Archive for April 8th, 2010

Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage,
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

– Stan Rogers

I maintain that you can never know a city until you walk around it and use its sidewalks and public transit. Last year, I didn’t get to see much of Calgary outside of the conference hotel for COSSFest (the Calgary Open Source Solutions Festival), so I was determined to correct my oversight this year, at least a bit. I arrived the day before the conference, and no sooner checked in to the hotel and dropped my luggage than I headed off to catch the C-Train.

The first thing I learned was that Calgary takes a different view of rapid transit than the Vancouver region. In Vancouver, space is scarce, so elevated transit lines, which are both more expensive and environmentally less sound are favored. By contrast, Calgary opted for a mostly ground level system. It It seems to work at least as well as Vancouver’s. And while the highways were crowded enough at rush hour, so were the C-Train cars.

Moreover, Calgary is more systematic about rapid transit. Instead of Vancouver’s confusing system of zones, which can challenge even experienced riders (okay, I mean it can challenge me), Calgary has a flat rate of $2.75 for the entire system. Similarly, where the Vancouver region has designed many of its recent stages as modern art that leaves passengers on the platform in the middle of a wind-tunnel, Calgary provides an area where people can huddle inside until the train comes. The difference, I suppose, is that Vancouver rarely gets truly cold, while Calgary does so regularly. Having been caught in a snow storm on the C-Train, I can testify that shelter is a necessity, not a frill.

The trip downtown was quick and non-eventful, although I noted that my hotel was not far from the zoo. I also observed that Calgary seems to have a thorough system of urban trails, and that people use them. The rivers the C-Train crossed were still frozen along sheltered shore lines, and every now and then the currents would flash an icy green whose like I have never quite seen anywhere else.

Getting off at the Olympic Plaza station, I quickly found my way to the Glenbow Museum for a whirlwind tour (which I plan to write about in the near future). Then, with the station as my anchor, I started looping further away in one block intervals in all directions.

My impression is that Calgary is a brasher city than Vancouver, more entrepreneurial where Vancouver is more activist and artistic. The Olympic advertising excess that left half of Vancouver disgusted (including me) would hardly rate a notice in Calgary; the casual ads I saw on the C-Train and on the streets were blaring by Vancouver standards. Perhaps that is why their Winter Olympics had more support than ours, although the difference in the times is probably responsible as well.

Another difference is that, while Vancouver sometimes seems cursed to be a forest of skyscrapers covered in blue-green glass, Calgary is more adventurous (or insecure) architecturally. Every 20th and 21st Century school of architecture seems represented in Calgary’s downtown. The result could be called a high-rise version of strip malls, with all the different styles tending to cancel each other out, and only an impression of disorder remaining.

This impression is strengthened by the fact that Calgary preserves relative low rises far more often than Vancouver does. I suppose it can afford to preserve its history because space is not at premium, whereas, in Vancouver, the fact that development is squeezed into a couple of peninsulas means that preservation is only practical in limited areas.

But, whatever the reason, the establishing shots you see of Calgary as just another high-rise business center are real only at a distance. When you are actually walking the streets, the difference in building heights is very noticeable. On some streets, you almost get the impression when looking up that Calgary is a much smaller city than it really is, despite the crowds on the sidewalks

I reasoned – correctly – that Calgary would have a rush hour, so I kept an eye out for a place to eat. In Vancouver, in the distance I walked, I could have found a dozen ethnic restaurants, each of which would offer a superb meal in a mellow setting. As a former Calgarian said to me, “Vancouver is one big restaurant.”

In Calgary, though, the ethnic restaurants downtown were less upscale in Vancouver (at least the ones I saw). Most upscale restaurants seem to offer some variant of modern cuisine, and to be overpriced by Vancouver standards. Or such was my impression – I’ll have to verify it on later trips. On this trip, wanting more than deVille Luxury Coffee and Pastries could provide, I settled on the Deli at Art Center, which had a casual atmosphere and reasonable food not that much more expensive than its equivalent would have been in Vancouver.

True to my regional conditioning, I scurried back to the hotel at the first signs of a snow flurry, and unfortunately, I am unlikely to have more time to explore this trip. So I still cannot claim with any accuracy that I know Calgary. All I can really say is that I’ve traced a few paths through it. Most of greater Calgary remains unknown to me.

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