Forest Lawn, a community east of downtown Calgary, offers a treasure trove of cuisine and culture from around the world
By Sally MacKinnon
Ask a Calgarian about Forest Lawn, a residential community southeast of the downtown core, and you’ll inevitably hear one response: avoid.
But, like most stereotypes, the ones that surround Forest Lawn paint in black and white. While the rest of city wasn’t looking, Forest Lawn has become a vibrant, multicultural neighbourhood with a budding real estate market—a fact London’s Financial Times recognized in 2007. It also contains one of the last hidden gems in Calgary: International Avenue, also known as 17 Avenue SE.
To judge by appearance alone, International Avenue is easy to overlook. This 5.4 km stretch, along 17 Ave SE from 26 St to 61 St, is a chaotic collection of 400 businesses, with a large percentage of ethnic restaurants, automobile shops and beauty salons. Most of the buildings have that familiar architecture of the 1960s: functional, modernist and bland.
International Avenue’s appeal takes closer inspection to see. The easiest way is to visit when you’re hungry: in the two blocks between 52 St and 54 St, for example, there are Caribbean, Indian, Vietnamese, Filipino and Middle Eastern eateries.
“It’s a unique area, with products you can’t find anywhere,” says Alison Karim-McSwiney, the executive director of the area’s business revitalization zone (BRZ). “You walk into our stores, and you are literally transported somewhere else.”
Many establishments are small enterprises, owned and operated by immigrant families. Ken and Dana Meissinger are the second generation to run Illichman’s Sausage Shop; Rekiya Desta and Moges Aman, immigrants from Africa, give an authentic charm to Fassil Ethiopian Restaurant; and owner Tung Nguyen personally greets you as you walk into Mekong Vietnamese.
These are no-frills businesses, held together with elbow grease. If there’s any décor, it was brought from the home country, and the food is effortlessly authentic. At Fassil Ethiopian the mineral water is imported from Africa, and at Mimo the owners’ daughter can give you a history lesson on the port wine of Portugal. International Avenue’s restaurants also have an added bonus: their offerings are extremely affordable.
Forest Lawn Reborn
This multicultural mixture has even inspired the BRZ to hold tours of select markets and restaurants, aptly named Around the World in 35 Blocks Food Tour.
The BRZ has been busy in recent years, planting trees, commissioning public art, and installing park benches and solar-powered streetlights. Many of these projects have an international flair: their 16-foot-high street clock chimes Arabic music during Eid, and the public murals have multicultural themes.
They have also worked hard to reduce crime in the area, and in 2008 the City awarded them the Jim Gray Safer Calgary Award for their efforts. In 2004 the BRZ collaborated with the University of Calgary’s Environmental Design Faculty to create a new vision for the area, and The City of Calgary is currently doing a study and will unveil their own plan this year. With its proximity to downtown and views of the Rockies, a little investment could go a long way. In 2007, the Financial Times wrote a feature on the area, labelling it an up-and-coming neighbourhood.
The challenge for International Avenue will be to retain its unadorned charm as investment comes in. It’s hard to imagine Mekong with leather-bound menus, cloth napkins and décor from Pottery Barn. But, as long as their phò remains the same, customers will be flooding in.
More than 30 per cent of International Avenue’s businesses are centered on food. Here’s a sampling, by continent.
Germany: Illichmann’s Sausage Shop and Gunther’s Fine Baking
India: Skylark (5315 – 17 Ave SE) and Baba Ka Dhaba (3504 – 17 Ave SE)
Vietnam: Mekong (2885 – 17 Ave SE)
The Middle East
Lebanon: Green Cedar’s Food Market (4710 – 17 Ave SE)
Ethiopia: Fassil Ethiopian Cuisine
La Casa Latina (3503 – 17 Ave SE)
A Tasty Menu (gluten free) (4202 – 17 Ave SE)
The Caribbean: Green Grato (3229 – 17 Ave SE)