Modern Love rebuilds a Broken City

Chances are, if you’ve ventured past Calgary’s Electric Avenue lately, you’ve seen the neon beacon adorning Modern Love’s façade — two crossed daggers and a broken heart. And if you’ve walked through the doors of the former Broken City in recent weeks, you wouldn’t be wrong to think another David Bowie song might be more apt to describe the storied venue — Changes.

For 18 years, Broken City, Calgary’s deeply beloved dive bar and music venue, cultivated a fiercely loyal community of artists, musicians, misfits and weirdos. But the space began to take on its name in a very literal sense — a self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps — desperately in need of some figuratively (modern) love and literal modern upgrades.

Enter James Renton and the co-owners and operating partners of The Buckingham, Edmonton’s own famed punk rock dive bar.

“We were wanting to expand for a number of years, but COVID kind of slowed that down. We were looking at a few places and nothing was really speaking to us. And then our real estate agent was like, ‘Hey, I know a place — they might be interested if you want to go have a look at it.’ And when we rolled up, it was Broken City,” says Renton.

“I’ve been playing in bands at Broken City since like, 2006, so I knew the room really well, but it was kind of the first time I had seen the room in the daylight, and with the lights on, and it just happened to be raining that day, too. So I kind of got the full experience of it, you know? 

“Me and my partners kind of talked about it. We’re like, ‘It’s going to need a lot of work,’ but we kind of came to the conclusion that if someone didn’t step in soon and make the repairs that the room so badly needed, then Calgary was gonna lose this room, and it would be like another mid-sized venue that was just gone.”

Renton and his partners officially took over the space in September 2022, continuing operations as Broken City until Halloween the following month, when the venue closed indefinitely for extensive renovations. 

While many regulars optimistically held out hope for an opening in time for January 2023’s BIG Winter Classic — Broken City previously being ground zero for the festival — the logistics of such an undertaking came with delays standard in any major renovation. Even the most optimistically minded wondered how a venue with a plumbing system all but on par with that of an outhouse, that consistently ran out of buckets to catch rainwater, and that had a back bar with its own unintentional water feature could possibly be restored without razing it to the ground and starting from scratch. (Full disclosure: Having worked at Broken City for four years, it is truly with fondness that I recount these issues, and gratitude that I could now very nearly consider myself a red-seal plumber.)

Ironically, in February, when the Modern Love team announced themselves officially on social media, these very shortcomings were what many seemed to lament the loss of the most. Broken City owned its flaws, embraced the chaos, and was all the more endearing because of it. Fans, devotees, and regulars now found themselves facing an existential crisis — is a dive bar still a dive bar with a working toilet? 

“Of course, there were a lot of people that were upset that Broken was closing. But in the long run, you know — I don’t want to sound like a downer — but there was a good chance that Calgary was going to lose Broken City and then nothing was going to go there ever again,” says Renton.

“And you know human beings are reactionary animals, so I didn’t let it get to me. People are allowed to have their own thoughts on it. And you know, there will be times I’d be drinking at the Ship or something like that, and people come up to me like, ‘You’re the guy that destroyed Broken City.’ And I always wish I could say, like on Game of Thrones, when Tyrion Lannister is on trial for killing Joffrey, he’s like, ‘I wish I was the monster you think I am.’ 

“Like, I saved you. You just don’t know it. But it’s totally fine. It doesn’t bother me. I come with the gift of gab anyway. So if someone is willing to listen to me, I would talk to them for about five minutes or so. And I’d say most of the time I’m able to make people see the good that we’re trying to do here.”

With Calgary live music venues already in desperately short supply, Renton expects most Broken City diehards will eventually come around — if they haven’t already. Not to mention future generations of music lovers.

“It’s kind of morbid, but whether it’s Modern Love, or whatever it is, with all the work that we put into it, this room is still probably going to be able to be operating long after I’m dead.”

Finding ways to best utilize occupiable space was a big part of the redesign — the now larger stage, complete with updated sound system, has been moved to the south wall where the old bar was situated, bathrooms moved to the back of the venue from the front, and the new, beautifully designed 360-degree centralized bar, tiled and lined with burnt orange glitter vinyl barstools and vintage lighting allows for direct sightlines to the stage from any point in the room. Meanwhile, the rooftop patio has been extended to reach past the bar hut, increasing capacity substantially. 

Modern Love has upped the number of draft beer taps to 18 with a focus on supporting local craft breweries. There is a small cocktail list, and like its sister venue, The Buckingham, the menu has gone fully vegan — but in a completely approachable way.

“I come from a touring background. I’ve been playing in touring bands for almost 20 years now, and I’ve been all over the world, and I found that no matter where I went, I was always eating the same shitty veggie burger. Everywhere I went. So with The Buckingham, we wanted it to be a place where people like us, you know, weirdo vegetarians and vegans, could just eat whatever they wanted and still have it be bar food. I want a greasy burger just like everybody else is having…. We hired a pretty amazing chef and he’s come up with a pretty great menu.”

Renton says, in his mind, Modern Love is kind of The Buckingham 2.0 — but that was more of a starting point than an end goal. 

“We wanted to make sure that it was a very Calgary-centric room, and I hope we succeeded in that. We were very careful — we wanted to hire people from the art scenes, and the music scenes, and stuff like that — all walks of the different arts and cultural communities. To make sure that it organically grew into a Calgary room. I mean, we could have just slapped a bunch of Calgary Flames things on the wall and said, ‘Hey, it’s Calgary,’ but that’s not how we wanted to do it.”

Despite a chronic resistance to change from its critics, Modern Love has kept a roster of familiar faces and programming — Comedy Monday Nights, Quiz Shoe pub trivia, and of course, cult hit Rockin’ 4 Dollar$, have all returned to regular rotation. Not to mention the weekly Versions Patio Party, and regular appearances from the Natural Selection DJs.

“I think we kind of kept — and we’re hoping to keep — the ethos of Broken City. It’s a place for everyone to come and enjoy the room, and whatever events we have going on. We brought a lot of the DJ stuff back. If we go pound for pound, we’re actually doing more shows than Broken City was doing. So that was a big part of it — to make sure that it was still an art space, and that it was welcoming and inviting.”

Renovation delays saw many shows scheduled for their targeted April opening pushed back or delegated to other local venues, but Modern Love finally opened its doors on Friday, June 16 — an official trial by fire with another Broken City staple, Sled Island Music and Arts Festival kicking off only five days later.

The response was positive — with disbelieving, wide-eyed visitors taking in the aesthetic changes — the original tattoo art adorning the walls, the warmth and free-flowing openness of the venue, with the skeleton of the space still very much intact.

In the months following the announcement of Broken City’s closure and evolution into Modern Love, online commentators gleefully debated how long before the renovated bathrooms would be destroyed and the venue overrun with graffiti. 

Come opening week, Renton says he fully expected a christening by Sharpie.

“There’s been a few things, nothing gnarly. I personally am OK as long as things aren’t hateful or anything like that.

“It kind of makes a dive bar. It kind of gives it a little bit of identity, you know? So there’s been a few things written here and there — one person took a gold Sharpie and started drawing an underwater scene. That’s really nice. And there’s a couple of ‘Rest in Peace Broken City’s,’ which are totally fine. There was one person that was comparing us to Earls, which I thought was pretty funny. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to go see Ten Foot Pole at Earls.’ But I left it up. It’s fine.”

Renton says he wishes they could have had enough time for a soft opening — a chance to casually introduce Modern Love to the community, and an opportunity to fully train the new staff, but he’s impressed with how they managed to pull together with such a short turnaround.

“I’m very thankful for the staff that we hired. They’ve been very patient with us, and understanding that yes, we do have a lot of experience running bars, but you know, this is the first time we’ve opened one in Calgary, and just dealing with the different culture and stuff like that. So they’ve been very patient with us, and they’ve been teaching us a lot, too.”

In that short burst of time, the Modern Love team has already been able to forge a new identity separate from that of The Buckingham. Renton says the Edmonton crew runs with a ‘Live stupid, die happy’ ethos. “Because we just kind of do what we want, and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Modern Love, however, has adopted perhaps a more suitably on-brand mantra for a Calgary venue.

“Kyle, one of our bartenders, came up with this wonderful quip that, you know, it’s weird — this is such a Stampede city, more or less. Cowboy culture is very relevant here, and we’re not really that at all. So he came up with the saying, ‘In a world full of cowboys, be the rodeo clown.’ So that’s kind of what we’re rolling with right now.”

Modern Love, 613 11 Ave. S.W.,, @modernloveyyc