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Take a walk down Calgary's International Avenue

Calgary's International Avenue has seen a lot of change in its long history. The hope is that as the community grows, it'll better highlight what makes it special. Take a tour down the road with CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener.

CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener visits the vibrant, multicultural street in a special show

Take a walk down International Avenue with the Calgary Eyeopener. 5:43

Calgary's International Avenue has seen a lot of change in its long history.

The hope, though, is that as the community grows, it'll better highlight what makes it special.

The Calgary Eyeopener team took a walk down the street for its CBC Radio show on Friday, to explore the area's diversity and nearly $100-million makeover.

International Avenue, as it's called, stretches along 17th Avenue S.E. from 26th to 61st streets, with more than 430 merchants and several well-attended annual festivals.

"It's really an interesting small town feel," said Alison Karim-McSwiney, executive director of International Avenue's BRZ.

Listen to the Eyeopener walking show here:

We hit the streets on May 24th for a walk down International Avenue. Along the way, we spoke with Mayor Nenshi about his deep connection to this part of the city, we explore some of the amazing multicultural shops and restaurants, and find out about the brand new bus rapid transit line that's transformed the face of the avenue. 33:46

The district, which is within the community of Forest Lawn, went through a major overhaul in recent years, the finishing touches of which are being done now. There's also a new pedestrian overpass across Deerfoot Trail, with a separate $85-million budget and a November open date, to encourage more foot and bike traffic.

Sidewalks have been widened, making the area more welcoming, and the new bus rapid transit lanes run down the middle of the road, whereas before, they were cutting off access to side streets and businesses.

Now the street leads in urban design. The bus lanes could be turned into light rail transit in the future, and the city is testing out signalled U-turns.

Soon historical shop signs will dot the road, hearkening back to a time when Forest Lawn was its own town. 

Residents are proud of that heritage, and the older ones from the pre-Calgary days still go by "townies."

Calgary Eyeopener host Angela Knight poses next to a mural on International Avenue. The CBC Radio show did a walking tour of the street Friday morning. (Stephen Lubig/CBC)

It'll come alive with this weekend's international music festival, East Town Get Down — which, again, reflects the community's incredible diversity and openness to being unique.

Bluegrass musician Bella White will take the stage at an Ethiopian restaurant, Yegna, and Calgary post-punk band Melted Mirror will jam at the bowling alley Paradise Lanes. Toronto heavy metal band Anvil will rock at the Border Crossing Pub.

Restaurants are expected to be packed, with 10 offering $5 taster menus, Karim-McSwiney said. At least of a third of the street's businesses are food-related, she said, and are likely the most diverse in the city, from Tibetan to BBQ to Portuguese.

"You're going to find a lot of unique stores that you're not going to find elsewhere," Karim-McSwiney said. "It's also still a very, very tight community."

The Calgary Eyeopener met lots of people during the walking show, like James, who says he's better known as Cat Man. His kitty is named Pumpkin. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

The recent infrastructure work was planned to accentuate that community spirit, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said.

When elected, he wanted to focus on the street, saying it had been ignored for decades.

He grew up in Forest Lawn, his family living behind their laundromat on 17th Avenue S.E. in the 1980s. They don't own it anymore but it's still there, now called Forest Lawndry.

As a teen, Nenshi did his homework between folding customers' clothes and sneaking in a video game or two. 

"We, because it was the '80s, had a bunch of video games, and that was actually a very nice revenue source," he said. "But I was really lousy at it.

"The secret was, I knew how to get free games. And my dad would always be like, 'Could you leave some room for the paying customers?'"

He said he's very proud of the new streetscape and the transit line, which he insisted be called Max Purple, after his favourite colour.

"We have huge pedestrian traffic in this area, huge transit use, and we kind of pretended none of that existed," the mayor said.

"We had a miserable street experience. It was hard to walk between the businesses, it was hard for the seniors who live in this neighbourhood to get out and explore."

The new bus stops will be decorated by local artists, including painter and teacher Sisay Shimeles, originally from Ethiopia. His piece will illustrate his culture's tradition of eating from the same plate.

Nenshi calls his journey from the laundry to city hall "a Calgary story," one that was encouraged by his home community full of entrepreneurial, creative people.

This weekend's festival, East Town Get Down, will see bluegrass musician Bella White, left, and Canadian heavy metal rockers Anvil, right, hit the stage. (CBC, Matt Sayles/Associated Press)

The "Accordion King" would agree.

Jimmy Klippert, better known by his nickname, has owned Harmony Lane Music for nearly 50 years, selling lots of instruments — most prominently, accordions. 

"I just keep surviving, that's the thing. Forest Lawn is more of a survival area," he said.

He knows all the kinds, from the diatonic button ones preferred by Newfoundlanders to ones played by Cajun and Irish musicians. Some sell for less than $30. About 20 years ago, he sold one for more than $60,000. 

"There's gold in their bellows," he said with a laugh. "If people knew it around Forest Lawn here, they might decide to take it home with them."

The radio show had lovely weather for the walking show, which included a visit to the Alex Community Food Centre. (Stephen Lubig/CBC)

Most of his sales are heading out of Calgary these days but he keeps his storefront, now a landmark along the street. He's become one himself, really, by playing the accordion at community events.

"You can do a whole dance, create the rhythm, create the bass, create the melody," he said.

"Once you start playing, though, you start getting the old feeling coming. Seeing all those little people out there moving around the dance floor. It's kind of fun."

International Avenue was quiet early Friday morning but it's often bustling when people visit the shops and restaurants. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Nile Supermarket's Badria Abubaker knows about bridging International Avenue with the world. Her father is away in Kenya this week, shopping for wares for their store. He'll pick up dresses, candy, furniture and  special powdered milk for everything from tea to desserts.

One of their unique items for sale is a toothbrush that's essentially a stick of wood that you soak, then shave off the bark and chew.

"It's very distinct. Like, don't go outside and get like a tree branch," Abubaker said.

She said her parents use them religiously but she prefers "Crest White."

The Calgary Eyeopener team poses with International Avenue's BRZ executive director Alison Karim-McSwiney, right, next to a bus station. (CBC)

Business has gotten slower in recent years, she said, but their specialized wares continue to bring in a crowd of loyal customers.

"You're not going to find this at Walmart or anything," she said.

Another thing you won't find anywhere else is the "best soup in the world," according to the menu at Indonesian Kitchen.

"It's not from me. It's from customer," chef and owner Kartini Caspam said of the confident claim.

Kartini Caspam, owner of Indonesian Kitchen, shows Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray and director Paul Karchut her favourite soup. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

Her soup is made of chicken broth with lots of ginger, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, onion, lime leaves and bay leaves, all blended into a paste that's boiled with chicken.

That's already a lot of ingredients, yet it's served with green bean noodles, egg, bean sprouts and lime leaves.

She whipped up an early pot of soup for the Eyeopener walking show, even though she was fasting herself for Ramadan.

The team also stopped by Mom's Place, the Alex Community Food Centre, Green Cedars Food Market and Pierson's Funeral Home, which specializes in multicultural rites.

Since opening in 1983, the funeral parlour has learned to accommodate different traditions from religions and cultures — like how, owner Michael Pierson says, Filipino funerals always end with a big feast.

Those lessons, he says, have been symbolic of his community overall.

"There are differences that are unique and we always like to focus on those," Pierson said.

"But you know, there's some powerful, powerful elements: the fact that groups need to get together and grieve, that each life is special."

Alex Community Food Centre runs cooking classes, gardening workshops and other programs to encourage affordable, healthy eating. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Have any special memories, favourite restaurants or residents of International Avenue? Share your stories in the comments.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

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