This Canada

City in a jam

Suzanne Zwarun June 16 1980
This Canada

City in a jam

Suzanne Zwarun June 16 1980

City in a jam

This Canada

Suzanne Zwarun

Aslight young woman is stranded high, dry and dusty where once there was a sidewalk. She has a giant box of disposable diapers anchored to her left hand, so she has only one hand (and a knee) left to push a toddler in a stroller up the mini-mountains of gravel, sand and rock piled up in front of her. Halfway up a gravel heap, the stroller stalls. Woman, diapers and baby come down backwards in a tangle.

Calgary motorists, stopped at a traffic light, watch the tableaux with grim sympathy, then begin to inch their own way, no more quickly, through a welter of cement and utility trucks, detours and piles of gravel spilling into lanes of traffic that are supposedly open for business. A gravel truck is stalled in the 1st Street S.W. underpass and frustrated motorists have jumped the median and are making a wrong-way dash for freedom. On 12th Avenue, which yesterday was a one-way detour heading east, two-way traffic has been resumed and surprised motorists are coming headlight to headlight with each other. A hard-hatted construction worker—the nemesis of every motorist-strolls calmly to the middle of 6th Avenue, holds up his hand and stops five lanes of traffic so a dump truck can manoeuvre sideways and backwards toward a building under demolition. Pedestrians minus baby strollers are moving faster but no more comfortably. There’s no escape from the pall of dust hanging in the air or from the rattle of jackhammers. People stop on street corners to dab grit out of their eyes or plug their ears with their fingers. An occasional man hustles by wearing a surgical mask; on a windy day, women tie scarves over their mouths and noses and let their hair blow free.

Calgary, the boomtown boasting $1 billion worth of construction annually, seems in danger of grinding to a complete halt this summer. New York’s fear that a transit strike there would lead to a “grid lock” where motorists can go neither forward nor back leaves Calgarians unimpressed. “The whole downtown is in a grid lock,” snaps Grace Lukes. She spent a morning trying to get to the downtown Bay, gave up and telephoned. “I told them I’d buy a pair of slippers only if they delivered them. They did—a $2.98 pair of slippers. And I hope they keep delivering because Pm not going near there again.”

The Bay, a downtown Calgary landmark, had heard the lament before. Thanks to a detour inside the store’s parkade, a lone cashier no longer stood in a booth at the exit. There was, in fact, no longer much of an exit, so the Bay stationed a flock of parking attendants inside the place to collect fees from motorists before they started down the ramps.

The warm weather construction boom has and is playing havoc with everyone’s life, disrupting the routines of groups as varied as prostitutes and police. Streetwalkers, who normally decorate 7th Avenue East sidewalks, found themselves without a street to play when construction of the city’s Light Rapid Transit (LRT) closed 12 blocks. Skipping nimbly ahead of the LRT juggernaut, they have set up shop in front of the venerable Palliser Hotel and on 4th Avenue, dubbed Hotel Row. They’re creating consternation in those posher surroundings; a sudden doubling of the number of hookers working 4th prompted police to crack down and banish the working girls for a week, at least.

The Stampede parade’s traditional route is closed to traffic and the parade itself will have to be detoured this year. The Calgary Downtown Business Association is appealing to the city for help because President Karol Fodor says 50 shops may be forced to close unless they can stop a sales slump of 20-to-40 per cent since LRT construction began. Transit officials report that bus drivers are quitting because they can’t stand the detours, route changes and abuse heaped on them by disgruntled passengers. Downtown policemen have been ordered to abandon their patrol cars and take to foot patrols again. Chief Brian Sawyer made that decision the morning he strolled the half-dozen blocks from the police station to the courthouse and got there ahead of a patrol-car that left when he did. “We’ll be able to get around fast enough,” said Inspector Ron Tarrant reassuringly. “Bank robbers are facing the same traffic problems we’re facing, so there shouldn’t be any problem.” There might even be good news in the mess. “I think the city has found a foolproof way to stop fatal accidents in downtown Calgary,” Tarrant added. “It’s tough for a pedestrian to be hit by a stationary vehicle and that’s about the only thing you’ll find down there now.”

The construction tangle is clearly the worst Calgary has experienced and is due to a combination of causes, starting with Canadian Pacific which, according to local legend, laid out city streets with the narrow 66-foot length of chain they used to survey the railway. (Popular folklore holds that, in Edmonton, Canadian National used a 99-foot chain.) Much of the problem goes back to former mayor Rod Sykes who, for most of the 1970s, made good on his promise to hold the tax line by putting road improvements on idle. In the early ’70s, however, that was the prevailing mood of citizens, and groups protesting pollution, noise and destruction of neighborhoods were able to hold road construction to a minimum. The problem is that Calgary has long boasted about having the most cars per capita in Canadaone for every two people—and that the city’s population has doubled in the past decade. Eventually, Calgary had to play what city officials call “catch-up.” Having spent a mere $175 million on transportation from 1973 to 1978, the city now plans to spend $1.5 billion on roads and transit before 1989. Even that sum won’t guarantee motoring pleasure in a city where five-car families raise no eyebrows. Transportation Commissioner George Cornish warns that the city will have to go full tilt for a decade simply to maintain the same level of service Calgarians are complaining about now. “Certain corridors will improve but, as they improve, others will certainly deteriorate,” he admits.

Some officials hope that LRT will take some of the burden off the roads although, as Transportation Director Bill Kuyt has observed, LRT is merely a glorified version of the old streetcar lines the city ripped out in the early 1950s. In the meantime, the first LRT leg isn’t scheduled to open until next May and its construction is responsible for a major part of the downtown chaos. The rest of the mess is due to both roadwork and building construction. In 100 blocks of the inner city, at least 10 streets have been closed to permit some 78 road improvement projects, while 18 new office buildings going up spill their construction debris onto the streets, closing traffic lanes at random. The building cranes, which councillors call the official city birds, also give pedestrians a Chicken Little feeling that the sky is falling. Glass panes have shattered on busy sidewalks, ladders and tools regularly smash to the ground, an elevator door fell off the same lift twice in a week and a 4,800-pound concrete balance weight plummeted 165 yards from a crane that had been, minutes before, swinging over a street crowded with pedestrians.

Stand-up comedians have incorporated the chaos into their routines,but Calgarians are not amused. “What we’ve done is turn the environment into a battleground,” sputters businessman Fodor. “I’ve never seen another city go through this kind of downtown destruction.” Other Calgarians are actually hoping for a construction-industry strike this summer, but there’s as much chance of a transit strike which would cause further paralysis. And, as the city has warned, there’s no end in sight. The LRT route may be back to normal this fall, but the $500-million, 40-acre Eau Claire development is just getting under way. Groundwork for that project has just started, closing five more blocks of downtown. The construction of the office-retail-residential complex is scheduled to take six to eight years. After the 1930s Depression, children were said to have cried when they first felt rain. Youngsters of the ’80s raised in Calgary might feel the same fear the day the jackhammers finally stop their chatter.