Can you think of two individuals who are more disparate than Naheed Nenshi and Ralph Klein? I mean, picture Nenshi getting drunk and throwing money at homeless people, or deciding that blowing up an inner-city hospital would be a good idea. Heck, picture Nenshi getting drunk. And yet, these two politicians share some real estate in the paper this week under the heading of “most beloved Calgarian.” How the hell did that happen?
Calgary is a bizarre city. I’m a third-generation Calgarian, I’ve lived here most of my life, and I still struggle to put into words the intriguing schisms that exist here. We’re progressive and conservative (but only around half of us are Progressive Conservative despite years of consistent election results). We elect liberal mayors and conservative premiers. Hell, even Klein was a liberal when he was mayor of Calgary. As a city, we’re forward-thinking on the environment despite our reliance on oil and gas profits and the head-in-the-oilsands attitude of many of our citizens. And every year, the results from our Best of Calgary survey brings those divisions to light.
Druh Farrell, who is one of the most visible and active aldermen on council, was voted best and worst alderman in this, our first year of voting in the category. And the bridge that many associate with her — you remember the one that caused all that hand-wringing and belly-aching? It was voted second-best use of local tax dollars and worst use of local tax dollars (not to split hairs here, but it was funded through the province).
Public transit? Best use and third-worst use of those tax dollars.
There is probably no other city in the country where the local alt-weekly’s annual survey of readers’ picks would feature a foul-mouthed former right-wing premier in any category other than something dismissive or derogatory. And yet, there’s Klein. It would be easy to dismiss the phenomena and say that our readers are too young or forgetful to remember the ’90s, or to realize the lasting damage done from Klein’s time in office, but that probably wouldn’t be accurate. If there’s one thing that connects our readers, it’s their intelligence (lots of you smarty-pants went to college). Our readers are all over the age spectrum. Scroll down a bit further and you find the prime minister occupying the role of “best local villain” and earning third for “Calgary’s claim to shame” (he’s from Toronto, you know).
This idea of two Calgarys isn’t a new phenomena either. Yes, the city has changed immensely in a short period of time, but there has always been a deep division in the views of its citizens, despite its reputation as a uniformly conservative place. I imagine most people don’t even know that the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the precursor to the modern-day NDP, was formed in Calgary at the old Grain Exchange Building (which is home to Truck Gallery and the former Beat Niq and Pic Niq). Fittingly, the building sits kitty-corner to the opulent Fairmont Palliser, where the cattle barons of old could, and the oil barons of today can, get their fix of old-world charm.
Part of what allowed the rise of those barons, other than geographical luck, is a sort of practicality that runs through this place. It’s instilled when you are born here and it infects newcomers. But practicality is not a unifying characteristic; it can send you madly off in all directions. It’s another inherent Calgary schism, and one that leads to the greatest misunderstandings. If I view one thing as practical and you view its opposite the same way, how are we going to be able to agree? If you think building a rash of new roads is the practical thing to do (voted second-worst use of tax dollars) and investing in bikes is stupid, and I think cycling infrastructure is the practical thing to do (voted third-best use of tax dollars) and car infrastructure is irrational, are we going to be able to see eye to eye? It’s probably best not to get into the subject of oilsands development and subsidies for that industry versus building a viable alternative economy based on renewables. But that is, and will continue to be, an issue that is without consensus in our city and our province, despite what our politicians say. Alberta is not the same thing as the oilsands.
And yet, maybe things really have changed in the city. The debates that I’ve always had amongst my friends and acquaintances are becoming mainstream in the “new” Calgary. Density, bike lanes, progressive politics, civic engagement, arts and culture — they are all now firmly on the city’s radar and are discussed openly. The best new trends are cycling, food trucks and beer (in that order) — we can get behind that.
But, of course, we’re Fast Forward Weekly. This isn’t the Calgary Sun (sorry Rick Bell, but our readers voted you worst journalist. Keep reading though). This isn’t the Calgary Herald (hey Mike Bell, congratulations on being second-best journalist. Sorry about the third-worst thing; I think they meant Rick Bell). Our readers, like us, live predominantly in the urban bubble of the inner-city, surrounded on all sides by a suburban landscape that feels like it could be Fort McMurray for all we know. That’s not to suggest that suburbs are bad and urban is good (although there is a strong case to be made for that argument), but there are differences in your priorities and your outlook depending on where you choose to live or, perhaps more accurately, where you can afford to live.
So, maybe our readership doesn’t represent the whole city, but those contradictions that make this place so damn frustrating and so damn interesting keep showing up in our results, year after year. For someone who likes facts to sink his teeth into, at least there’s some consistency there, and at least Calgary continues to confound. I would hate for anyone to figure it out — awareness might cause the whole strange place to disappear in a puff.