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On renaming and rebranding Centretown

By Mike Fancie on August 15, 2012

You might have heard that a recently-launched campaign celebrating an entity called “South Central Ottawa” as “the next great hood” has turned a lot of heads, especially among residents of the neighbourhood itself.

What’s wrong with a little community spirit?

First point: the world already has a South Central . But that’s neither here nor there.

Perhaps it’s because, until a few months ago, no one had ever heard of South Central Ottawa. Perhaps it’s because the project isn’t being community-driven; the people behind South Central Ottawa,  the Urban Capital Property Group, are Toronto-based developers who are currently putting the finishing touches on three phases of condominiums near Bank and Gladstone Streets. The three-phase project’s name is – you guessed it – “Central”.

The most stunning aspect of this campaign is that on the one hand, the Urban Capital calls the neighbourhood a “dead zone”, while on the other hand, it extols the coolness of the some of Centretown’s local businesses and its on-the-cusp-of-vibrancy on their daintily-illustrated campaign website.

A number of articles have already been written about the negative consequences of the introduction of those condos into Centretown – including by our very own Centretown Buzz. I agree with many of these analyses. However, what continues to irk many residents about this project is the way in which South Central  seeks to sell (I’d like to emphasize ‘sell’) not only condos, but  also a new neighbourhood to Centretown residents who already have one.

How audacious, for example, for a developer to insert itself into the community, roll-out a marketing campaign to re-brand the neighbourhood, and then throw “the first South Central neighbourhood party” at the James Street Pub to “celebrate the launch of South Central” – though it might be more realistic to say that the real party was the protest outside.

As if communities are now launched instead of cultivated organically.

To better explain why the South Central campaign doesn’t work, I’d like to introduce you to Benedict Anderson, a Cornell University professor whose seminal book, Imagined Communities, found its way onto one of my university reading lists. Anderson was born in China to British parents, and he now teaches in the United States – so you can bet that he knows a thing or two about identity-building.

Anderson set out to explain how nation-states are supported by a shared identity that binds its members together. Since it is almost impossible for someone to have met enough people in a community that large to identify with it through interpersonal ties, as within an extended family, Anderson reasoned that people must establish their belonging through something less tangible.

When we think of our association with a large community, we might identify with certain ideas, values, or shared experiences. Because – let’s face it – we aren’t all family, so we “imagine” our community’s continued existence through our continued tacit agreement that we are members of that community.

In that sense, a community only exists so long as its members are prepared to let it exist. Communities, therefore, come into being though a natural, and oftentimes protracted, process.

Anderson’s theory applies especially well to large neighbourhoods like Ottawa’s boroughs. Even though Hintonburg, the Glebe, Nepean, Centretown and others are smaller social entities, they are still large and impersonal. The ties that bind are formed by ideals and values, in exactly the same way as we might identify ourselves as a Canadian, a Quebecois, or (perish the thought) a Torontonian. Heck, Nepean even has its own unofficial song that opened City Council’s meetings during its first of several temporary meetings there. It even plays when you visit the Nepean museum’s website.

Another excellent example of neighbourhood solidarity can be seen in the existence of community associations like the Glebe Community Association, Action Sandy Hill, and the  Centretown Citizens Community Association, who work to represent the community’s interests in larger debates – these demonstrate the deep-rooted nature of such neighbourhoods.

So how does Urban Capital’s South Central marketing campaign fit into this framework of identity politics? Is the attempted “launching” of South Central the turning of a new page in our Centretown’s history, or a grandiose marketing scheme by a Toronto developer to pitch a trio of upscale condo buildings?

Anderson would question just who identifies with the South Central narrative – and what being a South Central Ottawan even means, beyond an affinity for large-scale urban development projects. Their website flashes inclusive pronouns and explains who “we” are. But who are  “we”? Certainly not Centretowners. Its “Who We Are” page might even lead you to believe that South Central is a newly-struck Business Improvement Association. To lay the groundwork, the owners of the website canvassed area businesses with South Central window stickers, and then proceeded to organize a reception in a local bar. This does not a neighbourhood make.

The reality is that Centretown is called Centretown because Centretowners wish it to be so. If, at any point, we choose to map out our neighbourhood in any other way, then that is for Centretowners to decide – not the creative department of a Toronto developer. But don’t fret: we’ll make sure that, if it’s a major change, we’ll make window stickers.

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  • François Levesque

    Someone on Facebook brought up the fact that this is happening in other neighbourhoods as well. Minto and Ferguslea are trying to rename Bayshore Accora Village!

  • Centretowner

    Seems like people will get indignant about just about anything these days.

    Residents who think that a marketing campaign to sell condos will rename a neighbourhood clearly underestimate the identity resilience of their neighbours. I’m from a amalgamated town and decades later people still refer to areas by their neighbourhood names.

    Secondly, I don’t see what protesting a development has to do with poverty. If anything, rising property taxes and values give the city more revenue, which gives it more options to deal with poverty.

    If you want to protest, go protest out in Kanata, Barrhaven, or Orleans, where city services to low density areas drains city coffers faster than the property taxes recoup them. Think about it – one condo or rental block generates the same property taxes as a whole subdivision of single detached homes. But which area costs more to service?

    Maybe if residents paid the true cost of city service to their location we’d have less sprawl, and urban rents would be lower.

    People, even yuppies, have to live somewhere. It’s either in the ‘burbs, contributing to every social ill possible, or in the city. You can’t have it both ways. People talk about “affordable housing” like its created out of thin air. Maybe if we weren’t so busy paving and piping fields in Barrhaven taxes / rents could be lower.

  • I live on James St

    The slightly amusing thing about the party at the James street pub, is that they’re probably the developer who recently purchased the property which came complete with permits, drafts and plans for a 12 story condo building.

    Either way I’m all for the expansion and building of more condo units if it means streets like gladstone might get cleaned up, all the small local businesses, bars & restaurants profit as well by having more local clientele.

  • I think it’s also important to recognize that neighbourhoods have multiple overlapping identities. Some of those identities form organically by the inhabitants, but a lot are super-imposed by government and businesses.

    Part of Centretown is now also known as “the Village”. Part of it is “Bank Street Promenade”. Part of it is “the Golden Triangle”.

    My impression is that Urban Capital wasn’t looking to re-brand all of Centretown. It was looking to create an identity for a specific stretch along Bank Street surrounding its development. They absolutely need to be respectful of the existing identities (plural) of the larger neighbourhood. Not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because it is the only way it will get any traction.

  • Daniel Harris

    I think one of the things that really interested me about this campaign is how much attention it got. When I first saw the “South Central” ads, I laughed it off as the ridiculous marketing ploy that it is. Yet it is really stirring up a huge reaction in people.

    Also, living in Central, it is not as yuppie as people would suspect. I make $20 000 below the average Ottawa income, and I live in one of the nicer units in Central. The protestors called the developments “anti-queer,” which is hilarious as the salesperson who sold me my condo was a lesbian, and on my floor alone there are 3 gay couples raising kids.

    The only units that didn’t sell in the building were the penthouse units because there was no demand for the luxury penthouse unit. Eventually, they had to redesign the entire top two floors to make smaller, more affordable units.

    Most people who live here live here because they love Centretown, and most people I’ve talked to lived in Centretown before moving into Central (I lived in Lowertown so I could get cheaper rent).

    But living in Lowertown as it gentrified, I saw good and bad. Rents in older buildings didn’t go up more than anywhere else—but when older buildings were destroyed, they would be replaced by expensive buildings that often kicked out awesome local businesses, like Record Runner.

    That’s what I would like to protect in Centretown, the old buildings. Centretown has lots of ugly parking lots, and getting rid of those will make the community better for everyone. Condos are bringing more density to Centretown, which means fewer cars, more pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure, and more money for local businesses. But we must protect what exists now as well, so that there is a good variety of old and new, middle-class and poor, and we don’t lose the awesome businesses that are here. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the 60s & 70s “urban renewal” which cleared huge areas of downtown (and created the community-destroying eyesore called the Queensway).

  • Former Flora

    I lived on Flora St. for several years while the condo’s were being built. I think it is hilarious that they are re-branding Centretown. It is already a known region in Ottawa so I think it is totally unnecessary. I am however excited about how this investment and added density will spark the neighborhood to grow. I expect more boutique business’s and restaurants which will create a better “vibe” in the area. It is sort of desolate and there is no cohesiveness in my opinion (west of Kent, south of Gladstone). Of course this will create gentrification, which is problematic.

  • sophie

    I am all for the condos in Centretown. I actually lived for 4 years next to where they are building large condo towers (Lisgar/Metcalfe) and I welcomed the early morning noise, just because I was tired of living next to a huge parking lot to cater to those who drive to work (and which was a complete deadspace on the weekends). I noticed a lot more people out in the streets and more vibrancy with many of the new developments.

    And on another note, the associations which supposedly represent the ‘community’ don’t really do – that’s pretty obvious if you show up to one of their meetings. It’s great that people are involved in these associations but they only represent one specific perspective and tend to weed out anyone who doesn’t fit in with their views.

  • And developers are sanitizing and rebranding Vanier properties adjacent to Beechwood Avenue by referring to them as Beechwood Village in order to dissociate them from Vanier’s reputation and to make them more palatable to potential buyers. That’s a slap in the face to everyone in Vanier who has worked so hard to turn it into something beautiful.