Drive, Desert Sand Drive….in Ontario? A place I lived for many years just out of Edmonton by the name of Spruce Grove has names repeated continuously throughout developments, for example: Deer Park Road, Deer Park Way, Deer Park Close, Deer Park Crescent, Deer Park Drive…etc. It’s the trend now for developers and as Calgary has grown like mad in the last few years, of course it, too, has these crazy development names. I agree that there is no creativity to it, but developers probably don’t feel like sparing the time to really consider the city’s history or the significance of names.
    I will be moving to Tuscany in a month, and though I personally hate almost everything about that suburb at least I’ll be in Calgary. I much prefer the numbered streets and quadrants (though I love the “formally” signs when I go visit a neighbourhood), I find it easier to get around especially in such a sprawling city and wish that the suburbs also got the street number treatment.

    September 23rd, 2012 at 5:09 am

  16. Alfredo says:

    I find street names in Calgary so stupid. In the NW where I live, I stop remembering street names, because I can’t. There is no way I can remember street names with the sames first few letters and ended in way, blvd. street etc. Since I moved here 4 months ago from Toronto, I can’t help it but think what’s in the planners mind to think of so stupid meaningless street names. I’ve seen Coventry Hills Way followed by Coventry Hills Blvd. followed by Coventry Close. The most despicable is that every few blocks, there seemed to be a change in name. Oh, by the way, what does it mean by Coventry Green?

    September 27th, 2013 at 1:13 am

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