Although it has a reputation for being a crime haven, there are plenty of reasons to give Forest Lawn another chance
The streets are poorly lit by the few street lamps emanating a warm orange haze.
Even in the deep black of night, the houses here in Forest Lawn are nothing like the spanking-new, lodge-style homes spreading out across the city borders. Brick and stucco hold up the walls and roofs of the simple one-storey bungalows.
Welcome to the community of Forest Lawn. Despite one of the highest crime rates in the city, Forest Lawn also offers low-housing prices in a prime location, authentic ethnic food, and an ambitious plan for urban redevelopment.
Resident Muriel Pierson, 84, stands with a wide smile at the door of her well-kept stucco home. The gold embossed wallpaper and tiled mirrors –the epitome of ’70s decor—give the home a warm and nostalgic feeling.
Pierson says she remembers there being nothing but gravel roads and the seven houses that made up the hamlet of Forest Lawn located to the northeast of the city of Calgary.
Named after the famous Hollywood cemetery by real-estate speculators, Forest Lawn alludes to a lush green landscape dotted with mature trees. The name was a marketing gimmick to get homebuyers to purchase lots of the swampy prairie land near the city of Calgary in the early 20th century.
Over 100 years later, those few homes of Forest Lawn have exploded into a population of around 50,000.
Pierson’s Ukrainian father was one of the first to put down roots in the prairie soil – roots so deep that two of his children never left.
Today, Pierson lives next door to her childhood home and her brother, Fred Hawryluk, lives just across the street.
Pierson has seen the community grow from a hamlet, to a town and finally becoming part of Calgary in 1961. She has seen those gravel roads paved, brick homes built-up on the open land and electricity poles installed.
“It was safe to be here, it was good to live here,” she says.
Today, the City of Calgary ranked Forest Lawn third for the most crimes involving a victim. 69 acts of assault were reported to the Calgary Police Service in the last six months alone.
Everyone who lives here calls it the ghetto, with the sort of pride that can only come from having slummed it and survived, including this writer.
Having been born and raised in Southview, within the Greater Forest Lawn area, I often joke that I’m from “the hood.”
Pierson’s husband Charlie says that Forest Lawn has always been the “bad guy” of Calgary. The retired police officer recalled the chief of police telling him, “all there are, are pimps and whores in Forest Lawn.”
But Charlie says, “There are a lot of bad people but you can go anywhere in the city and find the same thing.”
The average price for a single-family home in the neighbourhood is between $300,000 and $150,000 below the average for Calgary. And with a mere five minute drive to downtown, it’s no wonder it was featured by the London Financial Times as an up-and-coming neighbourhood in 2007.
While 41 per cent of Forest Lawn residents hold no degree, diploma, or certificate, Charlie says it’s simply because they haven’t had the opportunity as many of them are immigrants.
Muriel’s Ukrainian father to the Sudanese, help make up 50 per cent of the immigrant population in Forest Lawn, the community has always been a place for newcomers to put down roots.
17 Ave. S.E. is evidence of the diversity of the area. With stores and restaurants touting Middle Eastern and African foods, immigrants have brought their rich culture to the area.
To expose Calgarians to the lively and authentic food scene, food tours are held monthly. While leading a recent food tour, Alison Karim-McSwiney, executive director for the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone, says, “I think this is one of the most interesting and exciting places in Calgary.”
Whether you decide to dine in the tangerine-coloured building that houses La Casa Latina or hit up the bustling Hong Kong Supermarket, you’ll be greeted with a warm smile and genuine enthusiasm to help you decipher the foreign language menus and labels.
Not only will you find a host of authentic foodie stops in the Forest Lawn community, but land for a 1,000-seat theatre and art centre has been acquired by the International Avenue Arts and Culture Centre. And in the coming years, a new urban design will be implemented to increase outdoor public spaces and residential dwellings and improve public transportation.
Karim-McSwiney agrees with the Piersons saying the bad reputation that the neighbourhood has garnered is “totally unwarranted.”
Muriel Pierson says, “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”