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Moving beyond Cow Town
Calgary must work hard to create a unique image
Becoming a world class city is a misguided preoccupation of Calgary's civic leaders. Most of us may simply want an interesting and attractive place to live and work, but anyone who dares to say that growth and more elaborate tourist traps are not in Calgary's best interest is dismissed as being anti-progress. Unfortunately, in the dictionary used by most of our decision makers, progress is defined as more pink stucco and brown vinyl siding, more roads, more suburbs and more strip malls.
If being world class is about size, Mexico City and Sao Paulo would dominate world culture. Being big and economically powerful is important, but it is not alone in making a city a place to live or making a city world class. Culture, history, architecture and vibrant public spaces are some of the urban foundations that our leaders, elected and otherwise, have allowed to languish for too long. It is time for them and all Calgarians to spend time, energy and, yes, money to nourish Calgary's culture and make this city more than the closest airport to Banff or a place to move to because it has jobs.
Calgary's greatest challenge is fostering a culture that plays on the city's diversity and strength, and adds to North American culture rather than simply mimicking it. To deal with this challenge, Calgary must start with what sometimes appears to be the beginning and the end of culture in this city - the Stampede.
The ever-present Calgary Stampede must make fundamental changes if it wants to stop its decline into a trashy tourist trap with no cultural relevance. After all, what on earth does Mickey Mouse (tm) have to with Western Canadian culture? The Stampede Board's clumsy efforts to attract more visitors has disassociated Calgarians from the event and prevented tourists from gaining any perspective or understanding on what Calgary has to offer.
It is time for the board to be a little more creative than asking for money or complaining about the size of the grounds. Western (not just cowboy) art, music, dance and other cultural elements must become more integral to the Stampede experience. Outside groups try, but until the Stampede begins working to develop events and exhibits around the city that do not involve alcohol or country music, the Stampede will continue its decline into the kitsch hall of fame.
At the same time, the Stampede Board must give up its stranglehold on Calgary's festival and tourism funding. The Stampede has become a financial black hole for Calgary's cultural development. The greatest outdoor show in the world sucks up so much of the corporate and government money dedicated to cultural funding, there are only a few crumbs left over for other festivals and events. In the end, both Calgarians and the tourism industry are losing out on a variety of festivals and other events. Edmonton may not have an event as substantial as the Stampede, but its fringe, jazz and folk festivals overshadow their Calgary counterparts and attract people from around the world throughout the summer, not just during 10 days in July. Calgary does not even have a theatre festival large enough to attract widespread attention within the city limits, let alone beyond them.
One of Calgary's greatest failings is its public and private architecture. Beautiful buildings are the defining element of any city. Yet few, if any, of our public buildings can be considered attractions, and our downtown corporate headquarters are nothing more than expensive disappointments with large refrigerators or wind-tunnels being the main architectural paradigms. There are important steps City Hall should be taking to create memorable public spaces for Calgarians and our visitors to enjoy, but the private sector must begin taking responsibility for creating a beautiful city.
Creating public buildings that citizens love and tourists come to see costs money. Cutting corners in the municipal budget to create brick squares is shortsighted and could cost Calgary its future. In each of these following examples, the city must take risks to create breathtaking spaces that should inspire both awe and criticism. Edmonton's City Hall and Vancouver's main public library have their detractors, but both buildings will be important landmarks for decades.
Calgary needs a new public library. Despite the city's best renovation efforts, the current space should be an embarrassment to anyone who thinks Calgary is a progressive, education-oriented city. The time is long overdue for citizens to start asking why Calgary does not have a municipal art gallery - it may be the only city its size in North America that does not have an art gallery to act as an attraction and a focus for the local arts community.
It is a lot to expect from a city that occasionally considers giving up the amazing Centre for Performing Arts, especially when City Hall is dominated by politicians whose only visions are of careers in federal or provincial politics.
As Calgary begins to grow again, the gap between its size and its cultural stature will continue to expand unless Calgarians demand a change. Suburbs and strip malls may bring in the cash, but they have no soul and they cannot make Calgary a city.
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