Photo Essay

Jackson Square Rooftop

I fell in love with the Jackson Square Rooftop shortly after I moved to Hamilton. There's so nothing like this in Edmonton.

By Mark Fenton
Published May 05, 2006

Last week I had the good fortune to have an 8:00 a.m. cleaning appointment with my dental office. This ritual - unique, I believe, to industrialized democracies - is respected enough that an employer would never question it as reason for an employee absence for a few hours.

I find the dental-hygiene thing compelling as a subject: its fusion of technology, commerce, and the organs that most remind us of animal aggression and the exalted status of Homo Sapiens in the food chain. A worthy subject.

My initial conception of this essay was going to be a journey across metro Hamilton into dental hygiene, complete with photographs of my teeth during cleaning. I discovered that I have neither the facility nor the drive to document myself while submitting to dental hygiene, a shortcoming for which I suspect the Raise the Hammer reader is already breathing a sigh of relief.

I do regret not having a photo of the piece of dental equipment called the Cavitron, a device with a rubbery hook which sprays water at a tremendously high velocity and with a nerve-shattering high screech and which was still so new to my dental office that the hygienist was excited about using it.

No, I have chosen to ignore the destination and focus on the walk there.

An advantage of living downtown is that whenever possible I take the opportunity to walk to my dental appointments, heading Eastward with the morning sun before me to the end of Napier Street, crossing Bay St. and veering very slightly South to these steps:

Steps to Jackson Square Rooftop, Bay St. at Market St.
Steps to Jackson Square Rooftop, Bay St. at Market St.

This is what it looks like as I begin my ascent, but I prefer the following shot, which gives you a better sense of its labyrinthine geometry and architectural majesty:

Labyrinthine geometry and architectural majesty
Labyrinthine geometry and architectural majesty

I like the way the muted earth colours and the disorienting angles that flatten the picture plane evoke the analytical cubism of Braque and Picasso:

(Photo Credit: Cavant-Garde)
(Photo Credit: Cavant-Garde)

I've chosen a Braque here simply because he doesn't get as much attention as Picasso, which is sad, I think, less for Braque at this point than his estate.

I fell in love with the Jackson Square Rooftop shortly after I moved to Hamilton from Edmonton in the early 1990s. I had gone to a movie at the Jackson Square cinemas with two other friends from Edmonton, and in our post-movie stupor we moved like lemmings with the rest of the audience through one of those exit doors that doesn't allow for re-entry.

We had no idea where we were. It wasn't how we'd come in, and it didn't resemble anything we'd seen in Hamilton. We didn't even understand that we were above street level, hence our surprise and mild fear when we came to stairs going downward.

No one vocalized it, but I could sense we'd all come to the same conclusion: we'd been drugged during the film, brainwashed, surgically implated with transponders - for heaven knows what unwholesome purpose - and deposited in a foreign republic. (Central American was my guess).

It was one of those fiercely hot Hamilton nights that Albertans can just barely deal with. The sun had just gone down, giving us no clues about direction. It was only once we were down the stairs that we all looked at each other and one of us said "Hey. We were just on a roof!" to which another said, "Cool. There is so nothing like this in Edmonton!"

It speaks volumes about this experience that I remember it vividly and yet have no memory of the movie we saw.

Since then I use any excuse to get on the rooftop, and climbing onto it at 7:30 AM on a beautiful spring morning, I was once again struck by finding this strange well-maintained public space in the absolute heart of the city, a place were I can be above the world and alone.

What must it look like from a helicopter - all these people getting off buses, running to and fro on King and James, line-ups all the way out the door of the Tim Hortons, and just this one guy on the roof of a mall?

There are strange sculptural forms everywhere:

Strange sculptural forms
Strange sculptural forms

These things must have some utilitarian function, but to me, in tilting their faces towards the heavens, they resemble the noble heads of Easter Island, or Druidic stones which speak to sun worshipers, and if I knew how to read them in relation to sun and shadow, could probably tell me how long I can dawdle before hurrying to the dentist.

In fact the whole space presents a series of visual puzzles.

Visual puzzles
Visual puzzles

Just what exactly is this thing? I am a tall man and it's a bit awkward, but as I get close to it I can never resist the temptation of crouching down and passing through this opening, which I imagine to be a portal to somewhere different and magical like, say, Narnia, but it just isn't.

I'm also compelled by this railing:

You shall not pass
You shall not pass

It's only about five feet long and embedded into a concrete divider about two feet wide, between the open area of the JSRT and a doorway which must be seldom used. It's hard to imagine anyone reaching for it abruptly to keep from stumbling (Whoops! That was close!) or to imagine that it was built as a disincentive for people like me, who might want to step over the concrete barrier rather than using the proper path for ingress and egress, slamming into pedestrians and enabling a bunch of messy and expensive lawsuits.

Actually, the very fact of this railing makes me want to leap onto it and treat it as a balance beam. I refrain from doing this as I can imagine a security officer who's been watching me since I passed through the circle and who is now really suspicious and appears suddenly out of nowhere as they always do.

"Excuse me sir. Can you tell me what you're doing?"

"Uhhh... my nurse said it was OK... if I went out this morning...she said ...I had to be...back for...snack."

The key here is slow steady delivery and lots of space between words where you wouldn't really expect them. Even and ingenuous eye-contact is essential. Usually works.

The approach to the outdoor food court makes a bold statement of classic architectural minimalism:

Classic architectural minimalism
Classic architectural minimalism

It has some of the stark power of American sculptors like Carl Andre:

(Photo Credit: Tate online)
(Photo Credit: Tate online)

or Donald Judd:

(Photo Credit: Dia Art Foundation)
(Photo Credit: Dia Art Foundation)

The advantage of the JSRT is there's no admission charge, and you don't have to check your bags before you enter the display rooms.

Oh. Try this some time if you're here early in the morning and all alone.

Covered stage
Covered stage

They use this covered stage for outdoor theatrical productions, but they don't rope it off or anything, so when the place is empty you can just walk on and act out your favourite scene from a movie. I tried doing that scene in Taxi Driver where Robert De Niro looks at the mirror with all those guns strapped to him and says "Are you talking to me."

The first few seconds I'm kind of hesitant and self-conscious, but then I just let myself go. I give it my best shot but it doesn't really work without the guns. I think I want to put on a suit the next time I have a cleaning appointment so I can stop here and do Gregory Peck's summation speech from the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. A lot of lines, and probably hard to get that balance of moral urgency and absolute reasonableness, but I'd like to give it a shot.

I mean, it's not like anyone's watching. Also, with the suit on the hygienist will think I'm in some profession where appearances really matter, and probably work even harder to get my teeth shiny and clean.

Nice view here of not one but two churches:

Two churches
Two churches

Decorative architecture framed by flat geometry. Oh yeah.

Always read the signs:

This security fence dangerous: do not climb
This security fence dangerous: do not climb

It interests me that the fence is dangerous, rather than the objects and the sudden drop behind them (which are calling me to explore them, so it's a good call to build something like this to keep me out.) I'm saying to myself "Well if the fence is so dangerous why did you build it? Duh!"

But I get the idea, and it must hard to get an exact meaning in seven words. They probably charge by the letter.

Here's where you'll want to sit and enjoy your morning coffee:

Outdoor patio
Outdoor patio

Although I don't really want to since I'm about to have my teeth cleaned.

This door is locked
This door is locked

The door is locked anyway and the coffee shops in the food court downstairs probably aren't open yet. Even if I could get down there, the magic of the JSRT would be spoiled and I'd probably just keep going to my appointment and sit in the waiting room looking at the tropical fish and fall back to sleep until they call my name.

I've spent about five minutes here and haven't seen another living thing as long as I've been here, not even a bird. [You'll find chickadees and the occasional gull at lunchtime - Ed.] They keep the JSRT very clean. There's nothing to scavenge.

Once again, my stay is too brief to explore every possibility, and I've learned not to try and cram everything into one visit, rather the way you resign yourself to the fact that if you try to see everything in a great European museum, you'll end up appreciating nothing and you'll be exhausted and wonder why you bothered.

I urge you to make this journey, even though I know that by doing so I risk creating a crush of pedestrian commuters encroaching on what, for me, has been a haven for moments of solitude, moments which are increasingly hard to come by in the middle of life's journey.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at www.markfenton.ca.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted May 09, 2006 at 10:17:38

Another great read Mark! I still can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not (which just makes it all the more amusing).

I had exactly the same experience going to the Jackson Sq cinema. I had the kind of panic you get when you lose sight of you're Mum at the fair. Also I once worked at the tower there (whatever it's called) for a few days, before I moved to the Hammer. My office overlooked the roof and I didn't have a bloody clue what is was. I thought it was at ground level. I kept going down to the street to try and find it. It drove me nuts.

If I ever see a strange tall person climbing through the sculpture - I'm definitely calling security :)

Ben

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By Gregor Samsa (anonymous) | Posted May 09, 2006 at 22:42:37

Most I've laughed all day Mark. Thanks. And incidentally I saw my very first film at Jackson Square too and was bullied along with my friend Steve by a gang of Lou Reedish looking hoodlums to let them in the entrance at the top of the stairs (people used to get in free that way in the 70's!). Alas we ignored the bullies and just enjoyed the show and cautiously went down the stairs (the bullies had by then gone onto new and more fruitful territory.) And I agree it was a strange and surreal feeling going down them for the first time. Your pictures and words capture the unique and ironical sadness -the neglected wonder of Jackson Square's rooftop. I await with eager anticipation your next photo essay.

PS: I assume you came out from your dentistry appointment - cavity free??

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By Synxer (registered) | Posted March 16, 2009 at 09:41:12

Absolutely Great! I can remember being - 15, 16, 17 - years-old bringing my friends up there. We always had a great time.

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By Hammer Town (anonymous) | Posted August 25, 2009 at 16:44:45

I dont think you people have ever been to the Jackson Square rooftop from 1999 - 2001. It was run by the Crips. No one dared go up on that roof during them 2 summer's.

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By Drew (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:26:18 in reply to Comment 33035

In 2000 we did and it resulted in a fight because my buddy was looking at some guy apparently "the wrong way". What a bunch of hardcore punks they thought they were...

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By MJ_Prncess (anonymous) | Posted April 29, 2010 at 20:43:33

Hey Mark,

I really enjoyed your article and I thank you for writing it and adding the pictures that you did. I moved from Ottawa to Hamilton less than 3 months ago and occasionally find myself homesick for all the Greenspace. I recently began a new position in one of the office towers adjacent to Jackson Square and, imagine my surprise when I saw this rooftop patio today. We have almost the exact same thing in Ottawa at the Rideau Centre. What's great about the RCRT is that there are birds, squirrells and rabbits. I didn't see any animal husbandry on the JSRT, although I would LOVE it if I did. (Hmm, perhaps I'll bring a couple of my own rabbits up there for breeding ;)

I'm thankful for the JSRT, it's a little slice of home. So thanks for all the pics. I can look at them the next time I get homesick :)

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By 000 (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 18:55:29

It was great back in the 80's (when I was a teenager)during the summers because every weekend there would be different bands playing free concerts up there. There would be loads of people sunbathing, eating (back when the food court was upstairs) and just hanging out. It was a great atmosphere (as far a Hamilton is concerned...)Sounds pretty desolate now.

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