When you live in one city long enough, particularly if you live in one neighbourhood for many decades, you can’t help but notice how a city or a neighbourhood can change in ways a newcomer would miss. I’ve lived in Ottawa all but five years of my life and in those forty plus years, I’ve really only lived in and around two neighbourhoods for most of it. Centretown in my twenties and thirties and Manor Park for much of my childhood and my forties and fifties.
The other day my wife and I were watching some educational program about archaeology and it brought me to the idea that we needn’t wait thousands or even hundreds of years to have things lost to history, with no trace of their existence. In my own lifetime and certainly in my parents’ lifetimes, Ottawa is a new city in many respects and it is only in dusty libraries and older people’s memories that we might discover that which is no more.
My ancestors, the Macdonalds and the McMillans, were once affluent jewellers here in Ottawa. My great-grandfather and my great-great grandfather were notable citizens and their store’s cash register is in the Bytown Museum. It was once regarded as the most expensive cash register in Canada, at a time when people cared about cash registers. The address on Sparks Street is no more and the family home in Sandy Hill is now the site of the University of Ottawa. Much of the money was lost during the depression and there’s little trace of that family history. I have my great-grandfather’s pocket watch but that’s about it. And in a generation or two, I don’t think anyone will remember. Few do now.
In my neighbourhood, the old Rockcliffe air base is being redeveloped. Like everything else around here, it was once Algonquin land. And then it was farm land. And by the end of the First World War, it was one of the first and most important airports in Canada. Charles Lindbergh flew there. Royalty would make inspections there. It was important in the Second World War too. By the seventies, to me it was a place where I played hockey for the base teams. It was filled with very modest bungalows and it had a curling rink and a school and it was a very tight-knit community. And of course, it was a military installation. I remember once reading about the tight security there during the FLQ Crisis.
After the Cold War ended, I guess it was deemed an unnecessary facility and it was decommissioned about twenty years ago. But in a year or two, when all the new houses are built (some million dollar properties) and the new school is built and the new trees have been planted, there will be children living on streets with names like Avro Circle, who might never know anything about the land on which they live.
That it was once the home to First Nations peoples. That it was land used for farming and the lumber trade. That it was a very important part of Canadian aviation history and integral in the fighting of world wars. Twice. And that I was a pretty decent stay-at-home pee-wee defenceman in the Serge Savard mold from 1977 to 1980.
There’s history and urban archaeology every where we look. In each of our cities and all of our neighbourhoods. I don’t need a shovel to uncover it. I remember it.