The Calgary Stampede’s mandate is to preserve and promote Western Heritage and values. So why would they destroy Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood?
Dear Calgary Stampede,
Congratulations on turning 100. I feel privileged to have attended at least 20 of your birthdays. Here’s what I don’t quite understand: Less than a decade ago Victoria Park existed. Today it doesn’t. Calgary’s oldest neighourhood—how does it just vanish?
If I’m not mistaken, this neighbourhood was under your stewardship. As a premise, it still seems too good to be true: the great bastion of Victoria Park protected by the even greater bastion of the Calgary Stampede. I don’t know your exact mandate, but it’s not unreasonable to assume—to expect—that the Stampede and its thousands of volunteers exist to safeguard and maybe even nourish the deepest sewn seeds of Calgary’s heritage, character and identity. (The exact mandate is to preserve and promote Western Heritage and values.) So when you started handing out eviction notices to longtime Vic Park residents, I think most of us probably trusted that there was a pretty good reason. Even though you’d let the neighbourhood fall into disarray, somehow we still trusted you. But then you began demolishing the historic homes in this community. Wrecking balls and bulldozers. We thought that was a bit weird, but it’s THE CALGARY FRICKING STAMPEDE, who would have the audacity to argue?
In the next phase of “the redevelopment,” you replaced this historic neighbourhood—not with a state of the art agriculture pavilion or a cowboy church or an urban farm that would be the envy of every urban farm in the world. Nothing holy. You built a casino. A gray concrete casino. (Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair, eh?) When it was finished, you changed the name of the historic Round Up centre to BMO something-or-rather. You excitedly announced the next step: Big Box “concepts” from the US (franchises like Margaritaville). This is on the ground that had been our heritage neighbourhood. I know you know that we don’t have many of those left in Calgary. In this interval of five years, you let our venerable horse racing operation disappear. At the annual exhibition—the greatest outdoor show on earth—you aggressively marketed American beer and whisky at the expense of locally made Wild Rose and Big Rock and Alberta Springs Rye, which is, dollar for dollar, the best rye in the world. Which is to say nothing for the beef that wasn’t Alberta beef. Not even Canadian beef. And even though the exhibition breaks attendance records and generates tens of millions of dollars annually, you got tens of millions of dollars from Canadian taxpayers to do all this. You got Government of Alberta grants. You’re sucking up millions of taxpayer dollars, millions more worth of volunteer hours, you’re annihilating any semblance of western character, and spitting out casinos and Margaritavilles.
I know this sort of deal takes on a life of its own. But imagine if the Vatican let Jimmy Buffet turn St. Peter’s Basilica into Margaritaville. Or if the Sistine Chapel was renamed the BMO Centre. You think the analogy’s preposterous. Because it would be inconceivable in Rome—that any of the world’s greatest cities would rip out their own guts—yet we didn’t think twice about it here. Our heritage is totally worthless? If the Stampede, so often likened to Calgary’s Vatican, is the one masterminding the assault on our history and character, how do our communities stand a chance?
This isn’t a vision of a city, but a version. A version of just another city in North America. I guess someone five years from now, or five years after that, will protect our heritage. But I guess you see the flaw in that approach to heritage too. I don’t think you consciously set out to destroy the heritage we trusted you to protect. In fact, I don’t even really know who “you” are. I know that stuff like this just somehow seems to happen. I guess I just want to know: how?
Anyway, congratulations again on your Centennial. Our centennial. I offer this modest toast:
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” (Joan Didion)