The Local Level Ottawa Scenes


Icy rain pelted the tarmac as an Air Canada flight landed in Ottawa from Van City.  

Baggage in hand along with a boxed mountain bike, an Uber ride across town ended in the calm residential neighborhood of Sandy Hill. A place I recalled in name since childhood ever since my great grandparents had settled down from Eastern Europe. The house on Blackburn still stands but new owners occupy its rooms – my Aunt and Uncle long-departed.  

My rent-a-room-for-a-week from Airbnb was warm in March and staved off the chill of a night crawl along Laurier. Street names echoed through my grandmother’s voice. Sleep approached in the silence with the pace of distant time zones rolling over the Pacific and the land of several provinces.  

I awoke at 5AM and glanced at my iPhone screen only to move my dislocated self to the living room. I  hoped my mind could adjust to this new geography.  City Hall moved into view with OC Transpo buses crisscrossing in blurs of red and white. Coffee sipped at the Starbucks at the corner of Laurier and Elgin oriented my being. The Lord Elgin appeared as majestic as ever in grays awash with sunlight. Sparks, Bank or Somerset Streets brought a past back from the 1990’s. New buildings and the tangle of LRT construction disoriented until September 2019, when the LRT opened for our orientation. 

On track for 2018 ran the adage but what track or line have I followed?  

One from building to building as I secured a space to call home. The other from a phone company that promised fast internet, cable and mobile data – instant connections with a short wait for a wire to the world. 

Visits to supermarkets like the now defunct Metro or Loblaw’s, even Dollarama were normal or reflected the regular foraging of people living in an urban center. Yet time in the aisles felt euphoric because of the fascinating brandnames while each part of the grocery store was a cultural immersion – products caused jubilation.  

A Saturday night birthday celebration – my first in Canada since the Millennium turned, unfolded in the Market.  I found an illuminated Ottawa. I watched crowds spill onto pavement from places whose names I read like headlines on new newspapers. I located a diner and chose a table close enough to the window so that my gaze could take in the street outside just in case a Carleton friend appeared in a flash of sudden synchronicity. 

That did not happen. 

A Sunday morning followed with a hike through Strathcona Park and a stop at an Asian supermarket on Montreal Road. The namesake spells my hometown. A Tim Horton’s sign loomed and I enjoyed another Dark Roast with a donut or two. No soup this evening. 

The following day was a special Monday that signaled the start of my life in Ottawa or Ottawa life.  

This story was one of several that captures an Ottawa in transition. 
I am forever in transit.

Retrospective before COVID:  A border 

Rideau Street is a border between the Ottawa I live in and the Ottawa I visit. The Byward Market sits on the opposite side and my story migrates there. 

The Bluebird Cafe on Dalhousie served a medium roast – ideal with the right amount of daylight pouring through the window. Painted yellow walls gave the impression of a vintage cottage kitchen during summer. The bar along the wall and window as with all other tables were full with regulars and strangers. We sat with memories ingrained into the wood. 

We participated together in a creative act that lasted only as long as we stayed. 

On one table, open books were covered with notes scribbled down in haste by students discussing a professor’s lecture. The books, perhaps on literature or philosophy were in a state of total deconstruction. The dialogue or debate sounded fierce as they hurled difficult to pronounce names or theories at each other. Was that Husserl – did I hear phenomenology? Phenomenological. Phenomenal. 

My vintage canvas shoulder bag was on the bar. I typed this article and revisited (reread) earlier pieces from my own planet-walking. 

One guy’s elbow rested nearby to support his chin as his fountain pen sailed over journal pages leaving a black track of words to resemble poetry. Alert from ordering a triple cappuccino, he continued in his inner-quest.  An hour later, he closed his diary with the contents frozen on paper.  

Oatmeal raisin cookies were stacked on a baking pan. I adore cookies but I’m all about the brew and the banter.  

“Lattes are my life.” she said. And mine? 

Espressos. 2 shots at least. 1 every hour. Even when asleep. Tweet-able tale. 

I have freedom to document Ottawa but I am uncertain in this city of opportunity. I adapt to nomadic wandering. Along the Canal, on the bank of the Ottawa River, on a side street I haven’t been, a question storms – what can I do? Nomadic writing. True. Beyond the joy of this cafe table and a now second large, Medium Roast, there is still that issue – of work.  

For 12 weeks I drifted and applied to numerous jobs. Printed letters and resumes reduced my career to inked lines that strangers read and on occasion, replied to.  

The word unemployed sounded hopeless. There is some respect attached to the word, sabbatical. What if I said that I am freelancing? The latter has glitter. My movement through this city meant not yet belonging. Not having a full time job equalled living in an abandoned, boarded-up town – alone. 

However, I was kind of unbound and free – to travel across borders. 

I still travel after arriving at ABCE. 

I don’t want to interrupt the flow of this article but the traces of biography you read, reveal more. Unlike the No Name brand in shocking yellow available at local grocers, I wanted to have a real name – to be remembered and have more than a single color.  

I’m Adam and my multi-local colors did alter into O-Town’s streets. 

In a nostalgic state during this pandemic, around Ottawa, pizza places and shawarma eateries gave way to all you can eat sushi buffets and restaurants offering eclectic cuisines.  

On Bank into the Glebe (a historical namesake alluding to Church Lands), an Ethiopian restaurant, Hareg, is one piece of the multicultural fabric of Ottawa. I had never tried Ethiopian food before.  The owner’ s hospitality was sincere – genuine. A large group enjoyed the preparation of coffee being roasted. They sipped from small cups.  

In the ethnic-ambient mood of the interior, I had realized that I am now placed in Ottawa. 

A visit to Preston Street, once revealed Simply Biscotti, an Italian bakery that serves up scrumptious sandwiches and pastries; there was Cannoli stuffed with rich ricotta.   

At the Bluebird Cafe, the title of one painting that used to hang was Random Happiness by an artist named Luminita Serbanescu. When I read her first name I imagined light – illumination – luminous. This piece reflected how random happiness can be, since the dominant reds contrasted with a depressing blue. An indistinguishable image rested in the centre of dark and light – could have been a city, could have been Ottawa.  

Is this city on the border of joy and despair – or desperation? 
(As Ottawa is now in the grips of the COVID pandemic, the work could definitely take on a new interpretation.) 

Besides the non-stop cool of places around the Byward Market: Anytime Fitness, Dunn’s, The King Eddy, Zac’s Diner, homeless people mill around, 24/7. They remain placeless, dispossessed and are refugees in our city.  I observe that people are content and confidant in their status.  

How did each of us find this particular station or place?  

Why do people live on the street with a concrete view while others live on the 20th floor of an adjacent condominium with a sliding balcony door that opens to a gunmetal sky? 

Maybe it’s not happiness that is random – but life. 

Another piece by Luminita was all reds and reminds of a phoenix engulfed by flames.  

I contemplated art and someone else’s visual landscape changed into my geography. 

Abstract art is far from abstract. Each artist has placed time into their work while viewing takes mere seconds. I did not see paintings at Bluebird but portraits. 

I needed to leave but wanted to linger longer to enjoy a few more delightful minutes.  

What meaning does a cafe serve? What does a neighborhood cafe represent?  What qualities converge to make it the ideal place? How does the timbre of new accents or conversations spice the flavor of imported coffees?   A man sang, the cash register ching-chinged, a barista laughed with the sound of coffee being ground – music to dance to. 

I departed. The Bluebird blended into street scene and my steps headed along Wellington.  

My story has migrated with words now translated from the Korean, Indonesian or Thai that I used to speak; these still populate my sentences or thoughts. 

on this language journey no punctuation should mark my version of Ottawa 

Art at Work, Work of Art 

A group immersed in conversation sat beside a wall at Bridgehead Coffee on Bank and Gilmour. This ordinary image was of no special importance but the exposed bricks of that particular wall and the industrial design of the interior invited imagination. The Dark Colombia served in a simple, white porcelain cup produced an outpouring of ideas that I must set to screen.  

Ottawa’s art, architecture and design entice. Music and style are not the only makers of scene here.  

There is an abundance of For Rent signs with phone numbers posted outside apartment buildings and houses. When searching for a place, these were invitations to find a home.  

I am intrigued by buildings, apartments or city blocks due to the eclectic collections of places that compose Ottawa. In amazement, I scan networks of straight streets and the assortment of homes that line them. On a graying night, lamps turn on to bring their interiors into view while occupants are oblivious to the life on the street.  They are entranced by the routine of supper starting. 

The eclectic architecture of Ottawa impresses. When I stare out of my window to take in the urban view or sit in the confines of a bus or LRT car (above ground) maneuvering through another neighborhood, each building has its unique language. The people who live there add stories to the stone, tales to the architecture. 

On exhibit in Ottawa are the permanent sculptures outside the National Gallery. One is a spider, an embodiment of night, in stony shades of dark metal. Its giant legs spread outward, the body central and hovering in the center. I am engulfed by it when I stand underneath. Does the spider devour or protect? How does this sculpture, of gigantic proportions, epitomize Canada? Maybe Louise Joséphine Bourgeois’ Maman, Mother, the spider is meant to keep all viewers under a spell of speculation. 

Yet my favorite is the lamppost sculpture. I am uncertain about the artist’s intention here but observing the twisted lamps, arranged and rearranged, juxtaposed, symbolizes intertwined, city streets. If each lamp is a person, are we not connected to each other?  Is there strength in solidarity or during this critical time, is strength about isolation? 

To elevate an ordinary object like a street lamp into art alters the purpose of an object and heightens its aesthetic meaning for the viewer. This is just one layer to modern art. The year is 2020 and is modern still the right word to describe Ottawa’s art?  

Beyond the expanse of grounds outside the National Gallery, essentials of design fill a vast array of shops where we frequently go when we want to update our drab interiors into spaces that better reflect our inner selves. These shops or stands sell everything from Native Art to ethnic patterns, wall hangings or tapestries and a few Buddhist relics – decorative objects that feel shamanic or meditative under the spell of burning incense. I recall memories of travel to the art markets Southeast Asia with the sand of beaches still falling out of my backpack. Other stores are Japanese-inspired or they offer minimalistic furnishings. 

Let us move to the OAG, Ottawa Art Gallery and SAW. When open, these places do inspire and influence one’s creative potential.  I admire works by international, community or local artists (photographers, too) yet this admiration is greater than those found in world-renowned galleries. Maybe this fact has something to do with the untamed emotions that such pieces awake or perhaps, it is the accessibility. I feel no barrier between the art and myself, contrary to works In prestigious museums where I am – distanced. 

Picasso or Klimpt enamor and there is sensation or engagement with the work but time and history separates those artists and their paintings from where I remain standing. Warhol’s works dazzle through their method of fabrication – colors – popping. Yet I am not living in an age of iconic Campbell’s Soup but do eat or drink out of a can from time to time.  

Outside the OAG and heritage building of SAW, I am once again on solid concrete, the signature of Brutalism. A mix of colored glass, painted canvases and ethereal images from my visit still float in front of my eyes as I march forward in the wind-driven rain during the deepening blue of late afternoon. 

In my steady advance, I take in small reminders of nature in the potted flowers or in random or planned acts of park making. I pause in the stillness of sentinel trees or in front of the Heritage architecture that endows Ottawa with character. Lamp-posts, stoplights and the benches up ahead are street furniture while many bus stop shelters remain as memory for the lines that used to run passed. Even segments of the LRT tunnel were once used by buses back in the day.  

Further on, lights suggest occupancy in houses and apartments. Some appear vacant. Others are gone. 

I noticed one construction crew pulling down a dilapidated house with mallets to wood; a bulldozer then eliminated all traces of the foundation. An empty lot remains for now after their art of demolition. 

With pieces of Ottawa in states of decay, fresh structures do emerge while derelict buildings are not left to rot but inspire artists and their visions.  

Urban development is not all gentrification. Urban renewal here does preserve enclaves and neighborhoods with art as a continuous resource. Ottawa remains as a place for artists to gather and is a city that showcases art. In fact, these literary, sound or visual artists and their mosaic of media remain on display or played or on the page.  

It is true that artists beautify Ottawa and the rooms or galleries within. So when you visit or move here you will be rewarded. You will witness this everyday rework of the city and its walkways. Living in Ottawa is indeed an adventure in art as you watch the burgeoning artistic underground movements flicker in the dark.