Jonathan Sunstrum has transformed his rented space to add sparkle and warmth to 7th Avenue
Magnified sounds of Calgary’s trains screeching to a halt frequently remind me of where I am. But momentarily, in between each of these deafening trains, soulful sounds of ’50s blues lingers from speakers mounted from above.
Lavern Baker and Jimmy Reed transform the concrete jungle of 7th Ave. into a vibrant and playful environment. It only lasts momentarily before the next train comes barreling to a screeching halt. As quickly as it came, the soulful uplifting music is muffled away in the Calgary bustle.
Adjacent to the platform of First Street train station, the 100th block of 7th Ave. S.W. initially appears to be worthy of nothing more than a passing glance. Burrowed between luxurious and popular Calgary landmarks, the six-unit strip of buildings sits inconspicuously between the lavish Hyatt Hotel, and up-scale shopping center, The Core.
Here, one small building stands out from the rest. Lodged in between Pashmina, the East Indian fabric shop, and Hop-in-Hop-out convenience store, a brick building with two large windows and a vibrantly covered glass door appears intriguingly unique.
My journey through the downtown rush has come to an end as I meet Jonathan Sunstrum, the renter and man behind 125 7th ave. S.W.
“It’s considered historically to be the worst street in Calgary,” says Sunstrum.
“The idea was to go beyond the general parameters and brighten the whole place up,” says Sunstrum, who considers the building to be an amazing place and space located in an area full of potential.
Photo by Ashley King
By using the simple tactics of bubbles, music, and inexpensive art, Sunstrum has spruced up the gritty 100th block of 7th ave S.W, proving it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars to impact an area.
A runner in the last two Calgary mayoral elections (finishing 9/10 with 775 votes in 2013), Sunstrum and his legacy may very well be injecting necessary charm into this deserving downtown area.
With Sunstrum’s words in mind, I focus on Building 125. Suddenly a taller man in a navy ball cap and black ski jacket abruptly stops within my gaze.
“You need some weed?” the man says coarsely under his muffled breath.
Completely taken off guard, and quite frankly confused on whether or not my appearance gives off the marijuana seeking impression, I manage to get out a response.
“I’m okay. Um, thanks,” I say in a decibel no louder than a whisper, and return to my observation.
Built in the early 20th century, the two-story brick building has witnessed much of Calgary’s growth over the years. Purchased by Heritage Property Corporation, the strip of historical properties is expected to receive an extensive restoration and rehabilitation. While it’s unclear when this will happen, the properties remain available for rent on a month-to-month basis.
Upon Sunstrum’s first visit to the building’s previous establishment, The Express Café, Sunstrum learned of the business’ upcoming closure. Intrigued with the building’s possibilities, but aware of the month-to-month lease, he took the chance and rented the space.
Familiar with 7th Avenue’s foul reputation and intimidating nature, Sunstrum, who considers himself to be a “property manager with a twist,” decided to use the space in a way that could positively influence the neglected block. Using the interior for storage and office space, Sunstrum attempted to transform the uninviting exterior, and create warmth and vibrance in an inexpensive way.
“I wondered what I could do here in terms of sparkle and life. So that’s when
I took it over, ripped out the cardboard, and grabbed whatever nick-knacks I had and put it up,” says Sunstrum.
Photo by Ashley King
Sunstrum, wants to take the project a step further through a program called Uptown 7th in which he hopes to find and encourages artists, writers and filmmakers to transform the street.
Since receiving the title of Canada’s culture capital in 2012, it makes little sense that an area located in the heart of Calgary is so neglected. In addition to the high volume of foot traffic the street endures daily, it would only seem logical to make the most of this historical block.
A believer that most art hides behind closed doors, Sunstrum wondered if he could make art and culture accessible to all.
“I thought – music could have a positive effect, geez, I’d love to do some chalkboards. I wondered, ‘What if I did something there, how could it affect people in society?’ says Sunstrum, adding that he has seen more romance in this station in the past four months than he has in years.
“You just sort of have people gravitating towards it because if done properly, it can just make people comfortable.”
I stare at the great black chalkboards that align the outer walls of the building. Carefully decorated with white chalk, quotes of insight and comedic relief flutter the boards.
“A pessimist is one who is seasick on the voyage of life,” reads one. “When the manicurist married the pedicurist they waited on each other hand and foot,” reads another.
While blatantly reading, “Inflation hasn’t ruined everything, you can still use a dime as a screwdriver,” another man stops and takes a spot beside me.
“Cute quote. Wonder where they got that one,” he says with an amused chuckle. He walks off and I continue to observe.
A large window gives life to the building and gives peering and curious eyes the opportunity to witness what’s inside. Against a reflective backdrop, a decent quality flat screen sits center in the vast windowsill. A vintage Hairspray movie case dangles beside a faded and out-of-date Habs jersey. Random photos of Pin-up girls in swimsuits skiing and Venice in the summer occupy the lower portion of the window.
Photo by Ashley King
To the right, two oversized and immaculately clean mirrors reflect onto the street. The cold cement in front of the building even appears tended to. It looks as if it was swept, seeming undeniably cleaner than most sidewalks downtown.
Within moments, another man stops to take in the same scenery. He lights a cigarette and the smell of tobacco instantly fills the immediate area. Every so often city buses guzzle past, emitting potent smells of harsh gasoline, momentarily suffocating the seemingly clean air. Unsystematically, aromas of the Palomino’s slowly roasted BBQ pork waft their way down the sidewalk, creating a fragrance similar to the most unusual of scented candles.
The towering streetlights start to flicker as their fluorescent bulbs begin to warm. The sunlight of March begins to descent over our city’s skyline. Glowing rays leave their final mark for the day on the immense buildings of the downtown core. This final sunlight of dusk kindly reflects onto the best attribute of this building.
Bubbles as large as a child’s head playfully trickle out of the building’s second story window. They take a life of their own as they whirl and twirl over 7th ave. and the people below. The sunlight bounces off their curved edges, creating colorful spectrums of oranges and reds. But as quickly as they appear, they’re gone. Life’s overwhelming stress of gravity takes over, and before I know it, they’ve burst into the chilled air.
It’s unclear as to when Sunstrum’s lease will be up, but as long as he can rent, he intends to stay. Although his gestures may not appear grand, or his opinions on art universal, Sunstrum simply hopes to bring life and vitality to the city in a way that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars.
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