Calgary is a young city, full of contrasts and contradictions. It’s a place that comes together in great shows of civic pride, deeds and spirit – Winter Olympics ’88, the annual Stampede, NHL Stanley Cup runs all come to mind – but also sometimes struggles with its identity as events and times force it adapt to new realities and a conflicting past, present and future.
As the city continues to carve a harmonious identity between its current reality as the richest, most educated city in Canada, and its historic image of a ‘wild west’ past which is celebrated yearly at the Calgary Stampede (10 days of rodeos, chuckwagon races and pancake breakfasts), every neighbourhood and community has developed its own distinct feel and identity. As each of these communities contributes to Calgary’s strengths and diversity as an unique entity residents are often fiercely proud and loyal to their own neighbourhoods, and identify themselves as coming from or belonging to their community just as much as from their city.
So for me, as a Calgarian, the community of Hillhurst-Sunnyside (also known as Kensington) is both the best part of Calgary to live in, and the area that best highlights all of Calgary’s fascinating contrasts and complexities.
While the rapidly growing downtown core combines glittering high rises, trendy restaurants, elaborate shopping centres, public art, amazing parks, and much more, Hillhurst-Sunnyside combines many of these elements with a counter-culture, bohemian vibe. It’s the one place in the city where you can find people with business suits, hippie dreadlocks, and hipster glasses all sharing a table at a local coffee shop; where Starbucks is scorned for tea houses; where ‘foodies’ eat a $5 breakfast at a 25 year-old greasy spoon, a $10 Thai or Ethiopian curry for lunch, and then a $100 dinner at the newest, hottest bistro three restaurants down. It’s a land of bike co-ops and custom cupcake shops, community food gardens and high-density urban housing, 1910s houses and new construction sites. A place where Safeway and an independent organic food market peacefully co-exist across the street from each other, and share the same clientèle.
Home to the city’s oldest park, it nestles in the river valley, surrounded by water and bluffs, staring directly at the downtown core a few hundred feet away across the Bow River. Joined to the rest of the city by major roads, a Light Rail Transit system and bridges, the community has protested each connection that threatens its hippie, intelligentsia culture and working class heritage – even going so far as to issue bomb threats when the LRT station was proposed – and yet is also home to the most popular, trendy outdoor shopping district in the city, and to elaborate, expensive homes and condos.
It’s a place where people know their neighbours and live for their entire lives; where university students and recent graduates sharing rented houses shovel walks for seniors next door who brought the property when it was built in the early 60s; where parents enroll their children in the same community centre day care and soccer program that they attend in their infancy. It’s both one of the city’s most trendy neighbourhoods and where many European immigrants flock for a feel of old-world ‘home’; a place where car share smart cars and bicycles are found parked in equal numbers next to SUVs, VW Beatles, and BMWs.
It’s somewhere where good coffee is never more than a few blocks away; where there’s always a pub within stumbling distance of home; where an entire day can be spent dress shopping in both thrift shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques. This is where cricket teams invade the local park each summer; where outdoor salsa tasting and river appreciation festivals close down major streets two weekends a year; where the community association holds weekly flea and farmers’ markets. It’s a place where brightly painted heritage houses stand next to chrome and concrete condo complexes, where quiet residential streets are suddenly enlivened by garage band parties that seem to start up out of nowhere. It’s a neighbourhood that, at it’s core, only ever seems to sleep between 3 and 6 am on Saturday and Sunday, while older streets wake up early to host street parties or a street-long garage sale.
Hillhurst-Sunnyside is the one place where all Calgary’s diversity and conflict comes together harmoniously, the place that best dispels the myths surrounding Calgary as a redneck, honky-tonk town, and as such, the one place every visitor should see to really get a feel for just how diverse and progressive Calgary is!