Reminders of farmlands and country living now mix with a new generation of pioneer folk and industry. Home to big skies and the rocky prairies… we’re settling the West, and this is what it looks like today. While rightfully modern, Calgary’s still framed up with dairy silos, storage yards, and straw coloured fields.
Well known for snowy summers and minuteman weather tantrums, Calgary was treated to some magnificent cloud cover after this Thursday’s storm.
A modern play on the fairy tale with three homes from Calgary’s Sunnyside and Crescent Heights area.
Calgary has a lot of squat apartment buildings built in the 1950s and 60s. Unlike their counterparts in Vancouver, which tend towards a breezy, pastel-coloured Art Moderne kind of style, these are typically clad in frumpy brown brick. They look cheap and outdated, but I’ve noticed a handful of such buildings that have undergone renovations that exploit their clean lines and simple appearance while discarding some of their more tasteless elements, like dumpy vinyl siding and hideous doors and windows. Is it possible that these postwar apartment houses, usually dismissed as forgettable, will one day be stylish places to live?
I’m in Calgary at the moment. This is a fast-growing, fast-changing city, and there are a couple of interesting changes that I noticed while I was here. One of them is the introduction of two new scramble crossings in the Eau Claire neighbourhood of the city’s downtown area.
Often associated with Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing, scramble crossings are in fact a North American invention, originating in Kansas City and Vancouver in the 1940s. Basically, the term refers to an exclusive pedestrian crossing phase at an intersection controlled by traffic lights; all cars come to a stop and pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions. For the most part, it’s a safe and efficient way of governing traffic flow, as long as pedestrians have ample time to cross.
Scramble crossings disappeared in North America for several decades, victims of the postwar dominance of the automobile. Attitudes have changed, though, and the crossings are making a comeback. In 2003, Montreal installed them without much fanfare in the Quartier international, at such corners as McGill and St. Jacques and Viger and St. Urbain; they can also be found at several other intersections, like Monkland and Girouard in NDG. There is nothing to indicate that pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions — some figure it out but others seem hesitant to cross diagonally.
In Calgary, by contrast, the city has made a big deal of its new pedestrian scrambles, accompanying their installation with plenty of instructional signage. Painted lines in the intersection let pedestrians know that it’s okay to cross diagonally. Based on what I’ve seen, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp the concept, and with each light cycle there are people who cross in all directions. Prominent signs prohibit drivers from making right turns on red.
Every summer, Prince’s Island — a beautiful island park in the Bow River, right next to downtown Calgary — plays host to a number of large festivals, including the always-interesting folk music festival, which took place last week with some big headliners and great enthusiasm. These festivals are an asset to the cultural life of Calgary, but there’s just one problem: they’re not free. Each festival surrounds itself with fences and restricts access by charging an entry fee. Sometimes the fee is relatively small, but in the case of the folk fest, it was as much as $50 for a single-day ticket. I’m torn between wanting to support a cultural initiative like this and decrying the way it occupies and privatizes an important public space.
Somebody else was less ambivalent in their opinion. This weekend, while making my way to the festival site, I came across this message drawn into the path with chalk: “Welcome to Fantasy Island. No poor people here.” It’s an apt statement, since there really weren’t any poor people at the folk fest, simply they couldn’t possibly afford to attend. Lately, whenever I visit Calgary I detect a growing undercurrent of anger and indignation, something potentially explosive that lurks among the city’s legions of working poor and homeless, many of them victims of the economic boom that has brought great prosperity to Calgary, but also a soaring cost of living. I suspect that, in the future, we’ll see more messages like the one I saw on Prince’s Island.
Pierre Burton, the journalist, author and historian, once remarked of Calgary, “The two blocks between the Palliser Hotel and The Bay is the only part of the city that resembles its former self.” While that’s not altogether true (there are parts of town, like Inglewood and Ramsay, that retain the feel of a small prairie town) the area around First Street SW is probably the only part of Calgary with any real historical presence. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is one of the few parts of town with much urban vitality, too.
Ahh the Bowness Shopping Centre. If it’s not a power centre – it’s a strip mall; that’s just Calgary. Home to baked goods, groceries, and family videos, one can always sit back enjoy a coffee, get their nails done and pick up the latest Catholic reads.
The strangest mishmash stores… complete with signs from another time.
I took the Calgary Tower for granted when I saw it every day. Now I realize what a remarkable monument to late-sixties kitsch it really was. Built in 1967 by Husky Oil to commemorate the centennial of Canada’s confederation, its has no purpose other than as a monument — a really big monument capped by an orangey-red observation deck. It can seem grand, in a space age kind of way, when you look at it from afar, or in the midst of the downtown office district. But from other angles it just seems odd.
Waiting for a train at Centre Street station
Afternoon on a Dalhousie-bound train
Door button on a 1981-vintage train
It would be a bit of an understatement to say that downtown Calgary is in the midst of a construction boom. Construction explosion, more like it. Nearly two dozen new condominium and office towers are under construction in the city’s compact centre; some are destined for obscurity but others, like Norman Foster’s The Bow, which will become the city’s new tallest building, are daring and ambitious in their design.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Le Germain, a hotel, office and condominium complex currently under construction at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Centre Street, right across from the Calgary Tower. I like that it subverts the plain-box archetype that has dominated Calgary since the 1970s; by taking two different boxes and bridging them with an bunch of glass condos, it creates an unusual building in a city that strays far too often towards the banal.
At the same time, though, it’s pretty ugly — but I guess it’s better to be interestingly ugly than pleasantly average.
Nobody hangs their laundry out to dry in Calgary. In fact, there are hardly any clothelines. My grandmother’s house had one, but I don’t think she ever used it. She, like everyone I knew while growing up there, had a washer and dryer set tucked neatly in a musty corner of her basement, across from a half-century-old furnace.
It was an eye-opening experience to travel to Newfoundland as a teenager, where I discovered that St. John’s was precisely the opposite of Calgary: everyone had clotheslines. Clothes hung over alleyways and backyards, billowing in the salty Atlantic breeze like flags of chores vanquished. There was something inexplicably romantic, something timeless, about clothes drying on lines, whether in the city or in a stark outport on the Avalon Peninsula.
Montreal is similar to St. John’s, at least in that regard. Here, the clothesline tradition never really died. Although they’re less prevalent today than in the past, you’ll still see an abundance of them if you wander down the laneways of just about any neighbourhood. Immigrant neighbourhoods in particular have a ton of clotheslines, probably because they’re home to so many people who come from countries where drying your clothes outside is still the norm. I remember, earlier this fall, driving east through St. Michel on the elevated Metropolitan Expressway, staring at long rows of triplexes tied together by strands of billowing clothes.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that kind of scene became even more common in the future. That’s because clotheslines are no longer just quaint — they’re fashionable. The growing marketability of anything “green” has led to a resurgence of interest in drying clothes outside. It’s cheaper than clothes dryers, which can consume as much as 900 kilowatt hours of energy per year, and better for your clothes. According to La Presse, which extolled the benefits of clotheslines last summer, the sun eliminates odours and removes stains, and is easier on natural fibres than clothes dryers.
But, as much as I like to know that the sun can whiten my whites, it’s the clothesline aesthetic that really appeals to me. I’m still charmed by the sight of them, which is good because they’re ubiquitous in my back alley from March until November. More than that, though, clotheslines domesticate the street. We’ve spent so much effort over past half-century trying to sterilize our cities, to turn them into machines, that we need these kinds of reminders that they are, first and foremost, places where people live, messy as that may be.
Still, prejudices linger. Many new subdivisions include provisions in house purchase agreements that ban residents from drying their clothes outside. It’s a class thing more than anything else, since clotheslines are still associated by many with poverty. There has been a clear shift in attitude, however. Earlier this month, Ontario’s environment minister announced that he wants to override those clothesline bans.
I’m not alone in enjoying the look of clotheslines, either. There are plenty of Flickr groups dedicated to clotheslines, including one called Les cordes à linge de Montréal.