Photo Essay

Meadowlands Power Centre: A Photographic Odyssey

Mark Fenton dares the impossible and discovers serendipity in a pedestrian walkway.

By Mark Fenton
Published April 21, 2006

When I'm at the Meadowlands Power Centre, one of the things I like to do is walk from the parking lot of Dollarama/Mark's Work Warehouse over to Future Shop. Sound simple?

Meadowlands Power Centre Parking Lot
Meadowlands Power Centre Parking Lot

If you are far from Southern Ontario while reading this and don't feel you know the place, I would inform you that you do, in fact. The Meadowlands Power Centre (MPC) is a field study for the ubiquity of urban geography in hyper-industrialized countries. Look carefully in your own region and you'll discover places within it equally redolent of confinement, menace, and transcendence.

This is a consumer centre for the motorist and the motorist only. It is possible to arrive at the Meadowlands centre by bus, but it's not easy. I have done it only once, when I was unemployed and managed to land a two-day job demonstrating Lactantia milk to Sobey's shoppers.

"Excuse me, ma'am, would you like to try a sample of Lactantia milk? We have two percent or skim."

The ice kept melting and I wasn't allowed to leave my station and get fresh ice, so people complained that the milk was warm and sort of "off" tasting. I hope I helped them sell it.

Meadowlands Power Centre Dollaram Store
Meadowlands Power Centre Dollaram Store

When I make this particular journey, I always arrive by car.

I don't believe that the unfriendliness of the pedestrian passageway I like to enjoy is intended to dissuade low-income shoppers without vehicles from coming here. I'm sure the management of Dollarama and Mark's Work Warehouse would be happy to separate the carless from their money.

Unfriendly walkways here are irrelevant to pedestrian traffic. The mere fact of the MPC has taken care of making this a pedestrian free zone. No, the message to any consumer who glances towards the passageway is more subtle: Yes, you can walk from store to store, but should you? If you do, you are not buying in to this culture. You are not embracing the future. You are a sad anachronism. Get back in your SUV. Drive from Mark's Work Warehouse to Future Shop. This future is good.

The Future is Good
The Future is Good

As I spend much of my life in places no one has any business being simply for recreation (how to talk to police and security officers on these journeys is something I'm arrogant enough to say I'm some authority on, but this is a topic I'll reserve for a later episode), I'm careful to examine the area for signs telling me I am infringing on private space.

I've often wondered if this passageway satisfies some box-store construction fire-regulation or is for the convenience of facilities staff. There is no sign inviting potential shoppers like me to move freely through this alley and up and down these stairs to avoid the hassle of parking lot traffic and enjoy a few moments of fresh air and the natural world framed impressively by the built environment. There is also no sign expressly forbidding me to do this.

No Dumping: Tresspassers Will be Prosecuted
No Dumping: Tresspassers Will be Prosecuted

That's how I've chosen to interpret this sign. Those who are in charge of this place do not want me to drive my garbage out here and make use of their dumpsters. I would never think of violating such an ordinance.

My reason for believing this to be the correct reading is that no similar advisory against allowing my body to move along this passageway exists on the opposite approach for people, say, wishing to be ambulatory from McDonalds to Dollarama (a progression which can't be unheard of). So I think I am simply being asked not to trespass against the rule about dumping.

Looking down the stairs: no anti-dumping sign
Looking down the pedestrian stairs: no anti-dumping sign

I find the word "trespass" (which in this day and age usually means merely not having your body or vehicle on someone else's property) in this context somewhat antiquated and Biblical. I think "transgressors will be prosecuted" would be better wording. (This, incidentally, is not the kind of argument I initiate with police and security officers.)

These homes face the Meadowlands Power Centre
These homes face the Meadowlands Power Centre

I once believed that the residents of houses facing the MPC purchased them to take pedestrian advantage of the MPC, and I imagined their ultimate buying decision swung on glimpsing the pedestrian stairway. However, as I've never seen anyone enter or leave one of these houses, and given that crossing Golf Links Road on foot is far more time-consuming and perilous than driving, I doubt it.

I suspect that they just like being able to see the MPC; that they like being able to assess, by the number of cars in the lot, which individual stores are still open; and that they like knowing that they can get to Dollarama five minutes faster than someone living in Downtown Hamilton.

Beware garbage pickup in pedestrian alleys
Beware garbage pickup in pedestrian alleys

In connection with pedestrian safety, I should relate my most terrifying moment in the MPC. I was strolling idly towards the stairway, enjoying the passageway and all it evokes for me, when a roar behind me made me turn to see that I had arrived at the moment of garbage pickup and a garbage truck was backing in rapidly to empty those dumpsters into which I am not allowed to dump my own garbage.

I don't have a photo of this because, alas, I am not an extreme journalist type who is prepared to risk his life for a dangerous image. Be warned: these drivers go fast, cannot see you, and have no good reason to imagine a person might be here. Take no chances. When they come for the dumpsters, run for the stairs.

Wear appropriate footwear
Wear appropriate footwear

At the foot of the stairs, no attempt has been made to create a drainage slope, so wear appropriate footwear.

A glance at the graffiti and general ambience of your environment might suggest that landing detritus will include used syringes and soiled prophylactics. I have never seen these things, in all likelihood because it would be pointless and time-consuming to come here for such purpose.

I have never seen anything here more sinister than this Tim Horton's bag. No, I didn't pick it up and dispose of it, because a) I didn't bring a latex glove with me, and b) I'm not permitted to make use of the dumpsters.

The handrail evokes abstract painting
The handrail evokes abstract painting

It's during the walk up the stairs that my experience really takes off. Look at the rusted rail against pocked concrete. When I crop it down, it's like New York abstract painting from the 70s. Imagine the stark geometry of Kenneth Noland -

Kenneth Noland, Shade (Photo Credit: Sharecom)
Kenneth Noland, Shade (Photo Credit: Sharecom)

- combined with the earthy textures of Jules Olitski -

Jules Olitski, Lost Tribe
Jules Olitski, Lost Tribe

Nice, huh? The comparison only works if you frame a bit of it off. If you don't have a camera, you can frame it by making a right angle with the thumb and the first finger of each hand and putting the hands together. Try it.

The stairwell frames the sky like a James Turrell Skyspace installation
The stairwell frames the sky like a James Turrell Skyspace installation

When I look at the sky I always think of what I imagine James Turrell's Skyspaces might be like. These are essentially sculptures that you go inside and sit down in. They have openings in the ceiling (sometimes rectangular, sometimes elliptical) and you can observe the sky and the changing colour of the light in them:

James Turrell's Skyspaces
James Turrell's Skyspaces

Some of them have clear domes which close in the rain. (Isn't that considerate):

James Turrell, Lunette (Photo Credit: Guggenheim Museum)
James Turrell, Lunette (Photo Credit: Photo©Giorgio Colombo, Milano, Guggenheim Museum)

Sometimes he converts existing structures into Skyspaces, as with this deer shelter at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park:

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, New York
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, New York

Should these Dollarama/Mark's Work Warehouse/McDonalds franchises fall to ruin, I think James Turrell should consider converting this focus point between all of them into a Skyspace. The view to the sky isn't currently fully enclosed, but I'm sure something could be done with that.

I'm very nearly able to replicate what I imagine Turrell's relationship with changing light might be if I stand here long enough to let my neck get sore.

Changing light inside the pedestrian corridor
Changing light inside the pedestrian corridor

James Turrell has roots in the Quaker faith. His interiors are spare in a way redolent of puritan American architecture and furniture design. By contrast, MPC decoration can be angry and jittery.

Decorations along the pedestrian walkway
Decorations along the pedestrian walkway

Look how beautifully Future Shop is framed by the stairway exit. If it were my store I'd use this image in my promotional material.

Future Shop framed by the stairway exit
Future Shop framed by the stairway exit

Careful getting there, though. This stretch of curving road between the stairway exit and the Future shop parking lot is treacherous enough for cars and more challenging still for pedestrians. There's no crosswalk, and when motorists see you they sort of veer erratically as if you're a deer or something that, because of its unnatural displacement here, could leap anywhere without warning.

The Power Centre road: a bad place to go tharn
The Power Centre road: a bad place to go tharn

If you want to get geographically and aesthetically situated in the MPC, I strongly suggest going into this McDonalds and ordering some small item you feel you can digest, I usually just have an orange juice, but some people say they've ingurgitated the fillet of fish with no noticeably ill effects.

The McDonald's affords a panoptical view of the Power Centre
The McDonald's affords a panoptical view of the Power Centre

It's like being in a control tower. Just sit and look out (you'll hear some interesting conversations). The building is glass on three sides and gives you a pretty good overview of the whole campus. It's like doing the Drop of Doom first when you go to Canada's Wonderland, so you can see everything the park has to offer. Also, you get to anticipate the trip back down the stairs and through the passageway.

Be on guard for vertigo during the return trip
Be on guard for vertigo during the return trip

I get a bit of vertigo when I look back down at this. It's what I imagine Eiger climbers feel when they look down from the summit. "Jeez! Am I, like, Superman getting myself up here or am I just nuts?!"

I shot the following photo from my car heading out of the MPC. I'm certain she wasn't there when I went up, and I didn't know she was in the shot when I took it.

An unexpected person in the pedestrian walkway
An unexpected person in the pedestrian walkway

She had to have seen me coming down the stairs but she didn't make a sound. Maybe she was as scared of me as I would have been of her. Probably she just didn't want to deal with me either for the sake of, "Like, whoa, why are you taking pictures here?" or to remind me I wasn't allowed to dump anything.

I assume she's an employee of Mark's Work Warehouse. If there's an argument to be made for smoking in the 21st century, it's that it allows a person to be completely at ease in a meditative space like this one. Unless they were taken by surveillance cameras, there are no pictures of me in this space. If someone were photographing me, there's no way I would look this natural in it.

A final note: I don't know what BFI stands for in this context, but it's also the logo for British Film Institute, and I wonder if I could hit them up for backing in a motion picture version of this documentary. I can guarantee them that their branding would appear everywhere in it.

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 fastcars (registered) | Posted April 25, 2006 at 01:26:12

Hi Mark

Generally I enjoy the posts here on Raise The Hammer--even if many (often, most) are to the far left of my own political and social beliefs. Your photographic "odyssey" at the Meadowlands Power Center was at best lightly amusing. Although I too have noticed the impossibility of walking from box-to-box at the Meadowlands--you identified the reason for this your self when you noted that the complex was designed for motorists, and motorists only. Seems to me you have other options when it comes to spending your retail-time. Instead of slagging a retail center that doesn't fit your needs--you ought to simply spend your time and money somewhere more pedestrian-friendly. The high-density urban environment has a future--a bright one, but it will have to co-exist with suburbs and power centers and SUVs.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 25, 2006 at 17:36:16

Fastcars....I think you pretty much read Mark's story as it was intended - a lighthearted, humourous look into the crazy planning principles in developments like this. I've never laughed so much during an RTH article. Mark, of course, can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think he'd agree with your assessment...I do anyways. Thanks for reading. And by the way, don't fall too far into that good old Hamilton trap of 'left vs right'. I'm a Christian youth pastor for crying out loud. According to our business and political leaders I'm supposed to support everything that destroys the environment and quality of life in Hamilton as someone with a Biblical viewpoint of life. Quite simply, I care about Hamilton, as do you and all the writers on RTH. We welcome readers and writers (if you're so inclined) of all political and social backgrounds. Cheers,

Jason

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By fastcars (registered) | Posted April 27, 2006 at 08:45:14

You got me Jason, I did read it as a light-hearted piece, but felt (as usual) compelled to drop my two pennies into the fountain. I applaud RTH for the very point you made in your above comment--as someone of fairly solid right-wing stripe, RTH is one of the few "alternative media" outlets where I've felt truly comfortable and welcome. I am an ex-pat, but I care deeply for Hamilton and want only the best for the entire city and region--as all of us here do. As for the Meadowlands--it's a massively successful development--but even a big dirty capitalist zealout like me can admit one thing--the physical layout of that development is bizarre, even as power centers go--it defies both geography and logic. Alas--it works. You may have discussed this previous to my arrival here--but what is your take (and everyone else's) on so-called "lifestyle centers" that is, power centers built to be more urban in scale. Near us, in the Metro Detroit area there are several examples--interestingly, some are hugely successful, and other have been complete failures.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 02, 2006 at 22:52:01

I've actually been doing some light research lately on these 'lifestyle centres'. Centre Mall in Hamilton is planned to be redeveloped and word is it will be big box. I would much rather see a lifestyle type of project that integrates the project into the streetscape of Barton and Ottawa instead of adding horrendous traffic and more pedestrian/vehicle collisions in an area with many pedestrians and cyclists. Meadowlands may work in Ancaster, but won't in the central city where folks can get around by walking, biking or transit. Some lifestyle centres seem kind of corny and Las Vegas-like, but for the most part I like the idea. Much more enjoyable than big box.

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By fastcars (registered) | Posted May 03, 2006 at 00:59:51

Interesting that you are doing some research on lifestyle centers. I didn't know Centre Mall was going to be exclusively big box--I though they might go a little more on the lifestyle centre side--that is, some big boxes surrounded by "streetscapes" of specialty shops--of course the irony being that that is how Centre Mall was built in the first place. Anyway, the blueprint for the lifestyle centers as they've been built in the Detroit area is that they contain some big boxes, but mix them in with key ingredients--generally a movieplex, some signature restaurants and a bunch of specialty stores. There was one built in the very upscale suburb of Novi, Michigan a few years ago called Fountain Walk. Fountain Walk has been pretty much a failure--most of the stores "deep" in the artificial street scape are vacant, as are a few of the big boxes. The truth is, the climate here makes it miserable for a good part of the year. On the flipside, another, the Village at Rochester Hills has done well, and a massive one, by mall developer Taubman Centers is being built called The Mall at Partridge Creek--and they've attracted some a-list anchors. The Centre Mall case will be interesting to watch--they could put something decent together is Sears decides to stay--but if they try to replicate the Meadowlands down there, I don't see it working.

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By cpannell (registered) | Posted May 31, 2006 at 11:56:52

At the Ancaster Meadowlands Power Centre ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

it’s a steel and signage world, a concrete and asphalt planet, a tiny tree on every boulevard like a garnish before Costco and Home Depot

an angry little boy struggles to get his foot up onto the running board of his father’s all-terrain vehicle. terrain is everything, vista swells from parking lot to movie ogliplex, dumpsters in alleys burn in the summer sun

along with STOP, the red light is the most ignored sign in the driver’s handbook, after the builders eradicated what was here, paving other places became easier

the buses move day and night, only their drivers need a shift change, surely the finest motor vehicle is the one that never stops or even needs to rest ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ poem by Chris Pannell

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By adrian (registered) | Posted June 01, 2006 at 08:59:52

I love the poem.

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By simple (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2007 at 16:57:02

This was by far your best! And that is because I too have marveled at this odd connecting ladder between the upper and lower Meadows.

I frequently use it when shopping at Office Max/Depot/Staples/Place and Future bait and switch Shop. I HATE driving around the maze of parking, not because I find it confusing but because 90% of others do so and swerve/brake and drift around like people on pedal boats at Ontario Place.

So being another person crossing that 'road' curve with stressed drivers, your description of people expecting vagrant pedestrians to hop onto the road to stare at their headlights was amusing to say the least.

I appreciate your points and view.

Simple

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2008 at 02:23:30

The Meadowlands isn't really designed for pedestrians or cars. The number of exits/entrances make it extremely hazardous for both cars & people. (That photo of Zellers shows it.)

Astral travellers might be able to enjoy & navigate the Meadowlands safely. (Until I can do that, I'm staying the Hell out of it.)

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