Ottawa, the Unknown City, rob mclennan

Arsenal, 2008, 173 pages, C$22.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-55152-232-6

I may spend most of my waking weekday hours in downtown Ottawa, but there’s always something new to learn about the city. It’s in that spirit that I grabbed a copy of Ottawa, the Unknown City, the type of tourism guide that’s more interesting for locals than fly-by tourists.

Don’t look for a street-by-street guide of where to eat, sleep or shop: While Ottawa, the Unknown City does contain a few of those classic guidebook standbys, it’s best approached as a loosely structured book of anecdotes, historical facts, local wisdom and old-timer recommendations. If you ever wondered what a guide book designed for bathroom reading would look like, then have a look at “The Unknown City” books. (Arsenal Press has published such books for eight cities from Montréal, Toronto and New York to Vancouver and San Francisco.)

Even for local residents, it’s filled by fascinating stuff. Perhaps the best parts of the book are the historical anecdotes and suppositions: “since they used soil taken from a landfill across the river, an Aboriginal burial site (…) some say it is entirely possible that the second Parliament Buildings include fragments of Natives’ bone in its structure” [P.25] An entire chapter is dedicated to the bad kind of “Notoriety”, including Ottawa’s 19th-century gang riots, Canada’s first political assassination or why some say that the Cold War began in Ottawa. It’s amazing how quickly some events fade from memory: I had no clue, for instance, that the Heron Bridge’s construction was interrupted by a fatal collapse in 1966, or that a $750,000 gold heist happened at the Ottawa Airport in 1974. There’s a great index at the end of the book to track down the anecdotes or do name-spotting.

Other areas covered by mclennan (himself a well-known local literary landmark) include Transportation, Shopping, Sports, Entertainment (ie: which celebrities are from Ottawa), Nightlife and so on. Cleanly, even amusingly written, it doesn’t take much effort to keep reading this book, which is more than you can say about many guide books.

Alas, there are a few errors. I’m not surprised that Rivière des Outaouais is mis-translated as Rivière de l’Outaouais [P.15] (even though that’s something that could have been fact-checked with Wikipedia or a simple comparative Google search) since it affects nothing and will only bother us francophones in the kind of slight so-the-Anglos-also-screwed-that-one-up exasperation we’re learned to laugh about. As a cinephile, however, I was far less happy to see mclennan write “Sam Raimi, who directed Superman Returns” [P.113] since Bryan Singer directed Superman Returns, and that breaks the cute “six degree of Lorne Green” chain of connections that he was propping up. And that’s not counting the slight exaggerations that are used whenever someone wants to claim local fame for everyone who’s had an extended stopover at the nearest airport. But, hey, that’s the way the game is played: Tom Cruise is from Ottawa! The Rolling Stones shot a video at Zaphod’s in 2005!

The focus of the book is toward the not-so-young-yet-restless: there isn’t much about the city’s technological or official side. As with any project talking about Ottawa, it seems contractually bound to keep saying “Ottawa isn’t just about government! We’ve got culture, too!”, somehow missing the point that a good chunk of Ottawa’s charm is largely financed by its status as Canada’s capital. But feel free to ignore me: after all, I’m only one of those gray-faced federal public servants who represent everything that’s baaad about the city, never contribute to The Culture and who never ever spend money, oh buying books written by Ottawa authors. (But never mind that.)

A book with “the unknown city” in its title is expected to reveal a few secret, and few will be disappointed by what mclennan has managed to discover. While tourists who fly in and out of Ottawa for a few days may not have the time to appreciate the anecdotes in Ottawa: The Unknown City, this is a perfect book for those who will stay for more than a few days, including those who have been here for decades.

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