Hark! A year-end Sprawliday special
We gather to look back — and ahead.
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SAM HESTER: Calgary has a really cool identity that's somehow hidden, somehow defensive, somehow not acknowledged—even by the people here.
XIMENA GONZÁLEZ: I often see Calgary as the youngest sibling in a family that's always trying to emulate the older siblings and trying to become this other person.
HESTER: We are only three people who have our versions of what this big-city identity is. It's not something we actually could really know an answer to, but it's interesting to me how complicated that question is.
JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): Here we are, at the end of 2022. It’s a time of year that prompts a little looking back—and looking ahead, too. A time of reflection. A time to ask: Who have I been this year? And who do I want to be in the year ahead? We ask these kinds of questions every year as individuals, but maybe we also ask them as cities, too.
You just heard Sam Hester and Ximena González. Ximena is The Sprawl’s urban affairs writer, and Sam is our comics artist. Those are the voices behind many of the stories that so many of you enjoy reading in the Sprawl. And we’re going to hear from them a little later in the show—exploring those questions of civic identity. But first, I want to do a little year in review.
A time to ask: Who have I been this year? And who do I want to be in the year ahead?
KLASZUS: One of my favourite Sprawlcast interviews from 2022 was a conversation I had in February with Jared Wesley. He’s a political scientist at the University of Alberta, and he leads something called the Common Ground project. It’s a group of researchers who are digging into the political culture of Western Canada. They look at what binds people in the West together—and where, and why, they diverge. They dig into our collective identity.
And here’s something they do as part of their project. They ask people to draw an Albertan. Here’s how Jared Wesley explained it to me on Sprawlcast in February.
JARED WESLEY: We don't say "average" Albertan. We say, "Just draw us an Albertan. The first thing that pops into your mind, draw that." They get quite creative and in-depth. What was most startling when we did this was the ubiquity and persistence of three different personas in the minds of Albertans as to who is the quintessential member of their community.
It was either a roughneck, a redneck, or a cowboy. So somebody who works on the rigs, a farmer, or a rancher.
People of colour, women, younger people would draw that stereotypical Joe Albertan 30-to-50-year-old man in plaid.
WESLEY: It was probably most eye-opening when we started piloting this on university campuses across the province. I remember walking into a classroom at Grant MacEwan full of students, and two young women sitting on opposite ends of the room drew exactly the same person with exactly the same name. His name was Joe. So I said, "Well, this is interesting. Do you two know each other?" And they said, "Oh, no. Just in class." And I asked them both, "Who did you draw?" And they said, "Well, I drew my dad." They both drew their dad. And I was like, "You're not sisters?" "No, no, no. That's my dad. He's wearing plaid." And we had a little bit of a laugh.
But then you started to see lightbulbs go off in the room. These were two young women who by most measures would be typical, at least in the Edmonton community, who drew somebody that did not look like them. And there are very few people in our focus groups that actually draw themselves as Albertans—and that's a bit disturbing to me. People of colour, women, younger people, would draw that stereotypical Joe Albertan 30-to-50-year-old man in plaid.
That, to me, suggests that there's a real disjunction between who Albertans actually are and who they think they are.
That, to me, suggests that there’s a real disjunction between who Albertans actually are and who they think they are.
A renewed focus on Calgary
KLASZUS: I loved that interview with Jared Wesley because we got into the nuances of the polarization that we’re seeing across so much of our society. I think there’s so much to explore there—especially when it comes to the differences between who we are, and who we think we are.
Speaking of which—The Sprawl went through some identity questions of its own this summer. I joked with a friend the other day that The Sprawl has had a continual existential crisis since it launched five years ago. But seriously though, I went through a process of trying to really discern what The Sprawl should be doing and where it should be focusing. It had become rather scattershot in its approach—doing a lot of one-off stories on a range of issues, both municipally and provincially. Good stories, but the whole operation lacked focus.
September marked The Sprawl’s fifth anniversary. And it also marked a renewed focus for The Sprawl on in-depth Calgary journalism. Focusing specifically on urban issues. Rather than trying to cover so much with one-off stories, we started digging into one issue at a time, like The Sprawl did in its early days when it was a pop-up experiment.
This fall we did three editions on three issues: urban sprawl, density and transit.
Speaking of which — The Sprawl went through some identity questions of its own this summer.
KLASZUS: And it’s been awesome to see that this renewed local focus is resonating with Calgarians. The most-dowloaded Sprawlcast of 2022 was a very local story that kind of straddled two of these topics—density and transit. I’m talking about the November episode titled The Battle of Banff Trail, which dug into a bitter struggle over redevelopment and multifamily housing in that neighbourhood.
KATHRYN DAVIES: I think the biggest takeaway is that our system is just so fundamentally broken. And I think that what you see in Banff Trail, you see throughout the City of Calgary, you see throughout communities in—throughout North America. I mean, you look at a lot of the housing politics happening in California or Minnesota or Washington state, and it's just the same thing over and over again. And I think we just fundamentally need to rethink how much—what's the term?—how much control existing residents should have over long-term decisions about housing in their communities.
I think we need to examine some of the biases that underline this kind of activity. Like, why is it that we're so scared of multifamily housing? We need to talk about why we have this idea that people in single-family homes cannot live anywhere proximate to people in any other form of dwelling.
KLASZUS: You just heard Kathryn Davies from the Sprawlcast episode The Battle of Banff Trail.
But the most-read Sprawl story of 2022 was not a Sprawlcast. Our most read story of the year was Ximena González’s story on the absurd experiences of captive Calgary Transit riders. A story about how it takes so long to get anywhere on the bus, and how people who don’t have a car need to plan their lives around this excruciating system. That story triggered a flood of responses. Everyone had their own transit story.
I asked Ximena why that story resonated so deeply with so many Calgarians. And she said that it’s because we often forget about the basics in this city. We get so distracted by visions of the future that we neglect basic things like good bus service.
Our most read story of 2022 was Ximena González’s piece on the absurd experiences of captive Calgary Transit riders.
GONZÁLEZ: I think we rarely talk about it. We complain about it, and then we talk about—I mean, the official discourse, in a way, is the future and how much better it's going to be and all these lovely things, while in the meantime we are waiting at a bus stop without a shelter when it's -29. And it's always been like, okay, you just deal with it.
The people I spoke to, their stories weren't even that shocking. It's pretty commonplace for anyone who has to take transit to work or to school. That's what we experience every day. So in a way, it's like nobody was looking at something because it's just normal, and we are waiting for the train to come—like, the Green Line, or the density that's going to change the transit system forever. But in the meantime, we just accept what we have.
I think one of the things that really stuck with me and that was removed from my story—
KLASZUS: Who would do that?
HESTER: Oh, those editors!
KLASZUS: They must be terrible!
GONZÁLEZ: Those editors! Yeah, I think it would be how the Green Line might be stealing some of the oxygen out of the system as a whole. It's a much more flashy and ambitious project to have this new train and the new cars and all the stuff that goes around it, rather than, "Hey, your bus is going to come often now." That doesn't have the same …
KLASZUS: It's not exciting.
GONZÁLEZ: Yes, exactly. That's something that I wish I had been able to get into more, because, yeah, it's like we forget the basics, as I said earlier.
The official discourse, in a way, is the future and how much better it’s going to be… while in the meantime we are waiting at a bus stop without a shelter when it’s ‑29.
KLASZUS: The Sprawl also experimented with a new comics format this fall. Sam Hester has been writing comics for The Sprawl for awhile - over five years now, after she first came to a Sprawl election party and then spontaneously wrote a comic about it! But we wanted to freshen up the format. And so for our transit edition Sam did a series called Ride of the Day, where she wrote one panel a day about a different Calgary Transit ride. Different buses and trains and maintenance vehicles and what have you.
But what was really cool about this is she wasn’t doing it alone. She got a lot of in-house help from her 13-year-old son, Alec, who’s a bit of a transit nut. Okay, not a bit of one—a big-time transit nut. And Sam also went back to analog comics for this.
HESTER: I think when I started writing comics for The Sprawl a long time ago, I was using my usual old way of just drawing with markers and pencils on a piece of paper. And then I got into the style of just drawing digital comics for a long time. And this was getting really old for me. At the time when I first started it, it felt fresh and new and kind of cool and fun, because it was sort of just an easy way to draw things quickly and get them out quickly.
But the style was getting to be... it felt like more of a chore and less of a fun, creative thing to do. So, just going back to the style of just drawing with my pencil, quick, sketchy sketches on a piece of paper.
This unleashed a whole different excitement for me.
HESTER: And then even to do that—like, just one for that day, just one panel and not having to write a whole story, this unleashed a whole different excitement for me, to just be able to tackle one small thing in the moment that I thought of it instead of having to make a bigger, longer project that I had to give more thought to ahead of time. So that whole thing about the format was really working well.
And then when you talked about the idea of some transit comics, because I have a son who really likes transit stuff, right away I was like, well, I could do it every day, because I'm sure we could think of at least 30 different transit subjects. And indeed, we certainly could.
KLASZUS: Which was impressive, because when you said, "Oh, one a day for 30 days," I was like, really? You're going to come up with 30? Are you sure?
HESTER: If only you knew how many transit facts there are that you didn't even know.
KLASZUS: I figured you were going to run out at 17 or something.
HESTER: No, we had to cut them down. We thought it was so many, and then we had to cut down the ones that were just too complex for a single panel. Like, if you had to explain the whole thing about how do the CTrain system signals work, and how that compares to other signalling systems that other LRT systems in Canada use—like, that is a very interesting subject in my household, but that had to get cut from the series because it was just a little too much for one panel a day. Stuck to the buses and the trains.
KLASZUS: That could be a future Sprawl edition.
HESTER: Yes, we've already been hoping that will be—in my house, we have some plans for that.
KLASZUS: A CTrain signalling edition. Specifically on the signalling system.
HESTER: Yes. I'm not joking. That's a possibility, if readers are interested. Let us know. We really could do that.
If only you knew how many transit facts there are that you didn’t even know!
A sneak peek of what we'll dig into in 2023
KLASZUS: Okay so, trains aside - there’s a lot to get into when we look ahead to 2023. It always seems like there’s too much to cover - and where do you even start? The challenge for us at The Sprawl is narrowing it down to some topics we can really dig into.
And one of the topics we have on our agenda for 2023 is gentrification. Here’s Ximena González.
GONZÁLEZ: I think gentrification is a problem that we should start getting worried about, especially as the unaffordability is increasing everywhere across the country. So, we are just about to get it here, and it's important to see what role the city itself plays in setting the conditions in which gentrification, a.k.a. revitalization, is going to thrive, and how it doesn't really have the tools to address it. I think that's a very important issue, because you shouldn't be able to break something if you can't fix it. And that seems to be one of the greatest challenges. And it's coming, right? It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. So it's time we start talking about it.
KLASZUS: Yeah. It's interesting—we just had a civic election in 2021. I don't know that I heard anybody talking about gentrification. I could be wrong, but it wasn't an issue, really, that emerged.
It’s important to see what role the city itself plays in setting the conditions in which gentrification, a.k.a. revitalization, is going to thrive.
GONZÁLEZ: No. And if we do anything, we talk about how we need to support the nonprofits that build affordable housing. And then that affordable housing gets built on the outskirts of the city where it is more cost effective to build. So, you can build more units in a cheap piece of land than you can in an inner-city neighbourhood like Bridgeland where the land is very expensive, because it's highly desirable. So we prefer to give people with money a choice of living in these nice, well-served communities, and poor people—they just have to live where it's cost-effective.
KLASZUS: And where the transit is bad.
GONZÁLEZ: I know, right? Yeah, it is so challenging, and we just don't talk about it nearly enough. Because the problem hasn't been as bad as Toronto or Vancouver, where things have really taken a size that it's really difficult to manage and it has not been solved. It really has not been solved anywhere. So we should start talking about it, rather than trying to attract all the people to come to Calgary's relative affordability, because that's just going to erode it for the people who are already here.
We prefer to give people with money a choice of living in these nice, well-served communities. And poor people, they just have to live where it’s cost effective.
KLASZUS: Speaking of gentrification, I was at the bookstore the other day, browsing the graphic novel section, and I came across a new anthology of Alberta comics called Alberta Comics: Home. I hadn’t heard of it before - and of course the first thing I did was scanned it to see if Sam Hester was in there. And sure enough, there she was!
HESTER: Yeah's an anthology of Alberta comics makers. The theme of the edition was "home," so you just had to write something about your home. And everybody who wrote in that book was from Alberta.
And so I had to think of a story. And my story was about this owl that moved into a tree in my next-door neighbour's backyard a couple years ago, because it just was so cool. My kids got a little more tired of me being obsessed with watching an owl every day. But I just didn't get bored of looking at this owl and wondering about what it was doing there. Maybe it had been there for the last 20 years and I just never looked there before. Like, what's going on in the trees in my neighbourhood that I didn't know?
And after seeing that owl, I've paid so much more attention. Like, there's a family of hawks that live in the tree just a little bit down from there this summer, and there are some ospreys that have a nest just a few blocks farther away.
So I'm thinking about all the birds that live in the trees in Calgary, and I'm just seeing those trees getting knocked down when new infills get built. And sometimes these infills are great, because the houses in my neighbourhood are old and maybe they need to be replaced—but the trees go too, and I feel concerned about that.
I’m just seeing those trees getting knocked down when new infills get built.
Who does Calgary aspire to be, as a city?
KLASZUS: But here’s how we’re going to start 2023. In January we’re going to do an edition on Calgary’s civic identity. What shapes that civic identity - and how it’s changing.
GONZÁLEZ: I think it's about our city's aspirations and how we're trying to reject the cowboy identity and the negative things that for sure are associated with it. But at the same time, we forget about other things that, as we were talking about, are good. We're not seeking to be the most equitable city in Canada. Why aren't we? Why don't we want to base our identity in those things? Instead, we want to become yet another Silicon Valley, or yet another Austin, and ignore all the problems.
I do think this has been a recurring issue for our city. And if the cowboy identity has survived, there must be something of value there that we can work with.
But yeah, I think in essence, it's just: What are the aspirations? Who do we aspire to be? I often see Calgary as the youngest sibling in a family that's always trying to emulate the older siblings and trying to become this other person without looking at what are the assets, or what are the features, that make this young sibling special on its own.
So I always see it as like, "Oh, yeah, Toronto is doing this. Oh, we're going to do it too." And then if we do or not, it doesn't matter because we're not special.
We’re not seeking to be the most equitable city in Canada. Why aren’t we? Why don’t we want to base our identity in those things?
KLASZUS: Yeah, it's true. It's like the civic insecurity, constantly, right?
GONZÁLEZ: Yes. Maybe that's a good way to put it. Calgary's civic insecurity.
KLASZUS: So it has to be a new arena. Or it has to be we're the next tech hub. It has to be one of these things that kind of infuse us with a reinvigorated identity.
But I always think there's a gravitational pull with all this stuff towards sameness. It's not looking at, okay, what makes Calgary distinct? What kind of idiosyncratic history—like, the cowboy thing, etc. We have these motifs, but it's like, no, let's kind of converge on this utopian city that is built around tech. I don't know.
GONZÁLEZ: And that is bland. Yeah, it's also a little bit like when you go to an all-inclusive resort and all the food is bland, so that way, nobody complains. So it's kind of like, meh. It's palatable for the largest number of people. And that's kind of what Calgary wants to be. Like, oh, yeah, it's palatable to live here. It's not special. It's not un-special. But yeah, it's just bland.
I often see Calgary as the youngest sibling in a family that’s always trying to emulate the older siblings and trying to become this other person.
HESTER: When I think about Calgary's identity and this civic insecurity, I really think about how maybe sometimes Calgarians are defensive, a bit, about—you know, they're kind of always on their guard that somebody's going to criticize them, because they're used to getting criticism from those other cities out there or those other people from around the world who are like, oh, you live in that cow town without any culture or history. Or you have whatever our city has that your Calgary doesn't have.
This is a long time ago—everybody's talked about this already—but I know when Mayor Nenshi first got elected, and it was the year when the Flames and the Oilers were in the playoffs—I can't even remember. There was a bunch of stuff that was happening in Calgary, and lots of people were paying attention. Like, what's going on in that city that we thought was this cow town? And people in Calgary felt—at least from what I felt at that time—like, they were proud, and they were kind of surprised to be proud. Like, "Yeah, didn't you know? We have some cool stuff."
And actually, I thought of that earlier in this conversation when you talked about the transit story that you wrote, Ximena, when people were asked about what's it like to be using transit in Calgary after 12 years. Somebody is asking you, and talking about the normal experience, and people were surprisingly into this subject. They were surprisingly wanting to talk about it and say, like, "This is what we've been experiencing. Didn't you know?"
And I don't know how that ties together, but just the idea that Calgarians are proud and have a strong sense of their identity. But they could get fooled into thinking they have to have this bland road to follow that everybody thinks it should be like. But maybe if you could somehow find those places where it sparks through—like, there's something really cool there that is already right there. We just have to somehow ….
GONZÁLEZ: Acknowledge it and embrace it?
They were proud, and they were kind of surprised to be proud.
HESTER: Yeah, let it come out somehow in places that people are comfortable. Like, the transit questions, people were comfortable to talk about that. They wanted to talk about that. They wanted to express their concerns about that. And maybe there's other places that people could … Yeah, there's my long ramble, but I think it's … Calgary has a really cool identity that's somehow hidden, somehow defensive, somehow not acknowledged, even by the people here.
KLASZUS: Yeah. Totally. I think there is a defensiveness. Lately I've been thinking about just, like, Calgary is so big. This is a big city. It's huge—geographically, but also population-wise. I often think about how Calgary—just Calgary—has more people living in it than the entire state of Montana. And I'm like, how is that possible?
GONZÁLEZ: And one thing that I think about often is how Calgary is many cities. You know? Talking to Farkhod, in the deep south—
KLASZUS: Yeah, a photographer friend of ours.
GONZÁLEZ: Yes. And, yeah, it's a different city. Our Calgary, really, as inner-city dwellers, is much different too.
HESTER: Yeah, but that's okay. I remember when I lived in Toronto, I would drive to one cool neighbourhood, and I'd just think, this is cool. You drive out, and there was another cool neighbourhood, and you go a little farther and it was another cool neighbourhood, as opposed to in Calgary, where I felt like, well, there's this one place where things were happening, and then it was just the suburbs.
That's not the case in Calgary anymore. There's multiple cities in in the city.
Calgary has a really cool identity that’s somehow hidden, somehow defensive, somehow not acknowledged, even by the people here.
GONZÁLEZ: I feel like there always have been. I feel like the suburbs just have this negative connotation. I was reading this very interesting book earlier in the year related to a story I wrote—I think for The Sprawl? Anyway, it's about how maybe the houses look the same outside, but they don't look the same inside. There is character. This is the story from a kid's point of view. So once you went in there and you knew the people, you could see it. There's always been nuance; we've just kind of neglected it. And it's interesting, because in a way, if you think of Calgary, we have this facade of blandness, but in the inside is where fun things happen. So maybe it's about changing that facade.
Sam Hester's next comics series
KLASZUS: We’re going to end this episode with a sneak peek of Sam’s upcoming comics series for January.
HESTER: When we talked about the city's identity, I was thinking about how there's so many things that individuals use in their placemaking—the naming of the things they do in the city.
I'll give an example. There's one road that my kids and I often drive along when we're trying to skip going on the big highway, and we just call it the Secret Road, because it's just this little road off to the side. And I won't tell you which road it is, because everybody has a Secret Road. Everybody has their name for some place that of course it has an official name in some city plan, but your family calls it "the tobogganing hill" or "the secret road" or whatever.
And we all navigate with names like that, that we just give ourselves for things, based on our own experience of what happened in that place or what we use it for. And how common is that, and how does that shape the way we communicate or the way we think about those places? So, I don't know everybody's, but I could give a few examples of the ones that I know about. And it might be fun to explore—what do people call their city?
There’s always been nuance; we’ve just kind of neglected it.
KLASZUS: Here’s another example. There’s a spot of grass near my house where my son and I like to play catch. And it’s kind of a funny-shaped, oblong green space in our neighbourhood. An unofficial park of sorts. And we call it the Polo Grounds - after a funny-shaped, oblong baseball stadium in New York City. That stadium doesn’t exist anymore but it’s one of the legendary historic ballparks—and so this is our own little local riff on that. No one else calls it that, so far as I know, but for us it’s the Polo Grounds!
And it’s funny how giving it a name kind of makes it into something you’re more connected to. I walked by the other night and there was a little pop-up skating rink and a fire pit. It warmed my heart to see others discovering and enjoying the Polo Grounds! And when I got home I said son, some kids are playing hockey at the Polo Grounds right now… and he was out the door in a flash!
So we’re curious: what are your little corners of the city like that? What are those corners of the city that are shared spots but are also yours, maybe by way of an unofficial name like the Secret Road or the Polo Grounds? These spots that somehow make a city. Sam is looking for material - so send us your story! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send us a message on social media.
It’s funny how giving it a name kind of makes it into something you’re more connected to.
A heartfelt thank you
KLASZUS: Well, that’s it from The Sprawl for 2022. But before I sign off, I want to celebrate just one more highlight of the year: you! The people who listen to this podcast. The Calgarians who are curious about this place that we call home, and who care about this city.
I’ve got to be honest—doing independent journalism can be an uphill struggle at times. Sometimes it seems foolish. We send it into the world in hopes that it will resonate with someone, somewhere in this city. It can be lonely work. But it always lifts my spirits to know that our work is being received warmly on the other end.
And our team feels that warmth from you all year long! I’m thinking about the encouraging comments we get on social media about our stories. I’m thinking about the expressions of gratitude I hear when I meet a Sprawl reader or listener for the first time.. And I’m thinking about the 1,500 Sprawl members who make the whole thing happen by pitching in a few dollars to support the work that our team does! You make The Sprawl happen—so thank you.
It always lifts my spirits to know that our work is being received warmly on the other end.
And hey - you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not supporting The Sprawl yet, we’d love to have you join us! We’re hoping to grow our membership in 2023—and we could use an early start. You can sign up at sprawlcalgary.com.
After five years, I can’t believe I still get to do this. I can’t believe this is my job. Digging into meaningful stories about my own community, for people who care about this city. It truly is a wonderful life.
Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
Support in-depth Calgary journalism.Sign Me Up!
We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can't do it alone. We rely on our readers and listeners for support. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!