Underpass memories should not be extinguished

Terry was here; will new plaza allow him to come back? - Photo credit Mike Steinhauer

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Earlier this summer, the National Capital Commission (NCC) announced intentions to construct a commemorative monument to Lord Stanley at a revamped public plaza at the Rideau / Colonel By intersection, commemorating the contributor of hockey’s famed prize. Beyond Canadians’ apparent universal affection for the game, historian Paul Kitchen explains the significance of this site, lying on the route Lord Stanley would travel to his East Block office. For several years, the NCC has been exploring ways to “reclaim the historic space as an urban experience and transform it into a national icon… [to] convey a significant Capital to the world and be representative of Canadian values, ideals and the nation’s role on the world stage.”

Initial renderings of the planned Rideau LRT station, with an east entrance at the same location, appear to include the monument on a new public plaza, replacing the current road extension carrying cars from Mackenzie King to Colonel By:

With these plans, the pedestrian underpass will fade into history. While plans for the square hold great appeal, I want to remember the “unplanned” space it will replace. In reviewing its history, we are introduced to Ottawa’s two tales – that of a city constructed as home for its residents, and as “second home” to all Canadians.

The underpass was constructed in 1983 as part of the Rideau Area Project, a downtown renewal initiative that included development of the Rideau Centre and Ottawa Congress Centre. Road realignment resulted in the Mackenzie King extension to Colonel By. Rideau Street improvements were included (yes, recall the illustrious bus mall and sidewalk enclosures), and after initially flirting with the idea of an above-grade walkway linking the sidewalk at Union Station to the Rideau Centre, the underpass was constructed. Critique has been common; for example, urban design and development guidelines for the conversion of Union Station into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame refer to the underpass and area as a “pedestrian no-man’s land.”

Betty Fox at installation of monument to Terry Fox, September 17, 1983 (Credit: Bruno Schlumberger / Ottawa Citizen. Reproduced by permission)

And yet, the space has always been infused with various meanings. A key thread begins in September, 1983, when a bronze statue of Terry Fox was unveiled at the eastern edge of the underpass to commemorate the 21-year old’s 1980 Marathon of Hope. In a 1981 report to Regional Council, the Terry Fox Memorial Committee, led by Councilor Toddy Kehoe, successfully sought “a full life size bronze statue … in memory of a courageous young Canadian, Terry Fox.” The specific site was chosen mindful of Fox’s route. Given the concurrent development of the site itself, sculptor John Hooper recommended the site’s spiral path to the sculpture as a symbol of the road travelled. The statue was kept low to the ground, “close to the people as Terry lived his life,” as Councilor Kehoe outlined to Mayor Dewar in correspondence.

Street vendors soon filled the space, perceived by some as inappropriate clutter beside the statue. Municipal officials, visiting Ottawa in 1987, from Fox’s BC hometown, expressed outrage with the monument’s condition and area’s cleanliness. A 1988 rehabilitation project was undertaken. Nonetheless, Regional Council was frequently asked to relocate the statue. In a Report to the Region’s Executive Committee in 1991, (then former) Councilor Kehoe outlines the rationale for choosing this site, noting:

“The site is significant – it was carefully chosen. Until Terry Fox arrived in Ottawa, the run had not created the publicity he had hoped for…. When he left Rideau Hall, he ran up Sussex Drive to Rideau and up the sidewalk opposite the site. He was very happy. He knew his mission would catch on. The Region honoured a truly great man – a Canadian hero – the statue is exactly where it should be.”

Council also expressed concern in the potential loss of the “people” plaza should the statue be removed, not wanting this “high profile area” (as termed in the Report) to be made less accessible. Vendors continued to do a brisk business; though Regional officials sought their prohibition from the site, City councilors defended their existence, pointing to the economic opportunities they created. Still, concerns with the statue’s location echoed. Journalist Shelley Page writes in the Ottawa Citizen in 1996, “This is no place for a hero. No place for Terry Fox.” Heritage Minister Sheila Copps agreed; in 1998, the Minister spearheaded the statue’s relocation to a site across from Parliament Hill. On July 1, 1998, with the Fox family, Governor General, Prime Minister, Heritage Minister, Regional Chair and artist present, the statue (still Region-owned) was reinstalled.

The underpass has also garnered notoriety over the years arising from the presence of street-involved young people panhandling, socializing and sleeping in this space. Public concerns around cleanliness and sentiments of discomfort by residents and visitors peaked in June 2006. Late one evening, a passerby urinated in a place where Stephen “Cactus” Beriault had intended to sleep. In an altercation that followed, the 21 year-old Beriault was stabbed. Impressions of incivility became further entrenched in the general public. Then, and in months that followed, the local Councilor called for the closure of the underpass. In the 2006 municipal election campaign, mayoral candidate Larry O’Brien suggested constructing a barrier to prevent young people’s loitering. Spearheaded by the local Councilor, a fence was built in January, 2008, blocking one area. Surveillance cameras followed in 2010.

Following Beriault’s death, youth gathered in the space and at a drop-in, commemorating their friend’s life.  They were connected to this place, for gathering and sometimes for shelter. The argument was taken by the Ottawa Panhandlers Union, who unsuccessfully contested the fence.

Media portrayals of the space as empty, dark, sometimes scary or unsavoury also concerned the local Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Area (BIA). Since 2008, in agreements with the City, the BIA has assumed responsibility for the management and programming of the underpass (a move also worthy of healthy debate). While the space has been tamed, a still ‘gritty’ image infuses branding of The Underpass, with urban arts, contemporary dance / theatre, live music and independent film now occurring.

These are only snapshots of nearly 30 years, but two points resonate. First, public spaces are sometimes appropriated by those who use them. The underpass has continuously been a hub for various elements of the public. These stories demonstrate the challenges in recognizing and reconciling the multiplicity of users (and interests) engaging public space.

Second, while genuinely drawn to the plans for a new public space, I see this not as a “beginning” but an evolution. A “people plaza” was sought in the 1980s. The sitting walls and spaces to gather in draft plans could make the new space a lovely people’s square. Calls for a “national icon” to be “representative of Canadian values, ideals and the nation’s role on the world stage” appear daunting. But then, I’d argue that a statue of a national icon, a “courageous young man” who lived “close to the people” once stood here. Yes, Lord Stanley passed the site to work; Terry Fox passed the site and inspired the world. Perhaps the statue could come home?

Mike Bulthuis is a social geographer in Ottawa, interested in the urban environment. He sometimes works on research and sometimes on policy, he occasionally gets his hands dirty in community, and he always hopes that collectively we push the bar towards cities for all.

8 comments

  1. Excellent discussion of the the contemporary history of the little wedge. While I hang my hat with those looking for a significant improvement of the space, you’ve certainly breathed a little more life into it. This is the kind of piece I’d like to see more of from Spacing Ottawa!

  2. It was never a “people plaza” – it was only ever an automobile bypass. The people aspect was an afterthought, its only function being to clumsily disguise this basic fact. But I agree that the memories should not be extinguished – such awful design should be preserved for all time as an example of how not to build a downtown.

  3. GDH, there’s no doubt this space was borne out of the construction of the MacKenzie Avenue extension; and, like you (I think it’s fair to say), I’m keen on the reprioritization of pedestrians in the draft design for the new square. Having said that, I don’t think we can ignore the stories (or people) that have filled the area since its construction. The individuals that have engaged the space through the years — either as passersby, as vendors, as buskers, or as travellers and residents alike — have not been passive recipients of the bypass. Rather through their patterns, each has contributed to giving the space its various meanings, and in so doing gave life to a space that was too easily cast off as a wasteland. I don’t think we can take away from the intentionality that went into first placing the monument, either. 

  4. I for one can understand how some people (my wife included) could feel intimidated walking under that underpass in the evenings, what with peeing and stabbing and the general veneer of dodginess. I hope the space becomes a place that is open to buskers and merchants and the all the activity makes it safe and welcoming for all. And yes, that statue should be brought back home there.

  5. I am currently an IWW member and the de facto secretary of the Ottawa Panhandlers Union. I am glad that you mentioned the Ottawa Panhandlers Union in your article as well as Cactus and the street youth who congregated in this area.

    One more note, the OPU had asked the city to rename this area Cactus bridge. I’m not shocked that the city/federal government have instead decided to name the area after Lord Stanley, who in all likelihood was a pompous British windbag who did very little to improve life in Canada. One thing he did do, was donate a cup to hockey teams to compete over.

    His full name is Frederick Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby.

    Is this really a man we want to bestow honours upon?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Stanley,_16th_Earl_of_Derby

  6. This is a perfect example of “history for the sake of history”. The fact that this place simply existed does not mean that it deserves commemoration.

    Fred: Did Cactus do anything to improve the life of Canadians? If he hadn’t been killed, he would simply be another homeless man of Ottawa; no different than all the other homeless whose contributions to society are equal to his.

  7. Matt: He was defending his home which was more than the Duke of Wellington did for Wellington Street or King Edward did for King Edward street. You may notice than most of the landmarks in Ottawa are named for people who sat on velvet cushions.

  8. “on the route Lord Stanley would travel to his East Block office”

    That is one of the most graspingatstrawsiest claims to a historical connection I’ve seen in a long time.

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