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Streetscape Memory Bank: Levine’s long lost Lowertown remembered

By Andrew Elliott on May 29, 2015

While casting about for an idea for a story about Ottawa’s Lowertown, I was struck by how much the the changes to the area have been documented over the past fifty years.  Various blogs (Urbsite and Ottawa Past and Present) and organizations (Lowertown Community Association and King Edward Avenue Task Force) have all done a good job of showing us that the past fifty years have not been kind to Lowertown, particularly from King Edward to Cobourg Street.

What else was there to say? The main story is quite clear and simple: the intended 1960s and 1970s neighbourhood “renewal” has done the reverse.  What was once a vibrant, beautiful area has declined into a desiccated, blighted landscape crisscrossed by semi expressways.  It is hard to grasp now what Lowertown was really like before the urban planners and social engineers decided upon near wholesale demolition and reconstruction of entire blocks of streets. What was the experience of living in Lowertown really like?

I had nearly given up hope of delving into true Lowertown life when I stumbled across the writings of Norman Levine.  Who is Norman Levine, you may ask? Levine is one of Ottawa’s most celebrated forgotten authors.  Born in Minsk, Poland in 1923, his family chose to live in Ottawa to escape antisemitism in the early 1930s.  He left Ottawa during the Second World War, and eventually settled in St. Ives, Cornwall.  He became a writer of terse but visual prose.  From the late 1940s to the late 1990s, Levine published nine collections of short stories.

As the Guardian wrote upon his death in 2005, the 1958 travel book Canada Made Me was described by Robertson Davies as dealing with the country “in terms of provincialism, vulgarity and crushed hopes”, and provoked such hostility in Canada that a critic urged readers to stick pins in Levine voodoo dolls. Only 500 copies of the first edition were distributed. Although he lived abroad, Levine came back to visit Ottawa often.

Levine’s formative years in the 1930s and 1940s on Lowertown’s streets were emblazoned on his memory.  He circles round and round the subject of what Lowertown was like, saying: “Now that most of the fruit and rag pedlars are dead and Lower Town has changed—I find I am unable to stay away from it. It’s become like a magnet. Whenever I can, I return.”

From Levine’s descriptions, we learn of an area at once both desperate and more vibrant than now.

Here’s what a typical street would have looked like in the late 1930s, as seen in photos taken by the Department of Public Works, as part of their photographic survey for Jacques Greber (left) and a typical corner store (right):

Lowertown

Here’s a bird’s eye view of the neighbourhood, as seen in the late 1960s courtesy of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC):

BirdsEye

In various reports, Levine provides us with vivid glimpses into a colourful way of life that is no longer a part of Ottawa. From his book, Canada Made Me, he writes: “As a child and young man, Murray Street was home.  Not the entire street, but the one block next to Angelsea Square, where most of the fruit and vegetable and rag pedlars of Ottawa lived.  It cuts right through Lowertown.  At one end is Angelsea Square (a treeless, grass less, dusty playground); the Bishops Palace with the young priests pacing up and down on the stone porch…at the other end of the street, past the Synagogue, the Boulevard, are the wooden shacks, the poor French, the rough taverns.”

Here’s what Murray Street looked like in 1930:

 

Writing in the 1959 essay, “Ottawa Childhood,” Levine says that on one block of Murray Street, everyone was Jewish.  He tells us that in order to get by, people turned to selling things from horse drawn wagons: “the fruit peddler enjoyed a higher status than the rags. They were younger men and more gregarious. They had built up a business…The rag peddlers were less given to high jinks.  They sat on their drab wagons and worn out horses riding slowly through the streets.”

Levine says the first street his family lived on was St. Joseph, and they were “entirely surrounded by French Canadians.” Another street they lived on was Guigues, in a large three storey brick house on the corner with King Edward. Here’s what Guigues and King Edward looked like in 1938:

Again, he writes: “These three moves were a short distance above or below St. Patrick Street.  To walk them all would take about ten minutes.”

He notes that St. Patrick was one of the “main streets of Lowertown.  It had Streetcars; wooden telegraph poles; various small stores mostly French; wooden and brick houses; churches; barbershops; funeral parlours and garages. It was also a recognized social division.” Here’s St. Patrick street, as seen in 1938:

StPatrick

 Here’s the same street, looking not much different in these shots from the CMHC in 1968:

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 2.58.05 PMFrom a 1962 piece published in The Spectator newspaper, entitled “Lower Town,” Levine walks the streets of his childhood, and  mixes past and present in evocative fashion:

“Some corner houses had in their front rooms a grocery, a tailor, a laundry, a barber shop, Chez Maurice (`no free reading’). While in the back, behind the curtain, lived the family. You could tell these houses by the tin signs nailed to their sides or hanging on a piece of iron, creaking in the wind, giving the name of the owner and advertising Pepsi-Cola, Sweet Caporal, Alouette, Kik. Most of the signs were in French.” The CMHC has an image of what some of these typical businesses would have looked like:

1968-301

In Levine’s 1973 essay entitled “In Lower Town,” he notes that his father only spoke a few words of English and French. He would take his wagon to sell fruit across the canal in the wealthier Centretown.  When Levine was 12, he helped his father with the work: “When school finished at the end of June, I left the house early in the morning and walked to the market and helped him load the wagon with the fruit and vegetables that he bought from the farmers and the wholesale stores. Then we went out—the white horse pulling the high red wagon, over Rideau, along Nicholas Street, by the jail, over Laurier Bridge and across the Rideau Canal, to the first street with my father’s customers—Gloucester.”

The changes wrought to Lowertown between 1968 and 1973 did not go unnoticed by Levine.  And Levine’s indictment of these changes is harsh, as stated in an interview with the Ottawa Journal on September 1, 1970.  He notes: “My Ottawa really is dead.  A place doesn’t mean much unless its invested with people.” Of the Ottawa of his youth, he says: “It was a hard life. People really worked and got old before their time.  But we had a sense of community.”  He said that it was a place where you could belong to a neighbourhood, and know your neighbours: “That memory is what sustains me.” (An excellent record of these changes can be found within an incredible new photographic database maintained by the CMHC – a portion of the database can be viewed more easily here.

Old Lowertown way of life was an essential part of the fabric of Ottawa – and it is now long gone.  It has been replaced with an incredible emptiness.  This feeling is what struck me most when I walked down Old St. Patrick Street and Murray Street on a recent sunny May day.  These streets were deserted, the “new” replacement houses from the early 1970s aging less confidently than their few remaining late 19th cousins.  To a visitor used to the welcoming, bustling atmosphere of the nearby Market and Lowertown West, Lowertown East comes as a shock, and the emptiness seems to shout: This is no place to visit, we don’t want you here!

What will it take to fix Lowertown East’s broken streetscapes? Is it too late to turn things around and bring back a sustainable, vibrant community?

Next Time: A look at Rideau Street and the Market.

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