Phil Jenkins’ As I Walked About a poetic documentary of our streets
Reviewed by Ralph F. Smith
Phil Jenkins spent his early years in Ottawa. He then moved to a farm near Liverpool, England and returned to Ottawa in 1978 with a desire to understand the land and culture from which he had emigrated. In journals and best-selling books, Jenkins has written extensively about Canadian attitudes towards land, in particular how land has evolved into real estate as its defining feature. Instead of speeding down streets and glancing out the car window at the occasional building, Phil would have us understand and appreciate much more about the history and atmosphere of our urban and rural settings by proceeding through them slowly on foot. Our walks should be more like reading than just passing by.
In As I Walked About, a collection of his city columns that ran from 2003 to 2017 in the Ottawa Citizen, Jenkins walks, as he says, “in two tenses,” present and past. He observes the eccentricities of the architecture and the people he meets. He regards many of the multi-story complexes that have been constructed in recent decades as ugly. The “sky people” who live and work downtown get to see only a “scarf of sky.” If Jenkins could set his own bylaws for the city, there would be parks every six blocks but, sadly, this is not so.
In concluding this collection, Jenkins asked himself a difficult question: what are his top six parts of the city? Ranking high in this elite group is the Glebe and Old Ottawa South, from the Queensway to Brewer Park. In 1826, Nicholas Sparks subdivided a portion of his farm so Bank Street could run south and be inhabited with houses and stores. Jenkins lived for a time in the Glebe during the 1990s and has since spent a fair amount of time there, happily drinking coffee and beer. His normal starting point is a tour around Patterson Creek, admiring the houses designed by David Younghusband and Ernst Noffke. Noffke (1878-1964) was the architect for many Glebe homes, the most distinguished of which are in the Spanish-Colonial Revival style. A typical Noffke house is two storeys with white stucco walls and a low-pitched roof covered in red clay tiles. Heavy wooden carved brackets sit below the overhanging eaves. Single-storey wings often project from the central structure. Clemow Avenue is a good spot to see Noffke houses.
Moving south along Bank, Jenkins regards with esteem the Glebe Apothecary. Then he comes upon Abbotsford Centre, formerly the 1867 Alexandre Mutchmor house. Jenkins says it gets “the blue ribbon for Best House on Street.” Carrying on, and standing high on the Bank Street Bridge, he looks northward and says that this section of Bank Street in the Glebe deserves a “high Jane Jacobs walkability rating.” Jenkins had encountered the late originator of the “Jane’s Walks” and claims that her ghost is probably walking on some of the streets of our city.
There are historical marvels in almost every walk recounted in the book. Major’s Hill Park, the Bytowne Theatre, Saint Theresa’s Church and Eddy Street, to mention only a few, are among the urban oases he finds. As I Walked About is inherently interesting to read while sitting in an armchair, with its fascinating account of local history and its humour. As Jenkins walks along Metcalfe Street he passes his dentist’s office, which he calls “House of Pain.” In Carp, sitting on a bench and looking at the landscape around the 1921 Community Hall, he overhears an “organ recital” coming from the sidewalk; in fact, it is two women discussing their internal organs.
The most valuable and practical use of the book is to read it just before or during walks down the streets that Jenkins has walked. The book opens windows to the past and allows us to savour the sights, sounds, tastes, odours and feel that our antecedents in Ottawa experienced.
Other books by the author include Fields of Vision, An Acre of Time, River Song and Beneath My Feet. His website is philjenkins.ca.
Ralph F. Smith is a Glebe resident and a writer of historical fiction. His 2019 novel, Concession Street Secrets, is a mystery that takes place primarily in Ottawa in 1868.