Calgary at a Crossroads

This story was originally published Jan. 16.

When a certain magic takes hold, a bar becomes a memory palace that stands apart from other social spaces. It captures our imaginations, tells our stories.

Bars are places where we make and keep friends, form community and, even if we don't realize it, bars shape how we think of ourselves. 

You can also get liquored up there, which helps.

Calgary is a city of iconic bars, and a wasteland for many more. Names people know, places you want to see and be seen. 

Each one unique, and when one closes, a little something in us shuts, too.

Bar philosophy (yeah, it's a thing)

Think of the King Eddy, the Shamrock, the Cecil, and so many before them: The Republik, Westward Club, The Night Gallery or the Electric Avenue strip.

 Each a different place, with a different crowd and a different vibe. All gone.

You can no longer sit in one of these places and say, "This is where B.B. King came to play after his show at the Saddledome."

klein-ralph-cp-11161793

Then-premier Ralph Klein and his wife, Colleen, salute the crowd attending a farewell event for him at the St. Louis Hotel in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

You can't point to the chair next to you and say, "Ralph Klein decided to run for premier while drinking there."

You can't say, "I saw Nirvana play on this little stage," or "Your mother and I conceived you after a night here."

Richard Ocejo, a sociology professor at City University of New York, has spent a lot of time thinking about bars, ever since he stumbled into a gentrifying dive in New York City's Bowery district.

"The way I look at it, it's a window, it's more like a lens for understanding dynamic urban processes that are going on," he said.

He says some bars are imbued with a special meaning, a certain intangible something that allows them to reflect their community. They also have to adapt or die.

"Bars really need a balance of stable regulars, and newcomers. It needs both what urban theorists would call users and watchers. So, folks who just sit and watch, they're there all the time, and folks who just kind of pass through using it, so tourists, visitors and things like that."

The theory applies here in Calgary too, with its 264 licensed watering holes.

That mix defines the crowd at the Ship and Anchor, a 25-year-old pub that has become a Calgary civic institution where men in suits mingle with young punks.

The Ship

Nicole Estabrooks

Nicole Estabrooks has been coming to the Ship and Anchor for years. She has a standing date with friends on Monday nights. (David Bell/CBC)

It is a gathering place for generations of Calgarians. It forms a particular community. Think of it like an old-school Facebook that physically connects old friends and forges new relationships.

Nicole Estabrooks is a member of that community.

She has a standing meet-up at the Ship every Monday — come if you can, stay however long you want.

Estabrooks says the Ship's atmosphere and a lack of "screaming" televisions are just surface parts of its charm.

"The other thing that I really love about it is that it doesn't seem to matter when, if anybody comes back to town they always come to the Ship," she said.

That's what a bar can do.

It's the social glue that creates community between friends, between regulars, between customers and staff. It draws people together through booze, conversation and camaraderie. The physical space of a bar creates opportunities other places don't.

"I don't get a lot of random old friends showing up at my house," said Estabrooks.

But bars don't just create community, they can tie old ones together.

Your local

At the Lynwood Station bar in Ogden, bartender Jasmine Gilbert knows to have a Labatt Blue ready when Tim Bates comes wandering in.

Bates has been coming here for about 18 years — long before it was called the Lynwood Station, back when it was a biker bar where "you sat with your back against the wall."

His dedication to his local drinking hole is in part due to the proximity of his apartment.

"It's like a social club," he said. "Everybody knows everybody."

Gilbert talks about Ogden and how it's unique — a small town within Calgary where everyone's children went to school with each other. And how the Lynwood Station pub fits into that.

How no matter what this place has been, it's been part of the community. From the former bikini bar with wet T-shirt contests, to when it was a Mother's Pizza. Different, but always part of Ogden.

Still, location alone is never the reason for that kind of loyalty. Atmosphere is key. And a good bar just can't be packaged.

Cookie-cutter bars

Calgary's suburbs are ridden with cookie-cutter bars. Sort of a "bar in a box" that offers a generic feel you could find pretty much anywhere.

Richard Ocejo, who wrote a book on bars and gentrification, says it's a problem in New York, too: Developers come into a community pitching a place and thinking they can create community.

"So many relied on so many of these common tropes of what the homey bar is like and what the community hangout is like, and describing random stuff they would put on the walls, and they would have an Irish theme or something."

But then Ocejo would go, and be disappointed.

"It's not an 'if you build it they will come' situation. I don't know what it is. It's a magic, I guess. That's hard to explain."

The myth of inclusiveness

Justin Taylor bartender

A favorite bar can make you feel special. (The Alchemist)

Think of your favourite bar. Sitting there will make you feel special. Humans are tribal by nature and that's a part of how we decide if a particular bar is the right place for us. 

"I think it's a bit of a myth, the idea of these bars being all-inclusive places. Theoretically they are, but it's not the same as a subway, or a street, or a park or something like that," said Ocejo.

He says we choose bars, but bars also choose us.

They are "very self-selective in terms of who they're catering to," he says, and accomplish this through things like drink prices, hours of operation, music, rules and atmosphere.

"I think that's what's so fascinating to me about bars, is how different they potentially could be perceived and consumed by different sorts of people over time."

People absorb the norms of a bar — taking social cues from the people sitting around them and incorporating it all into the culture of their own lives.

They can build expectations and ideas and stories around a place. Think about it, you've likely told or heard a story about "that time at Boy's Town" or "the time at The Warehouse when everyone...."

Myths are rampant when talking about bars. The stories we tell about them say something about the place, and having "been there when" can give you some social capital. But, like the tall tales told along the wood, sometimes the stories get away from us and cloud the facts.

Necessary myths

Cecil Hotel

The Cecil Hotel, which has been shuttered since 2008, was a symbol of Calgary's history, but also of its dark side. (CBC)

The nostalgia and the false memories of a place often kick in when a place closes. Many lamented the closing of the St. Louis in the East Village even though its last days included a virtual lake of urine in the men's room.

The Cecil, before the wrecking ball, was a hotbed of misery and crime.

While the final days of the St. Louis might have been scary, and an assault on one's nasal cavities, it was still the place where Ralph Klein sat elbow-to-elbow with city fathers and labourers alike.

Shared stories create identity. Shared pasts are part of cultural transmission between generations.

When a bar shuts, and its history ends, it hurts.

Back at the Ship and Anchor, Nicole Estabrooks can't fathom her bar shutting down. 

"Oh my God, it would be a little bit of my heart closing," she said.

Ocejo says the impact of a bar closing often depends on whether it was the result of a dwindling clientele or gentrification, with the former often causing sadness and the latter often causing anger.

It also depends on how established they are, with cherished places leaving "a gap, a hole."

"Most bars close within five years or something like that. So the ones that survive are a really big deal because they symbolize all the action and activity that was going on back when they opened up. So there is that missing memory," he said.

So it's natural to want to recreate the good old days.

You can't recreate the past

In Calgary, Studio Bell is resurrecting the cherished King Eddy, the city's infamous home of the blues, where strippers plied their trade in the backroom on certain weekdays and red terry towel soaked up beer on the tables. In its place, a rebuilt attraction will stand, with original brick work but none of the grime.

"They're still preserving some sort of history it sounds like, but they're trying to rewrite the story," said Ocejo.

And there's the problem. You can't rewrite, or recreate, the past.

Republik Nightclub

Republik Nightclub closed after 20 years as a live music venue in Calgary.

Take the famed Republik. It opened in 1987 amd moved locations two years later. It was shut down in 2000, reopened in 2007 and shut down again last year.

Many former patrons say it could just never recapture what it once was.

"It's a time and place, it's of a certain era," said Ocejo of bars trying to reclaim a past glory.

Bars shut, but they can also morph.

At the Bowery bar that first captivated Ocejo, the old alcoholics could sleep and collect mail and cash government cheques.

As the neighbourhood gentrified, the bar changed, the old crowd moved on and a new generation became the regulars. 

This can make older patrons uncomfortable, but a smart bar will still try to cater to their needs.

Over at Lynwood Station, when asked why he doesn't just have a beer at home rather than sitting at the local bar, Bates offers another reason why this place is important for him — one that will resonate with many Calgarians at this specific point in time.

"I'm looking for work right now and there's a lot of guys that give me work on the side and stuff," he said. "We call it our office."

St. Louis Hotel

St. Louis Hotel bar is one of several iconic bars to close in Calgary. (Drew Anderson/CBC)


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.