I often think my neighbourhood is my muse; its history, its people and its gardens have inspired me to write a number of pieces over the past year, especially when I was first blogging:
- Bat! Whiskey! Foxhole!
- 134 Charles Street
- Regarding Eternity
- Silent Night
- Nighttime Neighbourhood
- People Watching
The combination of leafy historical downtown neighbourhood and the natural beauty of the nearby greenspace provides an almost never-ending source of thoughts and impressions to feed my poetry and stories.
When I look at the little houses – so like the perfectly symmetrical houses small children draw (black pointed roof, chimney, red brick, door in the middle, one or two sash windows, flowered garden out the front) – I am moved by their simple loveliness and I can’t help but daydream about their history and the stories they could tell.
The gardens, ancient trees and starry night skies inspire me, too, and I often wax lyrical, prompting my husband to tease me about all the “odes” I compose.
But sometimes I wonder whether I am, after almost four years at this address, starting to grow used to it. To become complacent. Will I, one day, look out the window and not see anything that inspires me?
I decided to spend this fine sunny day taking a little jaunt along the surrounding streets, notepad in hand, in an attempt to rediscover these streets.
At this time of year especially, the air here is filled with the soft scents of flowers; lilacs mostly, but also apple blossoms and whatever else enjoys an early growing season. There is one garden in particular, just around the corner, that I love. It is full of overhanging trees, wildflowers and lolling cats. Behind it stands a little old fashioned two-storey house, painted bright blue.
Though most of the houses in the area are essentially the same traditional “house shape,” they are each somehow different. Many are brick but some are board and batten or clapboard, and painted different colours. Even the brick ones have their own character, with different colour trim and doors, an oval window here, a rectangle one there, a stained glass transom on another.
Some places are modern infill – bigger and square with lots of glass – and have replaced what were, in the 50s and 60s old, rundown inner city dwellings.
Overall, there is a mix here of multi-family buildings built originally for the first government workers, newer apartments, single family row houses and larger, stately, detached homes.
Many of the streets just before ours follow a grid pattern. They were set up when parcels of farmland were sold off to make city blocks around 140 years ago. But in our little corner of the neighbourhood, in the crook of the Rideau Canal, all the streets bend and run at strange angles and squish up before they run out of space. People get lost here.
Once upon a time, before houses were built on these few streets, the land was covered in dilapidated warehouses, used to store whatever you store for shipping up and down a canal, or on the nearby train line.
The train line has since moved and what was once the train bridge is now a highway. The canal is still here but there is no need for warehouses, as these days it is primarily a tourist attraction, full of boats and lined with paths used by bikers, joggers and walkers most of the year. There is often something going on along the canal; marathons and bike-a-thons, regattas, Sunday Bike Days and, in the winter, skating.
Next to all this action, our twisty little streets are surprisingly quiet and private. They are the leftover remnants of the way this area first developed. I’ve read a lot about this neighbourhood and have tried to uncover its secrets. I love comparing how it looks now to how it did when it was starting to emerge. It hasn’t changed much since 1905 or so, when most of the current houses had been built.
If you peer through the spaces between some of these houses, you may see lush gardens, overgrown gardens, even secret gardens. There are also hidden homes and full complexes of condos sitting just out of sight behind trees and shrubs.
There’s at least one house that you will never see. It’s down what looks to be the driveway of one of the other houses along the street, but actually it’s a large, old farmhouse and the driveway is its own small laneway. The only clue that it is there is the seemingly out of place old style mailbox perched at the edge of the sidewalk.
Every now and then, I like to take a different route through the neighbourhood, in case I should happen upon a corner I’ve never seen before. Today, I headed down an unmarked gravel lane way.
Decks, patios, fences, gardens with ferns, and a grassy lawn all folded in upon each other. Someone had planted herbs and lettuces in pots on a parking spot. Brown paint was peeling off a ramshackle side porch, which had once been decorated with colourful plastic lanterns, though these had long ago faded.The air smelled of lilacs from a nearby tree. The sound of water from a fountain drifted over a fence, competing with a saw that whined from inside one of the houses. A white cat stopped to look at me inquisitively, twice, before disappearing. When I reached the dead end, I came face to face with a flimsy looking tree house and turned around.
This must have been an old road, ages ago, or perhaps a drive up to a house that no longer exists.
Back out on the street, I continued to explore. The ground dips slightly where there was once a creek draining into the canal. At one point, the creek and then the street were named Neville after the family who owned the land, but the name has since changed. It seems that the land is still marshy under all that concrete, though, because the houses sort of lean to one side there.
Eventually, I returned home, reacquainted and inspired all over again by the hidden corners, the gardens, the houses and the history that surround me.
Tonight, as I stand at my open window looking out on the street, I can still smell the blooming lilacs, but I can I also smell food cooking at the restaurants a few blocks away. I can hear the last birds of the evening, but I can also hear the steady roar of the traffic on the highway nearby.
And I am reminded that our lovely oasis is part of a larger downtown, inner city neighbourhood. All the more hidden, all the more intriguing.