Dickheads In the Village

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun; November 11, 2004

“The Canadian Pub is destined to become a highly prized addition to anyone’s collection.”
– McIntosh & Watts, Christmas catalogue

McIntosh & Watts, Canada’s self-proclaimed Number 1 retailer of quality gifts and tableware are selling a special Victorian Dickens village-inspired foot-tall model they call “The Canadian Pub.”

It’s a Christmas scene, with snow collecting at ground level, where a cozy English style pub is nestled beneath wreath- and holly-decorated arches. It’s the place you’d imagine busy holiday shoppers settling in for a pint, some eats, and great conversation. The pub sign is a red maple leaf and above the red doorway it’s marked, “20 Rideau Street.”

The model lights up.

It’s $91.

With its turn-of-the-century brickwork, bay windows and chimney, this model bears an uncanny resemblance to the building at the corner of Bank and Somerset Street West. After a 68-year run as a dry goods shop, hotel, and finally pub and tavern, the businesses in this historic building – the Duke of Somerset Pub and the Lockmaster Tavern – closed their doors for the last time October 30.

Figure you’ll just head somewhere else instead? Well, the Lieutenant’s Pump got rid of their dart boards sometime last year, and the Celtic Cross moved to Elgin Street and joined the rest of the cruiser joints. A no-frills alternative was Elgin Street’s Eurostar, but it also closed last month.

Calling McIntosh & Watts
(1-866-35-CHINA) to reserve a Canadian Pub in time for the holidays might not be such a bad idea.

What’s happening to pub and tavern culture in Ottawa and who’s to blame?

Is Ottawa becoming more about dickheads in the village than a Dickensian village?

Are people really more interested in prancing around at discos and martini bars with strangers than cozying into a velour booth and communing with friends and locals over pints of bitter?

Besides the Mayflower Pub on Cooper, there are few places remaining where people can go to socialize in the way they did in our grandfathers’ age, or as they did on Cheers. And I mean “socialize,” as in having a conversation with a regular that doesn’t involve trying to impress or get them into bed.

Back in the day, hanging out with the locals was a cherished custom and a form of support. “Hey Fern, I’ve got this boil.” “Well, Jean-Guy, I know a guy who knows this woman who knows a guy who knows this doctor.”

That vibe still exists at places like The Dominion Tavern, Royal Oak (opposite Aloha Room), where the “entertainment” means you have to interact with others: darts, cards, and games. There’s always a comfortable spot to shuffle a deck fireside at Chelsea’s Pub or Woody’s on Elgin. These places continue the tradition of what Edgar Mitchell (former owner of the Lock and the Duke) calls “the third place”-a place away from both work and home.

Many believe the City’s no-smoking bylaw killed “the third place.” And on top of that, new owners just aren’t investing in old fashioned local drinking houses anymore.

“The people who have bought the building,” Mitchell said in an Ottawa Citizen article, “have no intentions of keeping it a tavern.”

Am I the only one who’s heard the building might be torn down to build condos? Will next year’s McIntosh & Watts feature be a model of stacked townhouses?

But maybe more housing is what this city needs?

Over the next 20 years, the population could possibly reach 1.2 million, at least according to the City of Ottawa 20/20 plan for a new approach to city-building.

“The truth is that if we want to preserve what we love most about Ottawa, we will have to change the way growth is managed,” it reads.

But I loved this city’s former tavern culture because it was the only place you’d find university students, young professionals, old folks, alcoholics and the town beggars all under the same roof. Now that’s gone. And yet, the City claims they will manage growth over the next 20 years in ways that will reinforce the qualities most valued by residents, like “diverse artistic and cultural life,” and “the heritage landmarks and landforms that distinguish Ottawa from all other cities.”

Have you seen the Byward Market lately? Planners and city council get full marks for promoting the city as “an international contender for business investment.” The City obviously encourages rapid development of high-profile condo complexes that don’t mesh with the landscape. And guess who gave the thumbs up to that bloody American Embassy eyesore?

Maybe the City of Ottawa isn’t completely to blame here. Ottawa must evolve, right? Like old buildings facing collapse, perhaps so too the businesses in them crumble.

However, just like the treacherous brother and ambitious noblemen who were key in the 1552 execution of the actual Duke of Somerset, factors such as migrating patrons, profit-seeking establishments and an out-of-touch City bureaucracy act in the same poisonous way, and all played a role in the death of Duke, the pub.

Ottawa’s downtown social climate appeals to people who wear $100 T-shirts with faux-fur collars. I have great expectations for it to be something else. Here, we find ourselves in the best of times, technologically speaking, and the worst of times, when the idea of an authentic watering hole is transformed into a fucking ceramic collectible.

– Sylvie Hill