Six truths about the city that’s no longer, simply, Cowtown
Ifirst came to know Calgary, as many do, driving along highways and broad suburban avenues, through the nowhere geography of its ample suburban periphery as my future wife toured the non-sights of her childhood. We would sometimes meander around its inner-city precincts as well, and she’d grow steadily more agitated behind the wheel as she pointed out all the spots where the old buildings used to be. It’s a common tic, actually, in the coded language of old-hand Calgarians: first you trade the names of the suburban neighbourhoods where you grew up, then you offer driving directions by way of landmarks that no longer exist.
It must have been 1999, because I remember passing the open field that used to be the Calgary General Hospital, the one whose demolition Ralph Klein had triumphantly overseen the year before. We were confirmed Torontonians then. My wife was certain she was never coming back to live in this denuded landscape. We didn’t see much to convince us otherwise; this was a city that blew up its hospitals.
We were wrong on many counts. We bought our first house in one of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods in 2003, and we soon discovered another kind of city entirely. Maybe it was a matter of timing. Looking back, I think we landed in Calgary at a pivot point, a break from a century of history too rigidly defined by Cowtown iconography and the boom-bust whiplash of the oil and gas business. Calgary was always more interesting than its one-dimensional reputation, but at some point not too long ago—booming as never before, its population roaring past one million with a bullet—it became a city in full.
Calgary looks ever forward and often moves as fast as a prairie storm; its official motto, adopted in 1884, is a single propulsive word: “Onward.” It can seem, at a glance, like a place with no past at all. By world standards, and even by Canadian ones, this isn’t much of an overstatement. To say that it is a young city is accurate demographically—its median age, 35.8, is the lowest in Canada, and its population has grown faster than any other in the country since 2001, as legions of young job seekers poured in by the tens of thousands from Regina and Mississauga and St. John’s—but it is equally true on a historical scale. In 1882, the year Sir John A. Macdonald founded the Albany Club in Toronto, Calgary was a collection of tents and shacks in the shadow of a North West Mounted Police outpost, still waiting on the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Montreal built its first skyscraper, the New York Life Building, fifteen years before Calgary got its first telephone. At the end of World War I, Winnipeg was a booming industrial city of 165,000; Calgary would not reach that benchmark until ten years after World War II ended.
The city has done almost all of its significant growing in the postwar years, made big and rich and brazen by the abundant fossilized wealth of the Canadian West. It reached full urban scale only in that sainted quarter century after the war, when energy was cheap and seemingly limitless: the apex of the oil age, lit by buzzing neon and warmed by natural gas, a plastic-fantastic space age of split-level expansiveness and shopping mall abundance and fast-food convenience, all of it delivered by miraculous hydrocarbons. And Calgary has gone from big city to aspiring metropolis in the oil age’s long twilight of heightened booms and foreshortened busts. Its population today is about 1.2 million residents, roughly half of whom arrived after the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Olympics.
Calgary is, before anything else, a young city. Its peers are not Toronto or Chicago or New York, certainly not London, Paris, or Berlin, not even cities like Denver and Kansas City, which bear certain vague resemblances and share overlapping histories. No, Calgary’s true cohort is that far-flung constellation of gleaming new cities that emerged from mud and swamp and flat, empty space to make the oil age manifest and global. Phoenix, Dallas, Singapore, Dubai—these are its true peers. And among them, it dwells in the usual Canadian sweet spot of peace, order, and good government, between the extremes of chaos and over-planning occupied by other automotive age boom towns.
Youth is a mixed blessing, for cities as well as people. It gives a city wide-eyed optimism, boundless exuberance, and a thirst for risks, but it can also lend a reckless, petulant character. The stereotypical Calgary—that land of cattle ranchers and oilmen, of easy money, big trucks, and expansive sprawl—speaks to both sides of its youthful nature.
Even if you love the city deep down, you sometimes feel as if you’re merely putting up with it, waiting for it to grow all the way up and become what it pretends to be. Calgary is an overnight millionaire fresh from the sale of a gas exploration company, complaining about the greed of all those farmers who jacked up the lease rates. Calgary is the home riding of the prime minister abutting the home riding of the premier, and still insisting that it doesn’t get a fair shake in Ottawa or Edmonton. Calgary is the highest per capita income in Canada in a province with no sales tax, indignant that its property taxes are going up. Its conservatism sometimes scans as a youngster’s I-got-mine insolence. Its emerging power and prominence come across from some angles as pure teenage bluster.
I think I first heard it said about George W. Bush that he was born on third base and reckoned he must’ve hit a triple. Maybe this is an oil executive’s delusion, because the same misapprehension pervades Calgary’s business culture. There is a tendency to see the city’s (and the province’s) prosperity as the manifestation of native ingenuity and gumption, rather than a natural gift, a stroke of paleogeographic luck. A vein of triumphant smugness runs through the office towers, accompanied by a mild condescension that explodes to the surface whenever its assumptions are challenged too hard. Its business leaders are masters of the over-articulated exhale, the swirling eye, and the slight, dismissive smile.
These are not particularly kind words for a city I profess to love, but I got them out of the way first because there is some truth to them, and because this is the image of itself that Calgary has projected most vividly to the rest of the country and beyond. All those yee-haws and yahoos. Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark and The West Wants In. The social calendar dominated by a rowdy annual party with a rodeo theme, in the shadow of a hockey rink shaped like a saddle. The prime minister was in China not long ago promoting trade, but because his riding is in Cowtown he was accompanied by a guy in a plush cartoon mascot’s costume with an equine countenance, clad in a shirt of tablecloth red-check plaid and sheepskin chaps and answering to the name Harry the Horse. (Did Trudeau bring Bonhomme with him to Beijing?) The first superintendent of Fort Calgary, setting a certain tone, named the place after himself without permission; it was Fort Brisebois for a spell, until cooler heads prevailed. This is the thing about headstrong kids: even the ones poised for greatness are still kids, possessed of fevered brains in manic frames, squandering so much of their overflowing energy on nothing much at all.
To be young, though, is also to be free and unfettered, eager to invent and experiment. Calgary is an energetic city, bound by few traditions and even less old money propriety. Its boosters—and it is nothing if not a city of boosters—like to talk about how their city is an entrepreneur’s paradise, a place for ambitious strivers with big ideas. They probably say it too often, but it begins from a cluster of truths about the city’s admirable social fluidity and the permeability of its power structures. You can arrive at the start of a decade planning to leave in a year or two, and find yourself treated like a pillar of the community by decade’s end. I can say that with certainty, because I lived it.
Calgary wants you to know, maybe a little too keenly, that it’s ready to take its place at the world-class table as a city of global import. Coming through the airport the other day, I passed under a banner adorned with the city’s new marketing tagline: “innovative energy.” It’s a meaningless phrase, a multi-stakeholder committee’s overwrought idea of catchy, a slogan better suited to a consulting firm. (The old one, now defunct, was “Heart of the New West”; along the way, Hidy and Howdy, the cartoon bears who had served as Olympic mascots, were unceremoniously removed from the city’s welcome signs.) The rebranding campaign was years in the works. A big shot LA marketing firm had been somewhat controversially involved, and there had been hand-wringing and breast-beating in the op-ed pages about losing the priceless “cowboy brand.” And, to be sure, the white Smithbilt hat and the yee-hawing cartoon bears are far more distinctive than “innovative energy.” (“Where do great ideas fly? ” the sign inquires. The answer—”calgary”—comes in muted lower case, which doesn’t fit at all. Calgary is many things, but it’s pretty much never understated.)
It’s all kind of silly, this hunt for a single phrase to sum up a city of a million distinct souls, but between the lines you can hear the place trying to talk about another kind of youthful exuberance that doesn’t need to holler in cartoon cowboy slang. Despite the cowboy hat bluster, Calgary doesn’t know exactly what it is yet, and so it can still be shaped. And that, I can attest, makes it an exciting place to stake one’s urban claim.
Calgary Is Wild
In the months before we moved into our first Calgary home, my wife and I camped out in her father’s basement, deep in southeastern suburbia. I would drive her downtown to work most days, and I’d sometimes take different routes back, hunting out the city’s less beaten paths, trying to make them my own. One morning, as I waited at a traffic light in the heart of downtown, a flock of Canada geese went by, flying in formation not much higher than my windshield. It felt like a portent.
Calgary is a wild city. The rivers that shape its contours, the Bow and the Elbow, are not wide, silty aquatic highways, but fast-flowing mountain streams that bulge with frigid meltwater each spring and trickle down to bare rock by summer’s end. There’s a weir on the edge of downtown, just below the confluence of the two rivers, that disgorges disoriented fish, especially at the height of summer, and so for a couple of weeks in July flocks of white pelicans take up residence on a nearby sandbar and feast. (My father-in-law calls this scene “the sushi bar.”) Farther along, the Bow and a tributary, Fish Creek, form the forked backbone of a provincial park contained entirely within the city limits. The park is an oasis for deer, wolves, beavers, and owls. My daughter’s first glimpse of untamed nature was there, on a spring hike along the banks of the Bow when she was barely three. We came upon a young bald eagle, midway through the disembowelling of a smaller bird. We watched in rapt attention, my daughter just a little anxious, but the eagle paid us no mind at all.
One fine day last fall, a cougar took up residence in a tree near the Calgary Rowing Club, on the banks of the Glenmore Reservoir, the source of the city’s drinking water. It took the police, several wildlife officials, and a tranquilizer gun to dislodge the big cat and return it to the wilderness west of town.
Calgary is wild, and this is a big part of its allure: the vast network of pathways for biking and jogging along the riverbanks, the Rocky Mountains on the horizon, the western suburbs spilling into the foothills, and the eastern boundary giving way to wide prairie and fossil-strewn badlands canyons. The rural wilds feel close, just up the block or down the road. At the height of summer or on a snowy winter weekend, it can seem as if half the city has emptied out to Banff or Kananaskis or the houseboats of the Shuswap. Calgary is a city of skiers, hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, fly fishermen. On hot summer days, the Bow fills with an ad hoc flotilla of fishing boats, canoes, and inflatable rafts tethered together like bobbing patios, complete with beer coolers and sound systems.
If you’re looking for Calgary’s newest money, you’ll find quite a lot of it in the hills west of the city limits, in enclaves like Bearspaw and Springbank and Elbow Valley. There are few homes smaller than 5,000 square feet out in those hills, and virtually no garages less than three-car. Broad pseudo–ranch houses and many-gabled starter castles have been strewn carelessly across the ridgelines on acre plots, their picture windows facing west toward the mountains. The brass ring is a country estate half-disguised as a suburban split-level with a boat trailer or an RV the size of a tour bus parked alongside, and a half-hour jump on mountain-bound Friday-afternoon traffic. Failing that, a case of Pilsner and a rubber dinghy on the river will suffice.
Calgary was never actually the Wild West, at least not in the gunslinging sense. For all the romantic nostalgia surrounding that first handful of pioneering ranchers, it was settled primarily by the North West Mounted Police and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Until the Mounties and the trains came, there was no town to speak of. And because the settlement was young even then—younger than Edmonton, which had been a bustling fur trading post for decades, younger than the NWMP‘s primary southern Alberta post at Fort Macleod—it never did become the administrative centre of anyone’s map. It was neither the provincial capital nor the main outpost of the federal government back east. It had no established religious power structures, no Loyalist cliques. In Calgary, as its current mayor likes to say, “no one cares who your daddy was,” and no one ever really did. If you can talk your way into the room, you’ll get a hearing, and you might even walk out in charge of something new.
Back in 1912, a smooth talker named Guy Weadick, an eastern city boy who’d learned trick roping and made a living pretending to be a frontier cowboy, came riding into town and convinced four local bigwigs to throw some cash at his travelling circus, and 100 years later Calgary still organizes its summers around the Stampede he sold the city on. Weadick launched an institution and gave the city its founding myth, forever wedding young Calgary to its Cowtown reputation. It is a myth so concise and enduring that even today it continues to obscure the reality of a sophisticated, business-obsessed, hyper-modern city. Even the true nature of this Weadick fellow and his vaudevillian rodeo show have been subsumed by it.
Weadick was by all reports a sincere and charming man, a gifted trick roper and horseback rider, and a passionate, persuasive salesman. A 1952 glossy history of the Stampede describes him as “a long, lean cowpuncher with a quick nervous walk and a Wyoming drawl.” If this sounds like a character in a 1950s Western, that’s because it mostly is: Guy Weadick was born in Rochester, New York, and later spent time in Wyoming and Winnipeg. By the time he arrived in Calgary, the American frontier had been closed for decades, and even nostalgic Wild West travelling shows were on the wane. The inaugural Stampede was conceived as a one-time spectacle, a grand finale.
Weadick moved the Stampede to Winnipeg the next year, but the show didn’t catch on there, and so he brought it back to Calgary, where it became an annual event in 1923. Even then, it included many of its current trappings: a parade, a midway, horse racing, free cowboy breakfasts, and several novel rodeo events. But those early Stampedes were varied affairs. There were Model T races and city tours, North West Mounted Police on horseback and Hudson’s Bay Company factors on foot; photos from the first Stampede parade reveal bowler hats and Sunday finery outnumbering cowboy hats and spurs.
The “Indian Village,” a sparsely attended back corner of the grounds nowadays, was perhaps the most unique Stampede feature and its most authentic frontier experience. At the time, Alberta’s First Nations were forbidden to leave their reserves except on short-term permits, and they couldn’t wear their traditional dress or practise their cultural and religious beliefs, on or off the reserve. The local Indian agent initially refused to allow his wards to attend the first Stampede, because it required too many days off the reserve, and he was only overruled after two of Calgary’s most prominent politicians, Senator James Lougheed and future prime minister R. B. Bennett, petitioned the federal government. The First Nations pitched teepees and camped out on the Stampede grounds by the thousands, embracing the event as a rare chance to express their smothered cultures; the Stampede represented the only opportunity most Calgarians ever had to interact directly with their Indigenous neighbours.
Notwithstanding the mythmaking overstatement, there was an authentic wildness to the city that birthed the Stampede, a frontier gambler’s taste for risk that lives on within its glittering office towers. It’s no coincidence that it spawned WestJet and Bre-X Minerals (the positive and negative poles in Calgary’s freewheeling business culture), and I still can’t figure out how Norman Foster managed to convince the city’s largest gas drilling operation to commission Canada’s greenest skyscraper, but any day now they’ll cut the ribbon on the Bow building, Encana’s employees will move in, and it will replace the Calgary Tower as the city’s postcard icon.
Wild Calgary changes almost as quickly as the weather, and prairie storms tend to come on with little warning. The sky was blue last you checked, and then it went purple-black and the air seemed to pulse with an electricity you could almost see, and ten minutes later hailstones the size of golf balls have laid waste to the tomato plants you tended so foolishly all spring. The only thing to count on, when it comes to Calgary, is that whatever the current weather, it will change—often quite dramatically—any minute now. My wife will tell you she’s seen snow in every single month on the calendar. Some years, winter turns to summer over a single weekend, with nothing in between that would be recognized elsewhere as spring.
You never forget your first chinook. It’s January or February, the darkest depths of winter’s deep-freeze. You look west toward the Rockies on the horizon, and a wide arch bisects the sky. In the foreground, dark, flat cloud; in the distance to the west, bright sky and warm air pushing winter out of their path like the screen wipe in a movie. A morning that started at minus ten finishes the day at plus fifteen, the chinook turning winter to full spring in a couple of hours and prompting the Ship and Anchor pub on 17 Avenue to open its patio for the afternoon. The sudden shift in air pressure feels as if it’s pinching the eyes tight even in heads not prone to headaches. It’s a weekend furlough from winter, boom town weather, and it induces a kind of delirium. Don’t think about tomorrow. Make the most of it for as long as it lasts. Because the winter, everyone knows, will be back soon enough.
Calgary Is a Boom Town
In 1912, the CPR chose Calgary as its regional maintenance depot, igniting the most intense real estate boom Canada has ever seen. Within months, there were two real estate offices for every grocery store, and more than one in every ten adult males was part of the property hustle in some way or another. The volume of building permits issued in 1912 would not be equalled again until 1949. In 1912, the population was a little more than 40,000, and so a handful of local businessmen got together and formed the 100,000 Club, with the goal of hitting that target by 1915. A few months later, as the boom built to fever pitch, they changed the name to the Quarter Million Club.
Their optimism was understandable; Calgary was exploding from the prairie earth with staggering speed. Its first permanent City Hall and its first library opened their doors during that inaugural boom, and the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Calgary Herald completed big stone edifices downtown. When Guy Weadick’s Stampede debuted that summer, a crowd nearly twice the size of the city’s permanent population attended its parade. Meanwhile, in a pamphlet entitled “Calgary: The City Phenomenal,” some anonymous local booster wrote, “What of the Future of Calgary? Can it be doubted? NO! Calgary’s future is assured… Nothing but a catastrophe can even temporarily impede her progress. The ‘cow town’ of YESTERDAY, the City of 55,000 TODAY, will be the big Metropolis of the Canadian West TOMORROW.”
Like all speculative bubbles, Calgary’s real estate frenzy collapsed nearly as quickly as it had come on, and the bust was in full effect by the dawn of World War I. Still, the 1912 boom set the tone for much of Calgary’s long-term growth. Writer Aritha van Herk once called her hometown an unpredictable “binge city,” and that about sums it up. An oil strike to the south in 1914 instigated the next boom, and the much larger discovery at Leduc in 1947 saw the Quarter Million Club’s ambitious goal finally reached, as the population doubled between 1948 and 1958. OPEC price shocks set off another boom cycle, with natural gas drilling province-wide and the first bitumen mining operations up north, which busted against the dual austerities of the loathed National Energy Program and the plummet in global oil prices in the 1980s. The most recent boom seemed to ramp up in hiccuping stages of growth and decline, starting in the early 1990s and building until the crazed, full-throttle days of $150-a-barrel oil in the summer of 2008, and the vicious crash along with the rest of the global economy later that year.
Calgary lurches along on this whiplash ride whether it wants to or not. Wrecking balls swing and towers rise and excess becomes de rigueur—one local restaurant was rimming its martini glasses in gold dust circa 2007—and then the construction cranes abruptly fall idle and a certain number of temporary Calgarians pack U-Hauls for the long drive back to Brandon or Cape Breton. The bust of the early 1980s was particularly harsh, and it coloured my wife’s impression of the city for many years afterward. The worst years were accompanied by punishing drought; the suburban neighbourhoods of her youth were full of empty windows marking lost fortunes, and dead brown lawns you weren’t allowed to water. Many of the families that remained clung to homes worth half their purchase price, as engineers took on pizza delivery gigs to make mortgage payments they could no longer afford.
The rise and fall of boom town fortunes take a toll. They lend Calgary a transient quality, a reluctance to dig in all the way, a sense that even office buildings and schools are temporary structures. Too many residents are unsure how it was they decided to come or how long they plan to stay. There sometimes seem to be as many Calgarians building retirement homes in Kelowna or Victoria or planning moves back to the family plot on the Nova Scotia coast as there are tending the city’s civic institutions. Businesses that have been on this or that block for generations vanish overnight as retail rental rates skyrocket, to be replaced by high-rolling design stores or luxury dog accessory boutiques that are themselves gone in six months. Like the warm, welcome chinook, the good times seem to end too quickly, the aftermath of the last bacchanal barely tidied up before the next one arrives.
Amid all of this churn, it’s understandable that Calgary has hung on to those institutions that seem least affected by the upheaval. Business, whether booming or busting, sets the tone for the broader civic culture. Developers come to dictate the agenda at City Hall. Corporate donors determine just how robust the arts scene will be. The safest jobs are with the CPR, which still employs more Calgarians than any given oil company. The white cowboy hats and Wild West vests worn by volunteers for the Olympics will do just fine for the greeters at the airport. And though it lasts for just ten days, the Calgary Stampede, so it’s presumed, will now and forever be the city’s proudest symbol: its trademark, its iconic brand, its heart and soul.
Calgary Is (Still) Cowtown
The Stampede as we now know it—and the Cowtown mono-myth it reiterates and reinforces each summer—codified itself only in the ’50s and ’60s, against the backdrop of a cartoonish Western revival on television and movie screens across North America. Hollywood cowboys became the preferred Stampede parade marshals in those years (Tonto, the Cisco Kid, and the Virginian all played the role), and the more varied traditions and symbols of earlier Stampedes were mostly buried under a kitschy flood of six-guns and spurs and frontier town facades. “Since the 1960s,” historian Max Foran writes, “the Stampede has focused primarily on the generic western myth… The Canadian West has largely disappeared from the Stampede.”
Somewhere along the way, a novelty introduced by football fans during their pilgrimage to Toronto for the 1948 Grey Cup—the distribution of bright white, wide-brimmed Smithbilt cowboy hats, made in a local warehouse run by a Belarusian immigrant named Shumiatcher, who anglicized and genericized his name for the company’s trademark—became a civic tradition, a year-round reminder of the Stampede’s cowboy iconography. When members of the royal family visit (Andy and Fergie in 1987, Will and Kate in 2011), they get white-hatted. When Ralph Klein went to the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate the IPO of a local company, he white-hatted the overseers of the world’s most powerful stock market. When world leaders descended on Calgary for a G8 meeting a few years back, they all got white-hatted (though Tony Blair reportedly refused to wear his, and Jacques Chirac was visibly disturbed by the ritual). The day my wife and I got married, white hats went onto the heads of half a dozen guests at the reception.
Calgary can sometimes seem monolithic, one-dimensional, a lone cowboy forever in the same white hat, yip-yip-yahooing from the oil patch. Cowtown, yes, and nothing more. The sea of Conservative blue that covers most of the city on each federal and provincial election night hides the fact that in many ridings at least half the electorate voted for another party. (In recent years, the Green Party has achieved some of its best results in Calgary.) The girth, power, and prominence of the oil and gas business, direct or indirect employer of one in seven Albertans, often overshadows the fact that the majority of Calgarians work in businesses with no connection to fossil fuels. The brazen braying that erupts from some of Calgary’s best-known and most heavily amplified mouths—Ralph Klein and Stephen Harper, Ezra Levant and Barry Cooper, Rod Love and Danielle Smith—tends to drown out the strident rebuttals from other local voices. (Put another way, it’s better known that Calgary West MP Rob Anders accused Nelson Mandela of being a terrorist on the floor of the House of Commons than it is that his own riding association has twice tried to oust him as its nominee.)
Even Calgary’s civic structure reinforces the mono-myth. It is the only large municipality in the country that encompasses not just the inner city, but all of its suburbs. By reputation, Calgary is the redneck, pickup-trucking sprawl capital of Canada, while Vancouver is the greenest city that ever bike-laned its way to the farmers’ market—and you would see those stereotypes broadly confirmed by a statistical comparison of the City of Calgary (all 1.2 million residents of the metro area) and the City of Vancouver (just 600,000 enlightened souls in a metropolis of at least 2.3 million, depending on how far up the Fraser Valley you go before you stop counting). Compare metro areas, however, and you’ll uncover my favourite statistical pair, the one indicating that the proportion of commuters who get to work by foot, bike, and public transit each day in the Greater Vancouver Area is just 2.2 percent greater than in Calgary.
The fine details and hard data don’t amount to much, though, when the symbol is so powerful, so enduring, so widely displayed and frequently reinforced. Which is why in some circles, the mono-myth inspires a neglected younger sibling’s deep, inchoate loathing. If Stampede was just Stampede, a ten-day summer festival with calf roping and fireworks and those addictive mini-doughnuts, a free pancake breakfast in the parking lot of the nearest mall, and some overzealous boozing with co-workers—if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t inspire such spite. But it isn’t just that. It won’t just stay there on the flat land below Scotsman’s Hill, won’t keep quiet after the last explosion in the Grandstand fireworks show. You can’t just take it or leave it while the carnival is up and running. It insists on being everything to everyone everywhere, Calgary by proxy, the default iconographic setting for any discussion of the city and the province and the Canadian West in general. And to question its value, to argue that Calgary is a much more interesting city than its mono-myth, is tantamount to blasphemy.
In the months before the 2011 Stampede, some mildly heated debate about party tents took place in my neighbourhood. The previous year, the white-linen Italian restaurant at the end of my block had turned its parking lot into a satellite Stampede party venue. Behind high temporary riot fencing, a white party tent went up. It was said on my block that the restaurant’s proprietors had promised a staid corporate affair, but instead it had been a rollicking dance party, a noisy, throbbing, drunken mess. Which, of course, is business as usual at Stampede—except that my neighbourhood is on the far side of the central business district and across the Bow River from the Stampede grounds, and it had never before been a Stampede party venue.
The controversy over the renewal of the restaurant’s temporary tent licence hit the press, and former alderman Ric McIver used his Calgary Herald column to explain why my neighbourhood’s distaste for Stampede rowdiness was downright un-Calgarian. “Calgary’s history is marked strikingly by her pioneers,” he wrote. “They were the people who farmed, ranched and homesteaded during difficult times on the Prairies. They worked hard and they played hard. With no ballet to attend or white-table-cloth restaurant to while away the evening hours at, those pioneers made their own fun… Sometimes, the pioneers would compete to see who could stay on wild horses for the longest. Sometimes, they would see who could catch the calves and tie them down for branding in the least time. Sometimes, they would see who could pack up the wagons and get back home the fastest at the end of a long work day. Over time, these competitions developed standard rules, and as a group, were referred to as rodeo. The pleasures available included enjoying a drink of whiskey at the end of the day and listening to music played by whoever was available to sing and play the piano or guitar. These roots of our city are celebrated all year long, but particularly during the Calgary Stampede. The biggest and rowdiest of celebrations often take place in tents.”
This is a particularly fervent defence of Calgary’s mono-myth (a few sentences in, you can practically hear the loping notes of “Happy Trails” on some cowpuncher’s guitar), but it is far from historically accurate. Aside from a few enterprising homesteaders and land speculators, the first Calgarians were mounted police and railway workers. Samuel Shaw, one of the most prominent ranchers of Calgary’s founding era, was an English gentleman of means who arrived on the prairie with a prefab woollen mill ready to be assembled, and tethered his ranch house to the newborn municipality by telegraph wire so he could play chess with colleagues far afield. The chuckwagon races McIver alludes to were a whole-cloth creation of the nimble mind of Guy Weadick (reportedly inspired by then novel car races he’d seen), and the inaugural Stampede was the first rodeo ever staged in these parts. Yes, there were cowboys on those first Alberta ranches, but their lives bore only a passing resemblance to the Old West campfire scene McIver describes. Even noted Alberta storyteller Grant MacEwan, who loved a good yarn more than the dull, unvarnished truth, could say only that local cowboys “rode to the sprawling settlement built around Fort Calgary and spent their wages on supplies and such entertainment as a community under the watchful gaze of the Mounted Police would afford.”
I shouldn’t be too hard on McIver. Like a great many zealous defenders of Calgary’s enclosed conservative tradition (the prime minister is another), he only arrived as an adult, at the age of twenty-three, transferred from Woodstock, Ontario, to work in sales for Schneider Foods. You come to Calgary fresh out of school for a good job in a well-appointed office, you buy yourself a pair of cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed Smithbilt, and you accept the Stampede’s marketing brochure as the true history of your adopted hometown. This, much more than any ancestral connection to the province’s ranching past, is the common tradition of Calgary’s contemporary citizenry. They are corporate lawyers, geologists, health care professionals, packaged goods salespeople. The money is good, the air clean, and the skies not cloudy very many days, and so they learn to say “yee-haw” and “howdy” and “y’all” (none of which have any linguistic connection whatsoever to the city’s actual past) for ten days each summer, and defend their new-found fortunes year round with true-blue Tory zeal.
It’s a tidy life, and it fits Calgary well. There’s much that encourages its residents to stay safely penned inside the clean enclosure of its well-lit paths and well-worn myths.
Calgary Is Enclosed
Calgarians live in a city divided into quadrants, the streets numbered into an orderly grid even when the paths of the actual roadways don’t hew to it. The southwest is known to be rich and well appointed (home to Stephen Harper and Premier Alison Redford), the northeast thought to be poor and increasingly dark skinned (Vietnamese is the default strip mall cuisine city wide, and the South Asians work all the joe jobs at the airport).
Calgarians of every quadrant reside, more often than not, in homes built with their front porches out back and their garages facing the street, and they drive downtown into multi-level parking lots each morning, and take their lunch in a vast labyrinth of a shopping mall that winds its way through the bottom two floors of every other office tower. It’s an indoor routine, walled off and fenced in and carefully climate controlled. It’s another fine local tradition, actually. Like Sam Shaw with his chess games, like a fellow named Riley so homesick he gave all the streets in my neighbourhood the most English names he could think up (Kensington and Gladstone and Oxford), today’s Calgarians live in mild, prosperous denial of where they are and how it came to be. Small wonder, then, that the signature piece of downtown architecture is a series of enclosed walkways fifteen feet above the exposed streets below.
The Plus 15 network is a curious ecosystem, even vibrant in its way. More than sixty-two skywalks connect the downtown buildings in a network of concourses and mezzanines said to stretch for eighteen kilometres. There are back alleys of a sort, little dead-end passages lined with generic cafeterias with names like Lunch Today and Snack Rack, but the core of the network has been renovated extensively in recent years, re-tiled and skylit into a welcoming corporate retail space. The Plus 15s are an entire downtown core reimagined as a shopping mall. There are buskers, street people hunting through garbage cans for returnable containers, underused little outdoor patios, a stock ticker. It is not uncommon to see dense clusters of power-suited executives in the food courts, hammering out multimillion-dollar oil deals as they drink pop through plastic straws. It is a singular place, generic and yet wholly Calgarian, so much so that it became the setting for one of the most viciously satirical movies ever made about Calgary—without the city itself even being named.
Gary Burns’s Waydowntown (2000) tells the story of a group of young corporate cubicle dwellers who engage in a bet to see who can endure the longest without going outside. Burns’s Plus 15 network requires one small fiction—that residential towers are also part of the system—but it is otherwise a naturalistic portrayal of Calgary’s business world. He shot it on location in the Plus 15s using handheld digital cameras and open sets; the passersby and background details are documentary in nature. He conceived the project as an indictment of the Plus 15 system and the city whose streets it denies. “I really thought the Plus 15 was a total disaster,” he told me recently. “I was so angry about it.”
He broadened his critique of Calgary in Radiant City (2006), co-directed by beloved local CBC radio host Jim Brown. A quasi-documentary about life in the suburbs, it switches interchangeably between settings in southeastern Calgary and elsewhere in North America. Calgary again goes unnamed; the implicit argument is either that Calgary is the ultimate expression of the suburban form, or that everywhere is at least a little like Calgary. The title comes from a 1935 book by the seminal French modernist architect Le Corbusier, whose work served as the inspiration for a significant swath of modern suburbia, in which he imagined a model city of skywalks and symmetrical glass towers. Calgary’s enclosed downtown might represent Canada’s most robust expression of Le Corbusier’s vision—one that nearly came to full and disastrous fruition through an ambitious master planning process in the 1960s.
The proposed plans imagined Calgary as little more than a constellation of suburban enclaves linked to the downtown core by broad ribbons of asphalt and concrete. The most startling feature was the Bow Trail, a parkway six or maybe even ten lanes wide, hugging the south bank of the Bow River from one end of the inner city to the other; the CPR tracks were to be rerouted to snake alongside the new highway. To do this, Chinatown would have to be razed pretty much in its entirety. Because of its location on the south side of the river, the Bow Trail would have roared roughshod across historical residential neighbourhoods on the east and west sides of downtown, and would have involved erecting a permanent barrier of fast-moving traffic between the business district and Prince’s Island, a green oasis in the heart of the city.
Even at the very peak of Calgary’s automotive heyday and the height of its first great oil boom, residents vociferously rejected the plans. Opposition was particularly fierce in Chinatown and Inglewood, the east side neighbourhood that had grown up across the river from Fort Calgary, on the original townsite. Pieces of the plan, including a truncated Bow Trail on the west side, were built, but even wild, car-loving Calgary realized there were limits to how much a city should sacrifice to commuter traffic’s exigencies. It was perhaps an expression of the less celebrated side of its enclosed conservatism, a level-headed prairie practicality to balance out the yahoos.
In the long term, the most significant impact of the plan might have been that it carved out a space within the enclosure to talk about traffic, which a quietly enterprising Dutch immigrant at Calgary Transit by the name of Bill Kuyt somehow leveraged into a transformative conversation about public transport. Under his guidance, the city spent the 1960s investigating everything from subways to monorails and space-age personal rapid transit pods hailed at the touch of a button, before settling on the eminently reasonable solution of light rail transit. The CTrain, Canada’s first LRT system, started operations in 1981; since 2001, the whole system has been wind powered. And old Bow Trail has been a mess of construction these past few years, because the city is laying CTrain tracks right down the centre of it.
It is another of those unexpected, paradoxical things about Calgary: there is a wide range of ideas hidden inside the enclosure.
Calgary Is the Open Range
For almost as long as Calgary has been called Cowtown, local boosters and politicians and other assorted VIPs have argued that there is more to the city than rawhide and rodeo. Even Ralph Klein, whose white-hatted, self-satisfied mug defined its character in the national media for much of the past quarter century, can be heard making the case to the press repeatedly in the weeks before the 1988 Olympics. “There is culture beyond cowboy culture,” he told reporters. “We have ballet. We have a symphony. We have theatre.”
This was all true, of course, but any city with a little gumption and a lot of money can found an institution and erect a building to house it. What Calgary lacked, even in its own collective mind, was any sense of what kind of urban story those institutions were telling.
In 1912, around the time the famed quartet of local businessmen was cutting cheques to fund Weadick’s Stampede idea, the big shots at City Hall were entertaining an even grander scheme. Having decided to bring in a foreign expert to help them figure out how to manage Calgary’s phenomenal growth, the newborn planning department wound up commissioning a staggeringly ambitious master plan by an English urban designer named Thomas H. Mawson.
Mawson’s vision has been called “Vienna on the Bow,” and he cited both the Austrian capital and Haussmann’s Paris as models in the plan. It proposed organizing the city into a series of radial axes around a grandiose central plaza ringed in arcaded neoclassical civic buildings: museums and vast exhibition halls, government buildings, and a palatial train station. He even mused on the possibility of an automobile elevator to facilitate traffic across a proposed two-tiered Centre Street Bridge. Had even a portion of the monumental project been built, Calgary might today possess one of the finest classical city centres in North America. But, alas, the boom went bust, as they always do, and Mawson’s plan was forgotten. Calgary got its rodeo but never built a grand plaza, and utilitarian towers and prefab suburban enclaves became the predominant forms. Even its oldest neighbourhoods came to take on a suburban character.
My first Calgary home was in one of these: a 1911 stucco bungalow in a district called Ramsay, on the working-class side of the CPR‘s original townsite, just across the Elbow from the Stampede grounds (close enough that the Grandstand fireworks that conclude each night of Stampede rattled our windows). Ramsay had once been an urban village abutting the stockyards, but over time it had lost much of its non-residential activity; we lived half a block from a 7-Eleven, easily the most bustling of the few remaining shops in the neighbourhood.
I became tangentially involved in local politics, and a group of us came to disagree intensely with our community association, which opposed an elaborate mixed-use development on the edge of the neighbourhood. I’ve stood in front of city council several times to argue in favour of a denser, more stridently urban city, so I can’t remember if it was during this debate or some other one that an alderman asked me doubtfully what I thought such changes might do to the “character” of a Calgary suburb. I remember, in any case, leaving the council hearing with a dejected sense of inevitability, walking out to the parking lot on a cold, dark February evening, watching my breath emerge in thick clouds and fade with steady certainty, like a dream dissolving over and over again. The enclosure’s fences would not be breached on this night.
We tired dissenters decamped to a nearby pub in a vintage fire hall, a joint called the Hose and Hound, and I spied a familiar face at one table, a local academic with an urbanist bent whom I had met at a civic engagement meeting or two. He was drinking a Coke and was hunched in cheerful, conspiratorial chat with a political consultant friend; the prof told me they were musing on who they might back for a run at the mayor’s office in the following year’s election. I remember thinking it was pretty bold of them—verging on delusional, really—to wonder aloud, so matter-of-factly, about something so ambitious. You couldn’t even sell this town on a single piece of urban-scale development in its oldest neighbourhood without being accused of messing with its sacred Cowtown character.
A year and a half later, the political strategist Stephen Carter masterminded the campaign that got the academic Naheed Nenshi elected mayor of Calgary. (Carter went on to become Alison Redford’s chief of staff, having piloted her to the premier’s office as well.)
On the October night in 2010 when Nenshi was elected the city’s thirty-sixth mayor, there were surprised faces all around. He was a business professor obsessed with the public sector, the son of immigrants and a native Calgarian, a policy wonk and transit geek who loved to talk about avant-garde theatre and balanced budgets in practically the same breath. He was also the underdog. He had launched his bid for the mayor’s chair polling somewhere south of 2 percent support; even as that number ticked steadily upward over the weeks of the campaign, I didn’t let myself believe it would top out in victory until the moment the returns said so. It was a bigger head scratcher, though, to wake up the next day and learn that the rest of the country was struck by Nenshi’s pedigree. How, they wondered, had a Muslim academic of Indian ancestry captured the top political office in Cowtown? The answer, in truth, was because it never occurred to Calgarians to wonder what any of that had to do with the guy’s ability to be a good mayor.
To outside observers, Nenshi’s victory seemed like the beginning of a new chapter for Calgary, but from the vantage point of his victory party at a stylish bar along what had once been brawling Electric Avenue, it felt at least as much like the end of one. There was a spirit of civic engagement and volunteerism that had been building since as far back as the famously friendly and well-managed Olympics. In the first years of the new millennium, lifestyle pieces began to appear in the national press and even farther afield, pointing out the “new cool” in a city that had found its “cultural mojo.” USA Today ran one of these under a subhead that read, “It’s hip, hopping and open for business.” In the spring of 2004, the beloved Calgary Flames came within one win of a Stanley Cup, turning several blocks of 17 Avenue into an episodic Mardi Gras parade and rechristening the street “the Red Mile.” The opera company staged daring original works about whisky traders and the doomed expeditions of Martin Frobisher. Its avant-garde puppet troupes toured the world. (The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, in particular, turned out brilliant Gothic comic riffs on Beowulf, Don Juan, and the haunted French chef Antonin Carème.) Each passing year was marked by the launch of a new music festival (local entrepreneur Zak Pashak’s eclectic Sled Island festival, founded in 2007), the commissioning of a landmark piece of architecture (Norman Foster’s Bow building in 2006, Santiago Calatrava’s celebrated pedestrian Peace Bridge in 2008), or the founding of a new cultural institution (the National Music Centre, established in 2010). Years before Nenshi served as its lightning rod, the city crackled with wild energy.
Not long after my wife and I moved into our first home there, the city hatched a new organization called Calgary Arts Development, with an energetic, whip-smart young Saskatchewan import named Terry Rock as its founding president and CEO. The new organization’s goal was, in essence, to uncover and nurture a new kind of local culture. In June 2005, Rock published an ambitious statement of purpose in the Herald. “From our perspective,” he wrote, “the new West abounds with what historian Daniel Boorstin calls ‘fertile verges’… When the conditions are right, a verge is a crucible for creativity, a source of new ideas and connections that enable old problems to be addressed in new ways, or that simply result in new creation.” He dreamt aloud of seeing Calgary declared Canada’s cultural capital for 2006; he had to wait until 2012 to see it happen. During the years in between, my wife and I moved from one old neighbourhood to another, and by coincidence we now live more or less across the street from Rock and his family.
One of our favourite events on the social calendar is Folkfest—the Calgary Folk Music Festival—a four-day concert held on leafy Prince’s Island a week or so after the Stampede wraps up in July. Despite the name, it is an eclectic affair on multiple stages, with some of the biggest artists from the nightly mainstage show joining their side stage brethren for intimate afternoon jams and workshops. In 2011, the top bill went to born-and-bred Albertan k.d. lang, who took the stage for the first time since she had played there in 1985 as an up-and-coming regional act. “Well, hello, Cowtown!” she announced by way of introduction. “Look at you, Calgary. You’re so grown up!” The crowd greeted the sentiment with an appreciative roar. We knew what she meant. For blocks all around, the city was a study in gleaming new self-confidence.
The banks of the Bow just south of us, too long neglected, were now lined by RiverWalk, an elegantly designed, welcoming series of pedestrian paths and pocket plazas and public art overlooking the river. A bit to our west, on-site work was just getting started on Calatrava’s Peace Bridge, the first truly artful span to cross the Bow inside the city limits since the Centre Street Bridge was completed in 1916. The skeleton of Foster’s hyper-efficient Bow building loomed in the twilight to the southeast. To the east, a derelict district that had stymied grand schemes and best intentions for decades had been rechristened the East Village, and showed every sign of becoming a model for enlightened urban redevelopment; its anchor is the National Music Centre, which will be housed in the refurbished King Edward Hotel, a beloved old dive and blues can that had seemed destined for the city’s relentless wrecking ball. Across the river to the northeast, the General Hospital site was being reimagined as a hip, European-scale mixed-use district called the Bridges. The old Grand Theatre downtown, a landmark from the very first boom, had narrowly escaped the same fate as the General, but was instead reborn as the home of an innovative company called Theatre Junction, which started reclaiming its back alley for occasional celebratory parties soon after it reopened.
Folkfest always gets remarkable weather of some sort or another: sainted sunlight and flawless evenings that fade like gentle lullabies into darkness, or else crackling lightning and a sudden, ferocious prairie hailstorm. The night in 2011 that k. d. lang sang vampy torch songs and twangy cowboy stompers was one of those perfect, sighing ones, soft sunset light and still air dancing with motes, the city glittering all around, all of us united in our certainty that there was no better place on earth to be at that moment than to be wide awake and dreaming on the open range of Calgary.
When someone says they love a city—or hate it—they are often telling you what they think of the version of themselves they see reflected in it. They love—or hate—who they are in that city. I love Berlin, Seville, and New York. I came to a grudging kind of love for Delhi. I fell out of love with Toronto. I love Montreal, but don’t we all, often with the adoration for a starlet on a screen, in a place you will never really belong. I’ve never had much time for Vancouver or Ottawa. I’ve hated London more than once, and I’m not sure why (but I do know it’s me, not London). The hardest love is the everyday kind, the one that lingers on after commuter traffic and parent-teacher interviews and byzantine arguments at City Hall. The kind I have found, to my surprise and delight, that I now have for Calgary. It’s the reason why I’m here. Still. Indefinitely.
Why stay? There are mundane material explanations, of course. Because my wife grew up in a house on an artificial lake called Bonavista in the southern suburbs, because her father is here and comes by to take the kids to the zoo, because we could buy a great little patch of 100-year-old downtown property just before the boom priced us out of the last big Canadian urban market we could afford. Because it’s sunny 300 days a year, because even on the coldest day the next chinook might already be on its way. But that’s not it, not all of it. That’s logistics, not poetry.
I’m dug in. It still surprises me sometimes, but I am. I’m here because Calgary is a city whose best stories haven’t been told too many times. Because it’s a city whose best stories maybe haven’t even been written yet. I’m here because everything but the cowboy hat is still an open question, wide open like the prairie, hinting on the horizon of soaring mountains. It is a young city, stupid and headstrong, brilliant and bold, and it may embarrass itself (again), but it will probably surprise you yet. It surprised me. I walk down my block in Hillhurst near the river with migrating birds overhead, I stroll under poplar branches to the century-old house with the white picket fence (no word of a lie) and the stained glass transoms over the front windows, and I cross the threshold, and I am home in a way I have never been anywhere else. How the hell did that happen?
This appeared in the June 2012 issue.