This week the Citizen’s David Reevely ran an excellent post on Ottawa’s neglected laneway system, which has largely been allowed to disappear via generations of encroachments, though it is still visible as a series of thin lines on certain old maps of the city. Reevely identified the West Wellington area as the “big kahuna” of the old back alley network, and I was reminded of a piece I wrote for a print publication several years ago about the West Wellington laneways. The following is that article, slightly edited. – Evan Thornton
It was a green dumpster plopped down in a patch of weeds; but something near to it had my friend acting weird. He was around the back, muttering; I heard phrases like “right through here” and “just where the map said it was”. Now he had me curious, and I tip-toed through the muck to join him. In front of us was a bizarre little structure sticking out of the back wall of the bowling alley like a carbuncle; imagine a plank-sided out-house grafted onto a cinderblock wall. A rich growth of weeds below almost convinced us it was an old privie; boarded-up, but still doing its bit to fertilize the soil below the cracked asphalt of this miniature urban wasteland.
Or maybe this was the shack where the pin-boys smoked and read comics between customers, in the days before automated bowling. Whatever the truth, one thing was certain – once it was built, there wasn’t going to be any more car traffic down the narrow old lane it jutted into, a lane that had once run the width of the block, just a few feet from one of the busiest stretches of Wellington Street.
Intrigued, we used an old street plan to identify remnants of half-a-dozen other alleys nearby, once public right-of-ways but each barricaded by its version of the pin-boy shack. Likely when first blocked or built-over in the fifties and sixties, drivers didn’t miss them much – their land yachts were huge, and shiny chrome might get scratched, or fins dented.
But urban life has moved on, and we thought about modern uses for the lost little lanes. Wellington and Richmond are pedestrian destinations now, and wherever there is a smidgen of activity, just a hint of public interaction, the foot and cycle traffic sniffs it out. So why shouldn’t the alleys lead somewhere interesting? Antique shops, little galleries, outdoor cafés sheltered from the wind? Must we treat as permanent the wide-road ideology bequeathed to us by the Happy Days generation?
Other neighbourhoods don’t. Melbourne, Australia makes a feature of its network of back alleys, hosting an annual festival with a competition for the best in new laneway art; installations, murals, and sculptures that become permanent additions to the city’s street-scape and make for a major tourist attraction. Even certain areas of Ottawa see the value of maintaining attractive and useful alleyways; in the Byward Market area the mix of cafés and boutiques accessed via alleys would do any neighbourhood proud.
And as we consider our lost laneways, we need to think about other types of “dead zones” in Ottawa West. As lively as our streets can be, we still feature concrete con-courses with no gathering place or sense of purpose, parks with benches and tables but no food vendors in sight, and transitway stations stripped of all decoration, commerce, or activity – examples of “disconnects” hindering exploration and enjoyment, steering valuable foot traffic elsewhere, preventing natural interaction.