When I retired from my last school, this building was barely started. Now I think it is the tallest building in the city, a soon-to-be-open condo high-rise in Little Italy.
We took part in a Jane Jacobs Walk in Ottawa this morning, one of sixty planned for this weekend. A pretty wonderful to start a weekend and expand one’s horizons.
After a long really dreadful winter here, it was very good to get out. Our guide was Luciano Pradal, a 77-year-old human repository of the cultural history of Little Italy. I remember Luciano from my time as principal at St. Anthony School. We were looking for ways to install new gardens to grow food at our school and Luciano came in to talk to me about what we might be able to put together.
This project never took off, but Luciano was a real treat to meet. He introduced me to his book, Chronicles of a Chestnut Lover and I learned more about this wonderful part of the city.
My time at St. Anthony’s was full of encounters like this one and taking part in this Jane’s Walk reminded me of the wonderful people I encountered while I worked here. Today, I took a picture of the tower because it is a good reminder of how much has happened since I left. Our son Liam gave me the title to go with the photo and it really fits.
This neighbourhood is full of great stories. Not only of its Italian past but also of its current immigrant population which now is mainly from Asia. It is also a very high-risk neighbourhood with many rooming houses and drop-in centres for the homeless. It is such a diverse setting for a Jane Jacobs Walk and it truly represents what a livable city can be. It is culturally diverse with a tradition of housing groups of new Canadians that find their collective grounding and move on.
Now with giant condo projects, one of the main threats to this neighbourhood is gentrification as it also has become one of the most fashionable parts of the city.
As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know everything I could about this community. It was thrilling to work in such a rich and exciting part of the city and I really wanted our school to be an active part of the fabric of little Italy. If I miss anything about my teaching career, I miss this place.
There is something that can get lost once you retire. Your world can grow a little small. As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know this area very well. Meetings with people like Luciano were opportunities to connect and learn where I was. Walking along Preston and Booth streets today was a good reminder.
You need – or maybe I should say – I need – to stay connected. I need to walk the streets and see how my city may be changing. Whole blocks of social housing have been demolished since I left the school. Acres of old federal buildings are about to be repurposed for mixed residential use. This could be a really cool development for Ottawa!
At the end of the walk, I made a point to visit the bust of Dante that sits across from my old school. This bust used to stand right next to the school. It now sits in a little piazza directly across from the church.
St. Anthony’s started out as Dante Academy and the church across from the school celebrated its 100 anniversary in 2013. We have seen wonderful old photos of celebratory masses and marches past the school and the church during religious festivals. The community has changed since these days but there are still Italian celebrations every year that include an old car show, a gala, a great bike race, and lots of other festivities.
I remember recovering the memorial to students who fought in the Second World War that had been on loan to the local church. It now (I hope) still hangs in the main hall of the school, a testament to the long history of the two schools in the community.
It is amazing that a walk can stir up so many memories of the past and expectations for the future. After a long winter, we all need to get involved in some purposeful walking. Get out and see what is out there still. Take a morning or a whole day to extend yourself into the community we are all still a part of.
Learn and listen and don’t become small. Yes, I am retired and my world does seem a little small sometimes. But a walk with twenty people you don’t know but who share a love of the city is a good way to stretch into a new season, one where winter has finally retreated.