I’ve come to think of Ottawa as a city with a case of dual identities. On the one hand, it’s a government town, populated largely by white, middle-class civil servants who commute to and from the suburbs. They’re a visible population – you have only to be downtown at lunchtime or rush hour to witness the herds of suits, ID badges dangling at their waists, diligently marching between their office buildings and the Transitway. Occasionally, a disgraced former senator will turn up managing a strip joint, but for the most part, the government workers come across as a pretty staid group, quietly doing their jobs and collecting their pensions when they retire.
On the other hand, Ottawa is as grassroots a city as you’re likely to find. Music festivals and outdoor shopping districts are busy throughout the summer months, and the longest skating rink in the world is open in the winter. It’s a city of artists, with studio tours, craft shows, galleries and boutiques where local craftspeople share their handmade goods with a population that seems only too ready to buy them up. Under the right conditions, new festivals can form, get off the ground and ultimately thrive. We have a burgeoning foodie scene, where local goodies are becoming ubiquitous in every permutation from gluten-free to soy-free to vegan, and the city has become a haven for craft breweries. We recently got a fleet of food trucks. There are choirs, there are animation screenings, there’s live music and yarn bombers and burlesque shows and queer movie nights. We play host to the biggest leather event in Canada and, more recently, to Comic-Con. If you love the outdoors, an hour’s drive will get you to the heart of Gatineau Park.
For the last four years, this is the city that I’ve inhabited. The government part is there, it’s true, and it employs a lot of people if they’re lucky enough to get a foot in the door. But what I think of as the real Ottawa is the place where I’ve never had to own a car and it once took my partner and me an entire afternoon to do groceries because we kept running into people we know. When I hear people parroting that tired cliché about Ottawa being the city fun forgot, tarring my chosen city and the place that has become more my home than anywhere else I’ve ever lived with what I believe is an ill-deserved brush, I get a little twitchy.
It’s true my perspective is informed by my privilege; I live downtown, roughly where Chinatown and Little Italy meet, and it’s my job to seek things out. A walk up Somerset West on any given day brings me past restaurants where I’m friends with the owners, murals painted by artists I know, a thrift store run by a pair of social workers, and a beautiful park filled with old-growth maples that spans an entire city block. It’s not all roses, of course — that park has a stubborn and lingering drug problem, and living a stone’s throw away from the Bluesfest site means that I spend two weeks out of every summer stepping around puddles of urine. But on the other hand, last year Björk played in my backyard.
I think the key with Ottawa, as with any city, is to take the good with the bad, to be aware of the social factors that form the urban landscape, and to accept and embrace that you’re a part of it. When people tell me there’s nothing to do in Ottawa, I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong, since that’s their experience, but I do sometimes think they aren’t looking hard enough. I believe that you have to make your city a place you want to live in, that if you see an empty space you should try to fill it. It’s true we don’t have the most spectacular nightlife, and I’ve heard the frustrations of young gay men who have trouble finding each other because most of their peers are older and more settled. Living in Ottawa can demand a little bit of effort, and sometimes it can take a while to find your social niche. But it isn’t impossible: I got involved with an art festival shortly after moving here, and it was a stepping-stone into a community where I now have many friends.
At the same time, I do think it would help the cause if events were more accessible and better advertised. When I arrived for a film screening recently on the very subject of Ottawa’s joyless reputation (an irony that is by no means lost on me), I was turned away at the door because I didn’t know I had to have an advance ticket. This was information I had sought out online and hadn’t found. And I wasn’t the only one. As I left disappointed and watched others do the same, it occurred to me that for some of them, the experience probably confirmed what they already believed about the city. And that’s a terrible shame. Next time I’ll be better prepared; I’ll look harder for information and I’ll have a ticket. But maybe others won’t.
My advice for people who are trying, perhaps half-heartedly, to find the fun in Ottawa is to go out and get involved. If you can’t find something, say so, and see if there are others who are looking for it, too. Go out to events and meet people who are creating their own fun, and be open to possibilities when you get there. Use your social media networks to navigate the city and find out what’s going on. Show up to Raw Sugar on a Tuesday night and play some board games, or attend a craft-beer-tasting night at the Hintonburg Public House. Go to Chinatown Remixed in May and the Animation Festival in September. Attend an O-Town Bombers meeting in Dundonald Park on a Sunday and learn to crochet. Sing some karaoke with China Doll at the Shanghai on a Friday night. Go to Westfest in June and see big-name musical acts free. Check out the monthly burlesque brunch at Maxwell’s Bistro. Drop in to Highjinx some afternoon with a donation of toiletries and meet the neighbours you didn’t know you had. There is so much to do in this city and so many interesting, talented and dedicated people making it all happen. Some of them even work for the government. They’re waiting for you to join them, but first you have to look.