CALGARY, ALBERTA — Standing in the middle of the street in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood, the idea struck that this was the ideal place for a quick getaway.
Not the vacation kind but the type that involves a drastic change in hairstyle, a gun purchase and buying a used car before the bad guys catch up to you.
That is, if they’re not slowed down by homemade macaroni and cheese at the Harley diner, or haven’t stopped to pick up some designer chocolate on the way.
In Inglewood, eclectic can be defined by the proximity of a gun shop to a barbershop, and used cars from a guy named Farmer Jones selling pickup trucks on the same block as California Closets and Starbucks.
This city’s up-and-coming neighbourhood has been more down-and-out lately. The economy has hit Calgary, with its reliance on the oil and gas industry, especially hard, compared to Toronto and Vancouver.
When oil prices were high, Inglewood was thriving with fancy restaurants and became the favoured locale for upscale furniture retailers that had crowded out the pawn shops and second-hand stores that had been around since the 1970s and 1980s.
There remains high expectations for Inglewood, often touted as one of the city’s best hopes for revitalizing the downtown. For decades, Calgary’s core has been dominated by looming office towers despite efforts to draw in more residential buildings and build up urban communities where residents can live, shop and work.
As the city’s oldest neighbourhood, Inglewood’s history is tied to its position at the confluence of the Elbow and Bow rivers. It was the city’s original main street which in its modern configuration is an easy 10-minute walk from Calgary’s downtown along 9th Ave.
Short as that distance is, the gap between downtown and Inglewood is stark and depressing with cheerless apartment buildings and shuttered businesses, including one deli with Punjabi and Chinese lettering on the windows. But there are signs of changes with construction cranes and sites all along 9th Ave.
“Inglewood is trying to find its way. There’s this huge gap between the downtown and Inglewood and once that gets filled in, it’s going to be this green space urban area,” says Rebecca O’Brien, executive director of the Inglewood Business Revitalization Zone.
Once that 10-block gap between downtown and Inglewood is transformed — it’s got dead businesses on one side and railroad tracks on the other — O’Brien said residents and tourists will see the connection between the two communities.
The physical connection between downtown and Inglewood is a foot and car bridge over the two rivers but what marks the transformation are the sounds heard above the din of traffic and the currents. Listen closely and the first roar can be mistaken for traffic noise or the slow creaking of construction cranes. But that really is the low roar of lions from the nearby Calgary Zoo. A few steps closer across the bridge into Inglewood, and clearly audible are the songs of birds a few notes higher from the 34-hectare Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, home to 270 species of birds and 27 species of butterflies.
Long-time resident and business owner Brian Imeson, who opened up a vintage glassware store called Circa seven years ago, said the variety in Inglewood is what has attracted people to visit.
The shuttering of the furniture stores is actually a positive sign, according to Imeson. When Inglewood became known a few years back as the place to look for couches and dining room tables for modern condos, Imeson says he remembers people pulling up in their cars, heading straight into the stores and then leaving.
Now visitors can browse and discover newer stores like Suzie Q Beads and another specializing in Japanese knives or an Italian deli.
Most of the furniture stores that have closed in recent months have since been taken over by various retailers and that’s a sign the neighbourhood’s diversity is once again coming back for visitors and residents alike.
Not only is Inglewood reviving itself commercially, the number of residents moving into the neighbourhood has also soared. For the first time in decades, the kindergarten in the local school, which typically has an average of nine kids registered, is overcapacity for the upcoming year with 22 students.
The artistic community is also taking notice and one of Inglewood’s heritage buildings is being poshed up with 30,000 square feet of retail space on the main level, levels of office space in the middle and a contemporary art museum for the fourth floor.
“It’s in a transition but the changes are happening,” says Imeson. “It looks a bit like a toothless smile right now but everything empty is basically spoken for. This is a community that is kicking into gear.”