Calgary couple open up property for community to make its own

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There’s very little to suggest that anything special is going on behind the white door of 1119 10th Ave. S.E.

A plastic sheet flaps in place of a front window. A hand-drawn sign taped on the entrance indicates the street number. Such elements could easily contribute to the conclusion that the quarter acre property, which is located behind Crown Surplus, is just another abandoned and vandalized lot by the train tracks in Inglewood. But, as with many spaces in the revitalizing community, there’s more going on than what appears at first glance.

Behind the corrugated metal, which makes up the front wall of the first building on the property, is a budding cultural hub in Calgary. Coined The Area – an acronym that stands for arts, recreation, environment/education and agriculture – the property houses a variety of attractions including a 120-year-old music venue, a 2,300 sq. ft. community garden, art installations, a firepit and a recently built fish-shaped cob oven for cooking pizzas.

Moot, who goes by one name, has helped organize shows at The Area for the last four months.

“It’s a community space, so it’s not really tied to the things that normal venues are usually tied to,” he said. “The reason it’s so unique is because the artists shaped it and the artists
 built it themselves.”

Creating a new community

Although it’s hard to detect with children running around and an assortment of personalities helping to build the cob oven, someone does in fact own the property. David and Kathryn Winkler, a Calgary couple, bought the land two years ago after David sold his office coffee company.

The initial plan of developing it into a five-story mixed-use building was set aside when the idea of creating a community space was birthed after they met Moot and became connected with other activists in the city.

The Area

Owners David and Kathryn Walker proudly display the beginnings of an outdoor oven at The Area.

Photo by: James WiltNow David, the owner of Big Bike Transportation, and Kathryn, executive director of the Sustainable Alberta Association, serve as facilitators and complete funders of the ongoing development of the land.

“We call The Area a privately owned public space,” said David. “My wife and I own it and we want to share it with the public.”

There’s no financial incentive for the couple, as they don’t charge for entry to the lot, with the exception of cover fees for music nights. Some 50 volunteers have helped construct and creatively drive the development of The Area.

A bar area and dining room table greet newcomers as they enter the first building. After purchasing food, pop or alcohol on the nights of shows from the temporarily licensed space, one can wander past a variety of local art projects strategically placed along the walls of the building.

The ancient schoolhouse, in which bands such as Deer Tick and Shotgun Jimmie have played since The Area’s first show in April, is the second building on the property. Examples of innovative art continue to flourish in it, with a handmade paper installation hung from the ceiling. Upon exiting the venue, one can wander to the firepit, walk through the garden or use the compostable toilet.

Changing the city

David reminisces how young people have approached him in tears to express their gratitude at the existence of The Area. Other visitors have told him that they were ready to leave Calgary permanently, but The Area gave them hope that the city is changing. Bands who have played on the property’s stage excitedly report to David that there is no other venue in North America like it.

Dylan Keating, who played at the venue with his local band, The Nix Dicksons, agreed.

“The Area really fosters community,” said Keating, who plays bass in the local alt-rock/country group.

“I find, sometimes, that the scene tends to polarize people, but The Area is the complete opposite of that. When I went to go see Shotgun Jimmie play, we were all sitting by the fire when his bassist came by the fire and had a beer. It gets rid of that separation between artists and the audience.”

But as suggested by the acronym of the property, music isn’t the only focus. In fact, David suggested that music has been used as a “fishing lure” of sorts for the younger generation to come check the place out, as over half those who volunteer are either band members or people who have watched shows there.

As The Area continues to grow in popularity, a greater emphasis is being placed upon the development of agriculture and education programs.

Area garden

The Area’s community garden is one of the property’s major attractions.

Photo by: James WiltKym Graham, who recently gained her permaculture design certificate from Verge Permaculture, found out about The Area in May. After hearing David speak about the goals of the community project, she asked him if she could design and build the garden.

Since then, the volunteer led a “permablitz” in June, and the space now features a rainwater irrigation system and dozens of different foods ranging from rhubarb to basil. Anyone can plant in the garden, but they are required to pass on the knowledge to other people.

“I get to do all these fun experiments and Dave and Kathryn are really laid back about it,” said Graham, who is now working on the construction of a greenhouse for the winter. In the fall, Graham plans to start teaching workshops about permaculture at The Area.

Getting notice

City officials have taken notice of The Area, but for the right reasons. Three aldermen have visited the site, and Ald. John Mar donated a set of windows to help prepare the facilities for winter. Members of the Calgary Police Service have stopped by on multiple occasions and haven’t found any legal issues with it.

Bill Bruce, the director of animal and bylaw services for the city, has even given the Winklers recommendations on potentially challenging Calgary’s policy on raising chickens on private property, said David.

“If they’re taking notice, then it shows me that there is real hope for Calgary,” said Keith Skrastins, who has photographed music events at the venue and visits it often.

“The Area is protecting Calgary’s arts and culture and progressive ideas in that little fenced area with Calgary’s oldest school house and a community garden. It’s just really neat.”

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