Cars, trucks, and heavy transports bustle down the busy thoroughfare known as Preston Street. A vital link between the city proper and the once nearby countryside, a highway link between the Province of Quebec and local Ontario industry, the traffic is often deafening, swallowing up the street in rush-hour madness. But once a year, the street assumes shades of its other more benevolent half; Corso Italia comes alive with people, as motor traffic is supplanted by a promenading multitude that saunters amidst food booths glistening with roasted sausages; speakers blaring Italian pop music; running, smiling children that scurry between their parents and visiting out-of-town relatives. During the annual event known as Italian Week, 500,000 pairs of feet pound the pavement usually reserved for spinning tires. And so, Preston Street/Corso Italia lives its schizophrenic nature – half transportation artery, half pedestrian mall – in an uneasy balance of Mediterranean pedestrian pleasure and North American economic utility.
At any instant, the street is more than the eye can see, more that any ear can hear. It is a setting waiting to be explored and explained. It is a place whose value lies in the events leading up to its present-day reality. There really is no result or defining end, only a succession of stages, some good some bad, that characterize the nature of the street. Every Italian who has ever lived in Ottawa has an uncertain, sometimes ambivalent, association with Preston Street; the very image of the Italian-Canadian community as perceived by others is steeped in its inhabitants’ often-troubled memories and too-often-spoiled good intentions.
The capital city of Ottawa is an environ of distinctive and distinct districts. For the most part, one usually knows where one is simply by the general characteristics of the surrounding area. The Sandy Hill district, with its turn-of-the-century freehold Victorian latticed homes holds nothing in common with the clapboard, shotgun box-architecture of Mechanicsville, though both were developed in the late 1800s. Nestled between the Rideau Canal and the turn-of-the-century business district, the tree-lined streets of The Glebe are often considered the most nostalgic, charming, and liveable of Ottawa’s neighbourhoods. The irresistibly trendy vibes of Glebites, however, would lose any physical tumble with the grimier, shadier (as in character), and seedier (as in economic) side of the city, notably Vanier, although the latter district rests in the shade of the Parliament buildings. Neighbourhoods in Ottawa are thus as multi-culturally and economically diverse as the politicos who call the city their home.
The Preston Street area also displays characteristics that make it a unique and distinctive neighbourhood, an area once known as The Village. What came to be known as The Village lies at the bottom of the escarpment that is Parliament Hill. This rock promontory creates a defining eastern boundary that forms a natural geographical barrier. The western edge is marked by the CNN railroad ravine; to the north we find Lebreton Flats and the Ottawa River; to the south Dow’s Lake.
Preston Street, the main road, is thus visibly bordered on all its cardinal points by geographically determined physical boundaries. The resulting circumscribed area feels surrounded, confined, even cramped; it has the look of a transitory buffer, a colony almost, that sits between the ever-sprawling and loopy western suburbs and the more formal gridiron patterned downtown core.
When walking on Preston Street from its northern beginnings on Wellington Street and ambling south towards Carling Avenue, even the casual observer is struck by the apparent physical and material separateness of the district from the more traditional eastern Ottawa neighbourhoods immediately beyond Parliament Hill. The buildings seem deteriorated, tired and worn. The side streets boast some of the city’s crumbiest houses; tall and narrow clapboard structures that were shabby at best, even in their better days.
Yet, the neighbourhood, now officially rebaptized and culturally designated as a Little Italy, suggests that while social discrimination and local resistance to assimilation played their part in the relative impoverishment of the area, positive attitudes of mind, shared tradition, social necessity, and the inherent vocation to sacrifice that the local inhabitants carried over from a poverty-stricken Italian village setting, fostered a spirit of self-sufficiency and pride that remains vibrant to this day.
Preston Street was and remains the traffic canal of the first western suburban settlements of the newly amalgamated City of Ottawa in 1895. The road is a thoroughfare that connects two important waterways, the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal via the shallow body of water known as Dow’s Lake. It is also the de facto northernmost extension of Highway 16 which, until the recent opening of Highway 416, was the only direct and fastest link between Ottawa and the modern lifeline to the city of Toronto and beyond, Highway 401.
Though the Preston streetscape has produced very few, if any, memorable visual landmarks, the many family-run locales that animate the street reinforce each other by repetition. Storefronts, restaurants, caffès and pubs not only structure the street visually but also intensify the identity of the district by deepening its pseudo-ethnic character. This outward, visual image, however, lacks any sense of homogeneity or endearing character. The street front structures of partially refurbished houses are of different shapes and sizes, and use different construction materials; the old and often derelict is mixed with the brashly new and often modish. Recent attempts to beautify the streetscape with statuary, benches, and neon logos proclaiming the area as Little Italy have improved the general feel of the street as a homogeneous Italian-Canadian space.
The area was and remains family oriented (although there is a movement towards childless couples and empty nesters – more on this later). The population once consisted of families with many children. Some of these, now adults and frequently elderly, have remained in the area. Others return frequently to visit parents and relatives, to shop at the local businesses, or to frequent old drinking haunts. Some have set up shop along the business spine of the area which, at this writing, is restlessly feeling the spill-over effects of urban gentrification.
In the past, however, gentrification was the farthest thing from the minds of the first colony of Italian immigrants as they planted warm roots in their new, often frozen, Village soil. This is a mostly vanished world; formed by the classic turn-of-the-19th-century Italian diaspora that spread throughout the Americas. It was a space identified through its sweat and labour, with little time for rights or privileges or the niceties of life that extended beyond bountiful Sunday dinners. It was, and in many respects remains, neither fully Canadian, never really fully Italian. The great majority of arriving Italian immigrants at the beginning of the 1900s headed towards the multicultural mosaic of Dalhousie Ward. The environs surrounding Preston Street were composed of a potpourri of European immigrants that included Irish, English, Poles, Ukrainians, a small number of Greeks, and newly arriving Italians.
The general area was divided into traditional, ethnically inspired parishes, each pastor in friendly competition with the others of the same faith. These included a Polish parish located at the corner of Rochester Street and Balsam Street; a Greek church on Gladstone Street; St Mary’s Irish church on Bayswater Avenue; St Gerard with its French congregation on Beech Street, and the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Parish located north of Booth Street on Empress Avenue. In the ’20s and ’30s the neighbourhood was referred to as “Stovepipe Village” because most of the homes did not have furnaces and were heated by stoves whose pipes dotted the area’s roofscape.
A typical street like Rochester, according to Nola Ferguson who lived on the short block, “consisted on our side of the street of two Jewish families (a tailor and a grocer), a Lebanese (pie and donut maker), two French (a butcher and a livery stable), one Italian, three English, plus the Jewish grocer also being a shoe repairman. On the corner was a blacksmith, next to him another shoe repair, a Ukrainian church…” The increasing concentration of immigrants of Italian origin in this particular area was due to a number of factors, the strongest being chain migration, or the desire to live near relatives and individuals of similar cultural background who had already settled in the immigrant friendly community.
There was no real factory or other heavy industry in the immediate area. However, many immigrants found work at the Carling O’Keefe Brewery (formerly Bradings Brewery) on Albert Street, and the Pure Spring Company Ltd Plant located on Aberdeen Street. Smith Transport on Beech beside the Pure Spring plant provided further employment, as did the Esso depot located at the present Sala San Marco site. So did the Hall Fuel Ltd, a former coal yard with a coal shed and exterior coal storage located at 333 Preston Street.
A good many men of working-age were employed as unskilled labourers in a variety of enterprises, none more so than in the construction industry. The work was difficult and, given the times, usually dangerous. But given the demographic characteristics of many arriving immigrants (low education level and low-end skills), the backbreaking work was acceptable and appreciated. Some eventually honed their newly acquired skills, and cunningly began their own successful activities. Some created business opportunities and became store owners.
One of the more popular stores in the area belonged to the Chiarelli family. Frank Chiarelli, the first of the Chiarelli clan born in Canada, recalls the village feel of living in the area. “All the action seemed to take place in a six-block area around our store. That was my neighbourhood, my Little Italy.”
The store he is referring to belonged to his father and was named Eug Chiarelli and Son. It was both a grocery and butcher shop and was located on the corner of Rochester and Pamilla Streets. The area in front of the store was a hang-out for neighbourhood youth like Frank, who played hockey on the street, baseball in a nearby field, and dropped snowballs into the smokestacks of passing trains from the railway overpass on Preston Street for fun.
Frank and the gang grew-up watching crap shooters in front of his father’s store. He remembers that he was fascinated with all the paper money lying on the street as the men played. At the age of two he tried to take a few bills and remembers a protracted tirade from one of the gamblers who was more than likely having a bad run. Though in his eighties, his memories are all still fresh, the flavour of the streets still present. “There was a sense of being different from the rest of the city,” he states. “The corner crowd comprised of guys from the area gave us a feeling of solidarity in poverty. We seemed to live on a movie set where destiny privileged the quick and the bold. We were always getting into trouble; but then again, who wasn’t?”
His father, Eugenio, was born in Cleto, Calabria. As a young man he had survived the trenches of World War I and soon afterwards married his life-long companion, Antonia Lorella. A restless spirit nudged him to escape the poverty of Southern Italy and seek his fortune in North America. He immigrated to Canada, landing in Montreal in mid-winter, with forged documents. A local priest found him employment shovelling the interminable snow. Ambition soon drove him to the gold mines of Timmins, Ontario, where he worked 2500 feet underground for five years. Meanwhile, he learned English and he remained a voracious reader, especially of newspapers, all his life. Arriving in Ottawa in the late 1920s, he decided it was time to fetch his young wife and family from Calabria. With the help of a newfound friend, a lawyer named McAlley, he was reunited with this wife, and two children, as well as with his mother and father.
Eugenio Chiarelli soon bought a butcher shop; then he learned the trade of butchery. He added groceries; it was his way. The family, eventually numbering seven children and two adults, furnished the upstairs apartment and lived above the bustling store. He expanded the business to include a full-fledged dairy operation in the back (another trade he acquired after the fact) and began a popular ice cream business. He delighted in giving neighbourhood children free ice cream, but he was also known to give ongoing credit to his struggling customers during the depression to help them survive. He also became a restaurant supplier and plied his skills as a self-made entrepreneur throughout the city.
The Chiarelli family became a well-know fixture in the area and the name Chiarelli became synonymous not only with honest, hard work and success, but also with ambitious children who earned scholarships, went to college (a true feat in those days), became sports figures, lawyers, prosperous businessmen, and politicians. Best known perhaps is Robert Chiarelli, a Liberal politician and the first mayor of the newly amalgamated City of Ottawa in 2000 after having served as Regional Chair of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton from 1997-2001. He also held ministerial portfolios in successive Liberal provincial governments at Queens Park. Equally well known is Peter Chiarelli, a former hockey player and an accomplished NHL hockey executive.
Members of the increasingly visible Italian community pursued a broad range of professional callings while others joined the service industry. Some became cooks and opened restaurants. One such undaunted individual was Albert Caramanico, the son of Antonio Caramanico and Maria Napolitano, who emigrated from Ripa Teatina (Abruzzo) to Camden, New Jersey in 1902. Albert was their second child. Fortune and desire soon moved the growing family from Camden to Ottawa when Albert was in his teens. Nicknamed Chappie in an age where everyone seemed to carry a diminutive moniker, the young man was an avid sports enthusiast.
An amateur boxer, wrestler, and student of ju-jitsu, Chappie was also a member of The Indians, the Norman and Preston Street baseball team. His passion for sport led him to form one of Ottawa’s first sport clubs, the Preston Athletic Club in 1919, with good friend Harry Menchini.
When young Canadians were called to serve in World War II, Chappie acquired citizenship, joined the army and, given his experience in sport, became a trainer for new recruits. Injured while serving in Europe, war’s end found him in a veteran’s hospital with few employment prospects. But fortune and desire again intervened. Mary Cianci, Chappie’s wife, was an excellent cook. Although she was pregnant with their seventh child, the couple decided to take a chance and convert the store below their second-floor apartment into a restaurant. The family lived at 438½ Preston Street, a prime location on the evolving streetscape.
As luck would have it, on their opening day in July of 1945, The Orange Order in Canada held their annual parade. The neighbourhood was packed with spectators eager to view the always impressive display of marchers and bands. Many dined at the newly opened restaurant where Chappie, Mary, and children Mary, Tony, Kay, and Theresa, cooked and served. The opening was a rousing success. Chappie’s Lunch was the first restaurant on Preston Street; a favourite hang-out of The Village. The family business became a landmark in the neighbourhood, known to all, and visited by young and old. People still recall mother Mary’s famous spaghetti and meatballs. It closed in 1956.
There has always been economic mobility, genuine ingenuity, youthful enthusiasm and social mobility in the Preston Street neighbourhood. Places like Chappie’s Lunch consolidated the area as a rising social and economic focal point in the new Canadian reality. These meeting places coalesced these first Italian migrants into what can be defined as the heart of the growing Italian community, an extension of the village they had left behind.
Once a year, a robust assortment of old Village friends comes together to revel, rejoice, remember, and share a few beers. Their sole link is their neighbourhood; their sole purpose is to retell their memories, renew their friendship, their past, their ongoing legacy; or as they themselves put it, “to just hang-out.” These men both preserve and transmit the memory and lasting heritage of The Village. The yearly event known as The Village Reunion began in 1978 at the Recreational Association Centre located on Riverside Drive. This initial gathering saw over 200 people pay a $12.00 fee to attend an uncertain and hastily programmed evening. As Sonny Calogoure recalls, “Most of them came because they thought there was going to be a crap game that night.”
But the ongoing and increasingly successful event had a more colourful birth than Calagoure’s anecdote suggests. The Village Sports Club group had already been gathering informally at The Prescott Hotel for years. At one of these occasions, members of the Calagoure family suggested the group officialise these regular encounters and find a larger venue. Their idea was to gather as many friends as they could find from their youthful days in The Village and hold an official reunion. And so in 1976, several of these long-time friends met in the basement (a small five- or six-foot-high dugout, as it was described to me) of Ierullo’s Barger Shop at 432½ Preston Street to hatch their plan. Present at the meeting were Karl, Richard, Sonny Calagoure, Nick Costantini, Kenny Creppin, Tony Ierullo, Leo Riopelle, and Gerry Tremblay.
This bunch of guys (again, all colloquialisms are wilfully authentic) formed the first Village Reunion Committee. Some already had had experience with The Village Sports Club group that had been meeting at The Prescott Hotel. One of the guys, Gerry Tremblay, had already unofficially organized a similar reunion with a Centre Town organization in McNabb Park a few years earlier. He was appointed The Village Reunion’s first unofficial coordinator. This amicable and purposefully informal group worked with no chair, no secretary, and no directors. It was decided, however, that if they were to make any headway, a treasurer was needed to manage eventual funds. They agreed that Nick Costantini act as Treasurer, a position he held for over 25 years until his death in 2004.
And thus, The Village Reunion was born. The initially all-male event gathered neighbourhood friends to officially celebrate bygone days with the secondary effect of preserving life-long friendships. The event normally takes place in October and, according to Michael Whalen, one of the original members, “these days, any old guy can get in. Some never had a whiff of The Village.” The popular yearly dinner normally attracts over 500 people and is limited only by the size of its venue. Awards are normally bestowed to honour notable individuals of families from the community. These include The Community Contribution Award, given to the individual who gives of himself towards the betterment of The Village; The Villager Award, given to a high-profile and well-known personality (or bone fide character) from The Village; The Special Presentation Award, normally given to a person or family considered a mainstay of the local community; The Sportsman Award, given for outstanding athletic achievement; and a recently added The Village Athletic Award, given in recognition of athletic achievement and demonstration of high Village ideals.
In addition to these individual citations, the group awards bursaries to meritorious students in Italian studies who require funding to continue their university education. The awards initially ranged between $100 and $200, but have generously increased over the years to $1000 per student. But the Villagers, as they define themselves. are also proud of their enduring legacy in the world of sport. In their heyday, the streets and alleys and fields of The Village were alive with organized sports and sporting events that drew crowds from the entire neighbourhood, regardless of ethnic background. It would be a flawed and stereotyped generalisation to assume that these young men eventually entered sport in order to improve their socio-economic standing. For this hypothesis to be valid, a preponderance of them would have had to have lived in abject poverty. At the very least, some of these future athletes did indeed come from difficult backgrounds, but upward social mobility out of the lower-class was not the driving force behind their success.
I am assured by these men that sport was instead a passion, a rite of passage, a proving ground of their individual worth. A convivial aspect of living in The Village was participating in sport with friends. It should not surprise that an extraordinary number of well-known sports figures came from this relatively small area and that some went on to become highly respected figures in their chosen sports – to name only a few: Joe Asquini, Grey Cup Champion; Frank Chiarelli, U.S. College Hockey record holder; Peter Chiarelli, NHL Executive; Rudy Costantini, RA Hall of Fame member; Bill Dineen, two-time Stanley Cup Winner; Patsy Guzzo, Olympic Hockey Gold Medallist; Fred “Pinky” Mitchell, Canadian Boxing Champion; Howard Riopelli, Montreal Canadiens player and QSHL leading scorer.
But the list hardly exhausts the names of the many tough guys who played semi-professional hockey or baseball, or those who became professional boxers and wrestlers. Guys like Fred “Pinky” Mitchell and Gale Kerwin, for example, went on to become professional boxers because the ring, it is reputed they mused, was safer than the streets. Whatever the reason, whatever the means, The Villagers left their mark in their chosen fields, sports or otherwise, and continue to revel in their legacy today.
Over the years The Village Reunion has grown in popularity and tradition. It is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain tickets to the event that is normally highlighted by well-known, often comedic but always eloquent, guest speakers. Gord Bunke, Jake Dunlap, Garry Guzzo, Lally Lalonde, Fred “Pinky” Mitchell, Hughie Riopelle, Royden Kealey, J.J. Clark, Brian Kilrea, as well as many other celebrities, politicians, and local entrepreneurs, have graced the dais and entertained the loyal villagers.
At this writing, we are sad to learn that there are rumblings that future editions of The Village Reunion may indeed be at risk. Dwindling attendance (down from 600), an aging demographic, and indifference from the younger villagers may be the formerly greatly anticipated event’s death knell.
But The Village Reunion is only part of continuing Village lore. Every Sunday morning a group of life-long friends meets at Joe Calabro’s Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana on Preston Street to maintain friendships and just shoot the breeze. Joe too is a Village boy and shares the group’s enthusiasm and eagerly supports their continuity. A larger group of old boys meets every Wednesday morning at the Local Heroes Sports Bar on Merivale Road. Stories are exchanged, memories are relived, insults are cast, and good cheer, and breakfast, is had by all.
These ongoing groups, these wonderfully amusing and spry pensioners instruct me, serve as a second family, a sounding board, and a mutual aid association. Bloodlines and friendship ties run deep, all the way back to hanging-out on their old neighbourhood streets. Most of them have known each other since adolescence and have proudly shared life in The Village in mostly good times and hardly ever bad.
As Preston Street moves beyond its ethnic past and incorporates an amalgamated future, a tired proletarian street will be brought to life and become the new, beating heart in the centre of a much larger city. According to plans, a vibrant and new urban village will sprout up in Little Italy in the coming years, all spearheaded by multimillion-dollar mixed-use development projects.
Just as immigration, acculturation, and family shaped The Village’s past, urbanization, multiculturalism, and gentrification will forge the new Urban Villages’s destiny. Intensification will transform the neighbourhood in ways scarcely imaginable to its early pioneer residents and perhaps unsettling for its current ones. Bountifully crowded sidewalks, new major investments, inviting neighbourhood coffee shops, boutique grocery stores to pick-up dinner while strolling to a 65th floor apartment overlooking Dow’s Lake will detail the future streetscape and provide the lifeblood of an appealingly modern and youthful community.
But the transformation of the Italian ethnic Village into a viable and contemporary upscale and gentrified generic Village of sustainable development is fraught with uncertainty. Regeneration, renewal, revitalization, and beautification are buzz words for the trendy North American rehabilitation of its many worn urban storefronts and visually tired neighbourhoods. The original businesses in the neighbourhood survived for two reasons: the ethnic (read family) nature of the enterprise and/or the relatively low rent when compared to property in the downtown core. Foot traffic was the area’s lifeblood. In tomorrow’s neighbourhood, both the number of residents and quality of the businesses will increase, thereby encouraging more leisurely walk-in trade. What will be lost is any truly identifiable ethnicity or culturally defining space. Though the same can be said of other urban neighbourhoods in the City of Ottawa, the flavour of this particular street as an enduring Italian-Canadian enclave suffers if one considers its purported, and desperately desired, Italian roots.
Preston Street and the surrounding area will continue its present pace of evolution and become a major artery of an expanding downtown core. The historical and social niceties that rendered The Village area a haven for ethnic pride are slowly slipping into the trendiness of gentrified upscale living, brogue-heeled hipsters, and latte-sipping bohemians. As boutique condos and trendy pubs replace friendly barber shops, compact diners, and tired storefronts, the original eateries and family-run businesses – once the sole reason to visit the street – have either succumbed to market pressures or become upscale vanilla businesses, attracting a sophisticated clientele that demands novelty in lieu of tradition. Though the arrival of encroaching bike lanes and towering river-view apartments signal the beginnings of an urban renaissance, the influx of speculative investors with the inevitable proliferation of skyward condominiums and cookie-cutter chain stores marks the destruction of neighbourhood authenticity. All the things that marked The Village and made it attractive as a community haven will be displaced if not destroyed.
And yet, interestingly, perhaps Preston Street is finally achieving the dream first envisioned by Sir Preston himself as he surveyed the land south of the Ottawa River as prime investment property for the founding of a village. Preston Street will indeed become a new liveable public space, compact and complex, yet offering flexible options and access to all the requisite social infrastructure: health, school facilities, entertainment, and workplaces.
But what will happen to the Italian-Canadian community? Will it grow with the process, or remain distanced, lost in memories of its distant village past? If the villagers wish to sustain a genuine Italian-Canadian experience in the City of Ottawa, each individual must feel the need to fulfil the community’s ethnic potential by fully expressing its unique Italian-immigrant profile within the larger and encroaching multicultural network. The Village needs to help its longstanding institutions continue the evermore difficult task of carving a genuine ethnic niche or risk melting into its own unstirring indifference. It must ensure that the process of engraining tradition not end with elementary-age youth, but that it correspond to a continuous and integrated experience for all members of the community, young and old – that it not be limited to trendy wood-oven-baked thin-crust pizza and glistening autos, but instead privilege the memories, myths, symbols and traditions that are the bedrock of the Italian experience in Canada.
Only then can The Village truly remain more than a past memory. Only then will it persist and survive.
Dr Franco Ricci, O.M.R.I., is Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Ottawa. His numerous publications on multiple disciplines broadly address narratives of human experience. He is the author of the much acclaimed The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign and Painting with Words, Writing with Pictures, which was awarded an Honourable Mention by the Marraro Prize. When he is not writing or teaching, he spends his time reading, cooking, traveling and photographing the region of Abruzzo… his other world. A long-time resident of Ottawa, he is a proud Italian-American with deep Canadian roots.