“We want to buy your house. Name your price.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the real estate agents who knocked on my door last May. Six months earlier, my 120-year-old house had suffered catastrophic water damage from a cracked pipe; unbeknownst to us, it had been seeping crap for who knows how long.
We were in the middle of a ten-month unplanned reno that saw us without a functioning kitchen or a full bathroom, ordering takeout and doing dishes in the laundry tub.
“Where were you six months ago?” I joked to the men, “I would have given it to you for fifty bucks.”
Of course that isn’t true. We love our house. We loved it nine years ago when we stepped inside with our agent who looked at us and said, “this house is perfect for you. If you don’t take it, I quit.” Indeed, it ticked off all of our boxes: three bedrooms plus a 350-square-foot attic converted into a loft, a fully fenced backyard, huge kitchen, high ceilings, and all of the classic features that my husband Nick and I admire about old houses.
I call my ‘hood “Chi-Talia”, because it’s where Chinatown and Little Italy converge. I’m on Booth Street, a busy thoroughfare that starts at Carling and travels right across the Chaudiere bridge to Gatineau. Chi-Talia is what our real estate agent called “a neighbourhood in transition”, which I learned is code for “some nice homes sandwiched between meth-labs and halfway houses”.
My in-laws were skeptical. Our friends told us, “you can get way more house for your money if you move to the suburbs, and it’s safer.” But after a decade living behind Dunn’s on Elgin Street — where our car was broken into so often we just left it unlocked, where drunk Sens fans puked on our doorstep and high school kids smoked up under our bedroom window — Chi-Talia felt like the suburbs to us. It seemed positively bucolic by comparison. For the first week, at least.
Seven days after moving in to our house, we had a very different kind of knock on our door. It was a police officer asking about a murder that had just occurred. Apparently a man had been shot in a car, his body dumped less than a hundred feet from our front porch. As the police conducted their press conference in our driveway, suddenly, all of the horrible things people say about living downtown were before us in stark relief. As lovely as our home was, and as much as we liked our neighbours and our community, the words of my real estate agent echoed in my head: the only thing you can’t change about your house is its location.
In nine years, I’ve seen Chi-Talia gentrify. Where there was once a defunct auto shop is now a hamlet of modern town homes selling for $650,000 each. When I walk the dog around my hood I see new roofs, windows, and front porches being installed on houses as old as mine. I see more people pushing strollers than dimebags. Instead of stained mattresses out on garbage day, I’m seeing flat screen TV boxes and meal kit delivery containers.
Perhaps most telling is my wholly unscientific litmus test: Halloween. Our first year: no kids. But this past year, I shelled out candy to 17 little Wonder Women and Super Marios. It might not seem like much, but I’m hoping that soon there will come a Halloween when Nick and I don’t have to finish half the candy ourselves.
Chi-Talia still has a long way to go before it rivals the cache of neighbourhoods like Westboro and The Glebe. I chain down my lawn ornaments. Not a week goes by that my dog and I don’t have to walk into the street to avoid shattered beer bottles on the sidewalk. When Bluesfest lets out, I sit on my porch with a hose at the ready to discourage people from trying to use my driveway as a toilet. And then there’s that one neighbour who sets off fireworks at two in the morning. I won’t miss these peccadilloes when they’re gone, but imagine someday I will tell stories to the unbelieving whippersnappers about how Chi-Talia used to be “legit sketchy”.
Big Changes Coming
Indeed, less than a kilometre from our front door, the LeBreton Redevelopment, dubbed “Illumination LeBreton” promises everything from an 18,000-seat event centre homes for 7,000 Ottawans. Their slick video ends with the aspirational words; “A community is reborn and it shines like never before!” It was so uplifting I thought, “wow, I want to live there!” before I remembered I already do.
Then there’s the action at the other end of Booth — a mixed-use project by Canada Lands Company between Booth, Rochester, Orangeville, and Norman Streets. I have attended public information sessions for this project and saw the plans, fitted out with children’s play spaces, a dog park, condos, cafes, and shops. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see dollar signs. All these upgrades to Chi-Talia will be very good for our property value and to the quality of life of our community … eventually.
Stay or Go?
“Move those little suburban legs of yours,” I teased, “part of the beauty of living downtown is we don’t have to drive everywhere.” I was talking to my 12-year-old nephew as we walked home from Parliament Hill the other day.
On our way, he saw the colourful murals of Chinatown, stores selling things he’d never heard of, and the ordinary hustle and bustle of Chi-Talia. “Everything in the suburbs looks the same, but everything is different here. I like it,” he said. I nodded in agreement. A couple of hours later, he sat perched on my sofa looking out the front window as police cars and emergency vehicles swarmed a house just down the street from mine. A man had been shot; Ottawa’s 22nd shooting of the year.
I didn’t know what to say to the kid that wouldn’t sound cliché, so I told him shootings like this are random and can just as easily happen in the suburbs. I don’t know if I believe this myself, but I know Nick and I didn’t buy our house to flip, or as a starter home. Our plan was to buy a forever home and we found it in Chi-Talia. For the foreseeable future we – and our lawn ornaments – aren’t going anywhere.