The Walls That Divide Us in Calgary

Marcello Di Cintio has travelled the world, researching barriers and the ways they affect people for his book Walls: Travels Along the Barricades. Now he looks at the walls in his own hometown.

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In the mid-1980s, Calgary historian John Stevley “Jack” Peachserved on the jury that chose the design of the new CalgaryMunicipal Building. According to Peach, the jurors were tasked with deciding on a structure that, among other things, “should present a westward face, while not turning its back on the eastern part of the city,” and would “provide a sophisticated eastward facade that could not be identified as ‘the back of the building.’ ” 

Opinions varied on the winning design. Peach felt the tiered glass structure, conceived by architects Christopher Ballyn and Robert Hopewell and erected in 1985, boasted a “sturdy elegance” and a “not-too-awesome height.” A pair of visiting Toronto aldermen, on the other hand, called the building an “abortion” and a “monstrosity.” 

Few would disagree, however, that the building’s east-facing facade was a failure. Despite the intentions of the jury, no one who has walked along the grey gloom of 3rd Street S.E. between 8th and 9th avenues would describe the eastern face as anything but the “the back of the building.” 

Not only does the Calgary Municipal Building symbolically turn its back on east Calgary, it throws up a glass wall separating the city centre from the adjacent East Village. The neighbourhood is completely cut off by the infrastructure that surrounds it. The Calgary Municipal Building, the trench dug for the south LRT line, the 4th Avenue Flyover and the CPR rail line all serve to create Calgary’s most walled-in neighbourhood. 

That the public building housing Calgary’s council chambers would spurn one of the city’s oldest communities is symptomatic of a historical unease with the East Village. The rest of the city excluded and shunned the neighbourhood long before the Municipal Building was constructed. The East Village’s unsavoury reputation dates back to the saloons and whorehouses of the postwar era and has endured for the decades since. 

In 1971, a Calgary Herald article referred to “an invisible border line” drawn between the community and the rest of the downtown that shoppers weren’t willing to cross. Jerry Daiter, president of the East Village Merchants Association at the time, said, “There seems to be a psychological block which prevents people from coming.”

The situation worsened in the mid-1980s. In the run-up to the1988 Olympics, city police started pushing street crime andprostitution away from the downtown hotel district and behind the newly erected Calgary Municipal Building. Public drug and alcohol abuse increased, and violent crime spiked. The building hung like a curtain between the East Village and the rest of the downtown. And what was going on behind that curtain was ugly.   

But the actual design of the Calgary Municipal Building was hardly an issue for those who lived in the East Village.
I spoke with B.J. Annis, a long-time East Villager. Annis ranB.J.’s Gym, and lived in the apartment above, from 1972 to2012. “I am the East Village,” Annis told me with the drama of a self-crowned monarch. 

Annis doesn’t recall the design or orientation of the Calgary Municipal Building ever drawing the ire of his fellow East Village residents. Annis and his community colleagues were too focused on securing funding for East Village development to worry about which direction the Calgary Municipal Building faced. And, even if they did, Annis believes that any objection by the community would have been ignored anyway. “It wouldn’t carry a pot of piss,” Annis said. “We had no voice.”

Annis does not blame the Calgary Municipal Building and its east-facing wall for the neighbourhood’s ills. “The idea that the Calgary Municipal Building was the cause of something is horseshit,” Annis said. But the building fortified the existing psychological border into something physical. The wall is not just a vertical slab of reflective glass, but a reflection of the city’s historic neglect and disdain for the East Village. What was always felt could now be seen. 

Current East Village redevelopment plans promise to correct the failures of the Calgary Municipal Building’s design and integrate the community, finally, into the city centre. TheNational Music Centre and the new Central Library — designed by the team behind the stunning Biblioteca Alexandrina in Egypt — will replace the Municipal Building’s backside as the community’s architectural focus. The library will also act as a corridor between the east and west sections of downtown. In fact, the library might block the East Villagers’ view of the Calgary Municipal Building altogether, in a sense walling off the wall itself.

Doug Lauchlan, former president of Forest Lawn’s International Avenue Arts and Cultural Centre, once described Deerfoot Trail as Calgary’s “Berlin Wall.” The comparison smacks of hyperbole, but no long-term Calgarian would deny there is a social and economic borderline between the city’s east and west drawn by the Deerfoot. And no Calgary community represents this divide more than Greater Forest Lawn. 

The community’s tenuous connection with the rest of Calgary begins with Forest Lawn’s apocryphal origin story. At the turn of the last century, a pair of crooked American real estate promoters tried to sell parcels of treeless prairie, misleadingly christened Forest Lawn, on an escarpment over the Bow River, just east of Calgary. The properties generated little interest until the Americans bought up hundreds of railway ties and laid them in a straight line from Calgary’s municipal boundary through the centre of town. Then they started claiming that Calgary planned to extend its streetcar line into the new community. 

The promise of a transit link to the big city finally attracted buyers. The lots sold and the sharks vanished. As a consolation, the swindled owners were allowed to keep the railway ties as firewood if they helped dig a 12-foot-wide firebreak around their newly founded town. 

Forest Lawn’s townspeople voted to join Calgary in 1961, but their physical division from the rest of the city continued. Between Forest Lawn and Calgary proper stood the escarpment, an irrigation canal, the Bow River and, by 1980, Deerfoot Trail. 

The highway does not function as a physical barrier to the residents of Greater Forest Lawn. After all, the Deerfoot gives them easy access to the city’s north and south. The multi-laned highway, though, does carve a line between Calgary’s east and west. And, since the communities on the east side are generally lower-income areas than those on the west, the Deerfoot divide is often seen as an economic one: an asphalt border not just between Here and There, but between Have and Have Not. 

Although he doesn’t represent all of Greater Forest Lawn in his role as city councillor for Ward 9, Gian-Carlo Carraexamined urban and community development in Greater Forest Lawn for his master’s thesis in environmental design. According to Carra, Calgary’s social housing policies of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s further enhanced the sense of economic difference across the Deerfoot. The city, the province and the federal government injected a huge percentage of their local social housing projects into Forest Lawn and other neighbourhoods in the area. 

“Alongside the population of original [Forest Lawn] Townies, there were these huge concentrations of people with legitimate social issues being warehoused in these huge housing projects,” Carra said. He does not know for certain why Greater Forest Lawn was chosen for these projects, but he suspects it was because the community was already poor. “This really knocked the crap out of the community. It made it even more down and out.”  


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