Posts Tagged ‘exploring Ottawa


Mapping neighborhoods

If you’ve taken the time to browse through the links on the sidebar of this blog, you may have stumbled across my ongoing project to map the neighborhoods of Ottawa, a project that’s gotten so big Google Maps split into two pieces on me. What I’m starting to find interesting as I spread out into mapping the suburbs is when I start to debate what these shapes on the map actually mean.

For example, here’s central Ottawa, which still includes a wonky little splinter of a neighborhood because of conflicting Wikipedia descriptions:

Neighborhoods of central Ottawa

Neighborhoods of central Ottawa

Again, I stress that this is a work-in-progress, hence there are gaps and things that need to be fixed. But I digress; what I want to get across with this map is that one only really needs a passing knowledge of Ottawa and the ability to read a map to know what some of these neighborhoods are. Places like the ByWard Market, Lowertown, Sandy Hill, Centertown and the Glebe are all clearly visible and easy to pick out. Now, here’s Kanata:

Neighborhoods of Kanata

Neighborhoods of Kanata

Can you pick out Beaverbrook? No? Howabout Katimavik-Hazeldean? Or Glen Cairn? Chances are—unless you recognize a street name—you can’t. I wonder if people who even live in these neighborhoods can even name them, even though I was able to find reference to them online. Do people living on Knudson Drive really know that just by crossing the street, they can move from Beaverbrook to Marchwood-Lakeside? And do they feel any different, between the two places?

What I’m getting at here is something that I’ve always disliked about suburbs (and if you read this blog regularly, you know I’m no great fan of suburbanism). We lose much of our sense of place when we’re in a suburban area, because it feels just like almost any other suburban area, barring differences of climate and geography. Yet if you plonk down someone who’s never been in Ottawa before and tell them to walk down Bank Street, they can probably tell the difference between the CBD, southern Centertown, the Glebe, Old Ottawa South and Billing’s Bridge. Why? Because they’re all appreciably different places with appreciably different feels to them, wheras one part of Kanata, Orleans or Barrhaven feels much like any other.

Now, the reality is, suburbs exist, and there’s not much we can do now but deal with that fact, but is it too much to ask to try and imbue our newly created neighborhoods with the same sense of individuality that our old ones have? There’s nothing quite like living in a place you can call unique; it tends to improve your relationship with the city and people around you, and increaing your appreciation of the city’s built form. Sure, it may not even by a concious thought for most people, but it still happens whether you’re aware of it or not. As we rethink how to build cities into the future, let’s not forget how important concepts of uniqueness and community can be.


A zombie to complement the ghost

This metaphor is definitely in danger of being stretched too far, but I wrote about ghost signs a little while ago, and now I’d like to talk about something related, but significantly more noticeable: abandoned\former churches.

I live right across the street from the former St. Brigid’s Church, on St. Patrick Street (no, I’ve never quite figured out how that works, either). It was completed in 1890 to act as a new centre for Lowertown’s Irish Catholic population, and cuts an imposing figure on the street. I find it’s arguably a more impressive building than the nearby Notre Dame Catheral, and it tells an interesting story.

In May of 2006, the Archbishop of St. Brigid’s announced that the church would be closing. The parrish was shrinking, and hundreds of thousands of dollars would be needed to fix up the building; a dim-looking future, to be sure. The parrishoners fought to keep it open, holding fundraisers, circulating petitions and even going so far as to take the archbishop to court, but it was all for naught. The church hosted it’s final service in 2007, and in the fall of that year, it was purchased by a group of local Irish-Canadian investors and opened as an Arts and Humanities Centre.

It’s a facinating story, when you think about it. The building was the centre of a community for almost 120 years, and then it was forced to close for financial reasons. I don’t think anything speaks to the changing nature of a community quite so much as that. Churches, at one point, marked the focal point of a community—you only need to travel to nearly any older small town in Ontario or Quebec to figure that out, since somewhere near the middle of town, you’ll probably be able to find a church errected 15 or 20 years after the town was founded. Now, though, we live in a far more secular society, and though I think this is a good thing, it puts these stately old buildings in an awkward position when there are no longer enough church-goers to maintain the church.

St. Brigid’s, of course, got lucky. It lives on in a second life as an centre for the arts and Ottawa’s Irish-Canadian community. Sure, you could argue that means it’s essentially serving the same community as it did in the past, but really it marks a fundamental change in the neighborhood. The church has to appeal to as many members of the community as possible to survive, not just the Irish-Catholics, and increasingly small niche of the population.

Not all of these old churches are so lucky, though, such as this one, on Bronson:

Erskine Pebestrian Church, which I haven’t been able to find a thing about online, is apparently for sale. It’s an odd sight, a church with a giant for sale sign out front, and and even starker reminded than St. Brigid’s that neighborhoods are in a constant state of change. This one may not be as old or ornate, but it’s still a valuable part of the urban fabric. I hope it, too, someday manages to find a second life.


A Ghost on Bay Street

I went for a rather long and meandering walk on Wednesday (the results of which can be seen here), and while I came across a couple of interesting things, there was a spot on Bay Street, where it intersects with Lisgar, that I found particularly of note.

There, on an otherwise nondescript building, the faint remnants of the words “Scharf Grocer” (or perhaps “Grocery”, it looks as though there may be another letter that faded entirely) were painted on the side of the building. A ghost sign, in other words—those faded reminders that there was once something else here, and that no matter how familiar we are with the urban landscapes we pass through every day, there’s always a past and a history which generally remains hidden to us.

I love ghost signs for precisely this reason. They always stop and make me wonder about them. This one, for instance, makes me wonder if this used to be a hub for the northwest side of Centretown. Perhaps fifty or sixty years ago, this was a thriving corner where locals stopped to buy fruit and vegetables on their way home from work. Or perhaps not. It’s next to impossible to find information about these relics of the past, so all we can ever do is speculate.

Ottawa doesn’t have many of these ghost signs, at least not compared to some cities, but there are a number of them scattered across the city’s older neighborhoods. Next time you see one, stop for a moment, and let yourself be reminded of how much our cities are in a constant state of change. These signs, in the grand scheme of things, are not that old, yet from an urban perspective they are fossils, barely discernable and incomplete messages from the past. And they can’t help but make you wonder what, in sixty years time, the urban fossils of today’s Ottawa will look like.

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This is a blog dedicated to exploring and discussing Ottawa, Canada.



Email: dmccl033(at)uottawa(dot)ca

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