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Sandstone City

Calgary thrives on risk, but at times it's just ruthless

Will Ferguson

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: a parkade/saloon.

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 "cowboy cuisine."

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 theme park.

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 image).

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 America.

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 been.

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 ruthless.

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 hurt.

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 Street.

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 into boom.

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 parkade.

"To Calgary," I say, raising a glass.


Maclean's Magazine
October 7, 2002

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