3 min

Can’t keep a good neighbourhood down

The Pride of Centretown

After a foot of snow pounded Ottawa overnight, I got a call from my boyfriend on his cell.

He was walking home, into Centretown, from brunch on Preston when something on Bank St made him stop. Near the Queensway, the top half of a Capital Xtra newspaper box had been lovingly freed from the snowbank so that passersby could see the paper in the box and pick one out.

This was after the Mar 7-8 storm. That’s the storm that so scared city officials that they threatened to tow cars away from places they were removing snow. Actually, more than threatened, as I found out when I was helping out a guy whose car was parked in front of my Kent St apartment, wedged into a drift. He’d parked on Gladstone. Dude, where’s my car?

For those who have followed our three-year campaign to stop the targeting of our boxes by vandals, the story is a warm and fuzzy footnote. Capital Xtra has already shared some of the less fuzzy episodes: two boxes set on fire on Laurier Ave, a box defaced with homophobic and AIDS-phobic graffiti in Gatineau, the turfing of a box in Kanata, a string of incidents in Hintonburg. That’s on top of the blanket vandalism of newspaper boxes everyone faces of the sharpie, stencil and sticker varieties.

Some of the boxes have been informally adopted by area residents, who patiently clean garbage out of them, restock the window leaf and call us with problems they can’t handle on their own. That, apparently, includes at least one Glebe resident. Thank you.

Sound trivial? Here’s the thing: other than a handful of storefronts, the distinctive purple newspaper boxes are the only obviously gay part of the streetscape. Promoters sometimes put up gay-themed posters on the telephone polls, but they’re ripped down as quickly as they’re put up. Just ask Capital Pride’s 2007 team.

In many parts of the city, the boxes are the sum total of our visibility. So, when some degenerate scrawls “No AIDS-infected fags in Hull” on one of the boxes, it’s a proxy. And when someone clears the snow from in front of a box, it’s a proxy too.

An early lesson of the gay and lesbian fight — and now the trans fight too — is that our biggest asset is visibility. When we live our lives in secret, we are vulnerable. When what we know to be true (that there are gay and lesbian people in all our communities) is made public consistently over time, proudly, unapologetically, that’s when progress starts.

Okay, back to the snowstorm, because it’s helped to understand Centretown a little bit better. Before my fella called, I headed to one of the Bank St tax services thinking — wrongly — that, because of the snowstorm, the place would be empty and filing my taxes a breeze. Whoops. I waited in a three-hour queue.

Apparently, freak weather can’t keep folks off Bank St. It turns out that, being full- or part-time pedestrians, downtowners have a different attitude toward the snow. The risk of getting stuck is lower when you’re on foot (I wouldn’t say, given the weather we’ve had, that it’s negligible.)

I mean, that’s why the Glebe resident was there to clean up the Capital Xtra box in the first place. The pubs and restaurants were busy all weekend. There were line-ups at Tim Horton’s. Admittedly, the regular lineups for Barrymore’s Retro ’80s night were conspicuously absent, but by then — 10pm on Sunday night — perhaps people were getting some much needed rest from all the trudging they’d done over the weekend.

All of which, in a roundabout way, is to say that downtown is a pretty cool place. Not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a neighbourhood with a backbone.

The little strip of Bank St approximately bounded by Nepean and James is also Ottawa’s unofficial gay village, with some three dozen queer businesses and service groups on or around the corner from Bank.

It’s an area that’s about to get more hip, with the addition of condo developments on both ends.

And, because this little strip of Bank St is about to experience a rough patch (construction and road closures starting this spring), we have a window of opportunity to help shape what the area will look like in years to come.

No two ways about it, Bank St is about to get a facelift — one that it badly needs. But what should that look like? Rainbow designation on the street signs, on the street lamps, on the benches? Sculptures? Trees? Less car traffic? More?

Well, the city is asking for our input. It’s a chance we’re not going to get again any time soon. So stop by the Centretown Community Health Centre for the open house Mar 18. You can drop in anytime between 5 and 8pm and don’t have to stay long; just peruse the drawings and then write up a couple of suggestions.

If you’re feeling social, stop by the Buzz for a drink afterwards. I hope to see you there.