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Byward Market today. Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/bonsmots/8365413559/in/photolist-dKdW1g-5nL3sf-afvyzX-afvytz-afykU5-afvygc-27NGkW-27JhS4-afvyEr-afvyqv-afykNh-afvy5x-afvyse-afvym4-afym7w-afym6s-6Vn789-667z4c-afym4Q-afyma9-afykGC-afvybV-afykS1-afvyDe-73Kuvx-afvZj2-9M3okC-jjkaZK-bxMCTh-dLHU5-cwcR6f-afyLFm-afyLHd-afyLKf-afvZhr-b1yp8v-93omF4-ahdUVt-eHcpxA-897iot-eH6jug-93omDP-93omBF-fU727E-93rtGb-3Xh6s-8Poaff-3XgBYG-58ZkTw-8PobLY">Bonnie Dean</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Byward Market today. Photo: Bonnie Dean, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Ottawa's Byward Market is way wilder than you think

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Residents and visitors to many cities around Canada and the world will celebrate urban life, neighborhoods and history this weekend during the "Jane's Walk" events. Jane Jacobs was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a community-based approach to city building.

Ottawa journalist and volunteer tour guide Karen Kelly will lead a tour along the Rideau Canal and talk about the "untold Ottawa." She spoke with Todd Moe about this annual pedestrian-focused event that offers insights into local history, planning and civic engagement through the simple act of walking and observing.

Karen Kelly's tour will be meeting at 2 pm Saturday at the corner of Colonel By and Daly Streets, across from the Westin Hotel. It'll last about 1.5 hours.

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One untold story along the Rideau Canal: The Ottawa Hockey Club "Silver Seven" (pictured) beat the Dawson City Nuggets to win the 1905 Stanley Cup. The Nuggets were 28 days en route to the game in the canal-side Dey's Arena. Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Silver7.jpg">Archives Canada</a>, public domain Lower Bytown, from the Barrack Hill, near the head of the Eighth Lock and Sappers' Bridge, 1845. Painting by Thomas Burrowes, public domain via <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lower_Bytown,_from_the_Barrack_Hill,_near_the_head_of_the_Eighth_Lock_and_Sappers%E2%80%99_Bridge,_1845.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>

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Lower Bytown, from the Barrack Hill, near the head of the Eighth Lock and Sappers' Bridge, 1845. Painting by Thomas Burrowes, public domain via <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lower_Bytown,_from_the_Barrack_Hill,_near_the_head_of_the_Eighth_Lock_and_Sappers%E2%80%99_Bridge,_1845.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>
Lower Bytown, from the Barrack Hill, near the head of the Eighth Lock and Sappers' Bridge, 1845. Painting by Thomas Burrowes, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Karen Kelly: Jane Jacobs was an urban activist who wrote the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. She was arguing that the urban renewal of the 1950s and '60s really wasn’t great for the people who lived in the cities. She actually helped to preserve Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park in New York City. This weekend there are walks taking place in more than two dozen cities around the world to celebrate city life and her legacy.

Todd Moe: You’re going to be giving a walk titled "Untold Ottawa." Tell us about the neighborhood you’re going to be visiting. Is there a story about that part of Ottawa?

KK: So essentially this is a neighborhood that no longer exists. It was Ottawa as a frontier town. Now, most of us see Ottawa as maybe a bit of a state government town, but in the 19th century, Ottawa was called Bytown after Col. John By who was a British engineer who essentially built the canal and started up the village around it.

It ended up that they got into a massive brawl across the entire fairground, three hours long, and Ottawa did not have another fair for several years after that.
The village was a shantytown of hardworking, hard partying men who came to build the canal. There are many, many stories. It’s a blast to read the diaries of these men and see what things were like at that time. So essentially, I’m around the canal downtown area, the Byward market, where they lived.

I think one of my favorite stories that captures the mood in Ottawa at the time, this lawlessness, was, Col. John By decided to have a summer fair in July of 1829. The main event of this fair was a horse race down Wellington Street where the Parliament buildings are now. These were local men riding the horses, and essentially they couldn’t figure out who won.

It was a photo finish, but there were no photos. So as the judges were trying to figure that out, the hundreds of people who had come to watch this and bet on it were drinking whiskey and arguing among themselves.

It ended up that they got into a massive brawl across the entire fairground, three hours long, and Ottawa did not have another fair for several years after that. So that kind of captures the type of town it was at that time. 

TM: Why was it important for you to get involved in Jane’s Walk?

KK: I think it’s been really meaningful to have a deeper understanding of the place where I live. Also then you have a stronger interest in protecting it and preserving it. Seeing what are really the essential parts of your city.

One thing I’ve learned about is the Byward Market, and that area called Lowertown. What struck me was how, living in Ottawa, we often lament the state of the Market. It's always a little bit seedy, there's a homeless population there, there are a lot of bars. There might be a bit more crime at two o'clock in the morning.

People are always lamenting the state of the Byward Market, but what I learned from this research was that was always kind of a rough part of town. That is where the bars were, that is where the shantytown originally grew up. So for me, it's kind of allowed me to accept the tensions within modern Ottawa that have really been there ever since we started.

TM: So if we’re going to be in Ottawa this weekend, how do we participate? Do we just show up for the walks?

KK: Yes, you just show up. You can go on the Jane's Walk Ottawa website. You can see there are so many interesting walks; it's really amazing. They're all free. You just show up at the starting point. People are encouraged to ask questions. It's really attractive. It's run by volunteers who love their city and their neighborhoods. That's why they are doing it.

TM: Free, and rain or shine.

KK: Absolutely. Come prepared.

TM: And Karen, this kind of kicks off a season of walking tours for you.

KK: That's right. In doing this research, I realized it's something that I really want to share with other people, and the reaction I'm getting has been fabulous. So I'm going to be giving tours all summer starting at the end of May, both about sort of Ottawa as a frontier town, "Untold Ottawa," and then going through Ottawa's military history and the different monuments we have here. That walk is called "Links, Winks, and the Ladies from Hell," which were nicknames of Canadian regiments. It's going to be a great summer; I can't wait.

Karen Kelly is a freelance journalist and one of the many volunteers leading walking tours in Ottawa this weekend as part of the annual Jane's Walk event being held in cities across the world this weekend.

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