Cleaning Up the Quartier: A Tale of Two Cities

East of the Market, over the Rideau River and across the beautiful Cummings bridge, lies a place that Ottawa likes to forget.

An area that gets brushed aside; a place where the weak go and the brave prosper, where those down on their luck with little to no income go for sanctuary.  A place where many hard-working, caring people call home.
It’s a quaint little village with a long history and a lot of character.

Welcome to Vanier.

When I first moved to Vanier in the Fall of 2005, into an apartment just off Montreal Road. the appeal to me was the cheap rent.
But when the landlord handed me the keys to my new home and they were dangling from of a canister of pepper spray, I started to have second thoughts.
When the landlord saw my face he just smiled and said, “You’ll be fine. Oh, and I’ll be back in a few days to put those bars on your windows.”

That was not exactly the kind of reassurance I was looking for.
But why was I worried, why did I automatically feel less safe there than if I’d been living anywhere else in Ottawa?
What is it about Vanier?

There’s a very negative stigma surrounding the area; Vanier, as perceived by many Ottawa residents, is the crime capital of the city; it is quickly associated with heavy drugs, prostitution, and violence.

This is the stigma that, according to MPP Madeleine Meilleur, is a common misconception.
“I don’t agree with the stigma. I’ve been living here for 40 years and I feel very safe,” she said.
“The perception is that, years ago, there was prostitution. I remember when there was a lot of prostitutes and I don’t see them now. To say that it’s visible, I don’t agree,” said Meilleur, who thanks the Ottawa police for this improvement.
“It has to do with a new way of policing, they got better at taking care of the problem,” she said. “Before they said ‘Oh, it’s ok it’s just Vanier.’ Then people in the community got together and said ‘No. We don’t accept to be viewed this way, we require more police involvement.’ Then the police were able to put the resources where they need them. The police pay a lot of attention to this area.”

During my time living in Vanier, I definitely saw my share of drugs and prostitutes.  I remember passing the same woman every Sunday morning on my way to work – and she would still be working.  And the crack house next door to me was always busy.

Suzanne Valiquet of the Quartier Vanier BIA recalls the “ladies of the night” fixing their hair in the reflective windows of the the BIA’s former residence on Montreal Road.
“Three years ago, it was not hard pressed to find prostitution and drug dealers. The perception is that it’s a fuzzy place.” she said.
“[It’s] mostly to do with the rent,” said Meilleur. “There’s a lot of low rental apartments and a lot of absentee owners here. The buildings go down and attract these kinds of people. But we don’t accept people not taking care of the area. It’s going to improve.”

Vanier has already begun to change it’s image. Valiquet and her team at the BIA have been working very hard with the areas businesses and residents to address this negative stigma and help turn their Quartier into the safe and charming place that they believe it to be.

“The people who own businesses really care,” said Valiquet. “It’s a really closely-knit neighbourhood. I want to call it funky town, there’s no other place like it in Ottawa.”

The area is certainly unique. Growing up in the suburbs, where everything was brand new, Vanier seemed, to me, like another planet.  I saw a mismatched cluster of short streets, old buildings and unconventional characters.  But as Vanier started to grow on me, I began to appreciate the spirit that all those elements brought to the neighbourhood.

Vanier has a very long history, going back to the 1820s and 30s when the first pioneering families settled in the area. The Cummings family built a general store on an island on the Rideau River and built a bridge to connect Bytown to ,what is now, Vanier.  The community that grew around it was called Janeville and eventually began to attract more businesses and residents.

By 1908 the area had prospered, and Janeville was joined together with surrounding villages to create the new village of Eastview. Due to it’s large Francophone population, the area was renamed after Canada’s first French Canadian Governor General, Georges P. Vanier, in 1969 and was then incorporated into the city of Ottawa during the 2001 amalgamation.

Vanier’s distinct character that has been shaped by the many people and historic places that have made their home there.
Much of the areas history is reflected in the many heritage buildings and beautifully painted murals which can be seen on the sides of various businesses along Montreal Road.
Even more whispers of Vanier past can be heard rustling in the tress of the Notre Dame cemetery; a Roman Catholic graveyard established in 1872, with almost 120,000 beautifully carved monuments and the tombs of some very prominent Canadians.
Front and centre, when you walk through the iron gates at the cemetery’s main entrance, visitors are greeted with the pedestal tomb of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
The beautiful stone monument is just a taste of the fine, Roman Catholic art that can be seen when you walk the through the cemetery which, also holds the grave of famous Canadian portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh

When I first moved to Vanier, I remember feeling like I was living in two very different places at once; there was the sketchy incongruous neighbourhood I saw on the surface, and the bustling, friendly little village underneath.
Mixed in among the quaint family homes and neglected buildings, Vanier has some hidden treasures.

Throughout the area you can find a number of second empire-style homes from the 1870s that have survived over ten decades in the heart of Ottawa’s French quarter.
One of the oldest buildings in the area, which was originally a general store in the 1870s, is now the home of the Vanier Grill; a friendly neighbourhood diner with a popular $9.99 pick-up pizza special and a claim to “the best club sandwich in town.”
Across form the Burger King on Montreal Rd. sits St. Margaret’s; a Gothic-style limestone church built in 1887.  With it’s large wooden doors and pointed arches, St. Margaret’s has watched Vanier rise and fall around her for almost 125 years.

While the area plays home to people of many different cultures, is particularly symbolic for Francophones.
Vanier was the home of Ontario’s first bilingual public school; Eastview High School, Ontario’s first completely french-speaking public high-school, and the province’s only French-speaking hospital.
Although Vanier has a prominent French culture, it has also attracted people from a number of other backgrounds.
“It used to be very french, but not so much anymore,” said Meilleur. “Maybe now only 50 per cent [french]. I don’t notice more French, it’s the other way around. There’s more new Canadians.
“Here, in Ottawa-Vanier, we have the largest Inuit community outside of the North,” said Meilleur.

Recently, the federal and provincial governments invested $4.7 million in a project with the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health on Montreal Road. The project will create a new community space, in Vanier, which offers training, workshops, and outreach, as well as crisis intervention programs for aboriginals in Ottawa.
Meilleur said that many aboriginal and Inuit people come to Ottawa for the benefits of our health care, and now, with specialized clinics like the Wabano Centre, they are able to receive culturally specific family health care in their native language.

Valiquet says that Vanier offers a little bit of something for everyone.  “There’s a very multi-cultural population in the area,” said Valiquet.  “There’s lots of Portuguese people here. We have the first all Portuguese grocery store in Ottawa.”
“The more we have to attract people from different nations, the better,” said Valiquet.
The assortment cultures allow for a wide variety of businesses and restaurants from various ethnic backgrounds.  From El-Tucan’s, a Tex-mex and Salvadorian restaurant, to Groovy’s Caribbean cuisine, which feature a jazz band called The Buppers on Sunday nights which, according to Valiquet, are “the best in the city.”
It’s not just the cultural demographics in the area that are broad, there’s also a wide range of ages, and social backgrounds.
“The demographics are changing,” said Meilleur. “There’s less and less family and more single couples, retirees and seniors.”

During my time there, I met many people who have lived their whole lives in Vanier, and most of them plan to spend the rest of them there too. Many of them were very sad that their neighbourhood had developed such a negative image.
When I used to tell people that I lived in Vanier, I was almost always greeted by a look of horror, or concern. No one thought I would be safe there.

That is exactly the reaction that people and businesses in the area are trying to stop.  The people of Vanier are actively trying to remove the stigma and brand it as the Quartier Vanier; an inviting place that will attract new residents.
“We want to recruit new businesses and make it a safe and beautiful area that people want to come to,” said Valiquet.
“We’re looking ahead at what we can do to animate the area with original ideas. We want to bring in a different group of people; people interested in investing in the future. [we want to] attract young professional and families. For a community to be successful, you need to have that mix. Young families are the centre of a community.”
In the last few years Valiquet and the BIA have been working with the local businesses to bring that dream to life.

In 2008 they introduced an annual weekend farmer’s market and in 2009, they started Artsfest to showcase local artists and musicians alongside the farmer’s market; both of which have proved to be very successful.
“It’s become a social event,” said Valiquet. “Some people come from as far as Aylmer. It’s easier than the going to the Byward Market, there’s easier access and there’s no problems parking.”
The BIA also organized a number of other projects and events to help give Vanier a face-life, including the Beechwood Pumpkin festival, a clean sweep program and a beautification committee that has been installing garbage receptacles along Montreal Road, painting benches and lamp posts; replacing broken tree cages, planting new trees and revamping storefronts.

The Quartier Vanier also teamed up with La Cite Collegial on a safety patrol program, where they recruited students from the police foundations program to work a foot patrol and make the streets and sidewalks safer a place to be.
“We had to face the challenge,” said Valiquet. “We have to do whatever it takes, and it’s starting to improve.”

Already, in the last few years the property values in the area have gone up. With the expansion of the Montfort hospital, and new schools being built in the area, developers are taking interest, buying up properties and starting to build classy, but affordable, homes and high-rise condos.
Valiquet says she gives it another four to five years and Vanier will be the place to be.
Recently, I spent an entire afternoon walking up and down Montreal Road taking it in, and in all honesty, I can’t say that I saw anything overtly sketchy.  That is to say, nothing that I wouldn’t find anywhere else in the city.

I know there’s still a lot of work to be done, but Vanier’s face-life is well underway.  And while I walked up and down my old streets, I found myself smiling, because while I wasn’t born or raised there, the Vanier quarter was my home, and to see it grow up as it has, I just can’t help but feel proud.
When I left the apartment last summer, I left the pepper spray keychain behind. Maybe the new tenants would use it, but I never needed it, not once.

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