A writer makes peace with his city

Change washes through Calgary, making it ripe for rediscovery

Calgary writer Marcello de Cintio / Photo by Neil Zeller

Editor’s Note: We’re thrilled to have local writer Marcello Di Cintio shine a light on his hometown, which also happens to be ours. Given that this month is the one-year anniversary of the Calgary flood, we thought it fitting to give a nod to our city – more than ever a town shaped by the rivers that run through it.

 

The iconic photograph of Calgary used to be the west-facing view of the downtown from the top of Scotsman’s Hill, near Stampede Park. In this photo, the decades-old Calgary Tower and the curved roof of the Saddledome are the focus, and the Rocky Mountains loom blue-grey in the background.

I’ve lived my whole life in Calgary and have grown up with this scene: a glance cast downwards at a pair of oddly-shaped buildings utterly outclassed by the distant wall of alpine stone. But this familiar panorama feels dated now. The static viewpoint does not reflect the fact that 21st-century Calgary is a city in motion. Things are changing in my town, and for the better.

My newfound affection for Calgary—the city where I was born and where I’ve always lived—is hardly nostalgic. Not long ago, in fact, I’d had enough of the place. Calgary’s blind devotion to Conservative politics, the boastful booms (and inevitable busts) and the ruthless self-interest weighed so heavily on me that I was ready to flee. My circle of friends shared my left-leaning philosophies but I didn’t believe that there were enough of us. The city didn’t belong to people like me.

Then we elected Naheed Nenshi, a young, urban intellectual, to the mayor’s office. Nenshi’s victory represented not just the rare occurrence of having someone I cast a ballot for actually win, but revealed that Calgary did, in fact, belong to people like me. And for the first time in a long time, Calgary felt new and progressive.

I feel this forward momentum more and more these days. I feel it when I take my three-year-old son, Amedeo, to stroll along the new RiverWalk, a four-kilometre stretch of riverside pathway that seems an organic extension of the river itself. I feel it each time I reach for Alley Burgers or barbecue ribs or Vietnamese subs from the fleet of food trucks that suddenly ply the city streets. (Before the trucks, street “food” in Calgary meant bloated hot dogs). And I feel it each time I pass “Wonderland,” the enormous wire-mesh sculpture of a young girl’s head that stands outside the new 58-storey skyscraper, The Bow, downtown.

“Wonderland” may be Calgary’s most striking piece of public art, but no structure has inspired as much discussion as the Peace Bridge. Critics of the pedestrian bridge spanning the Bow River, designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2012 railed against nearly everything about the project. The name. The design. The location. The cost. I love the bridge, but I found a sort of optimism, even a hint of civic maturity in the vitriol against it. After all, arguing about architecture is what grown-up cities do. I visited Jerusalem recently and travelled over Calatrava’s “Jerusalem Chords Bridge,” a structure which drew identical complaints as the Peace Bridge when it was first built. Calgary has little in common with a venerable city like Jerusalem, but now we both have a Calatrava to squabble over.

Even what is relatively old in Calgary feels new and ripe for rediscovery. I regularly bring Amedeo to Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood. He watches the trains rattle past while I drink coffee on the patio of Gravity Espresso and Wine Bar, a newish business that feels equally modern and historic. At Luke’s Drug Mart, a 61-year-old pharmacy in Bridgeland, another old neighbourhood, I can buy vinyl records and freshly brewed Stumptown coffee along with shaving cream and contact-lens solution.

The Calgary Folk Music Festival, Calgary’s best summer event, may be entering its 35th year, but each incarnation means discovering new music, making new beer-garden friendships and renewing one’s endurance for sunburn or, in alternate years, torrential rainfall.

As I write this, I realize how much of what I love about today’s Calgary rises alongside or near the banks of the Bow River that curves through the city’s heart. Though most often considered the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, Calgary is more of a river city.

The epic floods of June 2013 prove, beyond a doubt, that Calgary is a city defined by its rivers. It is fitting, then, that drifting down the Bow itself stands as one of the city’s unique pleasures. A four-hour float on an inflatable raft from Bowness Park to the Calgary Zoo provides no adrenaline surge of rapids. The water is barely ankle-deep in places.

Instead, the slow journey grants floaters a lazy, waterborne tour of the city and, during the summer’s dry heat, inspires the envy of panting riverside joggers.

From the river, one finds a fresher way to look at Calgary. Instead of the view from Scotsman’s Hill, today’s iconic photo of the city could be taken from the north bank of the Bow River, looking east instead of west. Up instead of down. The Peace Bridge spans the foreground with the downtown rising behind it. You can’t view the Rockies from this vantage point, and perhaps this is fitting. The mountains, for all their majesty, are still and unmoving. The river, like Calgary itself, flows steadily forward.

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  1. Sara @ The Let's Go Ladies commented:

    This post makes me happy. As much as some of us like to play at being open to change I think most of us still push back on it, especially when it comes to something as comfortable and familiar as home. I can relate to feeling displaced by the changes in my own hometown but you propose a really positive outlook instead and I love that!

    Reply

  2. Hammerson Peters commented:

    Awesome article, Marcello! An eloquent articulation of the atmosphere that’s pervaded the city ever since Nenshi got elected back in 2010. Although I’m not sure I share your political leanings, I think I might share your taste in street food; Calgary’s Viet subs are unreal.

    Reply

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