5 min read

The Art House Café and Birling the Ottawa

In which I loved and love my city

I’m sitting in a place called Art House Cafe, drinking an Orange Bourbon Vanilla Rooibos Iced Tea, which sounds like something that’s at least two things too many, but is actually perfect, like an orange creamsicle in beverage form but less sweet. It looks beautiful, too, chunks of triangular orange slices floating in cold amber. It tastes like every single one of its declared flavours blending, instead of flavours a few degrees removed from their origin shuffling awkwardly around each other at a party where no one wants to be.

This place is new to me, like a lot of things in this neighbourhood. I don’t know what it would be called now; Centretown West, maybe? I used to live here, and whenever I start to say that it feels like I’m talking about a very recent past, and then I realize I’m about to say 2005, and 2005 was fourteen years ago, and so I lived here fourteen years ago, and me saying in bewildered wonder to the people who work in this cafe that “I used to live in this neighbourhood” is actually to speak of having lived in a strange prehistory. More than that — I lived here a single year, 2005-2006, the year of my Master’s degree, when my sister and I shared a two bedroom apartment and a phone number made up of our respective ages, 21 and 19, while the rest of our family was overseas.

But that single year encompasses so much adulthood. It was our first time living apart from our family; our first time living in (haha) the Big City, having grown up in a town nearby before moving out to a more rural place when I turned sixteen. It was my first time paying rent, which I was shouldering alone for the two of us as my sister pursued her Conservatory degree. I was working three jobs while doing my MA, being a teaching assistant at uOttawa, a bookseller at Perfect Books, and a tour guide for the Haunted Walk. I launched Goblin Fruit with Jessica Wick and Oliver Hunter, a quarterly poetry journal to showcase the sort of fantastical work which we loved best, which would be a part of my life for the next ten years and introduce me to some of my dearest friends. It was a time of squaring my shoulders to bear new, different responsibilities, and thrilling to the challenge — a time of meeting people, learning my city’s history step by step, bus by bus, as this place that used to be a destination became my home.

I don’t spend a lot of time in this area now; the constellation of cafes in which I work is elsewhere, within a radius of where I presently live. But today I came out wandering this way on a mission: to visit Birling, a skateboard shop and cafe, that I was introduced to by two of the owners during a random book exchange event I almost didn’t attend. I’d glimpsed a mention in an Instagram story from the cocktail bar hosting it, looked at the pile of languishing ARCs eating up my flat, gathered them into a shopping trolley and set out to give them away — not realizing that the purpose of the exchange was to bring one or two books we’d loved and wanted to share. I was mortified, but the organizers, Adam and Aaron, welcomed me and my ludicrous bookpile with generous grace, and we had a lovely time. They explained that they’d started this twice-yearly exchange to share their own love of reading with the community of skateboarders they provide for in town. I said I’d love to come by, and I don’t think they quite believed me.

But of course I came by. I found myself, perhaps disproportionately, moved by this idea of a thriving community I was unfamiliar with taking root in my old neighbourhood. I walked to Birling through three or four other neighbourhoods, wondering the while how we reckon these things, why Kent and Somerset should feel so different from Bank and Somerset, what layers of living make these changes manifest in our day to day. When I arrived Adam seemed surprised and happy to see me, showed me the space they’d made: a floor made of wood prised off the side of a barn, counter tops made from broken pieces of the rest of the house, a jar of iron nails forged in the house’s own back yard almost a century ago. In that back yard I saw a gorgeous mural by Drew Mosley, a local artist whose work I’d glimpsed at Union 613, another community-focused business rooted in the transformation of an old red brick building. Mosley’s work, Adam explained to me, features anthropomorphic creatures made homeless by humanity’s encroachment on their habitat. I could feel this gathering in my throat as I looked at it: that river in a bindle, that walking-stick-house with a snake inside, on a wall where Adam and Aaron and Tom had pried up a house’s history and built a new space for themselves inside it, and it felt like the most loving, respectful thing possible to do with an old building.

Maybe the reason 2005 looms so large in my memory and sense of self is because of the connections I made to the place I lived in at that time. I saw my friends regularly, in person, at least as much as I spoke to people online; I had a job introducing people to my city, grounded in its skylines and spaces and restaurants. Most of my twenties thereafter were spent whirling from continent to continent, always in some way foreign or contingent, in a way I wasn’t in Ottawa, at 21. I felt so thoroughly and entirely myself, so perched on the lip of possibility, eager to explore everything.

I want to be aware of this, now, back in this city, but with a life that spans several. Meeting Adam and Aaron and learning about what they did with this building they’ve moved into, how they’ve made it more itself, built a home out of its bones for their own community — meeting Jeff at the Art House Café, hearing him talk excitedly about how they’re learning the history of this building and want to share it with their customers, where the WiFi password is “Community,” where the walls are a breathtaking, gulpable mix of media and styles and subjects from local artists — it’s all so beautiful, so of this place, so present, so grounded.

Even as the summer looms full of travel and movement, I want to sink my hands and teeth back into Ottawa, be part of it again, know people, support people, fight on behalf of people. I’ve felt so remote from my friends, from my city, for so long, and I’m realizing, sitting here and writing this, that it’s because on some level I haven’t replaced my 2005-2006 city with the present one; I’ve wandered to the familiar places grasping after a past that’s slipping from me like a river in a bindle, trying to inhabit a memory that’s splintering around me. I need to build a new home out of those memories, new floors out of old walls.

And then I need to invite people in.