Posts Tagged ‘history


Book review: Wrestling with Moses

Hello again, everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, other obligations (namely a certain other publication that I write and edit for)  having taken up a fair amount of my time lately. However, I recently finished reading Anthony Flint‘s Wrestling with Moses, and felt I needed to share my thoughts, as it’s a fascinating read on the roles of both citizen activism and top-down development schemes in North American cities.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Image copywrite Random House, Inc.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Cover image copywrite Random House, Inc.

As you can probably tell from the cover, the book has nothing to do with Ottawa in any direct sense, but it’s an interesting read nevertheless. It tells the story of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs‘ battles with urban development czar Robert Moses during the 1950s and 60s in New York City. Jacobs and Moses squared off several times, notably over the redevelopment of Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, and over the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Flint recounts the history of these conflicts by interweaving biographical details about the lives of both Jacobs and Moses with the details of each of the fights.

The contrast between the two figures is incredible, with Moses epitomizing the auto-centric, developer-friendly attitude that reached its height during the period following the Second World War, and Jacobs the grassroots, community-first urbanist theories which many people—myself included—subscribe to today. Flint is able to tease out how both of these figures came to their influential positions (Moses through careful political maneuvering, Jacobs  through cultivating the support of her fellow city-dwellers) and how their came to their respective beliefs. We’ve seen both these forces act upon the history of Ottawa, as well, with the National Capital Commission taking on a Moses-esque role—witness the destruction of LeBreton Flats, and the vast network of “parkways” that criss-crosses the capital region—and Jacobsian community forces leading to the rise of neighborhoods like the Glebe and Westboro.

What I find truly interesting and refreshing about Flint’s approach to this somewhat-familiar urban conflict is that he does not vilify Moses to any great extreme, nor does he deify Jacobs, both of which are far too easy to do. Instead, he presents them as people—neither was perfect, and neither was entirely right nor wrong. In the case of Moses, Flint makes the interesting point that while it’s easy to focus on his large-scale failures, like the aforementioned battles with Jacobs and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he also did a lot of good for New York City, opening hundreds of public parks and swimming pools, and it’s impossible to deny that even amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression, he was able to get infrastructure built. Of course, he did so while railroading it past communities and with little regard for things like public transportation, but Flint is still able to elevate the man beyond a two-dimensional cartoonish urban villain.

On the Jacobs side of the equation, while it is impossible to deny her far-ranging influence on urban planning and urbanist thought, Flint still acknowledges some of the weaknesses in her ideas, like the fact that she was never able to truly deal with the problem of gentrification. In addition, he also makes the case that Jacobs-style community activism can sometimes go too far, blocking projects that would otherwise be good for cities and neighborhoods, or neutering them so that their impact is thoroughly mediocre, and neither positive nor negative. Ultimately, Flint argues that the best way to plan cities may be by reconciling the two viewpoints—those in charge of developments need to work with communities, but communities must also work with those in charge to ensure that projects meet and adapt to their own needs.

Overall, Wrestling with Moses is an engaging read, and an excellent history of how Jane Jacobs was able to change the face of urban planning through her work in New York City. Flint’s own viewpoints are mostly unobtrusive until the final chapter, where, his history complete, he allows himself to ruminate on the impact of Jacobs and Moses. If you’re at all interested in the history of urban planning in North America, and are curious how these now 40-year-old ideas apply to the modern city, then I highly recommend picking this one up—you won’t regret it.


Diving into the past

Originally, I was planning on writing about the Rideau Centre for this post; where it came from, what it replaced and how it impacts the urban landscape today. However, whenever I set out to do something I almost inevitably get sidetracked by something, and while researching this post I ended up coming across a series of aerial photos showcasing the evolution of a particular area of Ottawa. And, if you know anything about me, you know that I was almost instantly fascinated, and I decided I had to craft a post around it.

It all started with this image, taken in 1920:


Photo courtesy Natural Resources Canada, Earth Sciences Sector

Confused and unsure of what it is you’re looking at? Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you—I know not everyone is as well-versed in analyzing these sorts of things as I am! Here’s a reference version:


Green: City Hall, Teal: Rideau Centre, Red: Conference Centre, Purple: WellingtonRideau St., Yellow: Elgin St., Blue: Laurier Avenue

Make more sense now? The dark section running up the middle, is the Rideau Canal. I find this image really interesting, because it really shows off Ottawa’s roots as an industrial lumber town. In 1920, Ottawa had been Canada’s capital for less than 60 years and it shows. Where the Rideau Centre is today, a large rail yard sprawls just a few hundred metres away from Parliament Hill. Next to it, a quay juts out from the canal, likely a staging ground for passengers and freight to change between the rails and the water.

On the subject of passengers, Union Station dominates a stretch of land next to the canal, a stark contrast to the carefully manicured pathways that exist there now. To the south, a large military staging ground occupies the land where City Hall sits today. If it weren’t for a scattering of prominent landmarks, it’d be impossible to tell this picture is of Ottawa. A lot has changed in the 88 years since it was taken… follow the jump to see some of them.

Continue reading ‘Diving into the past’


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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