Calgary thrives on risk, but at times it's
IT IS THE MOST postmodern street corner in the most postmodern
city in the most postmodern country in the world:
1st Street and 10th Avenue S.W.,
in downtown Calgary.
Walk south on 1st Street, under the rail tracks behind
the Palliser Hotel, and there on the northeast corner of
the intersection, you will see the strangest of sights:
Welcome to Buzzards "Cookshack & Waterin' Hole," a country
- style eatery straight out of a B-western, with a sign
out front that all but "yee-haws" its message at you. Buzzards,
you see, is "an authentic cowboy restaurant" offering genuine
Cracked leather saddles are draped over rough-hewn wooden
fence rails. Superfluous wagon wheels line the entrance.
Branding irons and cattle skulls adorn the walls. It would
almost feel authentic, in a kitschy sort of way, if it were
not for the fact that directly above this cookshack and
waterin' hole, cars are parked seven storeys high. At the
corner of 1st and 10th, a concrete downtown parkade and
a good ol' fashioned country cookhouse inhabit the same
space like a Zen paradox.
Calgary is a self-invented city, and as such it is postmodern
by default as much as by design. The eclectic mix of traditions,
the confusion of folklore and fake-lore, the blurred borders
between historic realities and invented pasts: Calgary is
both a glistening city of commerce, and a Western Canadian
THEY CALL IT the Sandstone City, and the image is apt.
The true texture of Calgary is abrasive but soft, strong
and gritty, yet surprisingly vulnerable and prone to erosion.
I ended up in the Sandstone City more or less by accident.
A few years ago, my wife and I were plotting the trajectory
of our next move and we had reached an impasse. My wife
wanted to go to Vancouver, I wanted to go to Halifax. We
split the difference and chose Calgary. It was to be a temporary
move. But then we began our slow discovery of the city.
The village-in-a-village that is Kensington. The quirky
hilltop of Marda Loop. The slightly frayed charms of Inglewood.
The rough-knuckle pride of Victoria Park. The small cafes
of 4th Street. The drunken college kids on 17th Avenue.
The handsome Warehouse District, and the market at Eau Claire.
In Calgary, the neighbourhoods are stirred into the city
like blueberries in a pancake breakfast (to use a Calgary-centric
Coming here after living in the Maritimes, I was shocked
by how busy the people seemed to be. I had this strange
recurring feeling that everyone was on their way to a meeting.
"This is a no-nonsense city," a colleague said with a shrug.
"That's part of its appeal. You want laid-back, you should
have stayed in the Maritimes."
I agree. In a country where so many people huddle in the
mushy middle, Calgary is a stark exception. This is a city
of ruthless common sense -- and if that can be harsh at
times, it can also be invigorating.
To give just one example: when city officials were planning
to build a new sports facility, they ran a survey and discovered
that skateboarding had far surpassed hockey as the sport
of choice among the city's youth. The solution? Instead
of a hockey rink, they built a state-of-the-art skateboarding
venue. Calgary's Shaw Millennium Skatepark, a concrete marvel
of rolling contours and swooping half-pipes, is the largest
skateboard facility in the world, a Mecca of the baggy-pants
slacker set that draws in skateboarders from across North
Sentimental for frozen ponds and backyard shinny? Tough.
This is Calgary.
You are encouraged to think big. It is not a place for
the half-hearted, and as such it can be unforgiving at times.
I am tramping through the underbrush with historian Harry
Sanders, the author of Calgary's Historic Union Cemetery:
A Walking Guide.
Today, we are looking for a different sort of headstone.
Harry goes crashing into the brambles and the thornbushes
until -- "There it is!" he says. The remnants of a fallen
chimney: red bricks and mortar. "And over here" --he has
uncovered a sandstone wall-- "this would have been the garden."
We are exploring the ruins of one man's dream. It is called
Lindsay's Folly, the remnants of a mansion now overrun with
weeds. Neville James Lindsay was a doctor who arrived on
the first passenger train into Calgary in 1883. "Which is
like coming over on the Mayflower," says Harry.
Dr. Lindsay beat the odds, trekking north and striking
it rich in the Klondike. When he returned, he decided to
build himself a sprawling sandstone manor. He purchased
Calgary's old Knox Presbyterian Church and had it destroyed,
dismantling the stone blocks and bringing them here to a
wooded escarpment above the Elbow River.
The history of Calgary has always been one of boom and
bust, and in Lindsay's case, the boom went bust at the worst
possible moment. His house was abandoned just a few months
after construction began, and there it lay, looted for most
of its sandstone, the proud arch long gone, and little more
than its retaining wall and a crumbling concrete foundation
left behind: an Ozymandias arrangement in the hidden hills
of Calgary. It's as much a parable as it is a historic site.
"An early example of the dangers of doctors investing
in real estate," says Harry.
THIS IS A CITY that thrives on risk. In the 1990s, large
oil and gas corporations, led by American interests, staged
a full-scale invasion, gobbling up many mid-size Calgary
companies. The managers of these smaller companies were
put out to pasture where, being Calgarians, they immediately
regrouped and launched a counterattack.
John Clark of Rival Energy Inc. is an example of this
tenacious spirit. A geologist by training, he was the president
of an energy company that was bought out by a larger operation
a year ago. Together with Colin Ogilvy, another former president,
Clark formed Rival, a publicly traded exploration venture.
The turnaround time was remarkably swift.
"I'm back in the game," Clark says with a grin. Living
in a boom-and-bust environment breeds a certain resiliency.
"The cycles are getting shorter," he says. "It's starting
to stabilize, but there is always a risk."
And if you can stay on the horse for eight seconds, you
just might win it all . . .
John Clark seeks out profitable oil and gas opportunities,
either through acquisition or exploratory drilling. In other
words, he is a professional treasure hunter. There is something
wildly romantic about this. From ranchers to oilmen, from
cowboys to capitalists: Calgary breeds bronc-riders. It
is one of the most testosterone-driven places I have ever
The downside? In Calgary, economics tends to trump everything
else. This is a city where the bottom line is king. In my
little neighbourhood there is an agreeably eccentric collection
of small shops on one block: a Russian restaurant named
the Kremlin (now closed), a flower shop in a hand-painted
cottage, and a combination Greek restaurant (with a spectacularly
tacky painting of the Venus de Milo on one side) and Burger
Inn ("the second most favourite burger spot in Calgary,"
selling everything from ostrich to buffalo).
None of these buildings are architecturally significant
in the least, but collectively they add to the ambling,
take-a-stroll atmosphere of my street. This entire block
--from the Kremlin to the Venus de Milo--is about to be
bulldozed and replaced with a shiny condo-and-chain-store
complex, the type that Calgary is already glutted with.
Penny Lane is slated for a similar fate. Converted brick
warehouses filled with cafes and little shops, Penny Lane
is one of the few nooks in downtown Calgary that still has
any real sense of interior character. The buildings add
something tangible to the city, but they aren't deemed "historically
significant" (a very slippery designation in Calgary, where
"heritage status" seems to count for very little). So out
they go, to be replaced by yet another tall building.
When I found out they were going to tear down Penny Lane,
I got so angry I went home and started to pack. "I can't
live in a place that values character so little," I told
my wife. "We're moving back East." She nodded and said nothing,
knowing full well it was all bluff and bluster. The moment
passed, but the sadness lingered. Sometimes Calgary is simply
OUR HILLSIDE archeology completed, Harry and I are back
at Buzzards Cookshack having a beer. Pick any building in
town at random and Harry will tell you a fascinating story
about it. If you could vacuum Harry's brain, you would come
up with a 24-volume encyclopedia of the city. When I suggested
we go to Buzzards, I asked him if he knew the place.
"Sure," he said. "It's home of the annual Testicle Festival."
The what? "Prairie oysters -- there's a big cook-up at Buzzards
once a year. I think the slogan was 'Go on, have a ball.'"
At Buzzards, the incongruities abound. Thai shrimp and
scrotum of young bull are on the same menu, and amid the
cowboy clutter and Western bric-a-brac, a television is
playing Star Trek with the volume muted. Spaceships leap
soundlessly to hyperspace as the restaurant's tinny music
system annoys its customers with a relentless Eurotrash
techno-pop beat. It is a perfect mishmash of time frames
and cultural touchstones, so eclectic it makes your head
We are drinking Irish beer in a cowboy cafe, with seven
storeys of parking above us, and I am speaking wistfully
about the loss of Penny Lane and the small shops on 4th
As a historian, Harry is naturally sympathetic. He has
given entire lectures about "vanishing Calgary" detailing
the transubstantiation of historic buildings into historic
parking lots. There are ghost overlays of Calgary's past
everywhere; at times it seems less like a city than it does
an architectural Etch-a-Sketch.
But Harry is philosophical about this. "People come West
to remake themselves. They leave whoever they were behind
and they become someone else. Calgary does that too. Every
generation or so, it reinvents itself."
I find this oddly uplifting. Perhaps this is why I find
Calgary such a compelling place: it embodies the promise
of something more. It offers you the chance to rebuild your
identity, to turn church stones into manors. To turn bust
It may pander to tourists by promoting a concocted image
of itself as a Cowtown caricature, but Calgary does not
live in the past.
It is a city that exists in the future tense. It is a
city that rewards initiative and scorns indecision. It is
the New World made manifest. Part saloon. And part inner-city
"To Calgary," I say, raising a glass.
October 7, 2002