Snowbanks left and right tower above me as I trudge up the sidewalk, from the houses across the street of Harold who goes to private school and Bobby who goes to Catholic school, past the house of Janice who goes to my school, and up the endless hill where a temple awaits. Not St. Margaret Mary Church to my right (where the meaningful temple is actually the toboggan hill behind the church) but the temple where my street, Fairbairn, meets Sunnyside on the left. This magical place houses gleaming fire engines, which already appear to me old fashioned, in the same way some inter-city Colonial Coach buses are old and some are contemporary.
It’s January 1958 and I am 8 years old (almost 9), heading to Hopewell, my school. I proceed along Sunnyside to Bank Street and the familiar Haddad’s Market, destination for dozens of errands of the “go to Haddad’s and get a couple of carrots, or a can of salmon, or a half-dozen eggs” variety. Soon I will be leaving on a grand adventure— winter bus trip to Los Angeles with my grandmother—but for now grade 5 is grand.
Kitty-corner and up a bit lies another kind of secular temple, the Mayfair Theatre, where Saturday double features can be accessed for a quarter, imprinting a screen addiction and resulting in an entire category of personal cinema, the Mayfair Theatre movie, all from the mid-to-late 1950s. Say, for example, The Robe with Richard Burton, from a book by an author whose name is on a shelf at home, followed by its much better (more fighting) sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators with Victor Mature, in iridescently electric full colour CinemaScope. (Impressing me most in both was one Jay Robinson, whose scenery-chewing Caligula bore a startling behavioural resemblance to a certain ex-President; but I digress). Or plausible one-eyed Viking Kirk Douglas implausibly scaling a drawbridge on a ladder of battle axes; or missionary Ingrid Bergman shepherding children across war-torn China; or Cary Grant on a metaphorical Hitchcockian roller coaster climaxing at Mount Rushmore.
At least once (when exactly is lost to my memory), engines deployed from the Firehall when Coulter’s Drug Store on Bank burned up, and a distracted (by me and other kids) fireman roared, “Go home!” in an alleyway behind the mesmerizing blaze, where we ought not to have been.
Living in three residences in an area bisected by Bank Street, from Patterson’s Creek on the north to Belmont Avenue on the south (but mostly south of the canal), what is most surprising about the neighbourhood now known as Old Ottawa South, and known forever to me as just Ottawa South (my city basically ending at the Billings Bridge plaza), is how familiar and oddly undiluted it all remains to this day. Encountering the so-called “development industry” in four provinces over five decades, I know how easy it is for such neighbourhoods to be razed, to have everything suddenly look like a Shoppers (not that I’m picking on them). The library is the same, for example, as is the tennis club, and for all I know, children still congregate to watch the Rough Riders practice on a side field behind Lansdowne’s south stand (yes, I know the team name has changed, but they’re still the Riders to me). Even the number 5 bus route on Riverdale is still the number 5, sixty-five years after I used it to explore the larger city. Pure Spring (a popular Ottawa-based bottler of soft drinks) is sadly extinct, but the taste remains.
Unexpectedly reconnecting with the neighbourhood (and concurrently my childhood) took place through the generosity of an old friend and her family. The repurposing of the Firehall was particularly startling and heartening. Community centres are an affirmation. That such a centre is incorporated into a heritage structure proves Margaret Thatcher was wrong: there is such a thing as society and this is one example of its beating heart.
James Allen left Ottawa in 1960, and now lives in Victoria BC, but part of him never really left.
Featured in the March 2021 OSCAR.