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A tale of two cities


Ron Corbett on capitals’s economic divide

The richest neighbourhood in Ottawa can be found on an escarpment overlooking the Ottawa River, with beautiful tree-lined streets and large, Tudor-style homes.

It has pools and tennis courts. A lot of wrought-iron fences. A great many seniors walking a great many lap dogs.

And if you guessed Rockcliffe Park — you’d be wrong.

The richest neighbourhood in Ottawa — with an average household income of $217,649 — is Rothwell Heights.

According to the same Statistics Canada census information, the poorest neighbourhood in Ottawa has a household income of slightly more than one-10th of that — or $27,696 per year.

Strangely, both the richest and poorest neighbourhoods in Ottawa can be found within the Greenbelt. Both are close to the Ottawa River. To drive from one to the other takes you less than 10 minutes.

Very similar. Except for being worlds apart.

* * *

A lot of people, even those born and raised in Ottawa, wouldn’t be able to find Rothwell Heights on a map. There are no businesses to speak of. No through traffic. Unless you’re lucky enough to live here, or have friends who do, there is no reason to ever come.

But if you take the Blair Rd. exit off the Queensway, then head north, off to your right, just before Blair dead-ends into the Ottawa River, you will find Rothwell Heights.

The land here was once a farm owned by Ben Rothwell, who started severing lots in the mid-’50s. Rothwell sold one lot at a time, most of his customers being young professionals (a great many of the original homeowners were engineers working at the nearby National Research Council testing facility on Blair Rd.)

Drive through Rothwell Heights today and you can easily spot the older homes. They tend to be bungalows, set back from the road, many of them with a carport at the end of a winding driveway.

You also have no difficulty spotting the homes that, in the past few years, have replaced them — multi-storey homes with three-car garages instead of car ports, swimming pools instead of trees, and set back from the road? Forget that nonsense. These homes hug the curb, shoved into your face like a cop waving a ticket.

“The community has changed considerably since we moved here 26 years ago,” says Jane Brammer, president of the Rothwell Heights Property Owners’ Association. “There has been a dramatic change in scale. The new homes are 10 times as big and three times as tall as the original homes.”

The change has not sat well with long-time residents like Brammer, who bemoan the change in the community from “soft landscape” (trees, shrubs, hedges) to “hard landscape” (garages, swimming pools, tennis courts.)

It is also the reason why Rothwell Heights is now the richest neighbourhood in Ottawa.

“The new people in the community, they are company CEOs, or partners in the company,” says Brammer. “None of them ever keep the home they buy. They demolish it and put up something new.”

* * *

Get back on the Queensway and head east. Take the Bronson exit and head north. Turn west onto Somerset St. and pass under the new portico that welcomes you to Chinatown.

And just like that — an eight-minute drive — you have arrived in the poorest neighbourhood in Ottawa.

This neighbourhood doesn’t have a ready label. You could call it south Chinatown, or south Lebreton Flats. Many refer to it by the name of the old municipal ward — Dalhousie. It is the neighbourhood bordered by Bronson Ave. to the east and Preston Ave. to the west; Somerset St. to the north and Raymond St. to the south.

Drive through the Dalhousie area and you also see homes that are unique to the area. Only here, the traditional residential home is not the Rothwell Heights’ bungalow with the oversized lot, but the vertical duplex with the metal, exterior staircase.

And the signs of change in the community are not starter-mansions springing up next door. It’s smaller details, such as the pay phones that have recently been removed from the corner of Gladstone Ave. and Bell St.

Pay phones that finally got taken away because residents complained they attracted prostitutes and drug dealers. Phones that were still generating $3,000 a month in revenue.

In the age of cellphones. Three thousand dollars a month in quarters. Yes, this neighbourhood is different.

* * *

Palmo Pasqua used to live at the corner of Gladstone Ave. and Bell St., in a house eventually torn down in the name of progress. The house, however, didn’t become a five-bedroom, single family home. Progress is something different along Bell St.

It became a parking lot.

And directly across from the parking lot you can find the Calabria Restaurant and Pizzeria, where Palmo has worked since 1972, and where he is now a co-owner.

The Calabria is on the ground floor of the Fairview Towers apartment building and boasts one of the finest pizzas in the city. When told he works in the poorest neighbourhood in the city, Palmo says he’s somewhat surprised.

“This is a working class neighbourhood,” he says. “I lived here for many years and quite liked it. I would have thought a neighbourhood with lots of social housing would have been the poorest.”

He says the neighbourhood, even if it’s poor, is changing for the better. The pay phones being removed was a start (he lobbied for the change.) So is the emergence of Chinatown as a popular tourist destination.

Young professionals are also moving into the area, attracted by low housing prices and the area’s proximity to Parliament Hill and the downtown core. The residential mix is changing.

Then there’s the “good work” the Ottawa Police Service has done in the community. There are no longer the panhandlers there once were. No longer the number of break and enters that used to plague businesses in the area.

“There are not as many prostitutes on the street, either,” Palmo says. “Although that might have as much to do with the Internet as it does the police.”

* * *

Two communities. Same city. Drive through Rothwell Heights and Dalhousie and you see firsthand how diverse Ottawa has become, how most of Canada’s impression of the nation’s capital as a homogeneous government town is simply a lie.

Within six blocks of Bell St., for example, there are no fewer than three soup kitchens. Within six blocks of Rothwell Ave., not only is there no soup kitchen, there are no restaurants.

(Although Ottawa’s very own Garlic King has a donair shop nearby, on Montreal Rd. Adel Azzi says he distributed flyers once in Rothwell Heights, but quit when a resident asked if he had a permit.)

Rothwell Heights has one OC Transpo bus route — a commuter bus that runs Monday to Friday, during morning and evening rush hour. The area around Bell St. has 11.

The list of differences goes on and on. The biggest difference, though, is that income range. Those figures can be broken down in a lot of different ways, but here’s one that might grab your attention:

In Rothwell Heights, the average household income is the equivalent of two people, both earning a six-figure income.

In Dalhousie, the household income is the equivalent of one person working a job that pays $13.32 an hour.

* * *

After spending time in both communities, I contacted people who know the areas well. The unofficial spokespeople, if you will, for Rothwell Heights and Dalhousie.

Marilyn Wilson is a real estate agent who specializes in homes for sale in Rockcliffe Park and Rothwell Heights (you can check out her website, at

Although I catch Wilson driving home, she has no trouble telling me what makes Rothwell Heights one of her favourite communities in the city.

“It is country living in the city,” she says. “It is a lot like Rockcliffe, but less formal. There are more trees. A nice laid-back feel.”

She goes on to tell me she has several properties listed right now in Rothwell Heights. An “absolutely gorgeous” home on a cul-de-sac that is going for $2.35 million. Another that is still under construction and has an asking price of $2.1 million.

And for the “sophisticated buyer” who wants to build their own home, she has one of the best lots in the city right now — 2.3 acres, right on the escarpment overlooking the Ottawa River. The price is $1.5 million.

It comes with the original house, but it’s assumed you’ll tear that down.

* * *

Sairah Shahid doesn’t meet many people looking for shelter in the two-million-dollar range.

“Last month, we gave food to 675 people,” says the co-ordinator of the Dalhousie Food Cupboard on Louisa St. “Last year, we helped a little over nine thousand people.

“We get a lot of working people here, single people working temporary jobs, and they need to bring a lunch to the construction site. Or single parents. People living in rooming houses. That’s the bulk of our clientele.”

The Dalhousie Food Cupboard has been operating since 1985. Although it’s only open two days a week (Tuesday and Thursday), it serves as many people as food banks in Ottawa that are open all week long.

It comes as no surprise to Shahid that she works in the poorest neighbourhood in Ottawa. She points out that the John Howard Society is here. And many rooming houses.

She also says it’s the norm, at her food bank, for people to come for a few months and then stop coming. They’re people looking for permanent jobs. People getting on their feet after a separation or divorce. People in transition.

“This is a good, working class neighbourhood,” she says. “Dalhousie may be poor, but it has spirit.”

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