Rediscovering the Neighbourhood

IMG_3188

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:

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.

IMG_3187

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.

IMG_3181

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.

IMG_3180

The mystery house is at the end of this laneway, tucked out of sight behind the brick house.

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.

IMG_3184

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.

IMG_3178

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.

134 Charles Street

The house is of average size, two storeys, brick, with a steeply pointed black slate roof. A short chimney juts out of one side of the roof. An oval window is nestled up at the top of the house, just under the roof’s peak, suggesting the possibility of a hidden room or a forgotten lookout from a cobwebbed attic.

Two windows look out from the second floor, facing the quiet downtown street. They survey the neighbourhood like old, mysterious eyes.

Downstairs, on the first floor, there is one window next to the front door, and both it and the door are shadowed and protected by the sturdy pillars and overhang of a roofed porch. It was constructed in that solid, useful style of the early twentieth century; square pillars, wide at the base and tapering upwards to support a black roof that matches the larger roof of the main house. The pillars, window trim and door trim were all painted a dusky green at one time, though they are peeling now in the cold sun.

The front door is a rich, oiled oak. Even from a distance, it is clear that it was well-made, built to last. Upon it, an iron door knocker rests, a curling, curved leaf pattern moulded onto its heavy metal. To the left of the door, a matching steel lantern with glass panes is affixed to the wall. Though turned off in the brightness of day, one could imagine the warm glow it would throw across the threshold and stoop in the darkness of night.

Three stairs lead from the slightly raised porch outside the front door down to a concrete walkway which in turn leads to the main city sidewalk. Scrubby grass grows on either side of the walkway, though it is now covered with a dusting of snow. Brittle, dried shrubs cling to the outer edges of the deck.

The house is one of the old, traditional family homes in a neighbourhood built around the turn of the last century for government workers and early affluent residents of the town. Back then, the neighbourhood was considered the suburbs, a distant fifteen minute walk across wide expanses of farmland from the few downtown streets where the government buildings perched. The house recalled that earlier time, the early history of the city, in its shape and its materials and the solid way it looked out at the street.

Many similar houses had been built around the neighbourhood at the time, creating a quaint village feel with their front gardens, porches and matching pointed peaked roofs. But few of them had survived to the present day. The majority of those that had been built of timber or clapboard had been knocked down, considered undesirable infill over fifty years ago as the neighbourhood had grown poorer, as families had huddled together inside cold shells, improperly insulated and without running water or electricity.

Now, those of the houses that had survived stood out as picturesque, preserved relics from another time.

What had they seen in their time? What stories did they have to tell?

Number 134 Charles Street was constructed on a narrow plot of land in 1905. Until the early 1900s, the land along the east side of Charles Street by the canal had supported abandoned warehouses, once the storage spaces for the nearby rail yards and docks that formed the important transportation arteries across the unforgiving forests in this part of Canada.

But in 1903, a prosperous, middle-aged architect spied the land and was inspired. Graham Revell was a well regarded architect in town and had designed houses for many of the  important and wealthy businessmen. He was known as being principled, upstanding, reliable. His tall, wiry frame,  greying hair and long moustache lent him an air of dignity and uprightness. His shoes gleamed, as did the lenses of his spectacles, and his glossy, black cart shone as well.

Graham Revell had been out for the day to oversee the construction of the grand, maple staircase he had designed inside the home of one of the town’s lumber barons. When the workers had finished earlier than he had expected, he sent them home, and steered his cart team toward the canal; he had some thoughts about his son, Jim, to ponder, and where better but overlooking the water?

He drove slowly up and down the small lane ways and streets by the little creek that flowed off the canal into a marsh. Children were running and shouting and throwing stones at the iced surface of the water, hoping that it had frozen enough for skating. At their outer edges, the streets in this area ended in uneven ground and crumbling warehouses. Beyond them, the canal flowed languidly by, filled with barges and other heavy boats hauling lumber and industrial products to and from town.

Pausing on one of the streets, Graham looked at this deserted land and thought, “something could be done with this. Something productive. Houses could be built. We could live here.” It would be more convenient to live in this part of town, near his office, and surely his wife would enjoy being closer to the shops and market.

The houses that lined the other side of the streets which stretched away from the canal were neat, nice, respectable houses. More were being built every day and soon it would be a prosperous little enclave. He was sure the people who lived there didn’t want to look across at the crumbling shacks and barns and at the ground littered with building materials. Surely, the land could be beautified and the same nice houses could be built along the eastern edge of the neighbourhood.

Graham went to the city council with his proposition and, in short order, the necessary deeds had been transferred, the land was cleared, the rubble buried under new earth, and work begun.

Once he had presented his proposal to the town, the land had been parcelled out into narrow plots and he knew that before long, other houses would spring up around his. But at first, his was only the one house being constructed on that block of Charles Street.

He chose the plot that looked down toward the main street and designed a sturdy porch so that he and his wife could sit out on warm evenings and read, or talk, or greet the passers-by.

By 1905, the house was complete, and Graham Revell moved in with his modest family; his wife, Martha, and his two boys, Jim and Peter.

Inside, the house was warm and bright. The sun rose at one end of the canal and arced through the sky, lighting the back of the house in the morning and the front of the house in the evening.

Though it was small, Graham had designed his house with the same meticulous care that applied to his clients’ homes and businesses. There were a number of rooms on the main floor, all separated from the hallway which led to a kitchen at the back of the house.

The first door in the hallway led to a front parlour which boasted a fine iron fireplace with an ornate, pillared mantel and a tile hearth, and a window, dressed in finest Irish white lace curtains, which gave the occupants a view down to the main street. There was a door at the back of the parlour, and another further down the hallway, both of which led to a dining room. The kitchen looked out over a small back patch of grass, the Common which was now being seeded for grass and lined with saplings, the Queen’s Road and, past that, the canal.

Stairs led down to a basement and up to the second floor, where there was a family sitting room, three modest bedrooms, a bath room and a water closet.

Graham had installed a trap door up to the attic in case there was ever any trouble with the roof. To let in some light, he designed an oval window at one end, looking out over the street. The family never used the attic and it sat dormant while they lived there, gathering dust.

The house settled and shifted but remained sturdy. As all houses do, number 134 developed a personality all its own. It gave off an aura of warmth, of solid durability, of functionality. The little oval window, though, always seemed to suggest there was something more, something intriguing, an unnoticed, unnamed presence, benevolent but mysterious all the same.

Graham, Martha and the boys shaped the house and the neighbourhood. In time, the other plots filled up with families and the street resembled all the others in the quiet residential neighbourhood, cozy in the canal’s bend.

Jim, whom Graham had been grooming to take over at the firm for several years, became one of the senior architects in 1917. His father had been feeling poorly and was happy to finally retire.

It was in early November 1917 that Graham suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep while number 134 slept soundly all around him.

Martha remained living in the house for several years, but eventually followed Graham and the boys sold the house.

Through the years, number 134 passed through several hands. A widow, Ruth Davies,  bought the house from Jim and Peter Revell and outlasted the Depression tucked snuggly between its four walls. When she passed away, a mother with three daughters moved in, struggling to get by on rations during the war, while her husband went to the Front to fight. Another family followed them, this time with a boy and a girl. They lived there when number 126 was a corner store, selling penny sweets to kids who arrived on bikes or on foot, before they ran off to play in the nearby playground.

In the 70s, the house was renovated, its windows replaced and walls knocked down to create bigger rooms and a more open appearance.

Meanwhile, the town grew and stretched and eventually engulfed Charles Street. It was now considered downtown, while the land that had once been thought uninhabitable became  the new suburbs.

The last family that lived at number 134 moved out there, out to the suburbs, taking with them their bouncing balls and their running, climbing, ruckus children. They sold the house, but no one knows who bought it. It has remained dark, empty, ever since, though a “Sold” sign did grace its front lawn for a brief time.

Now, the paint is peeling, the grass is scrubby, and brittle, dry shrubs cling to the outer edges of the deck. Some say that the house is haunted, that you can sometimes see a shadow move past the oval window up in the roof.

Perhaps it is haunted, perhaps it isn’t. But it does emanate an aura, a presence.

It is a character in its own right.

 

Related fiction:

Artifact (silverleafjournal.wordpress.com)

Sarah’s Perspective

It’s not that Sarah was a person who judged others exactly. If you asked her, she’d say not at all.  And she’d say she’s not suspicious of others, certainly not of those she deems to be, well, not quite like herself.

But a person notices things. And if you notice something that’s obvious, right there in front of you, what are you supposed to do? Be dishonest and pretend it doesn’t exist?

When she and her husband came across their house a few years ago on a real estate site, she was a bit concerned about moving to a “mixed income neighbourhood,” as she delicately put it.

“You never know,” she had said to her husband, her dewy, perfectly shaped brow furrowed with concern, “maybe it’s not that safe. Right? I mean, it’s downtown, which is great but, well, it’s almost inner city.”

But Henry, her husband, smiled reassuringly and said he thought it would be fine – a good learning experience for the kids. He had a way of looking at her, with his perfectly coiffed hair and his white, dental-poster teeth, that told her everything he said was right.

And it had been ok, mostly.

There was one small thing that worried her, though. It almost wasn’t worth mentioning. In a city of millions of people, there were bound to be people, even in her neighbourhood, with whom she would prefer not to socialize. But the bus stop was the bus stop and unless they put their kids into private school, which they had decided not to do, they couldn’t help who travelled on the bus with them. Nor could they help who the parents of said kids were.

Of course, they could drive the kids to school in the car, but then Sarah saw the bus as an extra bit of socializing for the kids, and she didn’t want to take that away from them. Especially not just because she was a bit uncomfortable about some of the other families in the neighbourhood.

Take for instance Sophie. She was young still, only in first grade, but she had already lost her cuteness. Or perhaps it had never been there. There was an edge to her, a toughness. It could have been because of her thrift store clothes. These were not, Sarah thought, the trendy kind of thrift store clothes.

It was really Sophie’s aunt who Sarah found disconcerting, though. The aunt was rough around the edges and lacking any understanding of basic social cues and norms. But, Sarah admitted, she had taken Sophie in after already raising her own kids. That was something.

Sophie’s mother had abandoned her at birth, and no one knew who the father was. So the little girl, after bouncing around foster homes for a while, finally went to live with her aunt in community housing.

And this was the issue Sarah had with the neighbourhood: around the corner from them, backing right onto their nice, bourgeois street, were the social housing buildings. Sarah just couldn’t understand how the city planners worked.

Every morning, the aunt, whose name Sarah hadn’t remembered, would walk with Sophie from their social housing unit around the corner to the bus stop. There she would do her best to make small talk with the other parents, including Sarah.

Sarah was not rude, of course. No, she had been raised better than that. Sarah was polite and would smile with just enough kindness to bestow her grace upon the aunt and to appear charitable in the minds of the other parents, while remaining distant enough so as not to encourage too much unwanted conversation.

On the infrequent occasions that Sarah and the aunt passed each other in the street without their children, Sarah would smile with the same polite smile, nod slightly, and continue on her way. She didn’t have time to stop and chat anyway.

On the day in question, Sarah was walking back from the neighbourhood store with some last minute groceries for dinner; they were having company that night.

She turned onto her street, two blocks east of her house, and the park came into view in front of her. Although it was here that the nice residential area she lived in ran right up against the seedy city core, the park itself had always been clean, safe and orderly. In fact, her neighbour had just mentioned to her the other day that she thought they were very lucky to be able to live downtown in an area that remained an oasis, when so many other places in the city centre had disintegrated, turned to crime and disreputable activities.

As Sarah was passing the park, she noticed Sophie’s aunt standing just inside the gate talking to two other women. Her first thought was one of trepidation; she did not want to get drawn into some converstaion with these people just now.

Sarah smiled the smile she reserved for people like these and gave her stiff little wave.

The women were huddled quite close together, smoking. Sarah noticed then that the two women were a bit strange. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it but they were sort of cagey, shady maybe. For one thing, they wore an awful lot of makeup, thought Sarah, and it was kind of all over their faces. She turned up her nose slightly. They were younger than the aunt, but had the same rough aura about them. Their hair was uncombed and their tight, dark clothes were a bit inappropriate for hanging around a park in the middle of the afternoon.

Sophie’s aunt seemed to pause before returning Sarah’s greeting, which was strange because she was usually so friendly – almost overly so. And in that moment’s pause, Sarah saw her surreptitiously take something from one of the other women and quickly stuff it in the front pocket of her jeans. Only then did she raised her hand in a wave, but her eyes remained dark and unsmiling.

Sarah’s heart skipped. She forced her gaze forward, toward home, and walked on past the women. She couldn’t help but imagine what had been going on there.

Well it was obvious, wasn’t it, she thought. The aunt was buying or selling something at the corner of a downtown park.

It had to be drugs, Sarah thought.

She followed her tumbling thoughts along to the next horrible set of possibilities. Maybe the aunt had some prescription drugs and was selling them to make a bit of cash. Then what Sarah would have seen was her pocketing the money.

Or…or the aunt wasn’t all that benevolent a caregiver after all, and was actually buying drugs, maybe even doing them with little Sophie there. Well, thought Sarah, unable to hold her thoughts at bay by now, well that would explain why Sophie seemed to be so hardened. That must be it!

Sarah was beside herself by the time she reached her house. She knew they should never have moved in here, she thought, accusingly thinking of Henry’s calm reassurances. They would simply have to move, she decided.

Lyne watched Sarah’s elegantly clad back disappear down the street for a moment, her  boots clicking slightly as she hurried along. Then she looked back at the girls. It was hard to believe they had found her after all this time, and hard to believe that they were all still friends with her daughter, Tammy.

She remembered them as little girls playing together in each other’s back yards, when innocence was on their side.

Shaking her head, she brought herself out of her reverie and back to the present.

“Thanks for bringing me this,” she said again. “I hope Tammy really is alright?”

“Ya, she’s doing fine, like I said, she just wanted to tell you that herself.”

The girls turned to go. Lyne tried desperately to think of something to say to keep them there just a bit longer, to give her more information about Tammy. But they had said all they came to say and were ready to leave.

As the two girls walked away, Lyne reached into her front pocket again to touch the crumpled up piece of paper that was lodged there.  She would hurry home now, she thought, and read the note from Tammy in privacy. It was the first time she had heard anything from her daughter in two years.

Golden Triangle Networking

Community, I am happy to have your attention today.

Since moving into the area three years ago, I have often wondered whether there is something I may be missing. Some connection or collection or opportunity for us to connect that I just don’t know about yet.

We lived in Lindenlea before we moved here and they had a fully functioning listserve for the community. It worked brilliantly, both to facilitate the sharing of information and planning events, but also in creating a sense of community.

When I needed a babysitter, I put the question to the listserve and had families offering up their teenagers that very day.

When I needed a plumber, I did the same thing.

More than the listserve, though, there was an interconnectedness that I find strangely lacking in our neighbourhood.

I know there are children here, and the houses are all residential, all near each other, but where are these children?

Or even the adults?

St. Luke’s Park is a great impromptu meeting and networking locale, and my son and I have both used it to some effect.

But, with the school just down the street, I know there must be other kids around, kids who don’t go to the park. I have seen them, mostly walking to school. So I know they’re out there somewhere.

I have a sneaking suspicion that they may be indoors after school, playing video games.

But perhaps that is too negative. Perhaps they are out at after school activities.

There are so many communities nearby that organize get-togethers, that have events in their local parks – Old Ottawa East, the Glebe, Old Ottawa South, the list goes on.

Why do we not do this kind of thing here?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to establish and use a neighbourhood network.

So, if we wanted to create it, how would we coordinate and get in touch with each other? By posting signs at the Jack Purcell Community Centre? Creating a Facebook page?

I would love to work with a few other people, parents or otherwise, to try to create something like this, and to make use of all the wonderful spaces we have here in our area.

We could manage a listserve. We could use the local community centre for events, and the two parks as well. We could organize a geocaching party, as there are a few geocaches in the area. We could hold a fall BBQ in the park, a pre- or post- trick-or-treating event, a family basketball or soccer game, winter skating parties on the canal or at the local rink.

There are so many amenities right here, which is the beauty of this neighbourhood.

Let’s use them!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to connect, to meet each other, to have our kids run a bit freer together?

Who’s with me?

Nighttime Neighbourhood

Houses pile one behind the next, behind the next, backing haphazardly into each other. Brick and roof and wrought iron fade, invisible now in the darkness.

Houses are transformed, lit by light within instead of without. Recessed rectangles step forward in the thick black of night, high above the street – windows onto souls unknown. Lights upon lights fold, facing this way and that, warm and golden and still in the darkness, constant, beckoning, telling stories of lives lived anonymously, nearby but distant. So many stories yet untold.

Shadows move now and then within until, one by one, each light is extinguished. The neighbourhood falls into darkness.

Silent but for the rustling of leaves.