Mechanicsville wasn't the funky hub for hipsters it is today when Romeo Donatucci first opened his garage, Romeo's Garage and Body Shop, at 195 Hinchey Avenue in 1970, now closing after 51 years.
Back then, the neighbourhood that runs between Breezehill Avenue to the east, Parkdale Avenue to the west, Scott Street to the north and Wellington Street to the south, was a rough, semi-industrial working-class neighbourhood with trains running through it.
It wasn't the prettiest, but it's where Donatucci, a mechanic from Italy looking for a better life in Canada, ended up -- on Hinchey Street in Mechanicsville.
Donatucci and his wife Genuina bought the three-bedroom bungalow at 195 Hinchey in 1970 for $28,200, and the house came with a licensed mechanic's garage in the backyard. A home for his new family and a place to ply his trade all on a property the size of a postage stamp.
Romeo's Garage and Body Shop was born on December 14, 1970.
Given the gritty location, there were bound to be a few issues. Okay, more than a few issues, as one might expect operating a mechanic's shop in a residential neighbourhood: parking, noise complaints, petty crime, no backyard for his young children to play in.
“I found bullet shell casings and pieces of a revolver in the attic when we moved in,” Donatucci, 73, recalls with a laugh. “The motorcycle gang Satan's Choice had a clubhouse across the street. A few neighbours thought we might be gangsters.”
He met the challenges head-on, working hard, remediating the garage so that it was noise and fume free, respecting municipal bylaws, and being a good neighbour. Despite its obvious flaws, Mechanicsville was also a forgiving, independently-minded neighbourhood. Rules were negotiable, and some laws were more like suggestions.
For example, one night a customer asked Donatucci for a last-minute car repair, a job that had to be completed by the next morning, meaning Donatucci would have to work well past midnight. Not one to say no to a customer, Donatucci agreed. Then, sometime after 1 a.m., a lady approached his garage, asking him why he was still working. He explained that this was an emergency. The lady reminded him that there was an 11 p.m. noise bylaw, asked him to do the work as quietly as possible and was on her way.
The lady was the Ottawa Mayor Marion Dewar.
“Dewar was the best mayor,” Donatucci says. “She saw I was a hard-working mechanic trying to help a neighbour.”
And because he was hard-working and enjoyed a good relationship with the people in the community, Donatucci prospered. Over the years, he and Genuina, his wife of 50 years, bought five homes and three garages before Mechanicsville, Hintonburg and Westboro began gentrifying.
Now a bustling urban environment with condominiums, the O-train, artisan bakeries and restaurants, the region has become a lifestyle destination. Consequently, property values have skyrocketed.
Yes, Donatucci's done okay.
Ironically, one of the main reasons 73-year-old chose to retire now is because he doesn't like working on newer engines increasingly governed by computer technology.
“You need a Ph.D. in programming,” Donatucci says, rolling his eyes. “Everything is so complex, and they're becoming even more automated. It's a lot to learn all the time.”
Not surprisingly, news of Romeo's closing came as a blow to its customers, who organized a car-honking, bell-ringing and people-waving drive-by to send their favourite mechanic off.
“Canada's given me and Genuina a very good life,” he says, tears swelling in his eyes. “Canadians are very generous people. I love Ottawa. I owe a big thanks to this country.”