|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2021|
[ID:1578] Where the Past and Future Meet: Cultural Regeneration of a Forgotten Block
“Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon; they have pulled their weight and more. It is the same still. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.” – Jane Jacobs
Many people will cross the street to avoid walking along the 100 Block of Seventh Avenue in downtown Calgary. Despite some awkwardness traversing the characters of this rundown block, I prefer it for the historic brick facades, curious commercial wares and vintage vinyl booths visible from the sidewalk. Having worked nearby for years, I have dreamed of how the block could be revitalized as an arts district. Imagine it colourful and kind of gritty where all walks of life share the sidewalk and public spaces. Preservation of the historic 100 Block is an undeniable opportunity for rejuvenating a city street bringing together the best of history and helping a community flourish. Architecture is a social art and the 100 Block with its layers of aspiration and adaptation exemplifies the human condition.
These early-twentieth century brick buildings represent the taming of a Wild West pioneer town. They were built to be Calgary’s original stock exchange, a hardware store, a doctor’s office, one of the town’s first self-serve groceries, and even a candy factory. After a century, the shells of these historic businesses now house a pawn shop, a knock-off Pashmina store, several sketchy eateries, and a recently closed crack house. During the day, gruff looking men, limping elderly, scantily clad moms pushing strollers, and the voice of at least one person yelling are a stark contrast to the orderly stream of business suits and upscale shoppers on every other block. The 100 Block is a cultural estuary inhabited by shadows and castaways, derelict and homeless.
In the journal article, “Reuse or Abuse? Ethics in Requalification Design” author Irene Curulli describes a phenomenon shared by the 100 Block,
“These are territories of transition, whose meaning is derived from association. They are forgotten places, black holes in the mental maps of our cities. Yet their presence also invokes memories – real or imaginary. And they embody the inescapable passage of time both the elapsed time of their past and the urgency of their imminent demise.” (Curulli, 17)
The 100 Block represents a common North American conundrum. How do we manage our insatiable push for economic “progress” balanced by a healthy respect for our heritage, the environment and the development of creative, adaptive communities?
However absurd it is for a wealthy city such as Calgary to have left a historic block like this to decay, there remains great potential to preserve and revitalize the 100 Block for the benefit of the whole community. We must protect and re-purpose significant historical markers, in response to basic human need to reflect upon our roots, explore our differences and tell our stories. It starts in our own hearts, and in this case, in the heart of our city.
In 1928, The Albertan Newspaper wrote “Almost any article desired by a citizen can be purchased in one block in Calgary and that block is on Seventh avenue between Centre street and First street west.” The 100 Block’s one-to-three story brick buildings were built between 1908 and 1914. The façades are a simplified Edwardian Commercial style—less ornate than the preceding Victorian architecture — featuring light brown textured brick with traditional recessed storefronts. The location is as central as it gets, located on the light rail transit line, and one block from City Hall, the Calgary Tower, and the gentrified upscale heritage strip of Stephen Avenue. Like a tarnished silver artifact overshadowed by a forest of black gold towers, the 100 Block, expresses one hundred years of dramatic change endured by a young entrepreneurial prairie town.
Calgary was incorporated as a town in 1884. It is located at the intersection of prairie, foothills and towering Rocky Mountains with the cold Bow River parting it down the middle. Since the discovery of oil in 1914 it has flowed through the arteries of Alberta and beyond, pumped by the businesses of Calgary. This resource has been the economic life blood of the city ever since.
Like many cities in North America, most of our heritage buildings have been demolished in favour of newer, more cost effective development. Gone with them is much of our cultural memory. What remains in the landscape of Calgary is a mishmash of modern architecture, heavy 1970’s and 80’s concrete and plain brick structures, a smattering of Arts and Crafts and Wartime heritage homes, tall green glass office towers (primarily oil company head offices and major banks), new condominiums, and grotesque suburban sprawl. With a limitless geographic canvas and abundant natural resources, the city has consumed an area equal to New York City with one eighth of the population.
I remember the day the millionth citizen was born because it happened to be on my birthday in the summer of 2006. The new energy of the city was palpable. The price of oil was very high, property values doubled, immigration diversified the demographics and workers flooded from all over in search of work. Consequently, the homeless population, drug trafficking, and violent crime grew rapidly. Social infrastructure and affordable housing was quickly outstripped.
In this ongoing process of becoming a “big city”, many urbanists, artists, and cultural workers advocate the need for a bustling, vibrant downtown. Sadly, they are countered by a dominant conservative population determined to keep an unsustainable “small town feel” with little interest in the downtown other than their nine to five routine. This situation illustrates both excitement and tension of a city with growing pains.
Following cities around North America, Calgary’s understanding of its potential as a “creative city” has also grown rapidly. The arts and heritage have been gaining status as enablers of a vibrant and healthy urban centre encouraged by writers like Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida and Charles Landry. The 100 Block has its greatest potential at the confluence of two movements, the rise of the arts in Calgary and the preservation of its colourful heritage.
The 100 Block has been declining over the past twenty years, stunted by the introduction of the light rail transit line that killed retail businesses along the spine of downtown. The previous owner let the block sink into disrepair as the land value increased. This kept the rent low and therefore attracted tenants willing to put up with the degrading buildings. Finally, three years ago, at the height of the last boom, six of the buildings were put up for sale including the Stuart Block, Mills Block, Klossoski Block, Rochon Block, Delamere Block and the Calgary Stock Exchange. The buildings were priced at land value and listed as a “vacant lot”. It is difficult to understand how one of the city’s founding blocks could have absolutely no value, despite its cultural significance and reuse potential. Many people feared the block would become a ghost of the past as the real estate listing had already implied.
Jane Jacobs wrote in the "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1960), “The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. The economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighbourhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.” (Jacobs, 259-260)
Someone stepped up to the plate. Heritage Property Corporation led by a man named Neil Richardson purchased the buildings and plans to carefully and respectfully restore them. One of the first things the new owner did was evict the inhabitants of the crack house. Accompanied by Mr. Richardson, I walked through this very building (known as the Stuart Block). It's a three-story brick building with original tin-roof ceilings built in 1908 as a hardware store with apartments above. Recently it had been a haven for drug abuse and prostitution. The ghostly image and stench of human degradation over took my senses: soiled mattresses, distressing graffiti, filth. I felt sadness for those who had lived here and suffered this kind of life. A building once home to the common mans’ basic urban needs, had become a refuge for citizens on the fringe of society. One story had eclipsed the other.
Working with Calgary Arts Development Authority, representing the arts community, and the City of Calgary, Heritage Property Corporation is not only acting as a heritage developer but an urban regenerator by encouraging the reuse of the block for art spaces. Successful precedents of this kind have been set by other cities among the landmarks of Old Town Chicago, the prolific museums of Fort Worth, the Cultural Trust of Pittsburgh, the Toronto's Harbour front or Vancouver's Gas Town. Adaptive reuse of the 100 Block will give the site a new voice. Stewardship by the new tenants will be respectful of the blocks’ tumultuous history.
Rarely touted as one of the city’s strengths until recently, Calgary has a long history of globally conscious artists and resilient arts organizations. Of note, artist-run centers have offered a space for artistic dialogue and creation open to all facets of the community for over thirty years. As grass roots organizations, they represent a diversity of participants from youth to seniors, amateurs to professionals, from all economic and cultural backgrounds. The types of centers in Calgary include art galleries and production centers for video, animation and film. They regularly host programs dealing with relevant current issues emblematic of the 100 Block itself. These topics include cultural identity, marginalization, language, sexuality and the public domain. Artists like these provoke dialogue and respond to the human condition. By adapting the 100 Block as a much needed home for these types of arts organizations who struggle as costs sky rocket in Calgary, a new generation of stewardship and public engagement will take root in this historic block. With publicly accessible street level activity, arts groups will breath new vitality into the 100 Block while replenishing its sense of place.
Jane Jacobs wrote, “The unformalized feeders of the arts – studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions - these go into old buildings.” (Jacobs, 245)
Charles Landry, author of “The Creative City”, wrote almost fifty years later, about the value of creating space for artists,
“Classically artists agglomerate in interesting yet run-down areas, often subject to potential redevelopment pressures, but where the process has not yet started. The artist is in effect the explorer and the regenerator kick-starting a gentrification process, bringing life to run-down areas and generating the development of support structures such as cafes, restaurants and some shops. They then attract a more middle-class clientele who would not have risked being the first, either through fear, the dislike of run-down areas or pressure from peer groups.” (Landry, 124)
Just because the buildings now have a sympathetic and proactive owner, they are far from protected. There is still the major issue that the land is worth far more than the buildings, and this economic reality is what often prevents the reuse of heritage buildings in many cities. Other than finding economically balanced solutions for both public and private partners, the benefits of this kind of project can come in many forms including creating civic pride, a sense of place, and encouraging diversity of uses and users. Preservation and reuse of heritage districts into culturally vibrant arts districts are known to reduce crime, increase tourism, save building resources and provide much needed spaces for the arts.
Architect and activist, James Marston Fitch wrote in 1992, “I’d like to suggest that the preservation of the historic built world is critical to man’s psychic and emotional well-being. It’s preservation and adaptive reuse is also an urgent aspect of the conservation of energy.” (Sawin, 174)
A combination of efforts is required for these types of projects to be successful: the private sector acting as owners and investors, the government able to subsidize certain costs or remove development barriers, and above all, the public to participate in the preservation of what few heritage assets remain and advocate for the potential of cultural organizations to tell our collective stories.
Nan Ellin in her book, Integral Urbanism, talks about new urban solutions that help heal our collective mistakes of the past,
“In Western Society, generally, we are witnessing a gradual reorientation towards slowness, simplicity, sincerity, spirituality, and sustainability in attempt to restore connections that have been severed over the last century between body and soul, people and nature, and among people.” (Ellin, 1)
The 100 Block could be a place where we acknowledge both the pain and the achievements of our city; the community’s cultural learning and healing. It could defy contemporary notions of commodity and express the value of history and creative expression. On a larger scale this requires systematic and cultural shifts; for the citizens of a city to demand the protection of rights for all, the preservation of our remaining heritage artifacts and the encouragement of artistic expression.
In the realm of social architecture, opportunities are abound. In this case, it is not the extreme end of global poverty, nor the most beautiful collection of old buildings, but it is a critical opportunity in the development of a torn community. Reclaiming and saving the 100 Block can be a celebration of our shared values. In essence, the block returns to its roots in service of “the common man, woman and child” acknowledging that he or she is different one hundred years later, and that difference is something to be celebrated.
Creative expression leads to dialogue, inquiry, community learning, and social regeneration. Preservation and cultural reuse of the 100 Block into an artistic community hub would not deny the indelible marks of recent years, but transform the site to make full use of the character of the entrepreneurial prairie town it was built for. The project would speak to the future of a city that embraces cultural expression, social change and history in the making.
1. Curulli, Irene. Section 1: Wasted and Reclaimed Landscapes - Reuse or Abuse? Ethics in Requalification Design. Places, 19(1), 2007. Web.
2. Ellin, Nan. Integral Urbanism. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
3. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.
4. Landry, Charles. The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators. London: Earthscan, 2008. Print.
5. Sawin, Martica, ed., James Marston Fitch: Selected Writings on Architecture, Preservation, and the Built Environment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. Print.
6. Tyler, Norman, Ted J. Ligibel and Ilene R. Tyler. Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice (Second Edition). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.
Additional information was gathered thanks to The City of Calgary Heritage Planners, Calgary Arts Development Authority, Pendergast Nyhoff Architects and an interview with Neil Richardson from Heritage Property Corporation.
Photo credit: Chris Wharton
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