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February 02, 2010

  • Ottawa and Me
  • imageIf I were to have a Facebook relationship with Ottawa, it would be definitely labeled as “it’s complicated”. For all I complain about Ottawa—and that’s a lot—there is something about the place I like. Perhaps, like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, I’ve grown accustomed to its face—if a city can indeed have a face.

    Last year, I moved to Ottawa. My wife lived there already and there were lots of compelling reasons to move from Toronto.  And yet, as much as I tried, I could never fully enjoy my nation’s capital as a place to live. I think, when it comes down to it, I just prefer big cities. I’ve spent most of the past two decades living in big cities—Toronto and London, mostly—and there’s something I fundamentally prefer about cities where I am surrounded by buildings taller than 5 stories.

    That and being able to buy books and CDs after 8 pm on Saturday.

    This has always been my simple but effective proof that I am living in a big city or not. If I can empty my wallet for an CD or a book bought as an impulse purchase after 9 pm on Saturday night,  then I am in a big city—a city that has all sorts of other cool shops and places to go still open and is still teeming with life. If I can’t, then I am not.

    The other week in Toronto, I spent $40 on used books at the new BMV Books on Bloor Street at 9:17 pm. In Ottawa the bookstores, and record stores, are shut at 6 on a Saturday—in fact the only things still open after 6 on a weekend in Ottawa are the overpriced bars and restaurants in the Market.

    As silly as this test is, it demonstrates a fundamental flaw with Ottawa: there is no downtown.

    Most major cities have a downtown, a central core where people can go and be. Ottawa, quite simply, doesn’t. There’s Elgin Street, which is more like the main drag of a university town. There’s Bank Street and the Glebe, which during the day are hives of activity but die after 5 pm. Ottawa has no equivalent to Yonge Street or Leicester Square. In fact, there’s never any people out on the streets generally in Ottawa except for Canada Day.

    When it comes down to it, Ottawa may be the most suburban city I’ve ever lived in. It feels like a suburb. It’s planned like a suburb. The cultural life is more like that of a suburb (crossed with a university town).  This is bizarre because most people don’t live in greater Ottawa because they live in suburbs even further out.

    And then there’s the winters.

    Ottawa winters are soul-sucking affairs that take slightly longer than a geological age to vanish. They never go away—there’s often still traces of snow on the ground in late April. There’s only so much of Winterlude, Beavertails and skating on the Rideau Canal that can distract you from that fact that Ottawa often looks like a barren, deserted city after a nuclear winter. I remember one January evening where I was walking around Sparks and O’Connor streets and posted this to Facebook:

    Q: What’s the difference between Ottawa and a ghost town?
    A: The ghost town is warmer and has tumbleweed as the occasional sign of life

    And yet…there’s actually I lot I like, even love, about Ottawa.

    Like most suburbs, it’s designed to maximize weekend leisure: the biking trails are incredible. The parks are plentiful and always incredibly well maintained. The transit system, when not on strike (I’m still bitter about the protracted strike during the winter of 2009), is designed to move people around more effectively than most cities I’ve seen.

    Ottawa also has a fantastic art house movie scene. (That Ottawa is woefully underserviced by a major theatre chain helps this—Ottawa may be the only major city I know that showed Avatar in 2D). There are two separate independent cinemas program everything from crowd pleasing second run stuff to indie and foreign films to cult and classic cinema. I absolutely adore it. If there was a place that I’ve been happy in Ottawa that doesn’t involve my wife or biking along the Ottawa River, it was either at the Bytowne or the Mayfair.

    Also in its favour is that Ottawa is a very accessible city—it’s easy to get around. It’s politics are just as accessible. I probably have never been more informed and have more opinions on local politics than I have in Ottawa. The transit strike affected that, but even afterward I found it easier to get a handle on the issues facing Ottawa as a city (and the mishandling it by City Council) than I ever did in a decade of living in Toronto. Ottawa having a corrupt mayor also adds entertainment value.

    And make no mistake, from May to October, Ottawa is a gorgeous city.

    I once said, flippantly, “I don’t want to live in Ottawa, but I would, happily, summer here.” I didn’t intend it but that perfectly summarizes my feelings about Ottawa. What I love about Ottawa is the quiet and tranquility of the city, the picturesque aspects of it, the small and accessible nature of the place. But those very things make Ottawa a place I’d want to visit, to vacation in, to retreat to—if even for an extended period. It’s not a place I would like to live year round.

    Last December, I moved back to the Greater Toronto Area purely for employment reasons. And while I’m happy to have access to a city with a real downtown and be able to buy books at 9 pm, I also found myself missing Ottawa, just a little.

    It’s a city that takes you by stealth.

    Posted by graeme | (1) Comments | Permalink

    << Things I Discovered in 2009   |   Main   |   Strangers on a GO Train >>

    Colleen  on  05/19  at  10:52 AM

    Yes, Ottawa does take you by stealth… (and doesn’t ever let go, not really.)

    I am embarrassed to admit that my husband and I keep moving to and fro from Ottawa/Toronto (though I should specify that we live in an outer Toronto suburb… Oakville, actually, and that when we live in Ottawa we tend to live in the actual rural areas… “Land is a man’s very own soul” and all of that.)

    I agree with all that you said about Ottawa… the good and the bad… I can add one major irritation for me was the bilingual requirement. As a person who has been trying to break into the communications/writing bus—I found the added burden of not being bilingual tres annoying.

    Currently we live in the GTA… but I often find myself looking at the MLS at beautiful country properties in Ottawa (looking at the MLS in Toronto makes me want to drink heavy at 9:00 a.m.) You just can’t have major tracks of land here, within reasonable commuting distance to employment, and pay under $3,000,000. <sigh>

    Will we move back to Ottawa a third time?

    If we do, we are not telling anyone… it’s getting too embarrassing at this point.

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