When asked “Where do you live?” we say Vancouver or Thunder Bay or Halifax.
But that isn’t entirely true. We don’t live in a city. We live in a neighbourhood. And we don’t live in a neighbourhood; we live on a specific street. We have to be careful not to confuse background with foreground; we have to be careful not to mistake a skyline for home.
I live in Calgary, an Etch-a-Sketch city that is constantly erasing and rewriting itself. Cranes spin and buildings appear and disappear like images in a time-lapse film.
But Calgary is really just the backdrop. I make my home on a tree-lined street in the community of Garrison Woods. When we moved to the neighbourhood ten years ago, the sod was still being unrolled on many of the lawns and several of the houses had been stripped down to skeletal blueprints.
Garrison Woods is a new community—but also an old community. It was originally part of the Currrie Army Barracks, built in the 1930s. When the base closed down in 1998, Garrison Woods was conjured into existence.
The original army buildings and street plans were now incorporated into a residential neighbourhood and, although considered a—quote—“new neighbourhood,” Garrison Woods is freighted with history.
The Military Museum, with its array of tanks and armored vehicles is part of our neighbourhood, and the streets themselves are named for battles that Canadians fought and died in: Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Mons.
Dormer windows and front porch verandas were added to the sturdy blockhouse army buildings, new homes were squeezed in between, and a community quickly coalesced. Our very first day in the neighbourhood, and I was on our front porch, tired and trying to recuperate from the move, when a young dad from across the street wandered over and asked, rather oddly, “Have you eaten? Supper I mean.” I hadn’t. We still hadn’t unpacked our pots, let alone thought about preparing meals. “I invited some friends over for steaks,” he explained. “And they brought steaks. And the family on the corner, they dropped by, and they brought steaks, too. So, anyway. We have way too many steaks.”
Which is how my family ended up being invited to an impromptu back alley barbecue. By the time the evening was done, it had turned into a street party.
This was no anomaly, as we discovered. How did this happen? How did a sense of community gel so quickly? I suspect it is precisely because it is a new/old neighbourhood. Garrison Woods feels like it’s been around for ages—because, in a way it has; most of the homes date back eighty years, which is old by Calgary standards. But at the same time it feels young. Because it is.
Every family in Garrison Woods is new to the neighbourhood. The entire place was reinvented just 14 years ago. There is no ‘old guard.’ We come from everywhere, from Cape Breton and Vancouver Island, from England and Japan—and all points in between.
What we share, what we have in common, is our neighbourhood. Our street.
When I sit on my porch and look down my street, I see veranda after veranda lined up. Close together but not too close. Kids coming and going. Neighbors chatting to neighbors.
And come Stampede, our street hosts one of the finest pancake breakfast in Calgary. Spolumbo’s sausages, pan fried potatoes, scrambled eggs and—of course—pancakes a’plenty. There’s an inflatable slide and pony ride, face painting and cowboy hats. People come from across the city.
But the Western gear and cowboy backdrop? It’s all play-acting. Of course it is. On our entire street, I know of only one person who actually grew up on a ranch. The rest of us? We’re just pretending. None of us have wrangled a steer or ridden the open range and yet—here we are celebrating Calgary’s Western character. Why?
Because we don’t just live in a neighbourhood, we live in a city. A city of Stampedes and Etch-a-Sketch skylines and pancake breakfasts. Our community is firmly located in that larger community, that larger canvas. After all, background matters too.
My daily commute is like a small gear of mechanical time, of epicycles upon epicycles, where days turn to months and to years, and the seasons cycle through. The rhythms of time are constant, but the changes they bring are not.
We all noticed Le Gounod 1, a boxy (ugly) new condo building, but we didn’t care much. New people in the neighbourhood, we thought. Maybe the local diner, Nick: Le Roi du Sous-Marin, will get more business. Nick’s reacted by introducing a “Bring-your-own-wine” policy.