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?
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.
Original street names restored in Inglewood
Tags: Calgary, Signs, Street Names, Street Signs