I moved to Vanier in 2012, during the depths of winter. I rode out the bitter cold tucked away in my newfound refuge — a second-story flat in a rather plain duplex — and hid from the neighbourhood I did not yet know.
By spring thaw, I was anxious to get out, and so was the rest of Vanier. We trickled out into the dreck-lined streets, now free from ice and snow, to seek out the sun. That’s when I first met the neighbours. Melissa, who lived next door, came over almost immediately. “Hiya!” she said, bright-eyed and bubbly, and passed me a bottle of wine. She had just returned from an early season tasting at the Norman Hardie winery in Prince Edward County, her head still swimming with Dionysian delights. A fellow food industry aficionado, we had plenty in common, and we sat on the front stoop for many hours, sipping something light and fruity, nibbling on cheeses and chutney, and watching the street come to life. Before long we were joined by a Francophone couple in their 50s who lived downstairs. Our late-afternoon reverie soon turned into an evening soiree, retreating only once the sun had done the same.
It was a warm welcome, and one that took me by surprise — but my expectations of Vanier had, more or less, been carved decades before into my teenage memories: “that scary place in the east end.” I couldn’t help but think of all the drugs and drive-bys I had heard about while in high school in the early 90s. Of course, even then, it was a skewed reality — but for a bunch of west-end kids living in middle-income suburbs, Vanier was the “badlands”.
I escaped the suburbs in my late teens and eventually found my way into the city. I spent the next decade or so shuffling from neighbourhood to neighbourhood — Old Ottawa South, the Glebe, Centretown, Lowertown — until I found myself working for Fraser Cafe in New Edinburgh and appartment hunting in Vanier. When I first saw my future apartment, I was plesantly surprised: it was spacious and bright, a short walk to work and, most importantly, cheap. I moved in with modest trepidation; the neighbourhood still hadn’t shaken off its “wrong side of town” rep, in the news or in my mind.
A few days after my seasonally delayed welcome party, I caught a glimpse of the darker side of Vanier. It happened when another neighbour, Diane, brought up some food — a tourtiere. The day before I had caughty whiff of baking pastry.
I was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the hospitality and told her as much. She waved it off. “I love to cook,” she said in her soft-spoken and heavily-accented English, “and I am always making too much.”
As we continued chatting, she revealed that her propensity to make extra and share it with her neighbours had to do with one neighbour in particular: the woman who lived directly across the street from us, in one of the dreary fourplexes. We’ll call her Pamela. Pamela was often the recipient of her comforting Quebecois cuisine. “I try to make sure she eats, “ Diane told me, explaining how Pamela had a habit of forgetting to do so, sometimes for weeks on end when she was in the throes of madness brought on by binging on Listerine.
She continued to tell me Pamela’s story; how she had escaped a disturbed and violent relationship; how she had suffered for years at the hands of an abusive husband, until one day she had enough, and she turned his violence back on him, rather brutally, if not fatally. The details were murky, but what was clear was a darkness haunted her. I started to feel a strong distaste rising in my own throat, my fears of this broken place being realized.
Diane left, and I put the tourtiere in the freezer for another day. Days passed, and I started to see the woman across the street from time to time. She would come out into her front yard to shoo her cat inside, or sit on her porch. I often saw her smiling. In time, we started saying hello.
Then I wouldn’t see her and I would think of Diane crossing the street and gingerly opening her darkened door, a basket of creton and country ketchup in tow. Growing up in the suburbs, I had no experience seeing this sort of suffering. That didn’t mean it wasn’t there, but we were hidden, somehow, in all our sameness, in the sanctity of our private dwellings, , closed off from the world safely behind our garages, out of sight no matter the season.
Six years later, I still live in the same place in Vanier. Melissa and Diane have since moved on; in their place is a new crop of quiet and tidy folk who maintain their bicycles, shovel our shared walkway, and pick-up the trash that finds its way onto our lawn. You know, good neighbours. There are plenty in my neighbourhood — they step off the sidewalk with their lit cigarette when they see me and my newborn son out for a stroll, they tell me when I should move my car off the street because by-law is lurking about. Or they simply say hello. You see, in Vanier, you don’t go unseen.
The woman across the street is also gone. Maybe she stayed in Vanier — darkness has a way of finding itself here, but, like our winters, the bright is never too far behind. I don’t know if she ever got better, but I know for a time a bit of light crept into her life — thanks to a good neighbour.