3 min

What Hogtown Could learn from the Capital

Retaining a human scale

I used to be a real snob about small cities. I spent 10 months in Ottawa many years ago and, having grown up in Toronto and lived in Vancouver, our nation’s capital came as a bit of a shock. Like, it was kind of small.

I still remember going out to one of the trendiest bars in the city in the middle of the week and finding it empty. I don’t mean just no-cute-guys empty. I mean me, the bartender and some silent stranger sitting on a stool.

Some things haven’t changed. Ottawa still isn’t much of a bar town. Whatever its inner reality, the town exudes a vibe of cozy domesticity. But thanks to changing liquor laws you no longer have to troop across the frozen Ottawa River to get to a danceclub in Hull (now Gatineau) and the clubs downtown are at least as much fun as Church St, without any of the we’re-doing-you-a-favour-by-letting-you-in attitude.

In fact, after a recent visit, I began to think there were more than a few things Toronto could learn from Ottawa, things like innovation, ingenuity and civility.

On the minus side: Too many signs saying, “Caution, falling ice,” and too many people standing around in fur-trimmed parkas stamping the slush and waiting for fleets of buses that hurtle past in a rush of noise. Translation: No subways. On the other hand you don’t have to endure Toronto’s filthy underground and, if you play your cards right and pick a downtown base of operations, you won’t have to take transit at all.

The train station is in the wrong place, outside the core, but the bus station isn’t, and most of the major tourist attractions are within a 15 or 20-minute walk of each other. (They’re also way more affordable than Toronto’s: the National Gallery costs only $6, the photography museum only $4 and the dramatic War Museum and its partner across the river, the Museum Of Civilization, are free on Thursday evenings and half-price on Sundays.)

The gay scene is even more compact. There are a couple of places in the tourist-ridden Byward Market but I wouldn’t bother. Like Toronto’s ghetto, most of Ottawa’s gay, ah, culture is organized around one main street, in its case, Bank St.

Finding these places can be a chore and you’ll probably need a guide or a map. (See the bar listings in Capital Xtra.) A friend of mine who has been visiting Ottawa twice a year for several years didn’t realize until recently that his favourite gay B&B was about half a block from one of the city’s oldest gay pubs. I wasn’t surprised. He’s not very adventuresome and it’s rather discreet. That goes ditto for the rest of the scene.

Ottawa bars tend to make ingenious use of out-of-the-way real estate, which is to say they’re tucked away on side streets, down alleys and/or at the end of staircases. Four out of the six places I visited were wholly or partially underground and they seem to have made the most of local texture. The very cool dance club Edge (212 Sparks at Bank) is a little too youth-oriented for me but it’s got a great maze-like space and historic stone walls that give it the air of a glamorous dungeon with twink attendants.

The newish Club Soda (222 Slater at Bank) is probably too cool to last, although it has the best music and the best use of Ikea accessories. An ultrahip white box with tree-stump tables and a floating glass shelf for the DJ’s turntables, it’s a little too hip to be entirely comfortable but the staff are clearly working hard to make it a success.

Club Soda wasn’t terribly busy on the Friday night I visited, but one of the waiters assured me that it was usually much more popular. A once-popular electro club was holding a reunion party the following night and he figured people were saving their money and their drugs for that. On the way out the door, another kid inquired earnestly if I would be back. He sounded quite plaintive — “But you will come again?” — and I was both puzzled and pleased. Mine is not a demographic usually courted by the club kids.

But the friendliness wasn’t atypical. The price Toronto pays for its size and diversity is a certain aloofness. Everyone minds his or her own business. Ottawans don’t. McDonald’s clerks chat to their regulars and even the salespeople in museum gift shops are apt to ask about your visit.

Cushioned, perhaps, by government largesse, Ottawa seems to have escaped both Toronto’s grasping materialism and the social indifference it ensures. Condo towers threaten the older areas from the east but so far they seem to have been confined to the edges of the core. The downtown is still a nice mix of small apartment buildings and older houses.

In fact, Ottawa’s downtown reminds me of Toronto’s 20 years ago, which is to say inhabitable. You can still walk past an old church on your way to a bar, or see an Edwardian mansion across the street from a Victorian home, and if the mansion is now part of a co-op and the home is now a B&B with 11 guest rooms (the really lovely Inn On Somerset), they still retain their human scale.