Story by Cinda Chavich
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN — Christie Peters might be too young to remember The Guess Who’s famous prairie tune, but she’s among the many expats who have been running back to Saskatoon.
The recently released 2011 census shows Saskatoon enjoyed the country’s biggest growth spurt – the population surged 11.4 per cent, nearly twice the national numbers. And while this prairie city is still small – just around 235,000 souls – the new blood seems to be the creative kind and much of it is settling in Riversdale.
“I dragged Kyle here from Vancouver,” says Peters, introducing her husband and chef, Kyle Michael, who is trimming pork in the massive kitchen of their new hipster cocktail lounge and eatery, The Hollows.
Set in the former Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant, it’s like a snapshot in time — John Fogarty is wailing on the stereo as Peters fills my vintage water glass, stenciled with a pheasant hunting scene, beneath the glow of boxy rosewood Chinese lanterns.
But it’s just one of the new businesses that’s making the transitional Riversdale district the new “it” spot in Saskatoon — old furniture stores, pawn shops and Chinese restaurants are being transformed into cutting-edge art galleries and cafes where baristas grind Intelligentsia coffee and yoga moms gather.
For Peters and Michael, who met while working at the former Feenie’s in Vancouver, Riversdale has all of the edgy, hipster vibe of Gastown, without the big-city rent.
“It’s got a rough reputation but more and more people are moving in,” says Peters, who cooked at both Boneta and The Diamond, then at Michelin-starred De Kas in Amsterdam, before heading home to Saskatoon. “This place has character. It’s so vintage here — it sets the mood.”
If you haven’t been to Saskatoon in awhile, Riversdale is definitely a spot to explore.
SASKATOON NEIGHBOURHOOD TURNS AROUND
Things are changing fast in this west-side ‘hood that a decade ago earned the moniker “Harlem of the Prairies” for its poverty and crime. The bustling new Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, in a restored city electrical warehouse, is an anchor in the renewal of Riversdale. It’s where these young chefs shop for the kind of fresh local ingredients used in their seasonal menu, from wild seabuckthorn berries and artisan breads to heirloom carrots from a local urban SPIN gardener. Whether it’s Cava Secreta, the city’s first private wine store, with its vaulted brick cellars and regular upscale wine pairing dinners, or Three Sisters Bakery, supplying the neighborhood with quality baking while training aboriginal youth, creative people are taking risks in Riversdale.
Riversdale was one of the three original communities along the South Saskatchewan River that joined together to form the City of Saskatoon back in 1906. Literally on the “wrong side of the (CNR) tracks” it was a multicultural — mainly working-class Ukrainian, German, Russian and Chinese — part of town. Today, it’s a mix of aboriginal and Chinese families with Vietnamese and African immigrants, as well as creative types of all kinds. It can still be a little dodgy after dark, but that doesn’t phase the crowd that gathers at Village Guitar & Amp to hear Luke Doucet or Wide Mouth Mason, join a weekend jam, or strum a vintage or one-of-a-kind guitar.
“The rent is going up fast but you want to get in and get a good spot, because here it comes, the flood is moving in,” says Daniel Canfield, who opened the boutique music store in an old pawn shop, and stripped down to its gritty concrete and exposed brick shell with partner Todd Peters in September. “In a year or two this will be the new Broadway.”
WHY SASKATOON IS SUDDENLY HIP
He’s referring to Broadway Avenue, a popular strip of trendy boutiques and eateries on the east side of the river. The Broadway area has attracted most of Saskatoon’s creative small business owners over the past 20 years — from the community-run Broadway Theatre and Bulk Cheese Warehouse gourmet market, to Daniel Walker’s locovore Weczeria restaurant and Christie’s Il Secondo artisan bakery. And though it’s definitely more gentrified, Riversdale’s renaissance may soon stretch this hip east side shopping strip across the bridge to Saskatoon’s west side.
Until recently, Riversdale’s commercial vacancy rate was 39 per cent, the city’s highest, but today it stands closer to 8 per cent thanks to creative young developers like Curtis P. Olson, another returning Saskatoon expat.
It’s only been a few months since Olson’s Shift Developments opened The Two Twenty (thetwotwenty.ca) on Riversdale’s notorious 20th Street, converting an old furniture store into a new office/co-work space that’s attracting a variety of creative tenants, from photographers and designers to freelancers, non-profits and other small business people. Downstairs at Collective Coffee, baristas pull shots and create steamy latte art behind the funky salvaged wood and scrap metal espresso bar where local writers and actors gather.
Pushing the envelope in what he calls “acts of urban renewal,” Olson and his wife, musician Carrie Catherine, have taken on several Riversdale projects — converting a circa 1935 grocery store into their home and performance space (The HayLoft), and building the first Shift Home, a small, affordable, green home designed for young families on a nearby residential street.
While 20th Street is still considered the “least safe” spot in Saskatoon, this is where the big transformation is happening. The Roxy Theatre, the oldest movie house in the city, sat dark for 10 years before it was restored to its 1930 Spanish villa glory and reopened in 2005. It now shows both first run and alternative films, with occasional live performances, including the annual Silence is Golden event featuring silent movies backed by a live performance of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO).
That may be what convinced the SSO to move its offices from “a garret” in the venerable Bessborough Hotel downtown into a 55,000-square-foot storefront on 20th Street last year.
“It’s great, we really enjoy the vibe here,” says SSO marketing director Mike McCoy. “We’ve only been here since June but you can see the difference here, you can literally feel it on the street.”
Nearby, the aka gallery — an artist-run contemporary gallery — shares a large space with PAVED Arts, a non-profit media production and post-production facility and gallery, for photography, digital and electronic artists, in a former 300-seat Chinese restaurant.
Across the street at the Park Café, west-side pioneers Patrick Hearn and Kent Rumpel have been drawing customers from throughout the city for their house-smoked salmon or peameal bacon eggs bennie, Angus beef burgers and other classic diner fare since they opened six years ago. While it was rough in the beginning, Hearn says the street has been cleaned up. “I haven’t called 9-1-1 for two years,” he says.
“As soon as it gets dark, it’s still 20th Street,” Hearn admits, adding they only stay open until 8 pm three nights a week. “But it’s changing fast. This is going to be the new hip spot in Saskatoon.”
FROM PEEP SHOW TO YOGA IN SASKATOON
Randy Pshebylo, head of the Riversdale Business Improvement District is counting on it. Pshebylo grew up in the ‘hood and watched it slide into the poorest area code in the province. He concedes that Riversdale still has more than its share of cheap rental housing and slum landlords, but the recent transformation is remarkable.
“This hot yoga studio has 1,200 members — and it used to be a peep show,” he says, pointing out new life on every block. “There was an old coal electrical plant where the Farmers’ Market and new business incubator sits. This place hit rock bottom in the 1990s but what we’re seeing now is the age of the new business person.”
And that’s bringing new residents back to Riversdale, too.
Renee Kohlman, 38, a chef and blogger who moved from Edmonton and bought a home in the area in 2008 says there’s still a perception that Saskatoon’s west side is dangerous. She can’t deny that Riversdale has its problems, but says the core is urban, interesting and a great place to explore.
“Some people from the east side still have hesitations about the west side, but they should just let their guard down and experience it,” she says. “I like to duck into the Roxy on a Sunday, get some dumplings at Jin Jin, or stop at Collective Coffee for a great coffee. It’s definitely going in the right direction and that’s exciting.”
MORE ABOUT SASKATOON TRAVEL
The Hollows: Breakfast poutine with housemade bacon lardons or pulled shortrib with heirloom carrots in an historic Chinese restaurant. 334 Ave. C, Saskatoon. thehollows.ca
Saskatoon Farmers’ Market: Local farmer-owned co-op of 140 vendors in new pubic market building in Riversdale. Wednesdays and weekends. 414 Ave. B South
Park Café: Scratch cooking at a rejuvenated Saskatoon diner, 512 20th St. W., 306-652-6781 parkcafe.ca
Jin Jin Cuisine Dumpling: Go for the leek buns and mixed veg dumplings but bring a Chinese friend to translate, 416 20th St. W.
Taste Legend: trendy décor and authentic Szechuan food, 423 20th St. W. 306-665-3388
Village Guitar & Amp: one-of-kind instruments for professionals and guitar geeks, house concerts. 432 20th St. W. www.villageguitarandamp.com
The Roxy Theatre: Restored 1930 cinema for first run and art house films and occasional live performances. Silence Is Golden, The Thief of Bagdad with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, Feb. 25. 320 20th St. W. www.rainbowcinemas.ca
The Two Twenty: Co-working space for freelancers, small businesses, students, artists or business travelers in need of a spot to get connected. Day pass $15. 220 20 St. W. thetwotwenty.ca
Collective Coffee: Hip coffee bar serving serious coffee, 220 20th St. W., collectivecoffee.weebly.com
aka Gallery: Artist-run contemporary visual arts gallery and centre 424 20th St. W. www.akagallery.org
PAVED Arts: non-profit facility for media artists, photography, audio, video, electronic and digital arts, production and exhibit space. www.pavedarts.ca
Hot Yoga on 20th : new hot yoga studio, meditation, family yoga. 117 20th St. W., hotyogaon20th.com