A boarded-up building with a troubled history at 180 Ottawa St. N. at Cannon is coming to life.  Contractors hired by social housing provider Indwell, are conducting restoration work inside a gutted interior which has experienced fire and water damage.  

To Councillor Sam Merulla the Indwell purchase of this property is nothing short of a divine outcome. ” It’s been a journey at this Ottawa St N., site that has landed and developed in the best interest of those people that need it the most.”

This complex is enormous. It is made up of two dissimilar and attached structures on the east side of Ottawa: a former three story hotel with a pink exterior; and a single story windowless bunker. 

The bunker portion of the property was the notorious and violent C.D. Bar Club that Ward 4 Councillor Merulla succeeded in closing down by 2008 following a “protracted” battle.

What Indwell plans to do

A Hamilton based Christian charity, Indwell specializes in the creation of “affordable housing communities. ” Here on 180 Ottawa the plan is to convert the entire address into rental apartments for the under housed Indigenous population in the city. 

About a third of the homeless in Hamilton are Indigenous even though they represent less than three per cent of the population, says Audrey Davis, the executive director at the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre which is further south towards Main on 34 Ottawa St. N.  Both the HRIC and Sacajawea, a non-profit provider of housing for Native women and their families, are offering support and expertise.

Davis says the HRDC has contacted landlords — sometimes successfully; other times not — to break down systemic racist barriers faced by Indigenous people in Hamilton. Another major challenge are the high rents in the city. The organization helps Indigenous clients make the transition out of home insecurity into stable accommodation, which includes mediation with the landlord. Many Indigenous clients live in Crown Point but in some cases in substandard housing. “It is very challenging to get a unit for an Indigenous person (in the housing market). Our homeless workers try to build a rapport…do outreach and try to connect with landlords.”

Indwell is arriving on the scene with 550 households housed under its programs in Hamilton, Woodstock, Simcoe and London. Graham Cubitt, its director of operations and planning is talking about a two- stage process at 180 Ottawa.  The old pink hotel which originally offered 16 rooms is in good enough shape that it can be fully restored and have 12 studio apartments available to rent by the end of year.

What especially impresses Cubitt are the front windows on the second and third floors that offer a good view of Cannon Street below. He says the pink façade will be maintained and brought up to standard. “[The building] will look better than it currently does. Basically, like it was built in the 1930s,” Cubitt says.

In contrast, the former bunker bar at 180 Ottawa will be replaced by a new four-story building containing more rental apartments for the same client group.   “The concrete floor is broken up. It is just an empty shell right now, the ceilings are all pulled down, there is no electrical, there is no plumbing, no washrooms, just a shell.” 

The ground floors in the hotel and bar portions of 180 Ottawa are both zoned commercial and so they will be rented out to retailers. “We’ll be seeking a commercial tenant who shares our values of dignity, hope and love, ” Cubitt explains in a video presentation of the plans for 180 Ottawa on the Indwell web site.

Cubitt declined to say what was spent on180 Ottawa except that it hovered in the millions. “The affordability (of the property) is not good but we figured out a plan to make it work.

Presumably, the new stores will provide necessary rental revenue for what sounds like an expensive transaction for Indwell in a hot commercial real estate market on Ottawa Street.

I asked Councillor Merulla if the notoriety of the C.D. Bar Club might have served as a psychological barrier towards future development after the hotel and bar became derelict.

The Ward 4 Councillor says no. Rather, it has been a matter of finding the right fit for such a large building, he says.

There have been a number of people proposing another night club on the site but that was, in Merulla’s words, “a non-starter” for both him and the city licensing department.  The major issue was the lack of parking to accommodate a large crowd which had been a problem with the C.D. Bar Club.

The pink building at the corner was originally the Queens Hotel which also included a tavern. The one story bunker bar was built later as an add-on, says Reverend Douglas Moore, the United Church minister at the Laidlaw Memorial United Church which sits across the street on the southwest side of Ottawa and Cannon.

Moore cannot say for sure when the Queens Hotel actually opened except it was possibly before the Second World War and frequented by local farmers.

Fast forward to post-war urbanization of east Hamilton which included what is now Crown Point. By the later 1990s, Queens was no longer functioning as a hotel. Rather, Moore recalls permanent residents of modest means began staying in the rooms, living cheek and jowl to the renamed C.D. Bar in the building next door. 

The pink building served as a rooming house until a 2019 fire forced the tenants out. They never returned.

What galvanized public attention in Hamilton to the C.D. Bar. was the 2005 murder of American, casino worker and C.D. patron Michael Parmer.  (Strangely, the trial for the alleged killer is now happening 16 years later in 2021 in a Hamilton courtroom)

Here is some vivid reporting about what happened from Spectator columnist Susan Clairmont on Sept. 10, 2005:

“A young man named Mike Parmer lying, all but dead, in a puddle of blood in a litter-ridden parking lot. And a search for a killer and a gun.

There’s been trouble here before, on this strip of Ottawa Street North between Cannon and Roxborough. The people who live here know the schedule — every Thursday and Saturday night. That’s when C.D. Bar brings in DJs to play hip hop and old school music.

And the DJs in turn bring in their followers. Their fans. On those nights, the alleys and streets around the club are jammed with cars bearing New York licence plates. It’s a long drive for the tunes and the $2 drinks, but that doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. C.D. draws about 250 people on a hip hop night. “

Originally, councillor Sam Merulla who chaired the city’s licensing committee blamed the violence at the C.D. Bar on the culture of hip hop music. (He had some pushback on this thesis, including the Hamilton chief of police). Because of a complaint by the owner of the club, Merulla found himself the subject of an investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police which proved inconclusive.

Rev. Moore believes that the city of Hamilton was licensing too many drinking establishments at that time. Since selling booze to paying customers in a bar was no longer as profitable. He suggests that the C.D. Bar diversified into prostitution and the illegal sale of heroin, the latter courtesy of Buffalo drug dealers with the expertise to carry this off.  

Long term Crown Point residents have told me that Ottawa Street was in sharp decline by the early 2000s, made up largely of closed and boarded up storefronts. Many of the shops and restaurants we see today in 2021 did not exist then on the strip. There were some very active textile-fabric shops but they were located at the opposite end of the strip close to Barton and open during day.  One restaurant, Helen’s sat where the hamburger joints are situated today. (That was also the name of the owner).

The old saying that ghouls come at night seem to apply to Ottawa Street where the C.D. Bar stood.  While the stretch between Main and Barton was largely quiet, the patrons of the tavern were a loud and noisy presence at closing time when they crossed the street and continued to party on the empty Laidlaw church parking lot.

180 Ottawa St. N. from the north side of Cannon with Laidlaw United  Church in the background.
180 Ottawa St. N. from the north side of Cannon with Laidlaw United Church in the background.

Rev. Moore says on Monday mornings the church parking lot was littered with needles, condoms and sometimes human feces (no washroom in sight once the bar had closed).

“I remember distinctly coming out of the church, and the steps of the church were covered in blood. There had been a shoot up on the street… the police did a less than stellar job of cleaning it up, “

What finally closed down the C.D. Bar down, says Rev. Moore, was the push by Councillor Merulla and his colleague, Ward 3 Councillor Bernie Morelli to have the city order bars to cover the cost of policing which increased their costs as it tended to be more than one could make selling illegal drugs. (I was unable to contact the Ward 4 Councillor to provide further insight.) 

Rev. Moore applauds the Indwell purchase of 180 Ottawa Street, calling it “appropriate” and “positive.” The only issue for him, looking nervously at keeping intruders out of his church parking lot, could be insufficient parking available for the tenants who will be moving into the new rental apartments. (My rejoinder here is that the majority of the new residents will probably take public transit and the planned LRT.)

The story continues.

Paul Weinberg is asking readers to email us at the Point about their own memories of the Ottawa Street, prior to the appearance of the current strip of shops and restaurant began to show.