Dispatches from the Field: Calgary – What is Hip?

What is it that makes a city hip? As soon as I asked someone where to go for a nice meal when we got to Calgary, she immediately said “17th Ave! That’s where all the great restaurants are, the cool shops, the coffee houses; it’s where everybody goes.” In Portland you would say “NW 23rd” or “the Pearl District.” In Phoenix, it’s Roosevelt Row. In Scottsdale, Old Town. All hip. Fresno used to have the Tower District, but the last time I was there it was dying a slow, lingering death and most all the decent restaurants and shops are now dispersed throughout the many strip malls and shopping centers in town. Not hip.

So geography is important – there has to be a critical mass of hipness in a specific area. It can bleed over into other areas, and pop up here and there, but there has to be a locus of hipness.

Also demographics. I would hope to think that  a town of mostly Baby Boomers could be hip, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. It’s ok if some gray hairs like me show up. We will largely be humored into thinking we belong, at least as long as there aren’t too many of us, and we don’t fall asleep in our beers. But there has to be a critical mass of youth, energy, and hormones.

And money. A poor town would struggle to be hip. You have to have enough money to buy your clothes at Goodwill and Nordstrom.

And music. Loud, grinding music flowing out of the coffee houses, bars, and restaurants onto the adjoining sidewalks.

And tattoos.

So Calgary is definitely a hip town. It has 17th Avenue, where I am writing this at a table in Trolley 5. There are mostly young people, but a few gray hairs like me. The music is grinding but they are now playing some Huey Lewis for the benefit of those of us who have not gone to bed yet. Just try to find music from the 70’s or 80’s around here after 10pm. Calgary also has money. Lots of it – mostly based on extracting sources of energy from the ground and selling it.


Hillary is my bartender. She is young and has a tattoo. I ask her if Calgary is hip. She immediately says yes and describes 17th Avenue as proof. “This is where everybody goes.” That’s it: geography and critical mass.

Born and Raised

Calgary is known to be a more conservative part of Canada, and I got worried when I saw a sign “Born and Raised Festival.” Doug, the gatekeeper, told me it was not an anti-immigration gathering, just an excuse to have a party celebrating that the owners of the establishment were born and raised in Calgary. Whew! I passed on the festival anyway.


Cassie is an artist, doing whatever it takes to pay the bills, and the commission to paint the side of this building is helping. She is using a can of spray paint – legal graffiti I observed and she agreed. She was born and raised in Calgary and therefore qualified to go to the festival, but she said she would pass too. She said the hardest part of painting a wall was painting the black background. The next day, she was still at it.

I walked around and noticed a lot of high rise condos being built. When I was growing up, my parents engaged in a regular activity that I eventually coined “recreational house shopping.” I inherited this from them, and so stopped in at a condo sales office to see what the market is like here. Eva, tall with a gentle accent and hair that alternated between black and red depending on the angle of light, immigrated from Russia in 2005 and is now selling condos in Calgary. She told me about the market, and where the hip places to live are. I told her that both my parents came from the Ukraine before they were age 5, and we talked about where we both had lived over the years. She asked my favorite place to live. I told her Portland first, then Vancouver by a hair, then Toronto. I asked her the same question. She said Paris. I felt badly for Calgary.

Is Edmonton hip? We’ll find out tomorrow, but Katrina (who can juggle more dishes while conducting a conversation than anyone I have ever seen) hesitates a moment (not a good sign for hipness) and then says “yes!”

Katrina from Market

She continued, “It’s got White Avenue where all the great restaurants are. It’s where everybody goes.” There we are: geographic locus and critical mass. Hip.




4 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Field: Calgary – What is Hip?

  1. I read your posts and every time I am just amazed at you. You have so many interests and engage with so many people and places!!

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m impressed by the ease and grace with which you are able to engage total strangers and have meaningful and fun dialog. There seems to be a bit of Charles Carault in you that is really fun! Maybe even an aging Jack Kerouac ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

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