Backstage: Alberta

Tattletales of two cities

Suzanne Zwarun December 24 1979
Backstage: Alberta

Tattletales of two cities

Suzanne Zwarun December 24 1979

Tattletales of two cities

Backstage: Alberta

Suzanne Zwarun

The joke is grey with age and retelling, but a visitor to Calgary, gasping at the sight of the skyscrapers that have mushroomed on the skyline in the past decade, will hear it again. An Edmontonian, a Texan and a Calgarian found themselves in Calgary, boasting about the lightning speed of construction in their hometowns.

“Why, we built a skyscraper in six months,” said the man from Edmonton.

“You call that fast?” the Texan shot back. “Our civic centre was put up in three months.”

Turning to the Calgarian, he added, “By the way, what’s that new building sticking up above all the others?”

“I don’t know,” drawled the Calgarian, after some thought. “It wasn’t there yesterday.”

Zap. Gotcha, Edmonton. And Alber-

ta’s capital retaliates in kind. Seems two Edmontonians were debating directions to Calgary. “Well,” answered the older and wiser of the two, “you go straight south until you smell it and then west until you step in it.”

The rivalry that underlines the japes goes back to 1905, when the status of provincial capital was bestowed on Edmonton and commerce was left to Calgary, 200 miles to the south. But by the 1970s, Canada’s fastest growing cities, both with populations of more than half a million, were too busy coping with traffic congestion, crime and stunningly high housing prices to devote their traditional attention to which was pulling ahead in the race for biggest and best.

Now, fall plebiscites, which coincidentally fell on the same day in November in both cities, have revived old comparisons and resentments. Calgarians defeated a $234-million proposal for a five-block downtown redevelopment which would have consolidated city services in a new city hall, restored some historic buildings, created a block of trees, fountains, flowers and rest areas, and embellished a proposed Centre for the Performing Arts. Proposal supporters are bitter because they feel Calgary blew its chance. As one letter writer to The Calgary Herald put it, the old cow town of Calgary has cemented its cow-town status. Meantime, Edmonton, with voter consent, got on with construction of a $32.1-million convention centre. As Edmonton mayor, Cec Purves, smugly noted, “We are one of the most progressive cities in the world and we’re going to continue to be.”

In the convention-centre stakes, Calgary is actually ahead, having opened a convention centre-hotel-museum complex years ago. But in the other amenities that make a city civilized, Edmonton has long held the lead. Edmonton opened its $65-million subway and above-ground rail line a

Suzanne Zwarun is Maclean’s Alberta bureau chief.

year before Calgary began construction of its Light Rapid Transit line. Edmonton staged the Commonwealth Games in 1978; Calgary is only hoping to win the Olympics in 1988. Professional sport burgeoned in Edmonton with the opening of a sports centre, the Edmonton Northlands Coliseum, while Calgary still debates the building of one. The University of Alberta has been going since 1906; the University of Calgary is 34 years old and started life, ignomin-

iously, as the “Cal-

gary campus” of the U of A. The Citadel in Edmonton, a $6.5-million glittering jewel of a theatre, persuaded British director Peter Coe to come live in the hinterlands and produce worldclass theatre. Theatre Calgary still works out of a converted warehouse.

The richer culture of Edmonton is partly explained by the fact that Edmonton got most of the influx of European immigrants in this century,

while Calgary drew

Americans from the art-arid Midwest where petroleum, not philharmonics, prevailed. The mountains seem to explain the rest. Polls have shown that 70 per cent of Calgarians think the best thing about their city is its proximity to the Rockies. Weekends, even weekdays, the city empties; skiers, hikers and campers have little time and money left for city doings. Edmontonians, on the other hand, are a good four-hour drive from mountain playgrounds. Stuck in the city, they have tended to make life as pleasant as possible, lining up for everything from dinner theatre to rock concerts.

“Calgary, huddled on the banks of the CPR train tracks, can be seen from the Rocky Mountains as a lump-like smog patch,” advises the Edmonton Access Catalogue, a thick compendium of things to do in the city (which has no counterpart in Calgary), “. . . a living example of how industry and people can coexist happily in the same river valley.” That sort of crack rankles the newcomers pouring into Calgary at the rate of 25,000 a year, bringing with them, perhaps, a taste for big-city amenities. The Centre for the Performing Arts will go ahead, says the beleaguered arts community in Calgary. “This is Calgary’s decade,” says Mayor Ross Alger.

Well, the quality of life may one day improve, and in one matter there is no contest: Calgary is blessed by the Chinooks, west winds that can warm a winter’s day by 20° or 30°. By contrast, Edmonton has handed out certificates to citizens who have survived winters there. Calgarians, driving to Edmonton to take in an evening’s entertainment as they often do, console themselves with the thought that the weather, at least, is not civilized in Edmonton.