Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Refreshing Piazza Dante

Across from St. Anthony's Church at Gladstone and Booth is Piazza Dante, one of those public spaces that can be hidden in plain sight, even from those who reside in and frequent Little Italy. The name is derived from Dante Alighieri via St. Anthony's School, kitty-corner from the piazza, which was originally called Dante Academy (as described in this blog entry about a nearby school).

A November 2000 article in Il Postino explains that Piazza Dante was built in 1967 and was "funded and constructed by the provincial and municipal governments together with the Italian Canadian Business and Professional Men’s Association led by Mr. Italo Tiezzi. It was one of the projects dedicated to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday."

You may have seen it while passing by on Gladstone, but the large intersection island separated by the Gladstone-to-Booth right-turn lane directs both traffic and attention away from it.

On the South and West sides, it's bounded by a brick wall, on the other side of which is affordable housing built as part of "urban renewal," mostly in the 1960s. Behind that you can see the roof of Adult High School. On the near sides is a wide strip of lawn with trees. The piazza is perhaps best known for its concrete fountain, reflecting the style of the times.

Compared with the above photo from October of 2010, Piazza Dante is virtually unchanged from when this Centretown News cover photo was taken in 1972, except for the larger trees.

Today, most people refer to it as a park, and complain that it doesn't serve this function very well. This is nothing new, and Mr. G. Pelletier wrote to the Centretown News on behalf of the Rochester Heights Community Association in a letter published in the same issue.

An admirer of the fountain and the piazza, Pelletier aimed to set things straight, and revealed some interesting details of how community politics worked back then. Back in the '70s, each City ward had two Aldermen, and it seems from this letter that Dalhousie Ward aldermen Capogreco and Kerwin didn't see eye to eye. The intersection of Gladstone and Booth is painted as death trap for pedestrians where motorists often disobey the red lights.

Pelletier also speculates that the latter's framing of the piazza as a failed park may be to "keep us from inquiring too closely into plans for nearby empty land perhaps more suitable for a tot lot."

On that note, last year the community got together to build a new playground for Rochester Heights, as documented by Eric Darwin at West Side Action. A commenter on that post repeats the criticism of Dante as a failed concrete park:
It would be nice to see the “park” in this community re-imagined next. The one at the corner of Gladstone and Booth, I believe. It’s such a dreary, concrete pad. Right across from St Anthony’s church, it could probably be very nice with a bit of greenery.
There is, in fact, quite a bit of greenery, just not in the centre. This reflects that the piazza was intended as a place to hold events.

Nevertheless, outside the summer, the park does deserve the "dreary" label Heather gives it. Most of my photos are from the Fall and Winter, and the atmosphere of the park does change with the season.

As the pedestrian desire line shows, it does get some use by pedestrians, who not only get a shortcut, but get to avoid the car-focused intersection where, by 2011, motorists have finally learned to stop at red lights.

Of course, the centrepiece of Piazza Dante, both metaphorically and literally, is the fountain.

[Edit: Added March 2012] The fountain must have fallen into disrepair after its installation in the '60s. When the RMOC's Transportation Committee considered making the intersection more pedestrian friendly in 1995, "The [Italian] Village Neighbourhood & Recreation Association" wrote a letter to the Committee's then-chair, Richard Cantin, in which the fountain was referenced, saying it was "to be reactivated this Summer."

Since I'd only given it close attention in the off season, I was disappointed to learn this past June that the flowing water didn't make the fountain look any cleaner or livelier.

The fountain carries a plaque dedicating the plaza in three languages to the Italian contributions to Canada's first century.

The fountain isn't the only attraction, though. On the south wall is an undated statue which looks to be more recent.

It was built by the Ottawa chapter of the National Alpine Association in memory of all fallen soldiers of all wars.

Rounding out the tour, the West edge of the piazza is unadorned but for benches, and is screened by a brick wall.

There are a few trees on the far side of the wall, and gated gaps between the walls help to open up the the space while restricting access to the street side.


In May of 2009, the Italian community won approval to overhaul the piazza, and following approval from Ottawa City Hall two years later, work has finally begun.

All of the central elements have been removed, but the perimeter walls and the trees are being retained.

The fountain was removed in late July 2011, but the memorial statue was wrapped and left in place.

You can see some of the feeding pipes for the fountain in the concrete base at its edge. These will be retained for the splash pad that will replace it. An orange square spray-painted in the dirt at the Gladstone entrance outlines the space where the bust of Dante will be featured. Currently, the statue of the Piazza's namesake isn't even in the Piazza, but in front of the church.

Here's the full schematic of how it will all come together. As mentioned above, a splash pad will replace the fountain at the centre of the piazza, in the middle of a decorative paving feature to highlight it. This will allow the entire space to be used for events once the water is turned off. According to the summary of comments, some wanted to retain the original fountain and move it off to the side as a sculpture. That isn't shown on this plan, suggesting this idea won't be carried out. Other additions include completing the perimeter with a decorative fence, lighting, and more seating. (Additional renderings are available on this Il Postino article).

There will also be new permanent tables installed at the park with game boards designed into the tops. Such tables are already in use at Dundonald Park, and the CCCA's Trees & Greenspace Committee is looking to get some installed in Minto Park.

Given that the Dalhousie neighbourhood has the lowest amount of parkspace per capita in the city, hopefully this refresh will make Piazza Dante more attractive and useful to the residents and workers in the area.

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