crazykittylady took a few shots of the old base
, which just officially closed
Adieu CFB Rockcliffe
The memories are piling up as the last residents pack up their belongings and prepare to leave their homes for good, reports Joanne Laucius.
BY JOANNE LAUCIUS, THE OTTAWA CITIZENJULY 31, 2009
OTTAWA — By Saturday, Shawn King will officially be the last man on the former Rockcliffe air base.
Today, without ceremony, the base is to officially close, with the last of 430 military homes save King’s tidy blue Cape Cod closed up. Soon, workers will swarm over the 135-hectare site, boarding up homes that haven’t already been shuttered due to vandalism.
“This was my life,” said King, surveying his garden and two vintage Bricklin cars he is restoring.
On Thursday, only a handful of residents were left, most of them putting their belongings into moving vans and setting garbage out on the curb.
A block away, Marcel Gerard stood on the cracked driveway of an almost identical Cape Cod, this one beige, with two lawn mowers and a barbecue ready to be moved to a house he and his wife, Camille, have purchased near Arnprior.
“It’s like a ghost town,” says Gerard, a military selection officer — he helps determine proper occupations and training for Canadian Forces personnel. “It’s peaceful, but creepy. All the sidewalks are still there, but there are trees growing out of them. You could shoot a good post-apocalyptic movie here. A zombie movie.”
Occasionally, a military police vehicle cruises down abandoned streets with names like Mars and Jupiter, Battle of Britain, Canuck and True North.
A crew armed with weed whippers clears the worst of the shaggy growth from overgrown lawns. One deep pothole is filled with cement blocks. King has posted a hand-lettered “dead end” sign at the top of his street, the improbably named Via Venus Private, because gawkers are ignoring the street sign.
What appears to be a cat suns itself on the porch of a pale blue house with weeds in the eaves-troughing. On closer inspection, it’s a groundhog that waddles away to a hole in the lawn.
“Nature doesn’t stand still for anybody,” observes Gerard, noting the groundhogs have become increasingly bold, taunting his dogs in their own backyard.
King, a former military communications operator and still a Department of National Defence employee, will live for the next month on Via Venus Private in the Cape Cod, one of hundreds of small, efficient homes built in the early 1950s to house military families.
King and his partner, Rick Frenette, had lived on the former CFB Rockcliffe for 11 years, but knew they would have to move. The former base was to become home to an ambitious redevelopment, a residential eco-district for up to 15,000 people. But plans were put on hold after a native land claim blocked the sale of the land in 2007.
The base was to close in 2011, but the Department of National Defence moved up the date because of the $1.8 million a year it was costing to heat the vacant houses and maintain the aging infrastructure.
There are no plans to keep people off the site after it is closed, says a Canadian Forces Support Unit spokeswoman, but the area will be patrolled by military police. Since 2003, the City of Ottawa had used 19 of the houses as emergency social housing. The last two families are moving this week, said a spokeswoman for the city.
Like Gerard and the last few remaining residents, King and Frenette had planned to move as well. But Frenette had a massive stroke about a month ago and died a few days later. Devastated, King asked the housing office for special permission to remain for an extra month.
“Rick made friends with everyone. Everyone from (the) housing came to the funeral,” he says.
So did King’s old military friends. “Even though we don’t wear the uniform, the camaraderie is still there,” he says.
King’s yard is home to the vintage Bricklins he and Frenette were restoring. The carcasses of more Bricklins — the gull-winged sports cars manufactured in New Brunswick in the mid-1970s — are in an eight-unit garage down the street being repaired by fellow Bricklin devotees.
Alarmed by two break-ins and increasing vandalism in the neighbourhood in recent years, King and Frenette acquired two Neapolitan mastiffs, Devin and Diesel. Devin, the larger of the two dogs at 180 pounds, dozed on the front porch during the interview.
King and his huge canine companions walk every evening to Frenette’s grave at the nearby National Military Cemetery at Beechwood, where he was buried as a military spouse.
When Gerard moved into his Cape Cod in 2003, the base was already winding down. The mass exodus began about two years ago, says Gerard, who liked living on the base for its big yards and solitude.
“We’re the last hangers-on,” he says.
Last week, a woman asked to see the inside of Gerard’s home, explaining that she first moved into the house as a three-year-old in 1952. Her family was the first to live in the house after it was built, she explained. Except for a few cosmetic changes, it was the same as it had been more than five decades ago.
“It was very emotional,” says Gerard.
“She was the first person, and I was the last
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