Brightening Calgary’s Worst Block

(As seen on the cover of Fast Forward Weekly on May 29,2014)

From across the First Street C-Train platform, the building at 125 Seventh Avenue S.W. doesn’t look like much: just another rundown shop on a block frequently referred to as “Calgary’s worst street.” But for Jonathan Sunstrum, the address represents something much bigger than just a storefront.

“The most common question I get from people is, ‘What is this place?’” says Sunstrum of Uptown 7th, the space he currently rents on one of downtown’s last remaining heritage blocks. The stores in the row of roughly half a dozen are all eccentric, but Sunstrum has put plenty of work into making his shop stand out.

The once-generic white wall of the 25-foot frontage has been painted a rich indigo, and sparkly gold tassels line the front window. Squares of chalkboard paint decorated with unique and poignant quotes — selected and changed every few days by Sunstrum and his assistant, Kayla Shimbashi — are featured at the bottom of the window. Sunstrum pipes an eclectic mix of music ranging from 1920s jazz to ABBA for commuters waiting for their next train, and in the summer he creates unique and interactive window displays to engage puzzled passersby.

“I tell them it’s an art gallery under construction. It’s digestible for people. Really, it’s like my rumpus room. In essence, it’s a storage facility that happens to have 25 feet of frontage facing a busy street. So why not dress it up so that people don’t have to be depressed while waiting for their train?” says Sunstrum, who takes pride in informing curious commuters, tourists and business people of his plans for the space.

Once a greasy-spoon diner called Express Café, remnants of the old business are still present among the array of antiques and quirky collectables in the dilapidated interior.

Before moving to Calgary in 2001, Sunstrum owned the Powder Horn Saloon in Bragg Creek for nearly 10 years. There, he gained an appreciation for the unique characters that regularly passed through his bar. “I use the word saloon because it was a true saloon. Saloons are referred to as such because they have a real mixture of people, and [the Powder Horn] had it in spades,” says Sunstrum.

He sold the saloon in 2000 and made the move to Calgary because he wanted a change, stepping away from the restaurant industry and taking an interest in small business consulting and collecting unique conversation pieces and vintage furniture. Although small-town living had its moments, Sunstrum was in search of the next challenge.

“Nothing attracted me to downtown until I found a suite for rent on Stephen Avenue in 2007. Because I was always interested in city politics and mechanics, it seemed like the perfect place to check things out,” says Sunstrum, who ran for mayor that year.

He says overlooking one of the city’s busiest streets 24/7 during the financial boom allowed him to pick up on an interesting pulse of the city’s energy:

“To run concurrent with [Stephen Avenue] was the Seventh Avenue LRT laneway. It’s never really seemed to have been considered a viable place or space to do something positive business-wise,” says Sunstrum, who blamed the block’s bad reputation on mismanagement.

“When I started to walk around the neighbourhood, I wasn’t overwhelmed, but dismayed with what I saw. It was quite obvious that the stress and strain of the boom was an overriding thing.”

He was told by many who lived and worked downtown to avoid Express Café because it was “terrible and rundown.”

“I took three steps into the place and fell in love,” he says. “I saw the potential, not just for a restaurant, but for an opportunity to influence people in a more positive way because it faced the LRT platform.” Attempts to purchase the Express failed partly due to a pending sale of the properties, which meant month-to-month leases were the norm.

The café closed down in January 2012 due to health infractions, and after extensive discussions with the health board about reopening the space as a restaurant failed, Sunstrum proposed to the landlords that it would be better to rent the space to him than to leave it vacant. In October 2012, he took over the lease with the goal of creating his “illogical, nonsensical, irrational and fun visual art gallery.”

Store owners who share the block with Sunstrum have nothing but positive things to say about the man, who can often be seen sweeping or clearing snow off the high-traffic sidewalk, or blowing up balloons and tossing them from his office (located two doors down and one floor up from his colourful storefront) “just to watch the looks on people’s faces.”

“He brings colour and a smile to the block. We’re all struggling in this building, and he realizes that if one of us is sinking, we’re all sinking,” says Joseph Schuman, who owns Central Pawn Shop, located next door.

Sunstrum frequently takes care of building repairs and has helped other shop owners with maintenance when necessary.

For now, Sunstrum’s biggest struggle isn’t the building’s dilapidated state, but the attitude of city planners he says would rather see it boarded up. He says the vision of Heritage Properties, the company that owns the block, is parallel to his — the company wants to build a parking garage behind the row of storefronts in order to finance their refurbishment and preservation — but says the financial setback of 2008 and the challenges of the novel project is to blame for the delay in construction. In addition, the construction of the new Telus tower across the way contributes to the changing environment.

“It’s this Calgary-centric idea of big, bold, new, expensive and, dare I say, elitist in its attitude to be something that fits in with the city’s ‘world class’ philosophy,” says Sunstrum.

“I totally disagree with it because it’s inorganic and it marginalizes a lot of the population. If we want our society to interact with each other and be cohesive, it has to include all members. Truly organic concepts are almost frowned upon unless there is a large invoice attached for credibility’s sake.”

Sunstrum says he has taken his operational and equipment-related issues with the block to city workers on multiple occasions, but to no avail. For now, Sunstrum’s goal is to simply create a friendlier city environment.

“The attitude is, ‘buy it, board it up, we’ll get around to it when it’s new,’ ignoring the interim, the blight and the eyesore that it is,” he says.

Despite the challenges, Sunstrum remains positive.

“Taking the front room and putting on a show, setting up art displays, and using the chalkboard panels to communicate to people some of my sentiments — it’s all part of my mischievous nature of being specifically vague and vaguely specific — I’m just trying to get people to use their imagination.”

He says changes are incremental, yet fleeting. But he’s encouraged by the small, honest moments he witnesses when people engage with his colourful contributions to the block.

When asked for an example, Sunstrum remembers one particular Friday night:

“I was in the front room with candles, and I was playing ‘Daydream Beliver’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful through the speakers. A couple was standing on the platform in -20 C, stomping around the LRT, dancing down the platform, whirling and twirling like they were the only people there.

“It just goes to show that you really can make the block more tolerable. All it takes is a little bit of sparkle and excitement.”