It's our city's biggest secret;
The rooftop of Jackson Square is a great place when it's busy
June 24, 2009
The Hamilton Spectator
(Jun 24, 2009)
It is downtown Hamilton's secret park and it's a big one. Bigger than that postage stamp they call Gore Park.
This secret park can hold thousands with ease, but hardly ever gets the chance.
Last Friday, however, this lonely place saw a crowd. About 3,500 filed onto the rooftop of Jackson Square to shout out loud that it's time Hamilton got an NHL team.
A chopper shot the big picture. A phalanx of TV cameras captured the action up close.
But on the street below, not the faintest hint of the frenzy above.
And that's the issue with the Jackson Square plaza. It's right in the middle of the core, but not part of it.
The space is vast, stretching from Bay to James, King to York. Superblock, they once called it.
And long ago, city planners believed this elevated plain would always bustle like it did last Friday.
It was the 1970s and floating about was a planning concept called the 'Plus-15 pedestrian circulation system.' It was brought on by, what else, the automobile.
The idea was that cars could have the ground level, roaring about without interruption from pedestrians.
Citizens on foot would be out of the way, 15 feet above, on plazas with cafes, shops, rest areas. These areas would be linked by a network of bridges.
There were to be 10 such bridges in downtown Hamilton. For instance, a couple across Main: one from the Art Gallery plaza to city hall, another from the Pigott Building to the old Bank of Montreal.
And a couple to Gore Park: one from Jackson Square, another from the Convention Centre.
New construction was supposed to reflect this plan, which is why the main entrance to the Art Gallery ended up on the second floor, where no one could find it.
As it turned out, Hamilton had neither the money nor the stomach for a full Plus-15 plan.
By the early 1990s, the city's planning department began to fear Plus-15 was misguided. Plucking people from the streets would just make downtown Hamilton more barren than it already was.
But the rooftop plaza of Jackson Square was already there. Thousands upon thousands of interlocking bricks had been laid, sod unrolled, trees planted.
And all that has been the domain of Yale Properties, owners of Jackson Square, since the mall opened in 1972.
Vivien Johnson, mall manager, has been around from the beginning. And last Friday, she stood on a rooftop over the offices of Tripcentral.ca and looked out to the hockey rally. She had never seen so many there.
"When people get up here for the first time and see the trees and grass and flowers and fountain, they're always amazed," Johnson says.
So why don't more people use this place? "It's a level up from the street," she says. "You can't see it."
The big plaza is a major maintenance item for the mall. There is cleaning, lawn maintenance, repair of leaks, graffiti removal, removal of the odd swimmer from the pool.
Through the decades, Johnson says, they have tried their best to get people to climb those stairs.
Long ago, the World Arm Wrestling Championships were held on the plaza. When it was the rage, Levi-Strauss held jean-painting contests up there. And when there were still record stores in the mall, A & A brought bands to play there. During the world bike championships six years ago, art was made and sold there.
Liaison College is holding barbecue classes on the plaza. And there are 5,000 people working on Superblock -- sometimes there are staff picnics on the plaza.
In summer, there's a concert series. Urban theatre too.
And next week, the Sheraton will be host hotel for the Latvian Song Festival of Canada. Arrangements have been made for the event to spill out onto the plaza.
But it's all fleeting. When summer goes, the plaza falls dormant again.
For most of the year, there's just no good reason to be there. The people are where they were meant to be, 15 feet below.
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It was the 1970s and floating about was a planning concept called the 'Plus-15 pedestrian circulation system.' ... Citizens on foot would be out of the way, 15 feet above, on plazas with cafes, shops, rest areas. These areas would be linked by a network of bridges.