International Avenue — or 17th Avenue S.E. — in Calgary has long been home to a cornucopia of culture. The strip has been there for decades, once a part of the town called Forest Lawn before becoming part of Calgary in the early 1960s.
The area has had a tough reputation due to the amount of crime and low-income families in the area, but that reputation is poised to change with a massive, $176 million revitalization of International Avenue. Re-construction of the avenue has been long-awaited by politicians, businesses, and citizens in the community — but like any revitalization, new sidewalks and bus lanes do not necessarily change the face of a community.
The history of Forest Lawn
Around 1910, Forest Lawn was a hamlet.
The First World War was approaching and the area was in an economic depression. Much of the land near Forest Lawn reverted back to the Municipality of Shepard.
During the 1930s the area was taking a hit and the provincial government decided to relieve Shepard by creating the Village of Forest Lawn.
In 1953, Forest Lawn received town status. From that point on the community began to grow, establishing Elk, Moose, Kinsmen and Lions Clubs. It also had a town council, which consisted of a mayor and councillors who were unpaid. In 1955, the town entered a float in the Calgary Stampede parade called “Forest Lawn — Town of the Future.”
By 1958, Forest Lawn had grown so large that it applied for city status. But the town had such close ties to Calgary that a merger seemed more likely.
On Dec. 30, 1961, the City of Calgary annexed Forest Lawn. Forest Lawn’s last mayor, Harry Akkerman, handed over the keys to Calgary Mayor Harry Hays. Akkerman asked Hays to give the town a “square deal,” according to International Avenue’s timeline on their website.
The Nature of Forest Lawn
Forest Lawn, throughout its existence in Calgary, has seen a lot of changes. What was once a small community has now became a unique part of a vibrant city.
Alison Karim-McSwiney, executive director of the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ), believes the area is affordable and that it is truly an exciting place. Karim-McSwiney, who has held her position for more than 20 years, has been pushing for revitalization of International Avenue since the mid-1990s.
In a 2014 census, the community of Forest Lawn was home to over 8,000 Calgarians. In the past, real estate and rent in the area has been cheap.
Andre Chabot, the city councillor for Ward 10 which includes Forest Lawn, says, “This was a great first point of entry for a lot of people, as it is today for new immigrants.”
According to a 2014 city study, about 31 per cent of homes in Forest Lawn are currently occupied by the owner.
Chabot believes that if people aren’t selling their homes, then the neighbourhood does not get taken over by young people. Hence, gentrification has yet to happen in the area.
“A lot of people have stayed in their homes and aged in their homes. They haven’t been taken over by young people.”
Crime in the area of International Avenue has always been a part of its reputation.
“Everyone thinks, Forest Lawn, you live on the east side of the city, that’s a bad area,” says Chabot.
Karim-McSwiney agrees that the community of Forest Lawn gets a bad reputation.
“I think what happens is that sometimes the media will lump the community of Forest Lawn into the Greater Forest Lawn,” she said, referring to the seven communities that actually comprise the entire area serviced by International Avenue.
The BRZ was created by businesses to combat some of the problems in the area. “A number of businesses got together and they saw that there was a number of issues,” says Karim-McSwiney. “There was a number of things that they felt weren’t good, like crime rates and the infrastructure was sub-standard.”
Chabot vouches for the area that he moved to when he was 12-years-old.
“Those of us who have grown up here know that it’s probably one of the safer parts of the city. Yes, you may have some displaced people from other communities coming out to this community because of its affordability.
“As you increase the value of this community, increase the value of properties in this community, I think you will find that we will have fewer and fewer of these people.”
The “displaced” people that Chabot is referring to are individuals he believes have been shipped to the area.
“People were actually being displaced into this area — liked moved into the area.”
Chabot says that when the city initiated a plan to “clean up the downtown” many people were brought into neighbourhoods like Forest Lawn, mostly due to the fact that it was a cheaper place to live.
Bringing the world to International Avenue
The area, however, has become a place where many immigrants moving to Calgary call home. It has become home to people from all parts of the world including China, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Europe, Latin America and more.
Driving along International Avenue from 26 Street S.E. to Hubalta Road S.E., it is clear why the strip has received that name. The street is lined with restaurants and businesses from around the world — a little piece of international heaven.
Many immigrants began to open family businesses and restaurants, many of which still exist on the avenue today.
“You can literally go around the world with the international representation along 17th Avenue — different ethnic foods in that 26-block range. It’s amazing,” says Chabot.
The councillor believes the diversity and culture is what makes the area so special. While he enjoys the ethnic and cultural diversity of the area, he believes part of that pride in the community has diminished. “When I first moved here, it was way more vibrant than it is today.”
“It comes down to taking ownership in your community and taking pride in your community. Things start degrading and pretty soon nobody cares anymore. I think that is what has happened over time in this area. People have lost faith in their community and faith in their city representatives to respond to some of the emerging issues.”
But, working directly with the businesses in the area, Karim-McSwiney praises the rich and diverse commerce along International Avenue and the adjacent area.
“The unique thing about International Avenue is that it is just so amazing. You can wander into a store and be totally transported to another place. The items are unique [because] they’re small businesses.
“A majority of our businesses have been operating for well over 20-plus years. So, it really has been a very stable business community.
“People often come here for the foods and the unique stuff that you’re going to find. It’s something to celebrate and obviously a place where a lot of cultures live.”
17 Ave BRT Construction
International Avenue is about to change again. The city has embarked on a major project to move bus lanes, or the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), into the middle of the avenue while also giving the area a make-over.
“We are the main street for seven different communities and we have to make sure we are community-oriented,” says Karim-McSwiney. “We knew that if we did something to improve this area that it had to benefit the community. That is what our project has been and what our vision has been.”
She has been a part of the push for revitalization since 1995 and looking back on the project, Karim-McSwiney believes that the city wasn’t ready for what the BRZ wanted to accomplish.
“But they’re certainly ready now and they have been absolutely awesome. We are very happy to be at this point in our history.”
Colin Chapman, project manager of the 17th Avenue revitalization, says that in addition to moving the bus lanes, “We are also re-doing the sidewalks and the road structure, so it will be a wider pedestrian walkway for the public in the area.”
Chapman believes the construction process is going smoothly. “With the weather this year, we’ve been lucky that we haven’t been rained out too much. Right now we are tracking on schedule.”
The project is expected to be finished on time, “by the end of 2018,” says Chapman.
“The construction is tough. But, we are talking about an incredibly large area – $176 million. It starts at Blackfoot Truckstop and it goes all the way to the train tracks. We are doing this whole construction within two years. Everything will be totally done,” says Karim-McSwiney.
When asked about how smoothly the construction is going, Karim-McSwiney feels it has been a dream come true. “It is very shocking to be honest. I feel that this team is so solid. I think the city has put together a great infrastructure team.”
One of city council’s stipulations was that the construction should not shut down traffic and that there would be always some form of access to surrounding businesses. Chabot says he was one of the councillors who brought this motion forward.
“What you will notice on 17th Avenue Southeast, you’re not going to see any prolonged shutdown of traffic in either direction,” he says.
Chapman, as project manager, has been ensuring that council’s wishes are followed. “To keep traffic flowing we’ve been maintaining two lanes of traffic in each direction at the same time. In the morning rush hour we don’t allow for any single lane closures. Again, in the afternoon rush time we don’t allow any of these closures. That allows for that traffic to flow through.”
Chabot also advocated that businesses should be accessible at all times during construction, either by car or foot. He believes that the issues are in the transition and that if businesses can pull through the construction period, it will be beneficial for them moving forward.
“The businesses have been complaining and some of them were talking about going out of business before we realize the benefits of what we are doing along 17th Avenue. So what good is it if it’s actually going to displace people?
“The interesting thing that we find out about these businesses is that people generally want to stay here. They see just how much value this will add to their business,” says Chabot. “They’re going in the hole to try and stay here just because they see the long-term potential.”
Karim-McSwiney feels it is important that the BRZ stands up for its members and businesses in the area. The BRZ has been working with businesses and helping deal with their complaints, to make sure all problems are dealt with as soon as possible.
Karim-McSwiney has been working on the revitalization of International Avenue for so long and now she finally gets to see her hard work become a reality.
“What’s nice is that you don’t often get the opportunity in this line of work to be able to start something and get it to it’s fairly pinnacle turning point. I think it’s a great and wonderful opportunity that they’ve provided me and I’m very happy about about that.”