Monday, November 05, 2012

In Ottawa's Hintonburg, Worlds Collide and Stomachs Win Over Ears

Aside from jazz, one of my favourite interests is cities and how they develop, and no city attracts my interest more than my own.

I grew up just to the west of a working-class neighbourhood in Ottawa, which was known variously as Mechanicsville and Hintonburg. In recent years, the area has been undergoing sweeping change, with small, contemporary restaurants replacing decades-old KFC outlets and independent greasy spoons. Consequently, the area has attracted a growing number of young families, artists and technology workers, who have taken over the densely packed houses that straddle the main artery. For those of us who grew up in the years when the neighbourhood was anything but a destination, the change has been heady.

One of the cornerstones of the neighbourhood's change has been the Elmdale House Tavern, one of the last of the city's traditional beer parlours (which, as recently as the 1970s, featured 'Men's' and 'Ladies and Escorts' entrances and strictly segregated service policies). A few years ago, a couple of neighbourhood veterans bought the 80-year-old business, replaced the heating/cooling system and other infrastructural elements, and launched a six-night-a-week live music policy—the first of its kind in Ottawa in many years. While the booking policy only occasionally extended to include jazz artists like Charlie Hunter, the musical menu was eclectic, and the opportunities for young bands legion.

Meanwhile, across town, in another once-dodgy neighbourhood, another dedicated, young entrepreneur was shaking things up with a funky restaurant that offered sustainably sourced seafood and employed some of the city's most creative chefs. But, while the Elmdale House maintained the down-and-dirty essence of its roots, and kept prices low to build its audience, the Whalesbone Oyster House offered main courses that scrape the $50 mark and attracted high-flying Cabinet ministers from Canada's federal government.

Now, Ottawa's music and food scenes are abuzz with news that Whalesbone owner Joshua Bishop has purchased the rights to the Elmdale House business and announced plans to reduce the live music by 60 percent, cut the seating capacity from 160 to 95, and add a kitchen to the old structure.

Worlds collide and sparks fly. Foodies and music fans are choosing sides and flinging tweets that knock opposing views.

I'm a fan of Whalesbone and its sustainable fish, but I'm mourning the loss of this important music venue. Ottawa has always had a problem with sustaining a full-time music scene—being sandwiched  between the much-larger scenes in Montreal to the east and Toronto to the west—and the Elmdale House was going a long way toward turning that around.

In this case, it's clear that the foodies have won out and musicians and their fans are on the losing end.

1 comment:

shhhhhhh. said...

Hi James ---

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of this post. The Ottawa arts scene is going through some big changes right now.

I would like to comment, however, on your point about Elmdale House keeping prices low to build their audience. Their beer was $8 a pint, for audience and performers alike.

While I don't think that's the only reason that they're shutting down, I'll confess that paying a $5-$10 cover and paying $8 beer adds up fast for me.


Craig Pedersen