A century-old neighbourhood works to keep its unique sense of home
It’s a neighbourhood straight out of the movies: Victorian style houses reach for the skies, only to be surpassed by the century-old trees that shade front lawns and line the street’s boulevards. The roads are a dream for any kid with a bike. The sidewalks are a never-ending highway for dogs taking their owner for a walk and kids trucking to school.
It’s an inner city Calgary community just off 17th Avenue SW near Crowchild Trail. It’s Scarboro.
“It’s my home,” says Cathy Smith. “It’s a very solid place, and it always has been.”
A century of history
Smith’s first time visiting the community of Scarboro was when she was only two years old. She came with her parents from Ontario to visit her grandparents, who owned one of the first homes built in the area.
This was the first time she had set foot in the soon-to-be century-old home, and it seemed that no matter where life was going to take her — even living abroad in South Africa or Jamaica with her husband Dave — she would always return to that house in Scarboro.
The house on Scarboro Avenue, like many in the community, was built in 1912 during the first big land boom that hit the west. However, it remained vacant until 1918 when Smith’s grandfather, Frank Moodie, purchased the house. In 1950 her parents, Dan and Margaret Munn, took over ownership, only to pass it on to Smith and her husband in 1975. Six generations have lived in that Scarboro home, and three have owned it.
“There are a lot of people who are connected to this place,” says Smith. “People who are related, and people who aren’t even related at all.
“A friend of my father’s had a heart attack in Ontario, and lo and behold didn’t he come here for a rest cure,” she adds.
She remembers when Scarboro was still a new community: just a handful of houses on an escarpment on the edge of Calgary surrounded by nothing but farmland, when the milk wagon was horse-drawn and the ice man would come to stock the ice box in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“Not every time, but occasionally I would be allowed to go out and feed a sugar lump to the horse,” she says.
However, Scarboro is now more than just a handful of houses on a hill, as the city recorded the area having 345 private dwellings in 2006, and a population of 874 in 2009.
Smith says that Scarboro has always had a “very strong sense of community” relative to other places such as Calgary’s vast suburbs. Developed in 1912 around a movement out of England known as the “garden city movement,” the community was designed with larger lots for garden space and curving streets, a departure from the traditional grid style in surrounding communities such as Sunalta.
“It was really one of the first neighbourhoods that was influenced by the English garden city movement,” says community historian Norval Horner. “It was intended to make a city more attractive.”
Horner and his family moved into the community in 1976, purchasing a home on Scarboro Avenue that was built in 1913, making it one of the first homes built in the area. Horner said he was interested in the history of the community from the start, and began interviewing community members in 1978. Some of the members he interviewed had been living in the homes they had built as early as 1912.
“One man was born in his house in 1912 that I interviewed,” Horner recalls. “When I got here, I was shocked at how long everyone tended to stay.
“When we bought [our home] in Scarboro it wasn’t just an old house that we got, it was a community,” he adds.
Fighting to keep its identity
Although Horner says the community they bought into more than 30 years ago is staying strong, it hasn’t been easy to keep it that way, and the neighbourhood has been faced with many of what Horner refers to as “battles.”
“Since [my family and I have] been here, in the 35 years, there has probably been six or seven major battles that we as a community had to win,” he says. “Or it would have meant that this would no longer be an attractive place to live.”
The first battle was one that Horner says the community lost without even fighting. Scarboro is nestled just on the west side of Calgary’s downtown, and in 1964 the building of Crowchild Trail and Bow Trail split what was supposed to be one large community into three smaller communities: Scarboro Proper on the east side of Crowchild, Upper Scarboro on the west side of Crowchild, and Scarboro Heights on the north side of Bow Trail.
“Nobody really fought against them I understand,” Horner says. “But, freeways were considered to be progress then.”
Horner adds that community members have also had to fight for traffic controls. Practically closing the entire south side of the community allowed them to cut down on the roughly 7,000 cars that were cutting through the community on a daily basis in 1978. Scarboro has also had to fight for their schools, Sunalta and Sacred Heart, on three separate occasions in 1958, 1978 and 1984.
“The city has a big impact on inner city communities,” says Horner. “The city doesn’t mean to destroy our city communities, but it tends to. So unless you’re vigilant, and you’re willing to work hard, the city will sort of run over an inner city community.”
However, because of the appeal of living in an inner city community, some change is inevitable. With people moving into communities such as Scarboro, some of the older historic houses are torn down and replaced with new, more modern homes.
“It’s happening to Scarboro,” says Dave Smith, whose 1912 home was designated as a historical site in 2005 by the Alberta Heritage Program. “It’s being chiseled away at, all the historic houses.”
An active and welcoming community
Despite the “out with the old and in with the new” attitude on the housing front, within the community there is much more that people are trying to keep alive within Scarboro. It’s a very active community with a number of social opportunities other communities may not have.
Scarboro has a number of different book clubs for men and women, as well as dinner clubs such as the Scarboro Supper Club, which consists of 42 different community couples.
Lilian Dick, a resident of the community for 43 years, joined the Scarboro Supper Club three years ago to try and stay in touch with her fellow Scarberians (as residents of the community are known). She personally shares dinner four times a year with three other couples in the community.
“I think it’s an exceedingly nice part of Scarboro, ” she says. “I don’t know as many people as I did when my kids were in school. So it’s a really nice way to get to know people, just sitting around the table talking.”
Dick says that besides the social involvement by community members, Scarboro is just aesthetically a very nice place to live.
“It has a lot charm I think, in the way that it was designed,” she says. “The trees, the avenues and the atmosphere. It’s a very friendly place.”
Scarboro is a community that set itself apart with its design when it was developed by the Canadian Pacific Railway more than 100 years ago, and it is now the kind of community that is appealing to many. The lots that once sold for only $1,100 back in 1912 can now approach the million-dollar mark. According to the Calgary Real Estate Board, the average selling price of a house in Scarboro in this year’s third quarter was $940,416.
For some long-time residents such as Lilian, however, it’s not something you can put a price on.
“I call it a quiet corner of heaven,” she said.
Click here for a deeper look at the lasting history of the Scarboro community.