‘One of many wrongs to be righted’: Calgary moves closer to renaming James Short Park

The streets a quite in Chinatown in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A park named for a Calgarian with known racist views is one step closer to being renamed.

And after years of extensive engagement and conversations with community members, City of Calgary officials are ready to move forward with a suite of plans to revitalize Chinatown dubbed “Tomorrow’s Chinatown.”

The first step is to rename the James Short Park and parkade.

Then the city will roll out a cultural plan and area redevelopment plan for Chinatown.

The city’s infrastructure and planning committee unanimously endorsed the steps Friday morning.

“The central theme of why we have a cultural plan is to acknowledge the wrongdoings that have existed in Canada — and in Calgary specifically — as it relates to the treatment of the Chinese people,” area councillor Terry Wong said.

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Wong pointed to previous racist policies like the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act, placing a $50 fee on every Chinese immigrant coming into the country, the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, halting virtually all immigration from China for 24 years, and the restriction of citizenship for Chinese immigrants until 1947.

And Calgary’s Chinatown is actually on its third site since 1885.

Click to play video: 'Calgary considers name-change to James Short Park in Chinatown'
Calgary considers name-change to James Short Park in Chinatown

Nearly 140 years ago, the first Chinatown was formed by Canadian Pacific Railway workers along 8 Avenue between 2 Street S.E. and 4 Street S.E., where city hall, the Municipal Building and the Central Library currently sit.

When CP reneged on its promise to the workers of a return fare to China, the workers had to relocate, ending up in the area of 10 Avenue between 1 Street S.W. and 4 Street S.W., along the CP lines that run through downtown.

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Canadian National Railway announced plans to develop the area around 1910, displacing Calgary’s Chinatown a second time.

The city’s Chinese population negotiated with officials on the new location, where Chinatown has sat since 1910.

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Then a civic leader in Calgary, James Short petitioned against the construction of the city’s first Chinese-owned commercial building that same year on the basis of the owners’ ethnicity.

Eight decades later, the former site of the James Short School at 4 Avenue S.W. and Centre Street was renamed James Short Park.

Click to play video: 'Councillor, community wants James Short Park, school in Calgary renamed'
Councillor, community wants James Short Park, school in Calgary renamed

“His racist words and actions caused deep harm to the Chinese community and were not considered when the city’s assets were named after him in 1991,” a report to the committee read.

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A new name for the park will come to city council on Nov. 1.

“It’s the first of many wrongs that need to be righted,” Wong said.

Chinatown redevelopment a ‘huge opportunity’

Tony Wong, president of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre, said Chinatown’s needs have long been ignored.

He said the mid-90s were the heyday of Calgary’s Chinatown with an influx of immigrants coming from Hong Kong and mainland China.

“When I walked the streets of Chinatown, it was packed with people and the businesses were thriving,” the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre president said. “Since that time, we’ve seen Chinatown in decline.”

He highlighted the aftermath of the 2013 flood, when many area businesses closed permanently.

Chinatown BIA chair Grace Su said the conversations about the future of Chinatown have been positive for the community and the area presents “huge” opportunities.

“What those plans have done is actually give us very clear parameters to know what kind of land use will be allowed and what kind of development are we allowed to build,” Su said.

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“There’s no wishy-washy second-guessing and it helps the community to engage and respond to development’s requests.”

Aiming to provide strategic direction for Chinatown’s cultural future, the cultural plan had key themes of people, culture, food, housing and gathering places.

And the area redevelopment plan would help provide direction and consistency for land use in the area to keep the area affordable and attractive for residents. It would also help the area retain its unique character and historical significance while also improving community vibrancy and health.

Both plans were the result of “extensive” community involvement, involving three languages and 8,500 people.

Members of the Chinatown BIA brought concerns forward to the committee meeting about parking in the area, suggesting an increase in available short-term stay parking with lower rates.

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Currently, the city is running a pilot offering free two-hour parking in the Calgary Parking Authority lot on Riverfront Avenue S.E., a pilot that is set to run until winter 2022.

City officials said the latest data the city has on how visitors get to Chinatown – pre-pandemic data – showed 55 per cent of visitors drove to the commercial and cultural hub, one-third used public transit and around 10 per cent walked or biked.

City traffic specialists said the plan addressed parking needs for the area by enabling more short-term spots. But they warned there’s a “significant risk” of added parking in the area being used by people visiting downtown and only parking in Chinatown.

Other concerns included the advancing ages of some buildings in the area, asking the city to consider supports for building rehabilitation.

City council will decide on the cultural and area redevelopment plans on Dec. 6.

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