By Zoey Duncan
Ask an Inglewood resident to describe the neighbourhood and you’ll be inundated with superlatives: it’s the “best, friendliest, most historic” of all Calgary communities, you’ll be told. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear something a little more intimate, like how it’s got a heart and why it’s got soul and there’s more than shops and restaurants to keep you occupied.
In Inglewood, you’ll find a barber cutting his clients’ hair metres away from the gun shop on the other side of the wall; a rusted out Volkswagen parked around the corner from one of the world’s best restaurants; a Starbucks across the street from a so-called doughnut shop where you’ll get a killer Vietnamese sub, but no fried dough.
There are cookie-cutter houses and hundred-year-old homes in Inglewood. There’s an old Portuguese construction worker who will happily read your Tarot cards, then maybe give you a tour of his vegetable garden, and a window washer with 30 years’ experience who’ll scrub every window of your house for 60 bucks.
Yes, the neighbourhood’s disreputable past is being overshadowed by its emerging elegance and enduring historic charm. But since a group of Mounties erected a fort and some tents in the 1880s, Inglewood has seen its fair share of downturns, scoundrels and scandals.
Foreshadowing the neighbourhood to come a century later, a March 5, 1884, Calgary Herald editorial complained “that the vice of prostitution is sullying so deeply the first page of Calgary’s history. Already we find the advent of the harlot in town.”
A construction boom from 1906-12 saw many of the historic buildings along 9 Ave erected. Then the First World War’s staggering economic and human costs strangled development and Inglewood endured decades of deferred maintenance as the inhospitable ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s dragged on.
“Then, we came back from World War Two with an understanding that we were going to build new civilizations based at the scale of the car,” says Gian-Carlo Carra, President of the Inglewood Community Association. “All of these dingy inner city places were really dingy, and rather than reinvest in them, we abandoned them and we moved out to the suburbs and then they became nuisances.”
Carra, an urban designer, says that most of the historic buildings were at risk of being demolished in the 1960s and ‘70s, when there were plans to massively widen 9 Ave SE and convert 12 St SE into a major thoroughfare.
“It was because Inglewood rose up as a community under the leadership of some serious community leaders like (Alderman and architect) Jack Long and they said, ‘No, we are a valuable, important place that must be respected,’” Carra says.
Even though the community kept their snug four-lane avenue, Inglewood was no idyllic neighbourhood. Angela Sutherland and her husband have run the Furniture Clinic out of Blyth Hall — the bright teal structure built in 1923 — since 1981, and saw those seedy days firsthand.
“Around Stampede time, you would find people sleeping behind the store,” Sutherland says with a laugh that suggests she didn’t mind the sauced squatters. “It’s cleaned up quite a bit.”
The polishing and restoration of Inglewood followed a declaration from the City of Calgary in 1992 labelling it a “Special Heritage Character Area.”
Joshua Whitford, 28, grew up in Inglewood and has watched the transition from maligned plots to million-dollar lots.
“When I was a child, say about eight to ten years old, most of the houses down in this neighbourhood were condemned,” Whitford says. “There were lots of homeless people. There were bikers in the neighbourhood.
“When I had birthday parties, people wouldn’t actually want their kids coming to Inglewood to go to my birthday.”
Whitford lives on one of the increasingly scarce old properties in the neighbourhood, a house that his landlord’s parents bought for $6,500 in 1950. The 1917 house features a lovingly-tended garden and a view of the river from the second floor.
“I could sell this lot off in five minutes if I wanted,” says landlord Brian King. “But I mean, I don’t need the money.
“Twenty years from now, nothing will be (left) here,” King predicts. “There’ll be million-dollar houses sitting here overlooking the river, overlooking the park.”
Whitford, sharing a few beers in the garden with his venerable landlord, hopes that isn’t the case.
“Right now, I do think that Inglewood has the potential to go back in time a little bit without bringing back guys selling coke on the corner and a prostitute over there,” he says. “That’s really what this neighbourhood needs and deserves.”
Inglewood is at a point where it has shed the seedy reputation, but it doesn’t have the standing of its younger cousins across town: Kensington Village and 17 Ave SW.
“To beat a dead horse — and I’m not sure that it’s accurate — but I’ve seen a couple of titles identifying it (Inglewood) as ‘bohemian chic,’” says Rob Stilborn, a retired chef who now wields knives behind the counter of Japanese blade merchants Knifewear. “I’d like to think that we’re not so bohemian as we are boutique-ish.”
Inglewood’s 9 Ave could be the kind of main street you find in New York City, says Bite Groceteria owner Julie Denhamer.
“You try and use your main street as a mall: a shoemaker, a seamstress, drug store and grocery store and produce and clothing, restaurants and cafes,” she says. “We just need a few more things and then fill in all the gaps, move in lots more people, lots more people. Then, yeah, it’ll be good.”
Gian-Carlo Carra touts the importance of keeping Inglewood balanced. “If it just becomes a bunch of rich people, living in the skeletal remains of what was a mixed-use community, then it’s just another form of suburbia, which is really about segregation,” he says.
For those outside of chummy Inglewood, a trip into the area may mean a hot slog along 9 Ave — without a sidewalk — or a crammed ride on the hood-to-hood bus. The trip is well worth it, of course. Whether you’re craving local history or local grub, Inglewood will do you good.