4 min

City hall ignores flesh-and-blood communities

Gaybourhood, Chinatown, Little Italy not respected as communities

Credit: Pat Croteau

Ottawa’s gay community is not the only cultural minority community feeling ignored and disrespected by city hall’s planning department.

Leaders of both the Chinese and Italian communities say their culturally and geographically distinct communities are also frustrated by the way city hall treats them in planning matters.

Gay leaders, particularly business owners, are upset over being left out of plans for the re-development of the Bank St neighbourhood. While businesses were involved in commenting on the major construction planning through the Bank St Promenade Business Improvement Association, city planners failed to reach out specifically to gay businesses and residents.

The city’s official 2020 plan appears to notice that there is a queer community.

A section in the Human Services Plan is entitled Residents Who Are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, And Transgendered. “All safe and healthy cities must emphasize the need to break down barriers of isolation, strengthen mutual support and provide adequate services for its citizens,” it reads. “For example, the City recognizes the considerable strengths already offered to Ottawa by its GLBT residents.”

The words are there. But Capital Xtra has been unable to find any real-life examples of consultations to ensure city projects and plans strengthen and nurture the gay community’s distinct culture and neighbourhood.

And city planners dodge the question. When Nancy Jackson, a city social planner, was asked what the city has done to apply the above-quoted section, we were referred to the city’s media relations office.

When we asked media relations officer Eric Collard why the gay community wasn’t included in the public advisory meetings to revamp Bank St, we were stonewalled once again. Collard merely e-mailed Capital Xtra information we already had. When we called back to find out if there was someone we could talk to further about the e-mail, we were told that information was enough and hung up on.

In another interview with Capital Xtra, Richard Holder, project manager for the proposed construction, admitted that the city should have asked the gay community for their thoughts, and not doing so was an oversight.

“We felt it wasn’t an issue until now,” Holder says. “It seems to be an issue to gays and lesbians, but we haven’t heard what impact it will have on the community. Nobody has contacted us.”

Gays are not alone. Two other downtown cultural communities also feel disrespected by city hall.

Marilla Lo says the city has failed to take responsibility in helping to preserve Ottawa’s Chinese community.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say they look at us as squatters, but they’re certainly not going out of their way to say, ‘We would like to help you,’ or ‘What do you suggest?’ or ‘What can I do for you?'” says Lo, the executive director of the Somerset St Chinatown Business Improvement Area. “I think the city has a responsibility to do that for a unique community like this. However, as long as I’ve been here, I haven’t heard or seen anything positive. And, as a matter of fact, from what I’ve seen, the city has been working against us, rather than for us.”

The most difficult problem Lo says she’s faced as BIA director is the cancelling of the Millenium Gardens project, a community initiative which started in 2000 and would have been located at the city parking lot on the corner of Cambridge and Somerset streets.

The Millenium Gardens project was cancelled, Lo says, because of the city’s interference in the contract. While the conflict between the BIA, the city, city politicians and the project contractor is a complex matter, the bottom line is that the gardens proved to be the victim despite its popularity in the community.

Lo emerged from the conflict feeling betrayed by city hall.

Joe Cotroneo is owner of Pub Italia on Preston St, the heart of Little Italy. He has also been a director of the Preston St BIA for nine years.

Little Italy was almost destroyed in the 1960s under mayor Charlotte Whitten, he recalls. The city seized many properties to build the Adult High School and a number of townhouses. Those forced expropriations, often at less than market value, drove out many Italians.

Even though he doesn’t live in the neighbourhood, Cotroneo calls Preston St home. As a child, he attended St Anthony’s Church on Booth at Gladstone and went to school at St Anthony’s Public School right across the street. The place he lived with his parents growing up was 271 Preston St, which he now calls 271 Adult High School’s football field.

“The city tore down perfectly good houses,” Cotroneo says. “And look at the mess they have now! A dilapidated old high school with chipped paint all over it!

“The city really can’t do anything else to the Italian community,” Cotroneo says. “What they did in the ’60s would’ve never happened today. There’s no way they would’ve destroyed a cultural neighbourhood.”

And yet somehow the Preston St area has survived as the cultural capital, strong in the hearts of the local Italian community, says the 69-year-old Cotroneo.

Today, the Preston St BIA is composed mostly of people of Italian descent, some of whom, like Cotroneo, grew up in the Preston St community in the 1960s and witnessed first-hand the area’s cultural demise. Cotroneo says the BIA “is certainly strong now” and “we’re moving forward to preserve Preston Street as an Italian district.”

Cotroneo says that events like Italian Week, a two-week festival held on Preston St – which brings in “huge” tourist dollars – is mostly how the Italian community stays tightly knit.

“It’s those events that are going to stay on the street and help keep that kind of flavour,” Cotroneo says.

Preston St also needs to replace sewer and water infrastructure just like Bank St and will require some streetscaping – which Cotroneo says “will just beautify the street.”

“We told the city that we don’t want just another nice street wtih special lights and trees. There has to be an Italian identity there. An Italian business identity. As long as the community and the businesses stay strong in the street, [the Italian community will] always be recognized,” Cotroneo says, pointing to the Italian-Canadian heritage mural under the Queensway overpass on Preston St.

“That archway’s going to say Corso Italia forever,” Cotroneo says.

A smart city administration would work with the queer community to protect, nurture and enhance the gaybourhood, says Brian Ray, a University Of Ottawa geography professor and expert on urban neighbourhoods.

Ray says if the city doesn’t include the queer community in renovation plans for Bank St, “It will potentially suffer economic costs, both short term, and more importantly, long term.

“The city can’t just knock out these soft services and feel that it’s not going to create a problem in the end. Ottawa has a very large queer community, and that community has money to spend.”