“The East Village wasn’t always the kind of place that decent folk wanted to be seen,” says Jason, a manager at Studio Bell, the home of Canada’s National Music Centre. Since opening on Canada Day in 2016 the attraction has played a key role in changing perceptions about the riverside district of Calgary in which I’m staying.
I’m surprised to hear how the East Village was once treated like the city’s dirty secret. Historically, the area was tainted by associations with prostitution, criminality, and homelessness.
Yet the East Village is located barely a kilometre from the Calgary Tower and I’ve seen nothing to cause concern while strolling through the area, on my way to visit craft breweries and hip restaurants in neighbouring Inglewood.
The East Village occupies prime land on the right bank of the Bow River. Given the urban lifecycle of decline then development it was inevitable that the area would evolve. Infrastructural improvements and social projects have clearly been transforming the district since long before my arrival.
The skyscrapers of Calgary’s throbbing downtown heart rise west of City Hall, 10 minutes’ walk from the East Village. Towering yellow cranes swing back and forth above a construction site on the far side of 4th Street SE, the East Village’s principal thoroughfare.
Studio Bell spans the street. Clad with shining, earth-toned tiles — said to represent Alberta’s prairie landscape — a walkway crosses the road, five storeys up. The National Music Centre isn’t merely a museum, displaying an array of music-related artefacts, it’s centre of excellence where musical instruments are maintained and repaired. Musicians in residence to lay down tracks in state-of-the-art recording studios.
Peeking into a well-lit workshop I see a man working on TONTO — The Original New Timbral Orchestra — an arcing wooden console with dangling wires plus dozens of metallic dials and buttons. The largest analogue synthesiser in the world would be way too big to fit in my living room. It was created in 1968 and features on several notable albums, including ones by Stevie Wonder and Bobby Womack.
Wandering through the National Music Centre I notice that galleries are, fittingly, termed stages. In one I pause while a woman plays a Kimball Organ dating from 1924. Her thumping rendition of The Imperial March, from Star Wars, impresses gathered kids and makes my neck hairs stand to attention like storm troopers in Darth Vader’s presence.
I head to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, whose inductees include Alanis Morissette and Bryan Adams. Then I meander through the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame Collection and Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, pausing to read about the works of Neil Young, Paul Anka, and Leonard Cohen.
After singing, karaoke-style, in a sound-proofed box — probably the safest place for my shaky rendition — I walk to the opposite wing and listen to local youngsters jamming. The National Music Centre is, I discover, a hub for community-based activities.
Jason leads me to the ground floor of the building where a large blue truck stands, parked indoors, bearing the words ‘The Aims Project’. A red tongue and lips logo is emblazoned on one of its interior doors, a legacy of its use as The Rolling Stones mobile recording studio
Crossing the street, I notice sections of the broad footpath have been surfaced with briquettes, landscaped with trees and metallic shapes, and lined with wooden benches. I contemplate sitting there after grabbing a coffee from Phil and Sebastian, an artisanal coffee roaster, and a bite to eat from the Citizen Sidewalk Bakery. They are based in the nearby Simmons Building, a former mattress whose brickwork façade still bears hand-painted signs attesting its former use. Once inside I’m tempted by a burger and an Albertan beer at Charbar, whose chef is Jessica Pelland, a winner of the Chopped Canada reality cooking show.
Fortified, I continue along the RiverWalk, a trail that’s popular with joggers and cyclists. Resisting the temptation to cross the George C. King Bridge and explore St Patrick’s Island, which splits the flow of the Bow River, I head to Fort Calgary. A Canadian flag flutters above the National Historic Site. Red pillars and lights — elements of the work Markings by sculptor Jill Anholt — outline the site settled by the North-West Mounted Police back in 1875.
Seeing that makes me realise the East Village is Calgary’s birthplace. Turning, I observe the city’s high-rise skyline silhouetted under a golden sky. I stride along 9th Avenue SE and, like so many of Alberta’s early settlers, go west.